| Robin Givhan, The Washington Post |
SOMETIMES, when Ilaria Urbinati gets stuck in Los Angeles traffic, she’ll look out of her car window at some anonymous guy on the street dressed in a baggy suit; and she will despair. She will say to herself, “You have no idea how much better I could make you look.”
This isn’t idle bragging. It’s a statement of fact. The evidence was on the red carpet recently at the 91st Academy Awards.
Urbinati is Hollywood’s premier men’s stylist, with a client list that includes best actor nominees Bradley Cooper and Rami Malek. John Krasinski, Armie Hammer, Donald Glover, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson and Milo Ventimiglia are also in her care.
When it comes to red-carpet fashion, men have moved beyond the classic black tuxedo. They are wearing brown velvet, ruby-red velvet, orange silk, embroidered capes and bedazzled holsters.
Some are heat-seeking missiles aiming for the flashing cameras and the centre of the spotlight. Others are using fashion to deftly define – or redefine – their public persona. Either way, women no longer own the red carpet.
Urbinati has led the way by helping each of her clients express something personal and distinctive through his clothes. And other men – beyond the realm of Hollywood – have taken heed.
“It all changed in the last two years. There are parts that I don’t like, where it’s gotten a little silly and guys are peacocking and it’s, ‘Look at me!’ I don’t love that,” Urbinati said. “I’m not trying to make them look interesting; I want them to be unexpected.”
Men have “upped their game 400 per cent”, said New York-based stylist Brian Coats, who knows Urbinati’s work well. “It’s almost switched in a way, with a lot of actresses getting criticised for being too safe.”
If there’s a common thread with Urbinati’s clients, it’s that they all exude handsome. They possess a wow factor. They evoke that know-it-when-you-see-it ideal of a Hollywood leading man.
Urbinati doesn’t have a signature look. Her clients wear Gucci, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Tom Ford, Dior. They also wear Strong Suit, the modestly priced brand with whom Urbinati collaborated. With an assist from Malek and Hammer, she put Strong Suit on the fashion map. “It doesn’t impact sales, but it impacts the credibility of the brand,” said its founder Jamie Davidson.
Glover exudes creativity and adventurousness, with a brown velvet Gucci suit at the Golden Globes, an orange Dolce & Gabbana one at the Black Panther premiere. For Urbinati, working with Glover is akin to two musicians riffing off the same melody and riding the resulting energy. “He has such a natural sense of swagger and cool,” Urbinati said. “I think we grew up with the same references in fashion and we get each other. His fittings are probably the most effortless. It flows, and we’re having fun.”
Malek is flashier, with more fashion edge. “Rami gets very meticulous,” Urbinati said. “He has such an appreciation for each brand and who the creative directors are. He has relationships with these people. He goes to (fashion) shows. He has a real appreciation for the artistry.”
Cooper was one of Urbinati’s first clients. She was opening a clothing store with actor Danny Masterson. Masterson and Cooper were both in the 2008 film Yes, Man. Cooper came to the opening of the shop. “The Hangover hadn’t come out yet; it was about to. He was literally about to burst into being Bradley Cooper,” Urbinati recalled. One conversation led to another in that Hollywood way, and then Cooper said, “I have my press tour in two days. Can you come over tomorrow and help me out?”
Urbinati, not quite sure what she was signing on to do, called in favours from designers she knew from her work in retail. Simon Spurr was reviving the once-popular three-piece suit. Urbinati borrowed a few and brought them for Cooper to try. He was sceptical, “A three-piece suit, really?” But he liked the look of it.
“Now, he has a very strong sense of what he wants to look like,” Urbinati said. “I think he was still working it out back then.”
Urbinati spent a good portion of 2018 working with Krasinski, one of her newest clients, as he promoted his film A Quiet Place and the Amazon Prime series Jack Ryan.
“I always imagined myself to be scientifically proven as one of the least fashionable people on the planet. I wore uniforms of jeans and T-shirts,” Krasinski said in an email. “She has taken a world that I believed I was very much on the outside of and dropped me in with both feet. And somehow made it so damn fun along the way.”
When award season kicked in, Cooper and Malek were each nominated for, well, seemingly everything. There were the SAG awards, BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and countless other events that involved hungry-eyed photographers. Always photographers. Urbinati has been working at a breakneck pace.
For the Oscars, her clients wear custom ensembles. For each one, she works with a design house to conceive a look that reflects the brand’s identity, the actor’s personality and, perhaps most important, Urbinati’s current obsessions.
And when Urbinati gets obsessed, red carpet magic happens.
Lately, Urbinati has been engrossed by the 1970s. That has manifested in Johnson accessorised with pinkie rings and gold chains. Glover got brightly coloured silk shirts worn mostly unbuttoned, and trousers with a bit of a boot cut.
He also ended up at Cannes in a powder blue Gucci tuxedo with a daisy boutonniere.
“I had been thinking about doing a ‘70s prom tux – like a powder blue tux – for a long time,” Urbinati says. And the vintage photograph she had stored in her mind included a daisy pinned to the lapel. Daisies were out of season in Cannes and so an assistant was dispatched to call florist after florist. After florist.
A carnation would have been too earnestly authentic, a rose too groomsman. Nothing at all and he’s a reject from Motown.
She once saw a photograph of the rock band Kiss dressed in outlandish three-piece striped suits. Malek ended up in a striped suit; so did Glover.
That’s how fashion inspiration works. A picture, a scent, a movie. The mind keeps going back to it. It becomes an itch needing to be scratched.
