Styling the stars

How Law Roach rein­vented Cé­line Dion

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

Law Roach swipes the key card to his pent­house suite and a lit­tle red light sig­nals no en­try. When the same thing hap­pens again, he sinks slowly to the floor, phon­ing his as­sis­tant to in­form her, wearily, “Wrong key. It’s the wrong key.” It’s been a long New York fash­ion week, and Roach, the most hyped celebrity stylist work­ing in the US to­day, is tired.

This week, Roach has been dress­ing co­me­dian and ac­tor Tif­fany Had­dish, and it’s been the usual merry-go-round of shows, in­clud­ing his first cat­walk styling gig, for Chi­nese brand Bosi­deng. An in­ter­est­ing one, be­cause

“the de­signer spoke no English and I spoke no Man­darin”, Roach tells me. “But the lan­guage of fash­ion is so strong, dur­ing fit­tings we would just look at each other with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.”

Then there have been the par­ties, cul­mi­nat­ing in Ri­hanna’s Di­a­mond Ball, to which he wore Schi­a­par­elli cou­ture. Declar­ing him­self a lover of vin­tage and “thrifty” clothes, Roach to­day sports a more low-key look: a black polyester track­suit with 1970s-style flared pants, a pair of beat-up Con­verse hi-tops and a quilted leather cap by Chanel. He of­ten wears an elab­o­rate hair weave, but to­day his head is shorn smooth.

Fi­nally, the cor­rect key ar­rives. In­side the suite, it looks like a fash­ion week bomb has gone off. Set­tling on a sofa amid racks of clothes, half-eaten sand­wiches and gar­ment bags ex­plod­ing with se­quins and stilet­tos, Roach ex­udes the non­cha­lant cool of some­body who could make a bin bag look chic. “I think fash­ion and style are two to­tally dif­fer­ent things,” he says. “You can’t teach style. You ei­ther have it or you don’t. It has noth­ing to do with ac­cess. It has noth­ing to do with la­bels.”

Known as @lux­u­ry­law to his 370,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, Roach is now a TV star in his own right, hav­ing just filmed his se­cond se­ries as a judge on Amer­ica’s Next Top Model. He is the man re­spon­si­ble for Cé­line Dion’s 2016 trans­for­ma­tion, prac­ti­cally overnight, from midlife chanteuse to fash­ion maven, and for cat­a­pult­ing break­out Dis­ney star Zen­daya into the spotlight. In May, he made num­ber 12 in the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter’s Most Pow­er­ful Stylists list, an ac­co­lade that, ac­cord­ing to his agency, makes him “the big­gest African Amer­i­can stylist in the game”.

Con­sid­er­ing the term stylist to be “overused”, how­ever, Roach prefers to think of him­self as an “im­age ar­chi­tect”. It’s a term that re­flects the shift­ing role of celebrity dressers in 2018, where one killer look go­ing vi­ral on so­cial me­dia can lead to overnight fame (with the lu­cra­tive con­tracts to match), and cam­paigns such as Time’s Up have turned the red car­pet into a po­lit­i­cal plat­form. “What I do is sim­i­lar to what an ar­chi­tect does,” Roach ex­plains. “The sur­vey­ing, build­ing a blue­print, sourc­ing ma­te­ri­als, all that. But I’m do­ing it with clothes, jew­ellery, hair and makeup.”

It’s all a long way from his hum­ble roots grow­ing up in Chicago, the el­dest of five chil­dren. “It was re­ally, re­ally tough,” he says. “I didn’t have the most sta­ble fam­ily dy­namic, so I fig­ured out early on that I had to make my own way.” Fash­ion, as pa­raded on re­runs of Dy­nasty and Char­lie’s An­gels, was his es­cape. As for any am­bi­tions about work­ing in the in­dus­try, “I never re­ally thought that, be­cause I didn’t know there was an in­dus­try.”

