Stylist Spotlight: Nicole Chavez

In the glamorous and competitive world of celebrity styling, Nicole Chavez, 32, is on top of her game. She’s styled A-listers like Catherine Zeta Jones, Miley Cyrus and Scarlett Johansson. Forbes Magazine named her one of the top “10 Superstar Stylists.” And her editorial work has been featured in the most elite fashion magazines such as Seventeen, W and InStyle. But perhaps her most enduring achievement was creating the unforgettable teenybopper chic looks for the hit Fox Network series The O.C. where she became friends with Rachel Bilson, her first client.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon at her colorful and modern loft in Hollywood, Chavez took a break from emailing her mother photos of herself getting fitted for a Monique Lhuillier wedding gown (she’s getting married in November) to chat with about her truly historic Chicano heritage, her work experience in costume design and what trends will be significant this fall.

How exactly would you describe the process of dressing your celebrity clients?

I go to some fashion shows, but I also reference all the time. It has every collection available online. I pick the looks based on the event and the client. Then I send in email requests to the designer’s public relations people. There’s only one sample, which I possibly have to share with every other editorial in the world. And there are only a few pieces that people love. If it’s available, I’ll get it for a short window of time for the day of the fitting. I’ll fit it and then I’ll send it back. So everything is basically on loan. We work off of collections that are six months prior to what’s in stores.

What sets you apart from all the other celebrity stylists that are out there?

Styling is a really lonely job. In the sense that I came from working with a costume design team and now it’s just me looking at fashion and trying to find the appropriate looks for my clients. So it’s hard to know what other stylists are doing. People don’t talk about it or share their experiences. If there was more camaraderie among us, we’d be able to accomplish even more as stylists. And as of now, there’s no union. There’s not even something less formal.

What do you think will be the dominant trends for fall?

Jessica Simpson has a new country album coming out so we’re doing some simple country looks for her new album: plaids, tweeds, and a lot of velvet. It’s a country mix, like Ralph Lauren. Purple will be a huge color. As far as shoes, I still think the gladiators are strong and will carry through the fall. You’re still going to see a bootie. But there’s also the oxford lace-up, which will be big, like menswear meets a bootie. I still think the floral thing is happening. It’s going to be floral prints but in darker tones. We saw a lot of it in pastels but it will carry through fall. That futuristic thing is still going strong, like the little biker jackets and the interesting heels. Feathers are really big. I don’t know how that will translate into the everyday world. I also see a lot of belle skirts and belle sleeves.

What’s your latest fashion splurge?

I’m really into shoes. I buy Azzedine Alaiia’s all the time. They’re just so interesting. I have the ones that lace up to above my ankle, the black criss-cross ones with a zipper up the back. They’re insane, rad, and not practical at all. When I wear them, people stop me on the street. They were like $1200 or $1300.

How do you stay connected to your Latin heritage?

I’m starting to awaken to my Latin heritage now. When you’re young it’s hard, I didn’t have a lot of exposure. Now that I’m older I have more appreciation for my family, their struggle and their history. I’m in that awakening space now. I’ve really wanted to speak Spanish fluently. And I’m embarrassed that I can’t.

My great grandparents moved to Los Angeles from Guadalajara as a teenage bride and groom. They ended up building a farm with a big three-story house at Chavez Ravine. Their house was exactly where first base is at Dodger Stadium. They lived there until the 1950s. But their land was taken from them. They didn’t receive any money for their home and was offered low-income housing from the city. But the housing never happened and they were left homeless.

So, wait, was Chavez Ravine named after your family?

There were a lot of other Chavez’s there, too.

And so where did you grow up?

I grew up in La Canada, a suburb of Los Angeles. My mom, who's Irish with blond hair and blue eyes, worked at the high school and my dad worked for Ralph’s supermarket. I was born in Verdugo Hills Hospital in 1976. I was the first. And I have a younger sister, who’s 18 months younger. My parents still live in the same house. There weren’t many Hispanic kids where I grew up. My grandmother and grandfather were adamant that they were American, not really Mexican. They spoke English. So we weren’t really raised with a lot of Spanish in the home.

How did you get into fashion?

I have always loved fashion. I thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer. Magazine tears plastered my walls ever since I was little. I was really into Guess and Esprit. I used to have all of that posted everywhere. My grandmother on my father’s side was a very fashionable woman. So everybody thinks I got it from her.

I had a teacher there who really motivated me into the arts. I started doing independent projects and setting up my own curriculum for photography class. My dad loved photography too and studied it in college. He lent me his camera. By the time, I was a senior, I won a couple of awards. My teacher wanted to get me into art school. But I decided to go to state school, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where I majored in photography.

But when I graduated, I knew I didn’t really want to take pictures but I loved the styling side of it. I came back to LA. I worked for an interior designer, a friend of the family. She introduced me to one of her clients, who hired me to nanny for their two young daughters. The father was the VP of Disney at the time.

He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to become a costume designer. He had a friend who was doing production at Disney and introduced me to a costume designer. I assisted her on a movie in 2000. It was a great opportunity. I even got to live in Miami for six months to work on “Big Trouble” with Tim Allen. It was a big ensemble cast. After I came back to L.A., I was really motivated to get into the costume union, Local 705. So I worked a few more years. I got all the days and hours that I needed to get in the union in 2001.

Why is being a union member so important to you?

You can’t work on any films unless you’re a union member. The non-union movies are harder to work on. You get great medical and dental. It’s a great thing to be a part of. You can get work and they take care of you.

What was your costume design experience like?

We used to work like 18 to 20 hour days. I met a lot of great people in the film and costume department. It’s really a team effort. Your department can be anywhere from four to 100 people. I worked on all ranges. I learned a lot about design, characters, production, like how to make things. I learned what it was like to be on set with actors. I learned the etiquette to make their experience seamless and enjoyable and to make sure the costumes are intact. You’re in charge of their slippers and robes, the day to day. They never shoot a film in order, so you need to know exactly what costume your actor is in for a particular scene. You make charts to figure out what change is in what box.

And then The O.C. was a real turning point in your career?

I did movies until 2004. That’s when I went to work with some friends on The O.C. I helped out on the pilot. Then when the show got picked up, I was hired as one of the costumers for the show. I was in charge of half the cast. That’s where I met Rachel Bilson. We just bonded on set looking at magazines. The cast always had events that they had to go to, so I just started helping her on the side with different ideas about clothes. By the end of the first season, I was more hands-on with her. By 2005, I left the show and became Rachel’s sole stylist. I felt really excited about what Rachel and I were creating. We had a great rapport and the same sensibility. So I told myself, I’m just going to take a chance, step back from costuming for a minute and style her. It’s hard to do both styling and costuming. I couldn’t focus 100%.

Then in 2006, I started styling Kristen Bell. Once I started working with her, the styling became more of a reality for me. It just went crazy. More and more people came to me through different means. I didn’t have an agency, so everything was word of mouth. I didn’t even have an assistant then. Within two months, I had four clients. And it continued to grow. My business happened very organically, so I just want to let it happen organically. I’ve been lucky.

—Serena Kim