Before Urbinati started dressing actors, she wanted to be a writer – a Hemingway, Tolstoy, serious kind of writer. She thinks about styling as building a narrative about an actor. Take the Rock. Before he came to her, he was the big guy in oversized clothes. But that made him look sloppy, dishevelled.
“What’s the best way to dress a guy with arms the size of a building?” she asked herself. “We do all his suits custom. I approached a bunch of different brands and I said we want to change his fashion image. Trust me. You’ll be glad you came on board.”
Johnson’s suits now are more body conscious. His trousers are more tapered. The story that Urbinati is telling is one of transition – from the Rock to Dwayne Johnson. “It makes you take him a little more seriously. It makes him look more like a movie star,” Urbinati says. “Something about a guy who’s better dressed – he looks smart,” which is to say he looks both stylish and savvy.
She helped Krasinski turn the page from boyish comedic actor to acclaimed filmmaker and action star, from wearing a blazer thrown over a shirt to suits that are more considered and polished.
“I think putting your best foot forward is important in any situation. So when it comes to style I’m grateful to Ilaria – for showing me what the hell foot that is. She’s very aware of how style changes the way people can see you and so is always pushing me to take chances but never at the risk of feeling uncomfortable,” Krasinski said.
Urbinati is also indirectly leading regular guys to the fashion trough. First come the actors, then the athletes, then the guy in the cubicle down the hall.
“It’s having a ripple effect,” said Chief Marketing Officer for Gucci Robert Triefus. “There’s a generation seeing what’s happening on the red carpet and it’s giving them confidence. They’re asking themselves, ‘Why can’t I express myself?’”
Urbinati is precise. Coats believes this is partly because she’s the rare celebrity stylist who also works on her clients’ photo shoots for magazines, which gives her an art director’s understanding of the overall picture. Editorial stylists work hard to see an image they’ve been staring at for hours from a fresh perspective (some will even tilt their head or use binoculars).
Urbinati also has “a great eye for fit”, Coats said. “She’s really good at getting the details right.” Those details may be apparent only to other stylists, but the average person can still notice that one actor looks incredible on the red carpet and another just looks OK, even if they can’t quite put their finger on why. Sometimes it’s a daisy boutonniere. Oftentimes it’s the impeccable tailoring of a suit.
“I’m a Virgo. It almost hurts my body how OCD I can be. Not that I have to wash my hands every five seconds but, well, tailoring satisfies that part of my personality,” Urbinati said. Closefitting trousers have been the red carpet standard for years, but that doesn’t mean actors love them.
“For sure, they curse me for it, but when they see how good it looks and they get compliments, they don’t complain.”
Urbinati is fond of saying, “Looks matter if it matters how you look.” Men are less likely to be taken to task for some style miscalculation, but they are not immune to insecurities.
“Guys aren’t easy,” said Coats, who styles Jimmy Fallon for The Tonight Show. “They have just as many body issues as women and just as many neuroses.” The short guys want to look taller, he said, and they all have vacation regret: “I spent six months at my beach house drinking and eating pie and now I have a belly!”
Urbinati, 39, was born in Rome and grew up in Paris before moving to Los Angeles as a fifth-grader. Her mother is an art dealer; her father is a photographer; her aunt is a fashion retailer. Urbinati was destined to have good taste.
When she moved to California, she didn’t speak English. Italian is her first language, and she studied French. But she doesn’t have an accent. Instead, she has the nonchalant inflections that are distinctively Southern Californian. She is slim with blond hair. She practices muay thai. “I have a bossy personality that I think works well with guys,” she said.
Through high school, Urbinati thought fashion was silly. But it was always around her – copies of Vogue Italia, photographs by Irving Penn, beautiful clothes. Unconsciously, she absorbed it. She worked at Christie’s auction house in Los Angeles, in retail at Fred Segal and then with her aunt. She went on buying trips to Europe, got to know the fashion hierarchy, met designers.
Her family had money, but she had to find her own way, and that path included doing some wardrobe work on the Showtime series The L Word and an on-camera stint in a McDonald’s commercial.
Urbinati focusses on menswear essentially because she’s one of the few people who can do it well. “I can be the best at this. I don’t know if I could do that with women. I like being an expert at something.”
There’s less fashion politics with menswear. Less pressure for men to fit into an impossibly tiny runway sample. But sometimes, brands still require cajoling to take a chance on an actor. Gucci needed nudging before first dressing Glover. Now, he’s practically a brand ambassador.
“There’s something about men’s that’s simple and it’s all in the details,” she said. “I don’t think you can fake it with menswear.” Without the frippery, you can see every imperfection.
“I work better with parameters. How do I work within this box and make it different?” she added. “It’s why I could never be a designer but I like collaborations because you have to work within the DNA of the brand.”
Last year, she worked with Armani on the red velvet tuxedo Armie Hammer wore to the Oscars. It could have gone very, very Vegas. Very wrong. But she asked for a jacket with notched lapels instead of the more dramatic peaked ones. The pants didn’t have a side stripe. Every flourish was stripped away to create the most conservative silhouette. Only the colour stood out.
On Oscar night, the brands watched the red carpet, waiting for their annual jolt of credibility. The fans were armchair critics. Urbinati had considered everything from bow tie to shoes. She was not fretting. “Once they’re out the door, it’s out of my hands. Hopefully, it looks good,” she said. “I’ll know that I put everything into it.” – WP-BLOOM