In Hollywood, employing a fashion advisor is as de rigueur as being seen with the latest It bag. But there is one who outshines all others - Rachel Zoe, the original stylist to the stars. She talks to Kavita Daswani.
IT'S THREE WEEKS before the Oscars, and Rachel Zoe is immersed in an endless round of fittings, counselling the likes of Cameron Diaz, Salma Hayek and Jennifer Garner on what to wear to the ceremony, and working with numerous other celebrities planning to see and be seen at the parties afterwards.
She has just returned from the couture shows in Paris and is about to jet off to New York for fashion week. In between, she is at work from 7am, advising clients who are on the TV show circuit promoting films or shooting ad campaigns and commercials. Awards season is in full force, as is demand from noted designers who ask for Zoe's insight in touching up their collections.
To say that Zoe (pronounced Zo) is the hottest and most in-demand celebrity stylist today is a given. Over the past few years, her stock has risen to such an extent that she gets paid tens of thousands of dollars for a few days' work, ensuring some of the most famous people on the planet strut their stuff without so much as a hair out of place.
'I do a lot of other things besides styling, so it's a matter of balancing all that,' says Zoe, who dropped her surname - Rosenzweig - and now goes by her two first names.
She is style personified, a living example of the ultra-thin, ultra-tanned look that many of her present and former celebrity clients - such as Mischa Barton and Nicole Richie - convey. She has blonde hair, loves wearing big sunglasses, smokes incessantly, has an entourage of four, hangs out at The Ivy and the Chateau Marmont, is a shopaholic and, by her own admission, 'is a fashion-obsessed human being who eats, sleeps and breathes it.' She is turning into a one-woman empire, a 'name' in brand-obsessed Hollywood.
But for now, Zoe just has to get through awards season. 'For the Golden Globes, I didn't think I would dress anybody,' she says from the custom-built, modern house in the hills above West Hollywood that she shares with her venture capitalist husband, Rodger Berman. 'But it turned out that three of my clients went to the event, three presented and five went to the parties afterwards. And the reality is that when you dress girls for the award-show parties - especially things like the Vanity Fair party - it's the same as dressing for the Oscars. They have to have the perfect dress, jewellery, bags and shoes.'
If there's anyone that A-list celebrities have come to trust for advice on looking immaculate on the big night, it's Zoe.
At the recent Golden Globes, Hayek looked spectacularly curvaceous in a draped white Christian Dior dress chosen by Zoe, enhanced with Chanel jewellery and Sergio Rossi accessories. New mother Garner looked a treat in another white gown, this time by Gucci and spangled in stripes, with accessories from Jimmy Choo, Tod's and Bulgari.
And nobody could ignore Diaz's frothy Valentino confection with Brian Atwood shoes and jewellery from Cartier's private collection.
For Zoe, it's all in a day's work. The 35-year-old stylist and fashion fiend now leads the pack, partly because when she first got into the business several years ago, there were very few celebrity stylists. Essentially, she created the genre.
'I'm kind of my own worst enemy,' says Zoe. 'It's not that anybody puts pressure on me, but I put it on myself.
I constantly want to outdo myself and do better. I'm not OK with doing anything if it's less than perfect. But I've learned that the sad part of it is that fashion on the red carpet is getting safer and safer.
'If you take something that's a beautiful fashion piece like a couture dress, all of a sudden a little ruffle on one shoulder becomes controversial.
The mainstream media has become so narrow-minded.'
Because of the edge that Zoe brings to her craft, she's more than just a stylist to the rich, famous and beautiful. She recently designed an incredibly luxe line of handbags and clutches for Judith Leiber made from exotic skins, which sell for between US$2,000 and US$10,000. She has collaborated on the design and finishing of gowns that her clients have worn and has plans to design more dresses and jewellery.
Later this year, she will add author to her list of achievements with the release of her book, Style A to Zoe: A Guide to Everything Glamour, co-written with Rose Apodaca, the former West Coast bureau chief for Women's Wear Daily and W.
Zoe, who grew up in New Jersey, inherited her love of fashion from her mother. 'My earliest memories are of my mum's incredible style - her long brown hair pulled back by a headband; her heels and glamorous dresses; and the most incredible accessories,' she says. 'I wear so much of it now.'
Zoe majored in sociology and psychology at George Washington University, Washington, and, fresh out of college, joined YM Magazine in New York as a fashion assistant. During the next few years, she worked her way up to become senior fashion editor.
The turning point came when she oversaw fashion shoots for the likes of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, at a time when they were at the apex of their careers. Eventually, they - along with the newly minted Jessica Simpson - began asking Zoe for fashion advice. So she quit her job, upped sticks and moved to Los Angeles in 2001.
The fray might now be more crowded with stylists and wannabe-stylists (there was even a reality show dedicated to finding the next celebrity stylist), but Zoe seems to have what it takes to succeed and have longevity.
'Patience and the willingness to give 100 per cent of yourself,' she says. 'I'm like a therapist to my clients. It's how I am in my life and I don't know how to be any other way. It's a very intimate relationship. There might be times when a client is promoting a movie and I'll spend every single day with them for two months. You're going to know a lot about them - and they a lot about you - and it becomes a trust thing. I would never in a million years reveal anything that goes on in a fitting or at dinner with a client.'
While Zoe might have been born with an eye for fashion, she concedes that it's a talent she continues to hone.
'I didn't go to fashion school. Styling is really a combination of my obsession with fashion and with loving to meet new people. My parents are very cultured and they immersed me in that world. My mother has always been a fashion maven. At the age of three, I was playing dress-up far more than the average person. At 10, I was reading Vogue.'
And there are plenty of misconceptions about styling that she intends to correct in her book, such as the one that you have to be rich or famous to look good.
'The people I know with the best style do it on a dime,' she says. 'Sometimes, in fact, a lot of money means no style.'
She also says you don't have to be thin to look good - though she's a size zero and has been rumoured to supply diet pills to clients to keep them skeletal (something she denies).
Her famous dust-up last year with Richie, whom she had transformed from scruffy B-lister to sleek magazine-cover starlet, reportedly had something to do with Richie's weight issues.
'There's clothing for everybody,' says Zoe. 'I have clients that range from a size zero to a 12. I've worked with every single body shape.'
When Zoe's not sourcing designer duds for her clients, she's shopping for herself (she's a huge fan of Halston). Her wardrobe is the size of an average Hong Kong apartment. 'I've built four closets in the house and I've just taken over the guest room,' Zoe says.
She has at least 300 pairs of shoes, all stacked and organised by colour, and built-in drawers containing jewellery from Cartier, Tiffany and Hermes; she loves Hermes cuffs so much that she owns nine of them. Zoe has hundreds of bags, many of them Chanel or vintage. She is generous about lending her clothes and accessories to clients.
'I do now frequently get rid of things, but only the trend items, never the vintage pieces. I covet my vintage collection and I can't part with it. I find it all over the world - Paris, London, Milan, New York and, of course, Los Angeles.'
Thankfully for Zoe, the celebrity stylist trend - as much a status symbol as a new Lamborghini - is not going anywhere.
'These people have so much to worry about in their own careers,' says Zoe. 'They work really hard and my job is to take that (fashion) stuff away from them. A lot of them say to me, 'This is great, I'm not stressed or worried.' That's because I'm the one lying awake at night thinking about what they'll be wearing.'