American Stylists “Proud” U.K. Counterparts Are Unionizing, but Duplicating Effort in U.S. Might Be Difficult, Experts Say

The quest for improved working conditions in Hollywood has mobilized across the pond and into another industry, as a group of U.K. stylists recently announced the formation of the Celebrity Stylists Union, a branch of Bectu, the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union in Europe. In line with a wave of labor activity this year — and as the dual writers and actors strikes continue in Hollywood — the stylists union seeks to regulate their pay structure with a goal to establish rate cards and best practices to account for late hours, last-minute requests, prep work and upfront costs related to pulling looks, tailoring items, shipping clothes and travel for which many say they aren’t compensated.

New York-based stylist Sarah Slutsky says conditions in the U.S. are no different. “We service the same types of clients working for the same networks,” explains Slutsky, who’s styled actresses Mandy Moore, Jessica Williams and Elizabeth Olsen. It’s for that reason she stands behind the U.K. stylists coming together to unionize and says it’s her “sincere hope” that stylists in the U.S. are inspired to band together in a similar effort. “I personally relate to all of the experiences relayed by the stylists in the U.K. — in all honesty, it’s a bit of a relief to learn I’m not alone, but rather part of a global community who has been struggling with the same issues.”

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Nigerian designer and image director Ugo Mozie, who calls the U.K. stylists union “a beautiful thing,” can attest to the need for reform. “As somebody who’s worked as a costume designer, a celebrity stylist and a fashion editor, I’ve definitely seen a lot of unfair situations and policies that don’t serve us,” he says.

Two of the policies at the top of the list of concerns for the L.A.-based creative known for styling Colombian singer-songwriter Maluma, singer Jon Batiste and actor Jeremy Pope are pay rates and payment terms.

“Across the board, studio budgets are extremely low in terms of what they give the stylist for the clothing and for their work. Not only that, there’s also usually a net 60 or net 90 clause to get your money,” Mozie says.

“For example, if there’s an advertisement for a film rollout and they hire a celebrity stylist to do it, the stylist now has to go out and use their own credit card and their own funds to purchase items and buy everything that’s needed,” he explains. “I have staff, so I have to pay my team and pay my assistants to get the job done. By the time we’re complete, I may be five to 10 thousand dollars in the hole, and I have to wait 30, 60, sometimes 90 days to get reimbursed. That’s something that happens on a very frequent basis.”

The money required to take on clients has made breaking into or even maintaining a career as a celebrity stylist extremely difficult. “From a stylist point of view, the studios have created an ‘industry standard’ pay scale that no stylist agreed to. We had no voice in deciding how these standards were created and, quite frankly, these standards are unsustainable,” says Slutsky. “The studios dictate that we work for flat rates, with all expenses coming out of our fee for our creativity and labor. These rates have no consideration for our unique skills, our expertise, the demands of each individual job, or the time required to complete the jobs.” Representatives for Amazon, Apple, Disney, CBS, HBO, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Sony and Warner Bros. Discovery declined to comment.

Another common practice that shortchanges stylists are buyouts, says Bryon Javar, Quinta Brunson’s go-to stylist.

“Let’s say a client has a speaking engagement and their rate is $80,000 and there was going to be an additional $20,000 allotted to glam, sometimes the agent, manager or publicist will do a buyout of $100,000, versus the client just taking the $80,000, so they can allocate how much is going to what,” he explains. “They can then tell they’re client, now you’re going to make $89,000, for example, and we’re going to have hair and makeup come as a do-and-go and we’re going to pay the stylist X amount [versus paying a day rate]. This happens a lot. Sometimes we make less money in the situations where we should be making the most.”

Scenarios such as the one described underscore a major obstacle to forming a stylists union. “In my experience, if a celebrity is going to attend an event, usually a styling budget is given to them and then they go out and hire people and that makes it a challenge for stylists to organize, at least here in the States,” says entertainment labor lawyer Michael Maizner of Maizner & Associates. “If it’s an individualized one-on-one relationship where the talent is hiring the stylist directly, that, to me, makes it difficult for there to be a bargaining unit for union representation. To have a bargaining unit, you have to have more than one person as the employer.”

Certain aspects of styling are also hard to regulate, adds Javar. Noting the project-based nature of the job, he says, “I can’t make someone guarantee me a certain amount of work.”

Forming a guild versus a union may better suit the unique nature of the profession of styling, says Maizner. “Stylists can come up with standards and practices that say by being a member, I won’t do X type of work for less than a certain set amount. That could be effective if they form almost like a trade association, truly what a guild is meant to be, to set some standards that they’ll only work under. Nobody has to be a party to a collective bargaining agreement, but as a member, they can raise the bar in terms of what they will work for.”

Whatever course of action stylists choose to take, now’s the time to act, adds Maizner, citing the labor movement happening across industries. “What they’re doing in the U.K. is great because it brings an awareness to what’s going on and how much of a struggle it is for them.”

Mozie agrees. “I think the best way for us to have success would be to align with an existing union or a strike that’s already happening, like the way the actors joined forces and aligned with the writers,” he says. “Stylists and costumers go right along with the actors, so the actors have to be in solidarity with the costumers and the designers, and then the writers have to also be in solidarity so we can all work together.

“The strength is in the numbers. That’s why I’m super proud that they’ve at least started the conversation in the U.K.,” he adds. “The more people and groups we can get to understand and join forces, the better and the faster we can get to the solution.”

Slutsky believes U.S. stylists witnessing how negotiations play out with the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild will galvanize action among stylists sooner rather than later. “The strikes have given us the time and space to consider the expectations held for us,” she says. “I believe many stylists are wondering at the time the strike ends, will we be happy returning to work if nothing has changed for us as well?”

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