How stylists for Dua, Charli & Doja create megawatt pop looks

Written by on 25/01/2023

Here’s an exercise: for a minute, plumb the depths of your memory for iconic pop music visuals and note which first rise to the surface. Lady Gaga’s blood-soaked 2009 VMA’s performance is surely among them. Beyoncé’s 2008 black-and-white “Single Ladies” video too. (And then, eight years later, Beyoncé hanging from the window of a blue El Camino or swinging at fire hydrants in golden Roberto Cavalli). Lana Del Rey in 2011, with a flower crown atop her head. Miley riding a wrecking ball. Ariana in latex bunny ears. Let your mind wander back to the future, back to 2023, and you’ll find that the well of images runs drier and drier. Why is that? 

“The internet’s a fucking monster,” says Chris Horan, stylist to Charli XCX and Christina Aguilera. “And, in general, our consumption of media.” Chris is, of course, referring to the internet’s incessant stream of digital content; the endless scroll continually sweeping away the day-old refuse and replacing it with something newer. Whether any particular look can become iconic in the age of TikTok is the plight of today’s major pop stylists, like Chris and Doja Cat creative director Brett Alan Nelson, as their popstar clients strive to plant a permanent flag in the annals of pop culture. This kind of iconic image-making is why Chris embarked on his styling career in the first place. “I’m just the biggest encyclopedia of popstars and pop music, so I live to reference the things that shaped me when I was younger or the details that make something, to me, iconic, like, ‘This is going to be the thing that people cling to,’” he says. “Obviously, each client has a different vision, but when I get the opportunity, I’m excited to make something that is timeless.”

That was Chris’ task when he was hired by Charli XCX’s team to reinvent the popstar’s image for her Crash era. “The goal was to create a signature look and hammer it home in the way that people are going to see something and go ‘that’s so Charli’,” he explains. “Kind of like Gaga with the hair bow or Ariana with the ponytail.” No small feat. And one that poses a paradoxical problem for stylists like Chris, who believe that the key to creating something iconic is repetition, something of a faux-pas in a visual economy that demands new, new, new and is quick to dismiss things as passé. 

Of course, things were easier before the internet, when pop music consumption was limited to the radio and print publications, an era’s roll-out was slower, steadier — and unavoidable for those tuned into MTV or, simply, the FM radio. That kind of widespread, repeat consumption is what hammered some of pop music’s most iconic visuals into the grooves of the American psyche. Namely Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” and TLC’s “No Scrubs”, which, Chris says, “live in my mind because they could be released today and would be equally stunning”.

Charli’s signature Crash look draws from all of these different facets, lifting the sleek, “reigned in” look of “Scream” and “No Scrubs”, while manufacturing the repetitive nature of 80s and 90s pop consumption. “It was very 80s, very hot,” says Chris, who drew inspiration equally from female wrestlers and Ludovic de Saint Sernin. “We needed [her] to only wear black, always do the big hair,” referring to the artist’s signature bouffant blow-out, which followed the popstar from “Good Ones” through to “Every Rule”. Then, for the 2021 VMAs (her “first step-out moment”, Chris notes), Charli accessorised her ‘do with a custom Shawna Wu dress, all black lace and skimpy trimmings. In “New Shapes,” she’s wearing thigh-high latex. In “Baby,” she prowls in a fringed leather set, custom designed by Chris (“whenever there’s dancing involved, it’s best to do custom,” he explains). The stylist’s favourite look — the one he believes both encapsulates Crash and should cement her place within the canon of pop iconography — is Charli’s chain-trimmed leather bikini from “Good Ones.” “I feel like in 15 years I’ll still love that video because it’s super clean. And while it’s very stylised, there isn’t anything you can say is ‘very 2020.’ It can get away with being ambiguous.” Timeless, even.

“Iconic” abounds from the iconoclastic. That’s to say the rebellious, the fearless, the subversive of which, Chris notes, there’s a scarcity in today’s music industry, where executives live and die by the bottom line. (“Popstars, currently, are all very similar. They’re hot and palatable, but aren’t really doing anything that’s making you say, ‘What the fuck?’ because it’s too big of a risk.”) Think of artists like Madonna or Christina Aguilera, who both shocked and cemented their legacies with never-before-seen cross-burning, chaps-wearing antics. Stylist Brett Alan Nelson styled both icons before becoming creative director for Doja Cat, who is, decidedly, Gen Z’s most iconoclastic (that’s to say, controversial) popstar. 

