Stylist with the key to Lady Gaga's wardrobe

Nicola Formichetti's British Fashion Awards triumph is a belated nod to the industry's unsung heroes

Among the roster of models, designers and famous faces celebrated at the British Fashion Awards this week was one name that people beyond the industry may not have heard.

The stylist Nicola Formichetti, 33, who received the Isabella Blow award for Fashion Creator, usually works behind the camera, but it's his job to make you take notice of what's going on in front of it. "I was so happy to be nominated," he said after he won the award on Tuesday. "I really wasn't expecting to win."

It's a sentiment that many a more disingenuous winner might espouse at an awards ceremony, but Formichetti's surprise – and indeed, his win – is evidence of a rising tide of recognition in the fashion industry for those whose intuition and visual flair manage to keep it fresh.

Working on magazines such as Dazed & Confused and Vogue Japan, as well as styling the singer Lady Gaga, Formichetti's visionary talents and fashion eye have become an international phenomenon. It was he who put the outré style icon in her gigantic pompadour at this year's Brit awards; he who convinced her to wear a phone on her head; and he who dresses her in her now standard-issue uniform of S&M bondage gear for many of her music videos.

Formichetti, who was born in Japan to an Italian father and a Japanese mother, has also worked as a consultant for fashion brands, including Prada, D&G, Missoni, Adidas, Nike, Uniqlo and MAC.

"Stylists are facilitators," says the fashion commentator Caryn Franklin. "They channel energy, they pick up on trends way before they happen on the catwalk. They're the key people in the industry who have something to say."

And they're coming more and more to the fore, as Formichetti's award proves. Last year's recipient of the same award was Grace Coddington, creative director of American Vogue, whose body of work and shoots for the magazine comprise some of the most elegant and inspirational fashion imagery of the late 20th century.

But stylists have been helping designers and creating magazines' personae for decades. The term was coined in the 1920s, when department stores began hiring individuals on the merit of their sartorial flair to try to link the disparate elements of the modern wardrobe into something more accessible and, importantly, commercial.

"The post of 'stylist' has been created in some of the better American stores," reported the Daily Express in 1928. "The duties consist of informing the bag department of the trends in the shoe department, and the glove department what is happening in the costume department."

The role has come a long way, with stylists now indispensable both on the high street, where they help customers with personal shopping advice, and at high-end labels, where they consult with designers to create a suitable feeling or mood for their seasonal catwalk show. Stylists such as Formichetti and Coddington, as well as the editor of LOVE magazine, Katie Grand, French Vogue's editor, Carine Roitfeld, and the senior fashion editor at US Harper's Bazaar, Melanie Ward, work alongside designers as consultants.

"In the Nineties, as fashion became more democratised, stylists began using streetwear to up the ante," says Caryn Franklin. "They made very high-end ideas available to the mass market, in a combination of visual marketing and just knowing the right elements. People like Simon Foxton [who styled Levi's campaigns in the Nineties] gave denim a sense of personality."

Personality is key, of course, with latter-day stylists making their mark by dressing celebrities. Rachel Zoe became a high-profile name after dressing starlets including Nicole Ritchie and Mischa Barton in the mid-Noughties; her signature look – a size-zero frame accessorised with boho curls, enormous sunglasses and a maxi-dress – became so widely imitated that her fans became known as "The Zoebots". Zoe herself has in the past year made the leap to designing her own range of clothing, as has Melanie Ward. Nicola Formichetti, meanwhile, was in September appointed as creative director at the French label Thierry Mugler.

Where stylists have more usually worked alongside designers, they are now emulating them. One of fashion's most influential names, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, began her career as a stylist, and turned to designing when she found that she couldn't express herself fully through extant fashions. They may not have the technical expertise but they have the vision.

"A good stylist is worth their weight in gold," Ms Franklin continues. "You can put yourself in their hands and know that they are highly visually sophisticated and literate."

Behind the scenes, behind the styles

Grace Coddington

The creative director of American Vogue shot to fame after the documentary The September Issue showed a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her daily travails as one of the fashion industry's most influential stylists. Her shoots range from elegant and romantic to modern and avant-garde, and are characterised by a minute attention to detail.

Melanie Ward

Ward's urban-grunge style embodied the zeitgeist of the mid-Nineties, when she worked with the designer Helmut Lang to develop a sleek, minimal modern aesthetic. A senior fashion editor at US Harper's Bazaar, she is one of the first stylists to have dictated a mood not only in high-end fashion but also on the high street.

Rachel Zoe

Celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe caused a stir in the mid-Noughties with her extreme "skinny and sunglasses" trademark look, favoured by the likes of LA starlets Nicole Richie and Mischa Barton. She became a celeb in her own right, and has since starred in the reality TV show The Rachel Zoe Project and launched her own line of clothing last June.

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