It was his grand­mother Eloise who in­tro­duced him to vin­tage shop­ping, or what she called “junk­ing”. “I would go through the women’s racks out of cu­rios­ity and buy a few things here and there.” As Roach’s col­lec­tion grew, he stashed the clothes in the boot of his car (“my mother thought it was weird and hated the smell”). Be­fore long, he was loan­ing things to his most stylish girl­friends, and when they be­gan fight­ing over pieces at makeshift boot sales, “I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is a busi­ness.’ ”

There fol­lowed a bricks-and-mor­tar store, De­li­ciously Vin­tage, and even­tu­ally per­sonal clients. One moved to LA and flew Roach out for a shop­ping ses­sion, where a serendip­i­tous meet­ing led to his break into the world of red-car­pet dress­ing. “The day I ar­rived, a beau­ti­ful girl came by with her dad, and it was Zen­daya,” he says. She was 14 at the time; Roach ended up tak­ing her shop­ping for an out­fit for Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never pre­miere. The re­sult­ing look was “a puke-green, patent-leather Alexan­der Wang skirt with a sil­ver Alice and Olivia blazer. We were like, ‘Peo­ple are ei­ther gonna love it or hate it, but we love it.’ ” The pair have worked to­gether ever since.

At the start, Roach had a tac­tic for get­ting Zen­daya no­ticed. “No­body wanted to dress her when she wasn’t known, so I would put her in things that other peo­ple had al­ready worn.” This earned her ex­po­sure in the celebrity week­lies’ Who Wore It Bet­ter col­umns and, soon enough, “peo­ple started to know her name”.

How does he feel about be­ing an in­dus­try name? “It’s flat­ter­ing,” he says, “but I do what I do be­cause I love women, and play­ing a part in mak­ing them feel beau­ti­ful. When a client gets dressed, there’s this new walk, this new per­sona that she takes on. When I see that, it drives me crazy. It’s like my drug.”

When it comes to his own celebrity, he says, “It’s more im­por­tant that peo­ple who look like me and who come from where I come from get to see that this is pos­si­ble.” As well as be­ing the high­est-rank­ing African Amer­i­can, he was one of only five black peo­ple to be recog­nised on the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter’s stylists list, all of them male. “It’s the same [white] women on the list ev­ery year. And all the new peo­ple are the as­sis­tants of those women. You get into this in­dus­try from in­tern­ing, and you have to be fi­nan­cially sta­ble to in­tern for two, three, four years. If you don’t come from a fam­ily that al­lows you to do that, then how do you do it?”

That the fash­ion in­dus­try is elit­ist and blind­ingly white is noth­ing new, and yet, against a back­drop of 2018’s call-out cul­ture, de­sign­ers, re­tail­ers and agen­cies alike are be­ing asked to shake up the sta­tus quo – or face dy­ing out. In Au­gust this year, New York Mag­a­zine’s blog The Cut ran an ex­tended ed­i­to­rial ti­tled What It’s Re­ally Like To Be Black And Work In Fash­ion, in which more than 100 peo­ple were in­ter­viewed about their ex­pe­ri­ences in →

‘When a client gets dressed, there’s this new per­sona that she takes on. When I see that, it drives me crazy. It’s like my drug’

a cul­ture where to­kenism is alive and thriv­ing. Among the Coun­cil of Fash­ion De­sign­ers of Amer­ica, only 15 of its 500 mem­bers are black. When Tyler Mitchell shot Bey­oncé for the Septem­ber 2018 cover of US Vogue, it was a first for a black pho­tog­ra­pher in the mag­a­zine’s 126-year his­tory.

Roach ar­gues that there needs to be di­ver­sity be­hind the scenes as well as on the red car­pet. “If you’re fight­ing for in­clu­sion, it has to trickle all the way down to the hair and makeup, to the cameramen and the sound en­gi­neers. Peo­ple say, ‘Isn’t it get­ting bet­ter, though?’ To which I re­ply, ‘Oh yeah, it’s get­ting bet­ter for me. But what about ev­ery­body else who looks like me? I can’t be in this in­dus­try and be the only one. I can’t do that.’ ”

What Roach can do is craft pop-cul­ture mo­ments that po­si­tion his clients at the cen­tre of the zeit­geist, such as the time he sent Zen­daya down the 2015 Os­cars red car­pet in cream silk Vivi­enne West­wood, set off by a full head of dread­locks. Com­ments from TV pre­sen­ter Gi­u­liana Ran­cic that they made the then 19-year-old look like she “smells like patchouli oil. Or weed” led to a pub­lic out­cry, and a state­ment on In­sta­gram from Zen­daya de­nounc­ing a stereo­type that was “out­ra­geously of­fen­sive”.

