Hollywood: To live and style in LA
She wanted to murder Claudia Schiffer, Faye Dunaway was a diva, but George Michael, as always, was a sweetie. Andrew Gumbel talks to outspoken stylist to the stars, Kim Bowen. Photographs by Robert Yager
Saturday 31 October 1998
It's all about the clothes.
As one of the entertainment business's busiest and most successful stylists, Bowen should know. Over the past five years she has dressed hundreds of celebrities for publicity shots, adverts and music videos. She knows how to disguise out-of-proportion figures, knobbly knees and ungainly limbs. She knows how to talk someone out of their own ideas on clothing if they aren't going to look great, and she is not afraid to stand up to publicists, personal assistants, girlfriends or other hangers-on who think they know better.
Most refreshingly, she is deliciously aware of the artifice of what she does for a living and has no trouble blowing away the mystique like so much fluff off a long silk dress. "Almost everybody has their public image filtered through the work of wardrobe stylists these days," she says. "That's why someone like Emma Thompson gets so much stick for her appearance. It's because she's wearing her own clothes and people aren't used to that. It's too individual.
"Let's say an actress wants to turn up to an event in a long black dress and a ruby necklace inherited from her grandmother. A stylist will tell her she shouldn't wear jewellery because it clutters up her neck and makes her look short. Then she might be asked to change the colour of her shoes to give her greater elegance or length, and make her wear gloves because her arms are a bit chubby.
"When I was a child I was fascinated with Hollywood and the way people looked. It's actually a bit depressing now to see Jodie Foster in a supermarket looking just as wretched and ordinary as everyone else."
Bowen is one of a long line of Brits successfully transplanted to Hollywood. But she is also a bit of an anomaly. Far from buying into the star system, she does everything she can to keep it at arm's length. Instead of name- dropping, she will regale you with hilarious put-downs of how mad or obnoxious many of the celebs she has known are. At one point Bowen swore she wouldn't work with any more celebrities but was tempted by the prospect of Faye Dunaway, just to see how an old-fashioned diva operated or, as she puts it, "to see how mad she was". Dunaway was thrilled with the Dolce & Gabbana trouser suits that Bowen picked out for her, but spent the day examining her make-up with "a jeweller's spyglass" and ordering endless Diet Cokes and mineral water. Bowen's enduring image of the shoot is Dunaway standing on a lawn slapping her head and screaming for the hairdresser.
"There are two ways of doing my job," she says. "Either you go freelance, like me, or else you attach yourself to a celebrity and work exclusively for them. That can pay incredibly good money but it takes a certain talent that I don't have. Basically you have to stick your head up their arse and keep it there. I can't do it - too much of a healthy ego, I suppose.
"The whole celebrity thing revolves around yes-men, having a coterie of people. The stars are always making careful choices about who they do and don't want to be. They don't give a fuck about anything except themselves. That's what 98 per cent of them are like and it drives them mad."
For that reason, Bowen has steered clear of feature films (despite the daily fee of up to $4,000), preferring to work on shorter projects - music videos and TV adverts, mostly (for which the daily rate can range from around $800 to $2,000). Since any stars involved tend to have their own stylists, she gets to think more about the overall look, thus attracting more attention for her own work while reducing to a minimum her exposure to abrasive demands and big tempers.
There are exceptions, of course. George Michael is a friend, and she has just finished working on his latest video, Outside, which features a risque series of tableaux of couples having sex in the open air. (The characters do have clothes on - well, at least to start with.) There is even a tongue-in-cheek re-enactment of Michael's recent arrest by an undercover cop who lured him into a public lavatory, the difference here being that the policeman is a voluptuous woman, not a man. Bowen dressed him in a pewter Paul Smith shirt and black trousers. For another scene she found him a genuine LA cop outfit ("tailored to fit his sleek form").
"George is a real sweetie because he doesn't pretend to be anything that he isn't," she says. "Actually I'm bloody knackered because we were up until five in the morning on the last day to get it finished. That's one disadvantage of not working on feature films - no union-regulated working hours."
Bowen is disarmingly casual about almost every aspect of what she does, and utterly unafraid to express her opinions. (She does, however, dodge giving her actual age, stating, "I'm in my thirties, this is a town where these things matter.") Sitting in casual stretch pants in her mock-Tudor mansion in the heart of Hollywood, she releases a torrent of stories about models, actors and - her biggest bugbear - the publicists who insidiously run the entertainment industry.
