This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the annals of Power Style in Hollywood, nobody stands out more than the town's two original power women, Dawn Steel and Sherry Lansing. In the '80s, the title of power woman had to be used to separate bosses from D girls and assistants. Agency and studio exec offices were virtual femme-free zones -- until these two dynamos crashed through the glass ceiling -- and what better armor to wear when ceiling-crashing than a big-shouldered Armani pantsuit?
The taupe-colored suit with slouchy pants was the staple, not just with these two women, but with every male agent. "When I got to town in 1989," says Blair Kohan, now a fashionably dressed partner at UTA, "everybody was wearing these suits. I had one from Ann Taylor. You didn't get Armani until you got to the top."
No, there was not a lot of individuality in female power dressing then. Nor were there a lot of females.
"I remember Sherry Lansing always had a handsome handbag with her suits," says producer and former Paramount and Lionsgate film exec Alli Shearmur. "After her, it was Stacey Snider in her impeccable ensembles, feminine and strong."
"I worked at MGM/UA," says Joanne Horowitz, now Kevin Spacey's manager, "and all I thought about was what suit I was going to wear. Either Armani or Richard Tyler. All the women dressed just like the guys. Later, I moved on to Dolce & Gabbana suits, which were sexier."
Recalls 3 Arts manager Molly Madden: "Nobody bought 'clothes' in those days. They just bought labels."
Sexy was not a moniker to be wished for if a woman wanted a good Hollywood job in the '80s to mid-'90s. Bad girls wore Azzedine Alaia bandage dresses and married execs. Good girls went from Armani to Prada techno suits and became execs. In the '90s, Snider in crisp white shirts and Amy Pascal with her funky edge created more individual examples. But neither attempted to get any kind of "fashion attention" -- that was considered demeaning to a woman of power.
Cut to 2012. The top-selling pieces to industry women in one of their favorite stores, Barneys, are now beautiful suits and jackets from The Row, paired with Givenchy blouses in red or wine. For night, it's black dresses, or maybe wine or gray, from Lanvin and Dolce. Day into night dressing is big. HBO entertainment president Sue Naegle explains: "I throw on a dress and heels and I'm good to go. If I have an evening event, I add a jacket or coat." This incarnation of the power woman knows her European designers; she knows fabric and fit. The heels are YSL or Celine. And Alaia dresses have caught on again like wildfire; Barneys tripled its order this season. "They changed their silhouette to be more ladylike and flattering, and we can't keep them in the store," says a personal shopper at the Beverly Hills store.
Seems the Hollywood devil in Prada suits now studies Style.com and watches fashion shows online. Maybe that's because she no longer has to be a devil. She's allowed to indulge her femininity in a way power women never have before.
Says Showtime executive vp Trisha Cardoso, "I think the power these days is projecting who you are and having your clothes reflect how you feel about yourself."
"We live in a town with many powerful women," says Salaam Coleman Smith, the president of Style Media at NBCUniversal. "Self-confidence and compassion are now the must-haves of any season."
Yes, it's a long way, baby, from the '80s pantsuit to feminine Lanvin dresses. Who is this new power woman, and when -- and how --did she become a full fledged fashionista? When did she turn into a shopper -- let alone a savvy one?
It's no accident that women started to part with suits around the same time Hollywood men did: when casual Fridays ushered in the age of guys in jeans. "When men started to dress down, it signaled women could dress up," says Horowitz. "I don't wear dresses. I wear leather leggings and Isabel Marant jackets day and night."
Producer Tracey Edmonds (Jumping the Broom) has business suits in her closet but rarely wears them. "They're too confining. I love pencil skirts, Wolford bodysuits and pumps. I'm influenced by the film-noir look of Lana Turner and Joan Crawford."
Notes Kohan (who follows fashion blog Le Catch): "I see more expressiveness. Women no longer have to look tough because we are tough." Her favorite shoes are the gold-leather Oxfords custom made for her by L.A. fashion darling George Esquivel. The new tenet seems to be dress like a girl, think like a man.
Anne Fitzpatrick directs the Fifth Avenue Club personal shopping area at Saks in Beverly Hills and deal with industry women who depend on them. "The whole world of the entertainment exec is less corporate," says Tami Orloff, a consultant to the club who works alongside Fitzpatrick. "It's about day to night, a great pair of jeans with a Gucci or Donna Karan jacket. If she does wear a suit, it's Dolce -- a sexier fit."