For his part, Roach is proud to have played a part in spark­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about “what’s ap­pro­pri­ate for black hair at the Os­cars. What’s ap­pro­pri­ate for black hair in the work­place. That story got bil­lions of im­pres­sions, and I be­lieve it did help to bring about change.”

He con­structed a less po­lit­i­cal “state­ment look” for Cé­line Dion at the 2017 Bill­board Awards, dress­ing her in an an­gel-winged gown by Stéphane Rol­land Haute Cou­ture. Roach says that when it was first sug­gested they meet, back in 2016, “I was so ex­cited, I couldn’t sleep.” Af­ter a 45-minute meet­ing in Ve­gas, Dion asked him to travel to Paris with her for a month to take care of her street-style wardrobe, be­fore hir­ing him to over­see her stage looks.

When she stepped out in an out­sized Vete­ments Ti­tanic sweat­shirt (the hoodie a ge­nius ref­er­ence to the film sound­tracked by her clas­sic tear-jerker My Heart Will Go On), fash­ion­ista.com de­clared Dion the “queen of the world”. Roach hadn’t been sure Dion would go for it, but re­mem­bers her re­ac­tion as be­ing: “‘What do you mean, what do I think about it? I love it. I want to wear it to­day.’” Roach styled the sweat­shirt with blue jeans and a pair of gold Gucci heels, to the de­light of the press pack.

With a client list that also in­cludes Anne Hath­away, Ari­ana Grande and model Ruby Rose, what do the peo­ple he dresses have in com­mon? “You want to play, and you want to take risks. My clients also don’t care what peo­ple say,” he says, of­fer­ing an­other Zen­daya red-car­pet mo­ment as a case in point. “We went to the Gram­mys af­ter David Bowie had just passed, and she wore a tuxedo and a mul­let in homage. You’ve got to be a strong girl to do that on the red car­pet. You have to have con­vic­tion to say, ‘I like this, and I think I look cool, and fuck you to ev­ery­body who doesn’t.’ I think all my girls have an el­e­ment of ‘fuck you’ in them.”

This is some­thing of a mantra for Roach: he even has the phrase tat­tooed on the mid­dle fin­ger of his right hand. As for dream jobs, “the peo­ple I would have loved to work with are no longer with us. Prince, Amy Wine­house. I al­ways felt con­nected to Amy, in a way.”

If suc­cess for Roach is in the work it­self, then land­ing the Amer­ica’s Next Top Model gig is a marker of how far he’s come from his days junk­ing back home in Chicago – in par­tic­u­lar, film­ing his se­cond se­ries with the show’s cre­ator and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Tyra Banks, one of only a hand­ful of African Amer­i­can su­per­mod­els, af­ter she re­turned as a host this year. “When we were shoot­ing our cast photo, I’m there with Tyra, in front of the ANTM logo, and I start to cry. I was like, ‘We’re in the house that Tyra built!’”

It’s an­other op­por­tu­nity for him to in­crease the vis­i­bil­ity of black creatives in the in­dus­try. He shows me his tat­toos, the af­fir­ma­tion “I can, I will” and the num­ber “312” (his Chicago area code) – re­minders that “I am a lot of firsts for my fam­ily. The first to grad­u­ate high school. The first to earn a col­lege de­gree. The first to move out of Chicago. If I can in­spire some­body else to be a first, that’s what’s im­por­tant.”

‘It’s get­ting bet­ter for me. But what about ev­ery­body else who looks like me? I can’t be in this in­dus­try and be the only one’

Be­low, left to right: Roach with Zen­daya, her Bowie-tribute tux and mul­let, and Os­cars dread­locks; Cé­line Dion in Gi­ambat­tista Valli, and the Vete­ments Ti­tanic sweat­shirt that made her ‘the queen of the world’

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