"They foster this culture of dependency, always trying to make the star feel insecure and inadequate. They say things like, `you know, maybe you're right about your legs being a little fat.' I had Minnie Driver in this house for a publicity shot - a very ambitious young lady, I must say - and it was all going fine until the publicist showed up. She went, `Why is Minnie wearing Armani? Armani is an old woman's designer.' It was all bollocks, of course, but Minnie bought straight into it. And the session went to pot."
Bowen's reputation as a straight-shooter has been partly responsible for her success, though not without a few bumps along with way. (She is currently in dispute with another stylist - he has been nominated for a VH1 award for a video that Bowen jointly styled. She has received no credit.) She got interested in working as a stylist, she says, because she couldn't stand the fashion industry. "It's a goldfish bowl, an empty, worthless place," she says.
Born in London, she studied fashion and textiles, then pure fashion at St Martins in London. After that, she landed a job in Australia as fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar, a job she quit on principle after her editor was fired. She then had several jobs in fashion journalism, including a short stint on the ill-fated newspaper the Sunday Correspondent and periodic freelance pieces for The Guardian. "That was when I found out that you cannot write about the fashion business and be honest," she said. "I wrote a piece slagging off British designers and The Guardian tossed me out on my ear."
Arriving in Hollywood five years ago, she started doing celebrity shoots with the photographer Wayne Maser ("a fantastically talented but despicable man") before teaming up with the commercials director Tony Kaye, another Brit famous for not suffering fools - and, on occasion, suing them. "He changed my life," she says. "He's an amazingly talented, intelligent, wonderfully mad person and we got along brilliantly. He never gave me any grief because we understood each other completely. Once we were doing this very surreal ad and the only instruction he gave me was `I want you to go fucking mental.' So I did." Her work with Kaye includes the radical Dunlop tyres commercial with silver-painted men and a Velvet Underground soundtrack.
Other directors have not been so easy. Once when a director decided at the last minute he wanted her to change the entire wardrobe, she fought him tooth and nail - partly because there was no time to make alternative arrangements. "Afterwards, when we had finished, he thanked me for standing up to him and said I was right and he was wrong."
Los Angeles is not always the easiest town in which to find clothes. Few designers have big offices, and they are still slow in providing what has become a standard service in Europe - lending out their collections to any celebrity who asks. "They used to say they weren't interested at all. Then Jean-Paul Gaultier came along in the 1980s and gave tons of stuff to pop stars. They made him as famous as his clothes did. Now everyone does it, but Armani is the only designer with a proper PR department here." There are times, of course, when designer clothes are not called for, and Bowen is adept at working with specialist costume companies, cliquey boutiques such as lingerie den Playmates and, on occasion, going out and thrift-shopping.
Bowen is now one of a half-dozen or so stylists at the top of her profession. She works regularly with Janet Jackson, another celebrity who passes muster in her book ("perhaps because she grew up in a showbiz family she's not fazed by her own celebrity"), and the singer Lauryn Hill, who recently flew her to New York to pick the clothes for a video clip set in 1968.
Having fought to get where she wants, and to work as much as possible with the people she likes, she is not overly ambitious to branch out into new fields (film-maker Tony Kaye once told her she should go into directing). "I make good money, I like what I do and I still have time to do things on the side, like write. Unlike most people in this industry, I have a life." With the LA prerequisites of a pool, a convertible and a gym, Bowen is in no hurry to come back to Britain, either.
Has success blunted her confrontational edge? It might have done, she suggests, but she is still hilariously outspoken about the miserable time she had on the set of the Citroen Xsara advertisement. Its star, Claudia Schiffer, who had worked with Bowen a month before and been fine, was difficult, to say the least. "I know it must be nerve-wracking for anyone, even a model, to do a striptease in front of a film crew, but she took all her inhibitions out on me." Schiffer insisted that Bowen line her underwear with flesh-coloured fabric, even though Bowen warned her it would end up looking like a girdle. "Which it did." When Schiffer couldn't negotiate the staircase in high heels, Bowen was sent into the Californian suburbs at 5am to find flatties. "At one point," Bowen remembers, "I had to go into my dressing room and scream." Luckily for her, Bowen wasn't around when Schiffer also demanded a body double for a shot of her foot.
These days she bites her tongue when she risks doing herself a bad disservice. "I've got better at picking my fights. If I think a request is unreasonable, I'll say so. But, I mean, if I'm doing a Rice Krispies ad and someone wants to put feather dusters up everyone's arse because of the demographics or something, why bother arguing?"
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