The 2012 equivalent of the power suit at Saks turns out to be from Akris, an expensive Swiss label that's simple and well cut with the finest fabrics. Dresses and separates, as it turns out, rule the day -- and night. "Even that Dolce client will throw on Akris," notes Fitzpatrick. "This woman is comfortable in her skin. Because she's mobile, she'll wear that Akris dress for day with a Chanel jacket, then Rag & Bone pants at night. She mixes labels. Forget a head-to-toe look. For shoes, it's Brian Atwood or Chloe. For night, it's dresses: Azzedine Alaia. And sleeves are back. McQueen, Giambattista Valli, Michael Kors and Donna Karan all make day-to-night dresses."
If there are any no's, it's looking sloppy or showing too much skin. "You never want to look not put together," says Naegle. "I wouldn't let creatives come in and pitch me with me wearing ripped jeans. That doesn't show respect. My go-to is a great Michael Kors dress, with a little bit of rock 'n' roll edge."
Coleman Smith also chooses dresses as her work look. "It's important to have at least one statement piece per season, whether it's a designer dress by someone like Jason Wu or something vintage," she says.
Even on weekends, these women are put together in the likes of Helmut Lang pieces with J Brand jeans and a Rag & Bone jacket and they switch it up with accessories. Naegle's passion is vintage jewelry -- for others, their Birkin bag upgrades their leggings and sweaters. "J.Crew is my weekend wardrobe," laughs Kohan. Many mention it as the go-to line for staples. They've learned from Internet shopping how to be that modern high-low shopper. For Cardoso -- a Gilt Groupe fan whose strategy includes buying multiples -- that means mashing up a Gucci jacket with J.Crew capris. The fun is in the mix. It allows for imagination.
Hollywood's power reps come from a definite black pantsuit tradition: the idea is the client is the one who shines on the red carpet. But that fear is fading away: CAA agent Tracy Brennan, normally in tailored pencil-skirt suits, broke out at the Oscars two years ago in a stunning Dolce fishtail gown. PMKBNC publicist Emily Yomtobian (Ginnifer Goodwin, Armie Hammer) goes for dresses and jackets by Phillip Lim, Isabel Marant or Helmut Lang and Lanvin flats. "Publicists spend a lot of time on sets with photographers and designers," she explains. "It's hard not to be inspired and affected in some way."
Nicole Winnaman owns her own marketing agency and has brokered deals between Ellen De Generes and American Express and Justin Timberlake and Myspace. She started out at Sony in trousers and shirts and actually donned ties. "Even when emulating men, I always did something different. We're finding out that standing out helps," says Winnaman, who also recently started her own line of clothes, Nikki West (focused on flowy silk dresses and blouses), with a store in Pasadena. She recalls that after meeting Myspace president Roger Mincheff, "He sent me an e-mail asking, 'What were those shoes you had on?' " Fashion can be an asset in today's entertainment business.
If there's any pressure, it's to project individuality. For IFC president Jennifer Caserta, it's "cool corporate -- a suit with dark-blue nail polish." For Sparkle writer-producer Mara Brock Akil, "It's Vanessa Bruno with a Balenciaga bag and a scarf -- a signature."
Some use a stylist as their schedules don't allow time to hit stores. Dana Asher is the top stylist to Hollywood's power ladies -- her clientele includes 20th Century Fox TV co-chair Dana Walden, Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley, The Good Wife co-creator Michelle King, Fox production president Emma Watts and DreamWorks Animation marketing chief Anne Globe.
"I meet them and spend 20 minutes," she explains. "Then I hit the stores -- my job is clothing psychic. I spend $300,000 every month and do five to 10 people a week. Sometimes I'm walking around with a million dollars worth of jewelry.
"When I started with Dana, we did Theory. Now it's Gucci and Prada. She's traditional and sexy. For weekends, she likes J Brand, Equipment tops and Prada jackets. For Nancy, I like Alberta Ferretti and Carolina Herrera. Anne loves Tahari. Shonda Rhimes wears flats and matches her jewelry with every outfit. They never talk budget -- they trust me. I'll go to their houses and lay everything out for an event."
Asher says that once she pulls a red-carpet gown from Saks or Neiman's, the store often will take the dress off the floor until awards season is over. "I spend enough money with them that they want to keep me happy," she says.
Red carpets aren't just for actresses anymore. These women now turn up in as many photos as the stars they've molded. Case in point: CAA agent Hylda Queally, the town's icon of uniquely confident style, who not only has stylish clients (Cate Blanchett, Marion Cotillard) but is the kind of woman who can pull off a long black leather top (one she designed with her tailor, Flora) and a long cashmere Kors skirt to the Oscars. At this year's Venice Film Festival, she shone in a fuchsia YSL column. "I've always looked to her as a barometer of how a chic, modern woman should dress," says Yomtobian.
This is how far we've come, ladies. We've never seen Queally wear a pantsuit. Not once.