Brett sums up Doja’s style in three words: “Original. Authentic. Weird.” The stylist would know better than anyone: he’s been working with the popstar since 2019’s Hot Pink era, when he was dressing her in astroturf bustiers and watermelon jumpsuits. “Ninety percent of the [outfits she wore] during Hot Pink were custom [made] because a lot of designers weren’t ready; a lot of people didn’t get us yet,” he says. That changed following the release of “Say So”, which launched Doja to international stardom, and which Brett notes as “a huge marker” for the artist, both sonically and sartorially. Brett drew on the viral single’s disco sound to outfit its music video, creating a replica of a Bob Mackie naked dress and a glittering Saturday Night Fever-esque jumpsuit, its backside bedazzled with “Cosmic Pussy.”

When it comes to both music and style, Doja isn’t afraid to switch things up, to try something new. The opposite of risk-averse, one might say. When the popstar vented her boredom of singing “Say So” at the umpteenth awards show, her stylist suggested they do a different version of the song, sitting her down with a copy of the musical Chicago (2002). “I’m such a musical theatre nerd and I started thinking about Chicago and Roxie Hart and the idea of scandal making you a superstar,” Brett says. “[Doja] was obsessed with Roxie’s performance, so we built our own performance around it and everybody freaked out because it was something we hadn’t seen her do before. After that, we were like, ‘We have to fuck this up more; what can we do next that is going to fuck people up when they hear this song?’” They landed on Evanescence-meets-Courtney Love in a tattered slip and ripped stay-ups at the EMAs. 

Planet Her was fucking cool because we were really able to do whatever we wanted,” Brett says, speaking of his and Doja’s free rein after the success of “Say So” and its many awards show iterations. The looks, inevitably, got weirder. For “Need to Know,” Doja morphed into a green-skinned alien, wearing otherworldly knitwear (by Isa Boulder and Windowsen). For her feature on French Montana’s “Handstand”, jeweller Chris Habana customised a machine gun bra.

As Brett and Doja earned the trust of label executives, they also earned the trust of some of the fashion industry’s most prestigious iconoclasts. Jean Paul Gaultier opened his archives to outfit Doja’s Planet Her album shoot, lending Brett around 30 pieces — jellyfish dresses and nü-Renaissance gowns — that had never been shot before. For the Billboard Awards, Schiaparelli lent one of its surrealist confections: a space-age column gown accessorised with a gold Saturnine clutch. “I’d been begging for years to put her in Schiaparelli,” Brett says. “I’m obsessed with Daniel Roseberry. He’s really pushing the limit.” As is Doja. In August, the popstar shocked her Instagram followers when she unveiled her brand new buzz cut. “We don’t really care what anyone else thinks,” he says, elaborating on the shocking look. “She’s not doing anything because someone wants her to do it. She’s doing it because that’s how she feels in the moment.”

Together, a megawatt popstar and her stylist are a force of pop culture — but sometimes, so is a popstar and her favourite designer. These kinds of collaborative relationships have bolstered the status of stars from Cher (in sparkling Bob Mackie) to Madonna (in a Gaultier cone bra), and it’s one that Gen Z popstars are leveraging as well. Think of the sisterhood of the travelling Mugler bodysuit, of which Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa are the undoubted leaders. The former is one of the house’s most frequent collaborators, sartorially and beyond. Sure, Megan wore the label’s designs — illusion bodysuit, et al. — to the Billboard Music Awards (and the afterparty), but she also starred in the house’s SS22 collection video. And, prior to that, tapped Casey Cadwallader, the house’s creative director, to not only dress but direct her “Plan B” music video.

Similarly, Dua — who, along with stylist Lorenzo Posocco, has captured the pop zeitgeist in Blumarine, Chopova Lowena, et al. — enlisted Casey to create the finale look of her Future Nostalgia tour, an iteration of the house’s illusion mesh catsuit embroidered with 240,000 crystals. Casey recalls their final fitting, the singer slipping into her custom catsuit and sighing with satisfaction: “Now, I’m ready.” “I don’t think she [thought] much about saying that, but, for me, I felt like I’d done my job: she’s ready to go out there and tear it up,” he said in June 2022. “That’s exactly [how] I want everyone who wears Mugler to feel. I like the idea that these clothes bring you out of your shell, they bring out the fierce side of yourself that I think a lot of people have, and that I think they might need a little push to access.”

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In terms of designer-popstar pairings, there’s also Doja Cat and Versace, who was one of the first labels to outfit the popstar, dressing her in chainmail for the 2020 VMAs. Earlier this year, the Italian house outfitted her in a duo of diamanté dresses, one ice-blue and accessorised with Coperni’s viral glass bag; the other, blush pink, in which she accepted her very first Grammy award. Just as Doja has with Versace, Brett admits he’s found someone special with Doja: “I’ve prayed for this girl my whole career,” he says. “I want to [be a stylist] because it’s fun, but I also want to do this because I want to make a mark on pop culture with someone. I never really got to do that with anyone, but with Doja, I really feel like I have.”


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