Meet Karen Clarkson, the stylist performing fashion miracles on the biggest names in pop music
The relationship between celebrity and stylist has existed since before we even understood what the term ‘styling’ meant. Back in the early 1950s, a change was afoot in Hollywood and costume designers, who were usually responsible for outfits worn on and off screen by their studio’s corresponding starlets, were finding themselves slowly replaced by haute couturiers. The most successful of these new, emboldened partnerships were Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy and Marlene Dietrich and Christian Dior. Together, actor and designer became so synonymous with one another that their collaborative visions were introduced onto the silver screen. Hepburn refused to participate in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ without Givenchy and Dietrich famously told Jack Warner, “No Dior, No Dietrich” in the run up to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950’s classic ‘Stage Fright’. Protestations from costume designers Edith Head and Helen Rose went largely ignored and by the 1970s, awards season had mutated into another fashion event. Fast forward to present day and celebrity endorsement now has the power to make or break a designer’s career – a post from @badgalriri took Molly Goddard from obscurity to one to watch and after Kim Kardashian bought a dress from Art School, the burgeoning brand was able to support their studio for 6 months.
This exchange is mutually beneficial, and the transformative power of fashion has resuscitated many flailing careers. Even the king of reinvention, David Bowie, was struggling to carve out a career in music for a decade before having a hit with Ziggy Stardust – nobody took much notice when Bowie presented himself as a dandy or a soul star. With a little help from Bob Mackie, Cher managed to stay relevant for 40 years, her fan base growing as she morphed from groovy girl-next-door to full blown drag queen.
I met with celebrity stylist Karen Clarkson at her vintage store ‘Found & Vision’ in Ladbroke Grove, to discuss a career spent reinventing the stagnant wardrobes of some of the world’s biggest names in music.
Sitting hunched over a pot of chamomile tea, Karen unwinds a heavy woolen scarf from around her neck. Outside, the air is brisk and gusts of wind struggle around tarpaulin as it droops over the fruit stalls of Portobello Market. Karen flicks strands of wavy brown hair from her doe eyes and turns her attention toward me. “As a stylist, you have to evolve,” She tells me, smiling. “These days I want to create looks that are memorable. When those moments arise they’re really rewarding and fun but because we’re constantly overloaded by stuff on Instagram it’s getting harder to stand out.”
Karen’s been styling the likes of Lorde, FKA Twigs and James Bay for almost a decade, but it’s one of her first jobs with Rita Ora that interests me the most. After parting ways with former stylist and insta-hoe Kyle De’Volle back in 2017, Rita started collaborating with Karen on music videos ‘Your Song’ and ‘Anywhere’. However, it wasn’t until later that year at Rita’s MTV EMA’s hosting gig that Karen had the opportunity to kick-start the biggest pop reinvention since Miley Cyrus swung into the spotlight on a wrecking ball. “Rita’s fun and young and she’s got a sense of humour. Celebrities often use clothes as an indication of who they are as a person, and I wanted to bring out the real Rita. I told her, ‘you need to have your moment, you need to go and lay an egg on the red-carpet or something,’ you know? Fashion can be so serious and boring sometimes.”
Rita may not have lain an egg on live TV but viewers around the world watched from their living rooms as the international pop star made 13 outfit changes in as many different wigs - all in under 2 hours. Looks included $8 million worth of Lorraine Schwartz diamonds, custom pieces by recent graduates Richard Quinn, Matty Bovan and Rottingdean Bazaar and a bathrobe. “When I put the mood boards together, I had no information about the show whatsoever, which gave me total freedom. My first idea was Rita arriving late to her own show and I put a reference of Elizabeth Taylor wrapped in a towel and dripping in diamonds. Around the time, Vaquera and Palomo Spain had both done massive bath robes for SS18 so it wasn’t just me popping into John Lewis for a bathrobe. I had the opportunity because there were two epic runways.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone got it, and Rottingdean Bazaar’s garden fork but-make-it-fashion moment spawned mock horror in the tabloids, with the Daily Mail claiming the tongue-in-cheek outfit left her loyal fans confused (to say the least). Even members of Rita’s team were cautious about the radical overhaul at first. “I really wanted to do something with Rottingdean Bazaar but I initially felt Rita would think I was out of my mind,” she tells me frankly, “It was about creating an interlude in the middle of the show where people stopped and thought, ‘what the hell?’” Karen’s work with designers fresh out of university has created a platform showcasing young talent, something Rita is clearly on board with after being photographed wearing pieces by Asai Takeaway, Art School and Patrick McDowell (the latter worn on her way to the offie). I wondered however, how interested starlets really were in fashion, and how much of it was about image. “Celebrities get so much stuff for free and can only really wear things once. If they’re buying pieces then it’s because they have an interest as a collector and someone like Rita may spend more money on say a streetwear brand, casual brands, and vintage.”
Growing up in Surrey, Karen’s first memory of fashion was seeing her Mum decked out like Joan Collins from Dynasty. “She was always dressed up. Coming home from work to cook dinner or taking us to the shops she was always wearing stilettos.” After interning for the Clothes Show and Tatler magazines, she had a brief stint working as fashion correspondent for the Daily Mirror. “I don’t know why I’m telling you that,” Karen laughs. “You are not writing this! It was pre-internet!” Since collaborating with Jeurgen Teller, Vivienne Westwood and practically every fashion or style magazine, Karen began planning the renaissance of Christina Aguilera, who is back with her eighth album ‘Liberation’ and touring for the first time in over a decade.
Working with a client as seasoned as Christina presents more challenges than Rita Ora or FKA Twigs might. Christina has been knocking around for a few decades and her fans have been waiting 6 years (an eternity) for new music. Her noughties costumes have become touchstones of contemporary pop culture, referenced by Kylie Jenner at Halloween and spawning RuPaul’s Drag Race superstar Farrah Moan, something Karen has used to her advantage. “I wanted to revisit some of Christina’s early looks. I got Gareth Pugh to redo a look based on the chaps she wore in ‘Dirrty’, she tells me as I become increasingly aware of her untouched chamomile tea, slowly going cold. “Rita is like my perfect pop princess, with her it had to be all about new, young designers but Christina is a legendary queen. She’s more of a bad bitch and there’s a status that comes with that.” For Christina’s Liberation tour, Karen sourced pieces from Milligan Beaumont, Alice Jardesten and Dilara Findikoglu – all larger than life, the costumes gave Christina the stage presence we have always associated with her, quashing any qualms she might have about returning to the stage.
However, not every young designer is keen on dressing an international celebrity and Clarkson has been denied garments by PR companies. “I quickly realised that not every brand is forthcoming when it comes to dressing my clients. Unless it’s for the Oscars, they get scared,” she tells me cautiously. “Eventually they come around though.” Though providing the industry with a bandwagon to jump on solved that problem, snobbery is only half the challenge Karen has faced re-inventing her client’s images. “The truth is, fashion is so full of shit. The industry is always pumping out this spiel about equality and a little flash of diverse casting but when it comes to it, if someone’s not a sample size 8 do they want to help? No. The truth about styling Christina is, she’s a legend, but people are so reluctant because they don’t want to put their neck on the line.” A lot has changed for Aguilera since her first hit single ‘Genie in a Bottle’ in 1999. She’s had 2 children, Summer Rain and Max Liron, and her weight has fluctuated a lot over the years, something she has openly spoken about to the press. It’s Karen’s job to keep her looking current.
After spending years inundated by safe red carpet looks sponsored by giant fashion conglomerates, it’s easy to be dismissive of celebrity stylists. By now, we all expect to see Alicia Vikander in Louis Vuitton, Kristen Stewart in Chanel and Jennifer Lawrence in Christian Dior but Clarkson is far too invested in her job to settle for simple. “Someone recently described my job as ‘sample management,’ which is probably true of the billions of people on Instagram calling themselves stylists who like going shopping, but I love putting on a show.” Clarkson is so fluent in showbiz that her styling choices for Rita Ora’s hosting role at the 2017 MTV EMA Awards ended up being written into the script. “MTV ended up doing this whole skit of Rita at home in her bathrobe eating a Chinese takeaway and a fake manager reminding her she has a job at the EMA’s in 20 minutes and then a camera followed her as she jumped in a car to the tube and we did this whole thing of her running through the streets of London and then she arrives on stage. Meanwhile, I did the full-length gown on the red-carpet look.”
Behind the glitz and the glamour, celebrities are just ordinary folk and Karen’s work goes beyond styling. She supports stars during their most nerve racking experiences and gives them the courage to put down the sick bucket and get out on stage. If Barbara Streisand’s Arnold Scaasi bell flares at the 1969 Academy Awards taught us anything, it’s that fashion moments like these tend to outlive tomorrow’s headline news and though people might not have got the look back then, they certainly do now.
"Nobody took much notice when Bowie presented himself as a dandy or a soul star"
"I told Rita, you need to have your moment. You need to go and lay an egg on the red-carpet or something"
"It was about creating an interlude in the middle of the show where people stopped and thought, what the hell?"
"Rita is like my perfect pop princess, with her it had to be all about new, young designers but Christina is a legendary queen"
"The truth is, fashion is so full of shit"