The "War" in Wardrobe: Three Heel Heights, No Suits and the New Female Power Dressing

The War in Wardrobe - P 2015
Photo by Amanda Friedman

"Assistants wear suits," says one exec, as a slew of younger Hollywood women all want to dress like Dana Walden and the fresh rules of female influence impact the fashion of the town's biggest players.

Let's face it: Hollywood's female power players confront their share of unique sartorial challenges. They've got to look presentable and powerful through 15-hour-plus days that take them from meetings to business lunches to on-set visits to the red carpet. "We're representing, we're looking after geniuses," says UTA motion picture talent agent Louise Ward, whose clients include Channing Tatum, Cobie Smulders and Wagner Moura. "I could be running into Alfonso Cuaron in the kitchen. I've got to focus on the job at hand, so things have to fit — no wrinkles — and shoes can't be torturous at 11 p.m." Adds Principal Communications Group managing partner Melissa Zukerman, who wakes up at 5 a.m. to navigate the mediascape for Chernin Group, Marvel Entertainment, Imax and Legendary Pictures: "I dress while on a conference call, knowing I could be eating with anyone later that day or night. But I also need to look like myself. I like to say I'm going from boardroom to brawl room."

At least suits and stilettos no longer are the only uniform of choice for the dealing and reeling that are all in a day's work. "You can't wear any kind of uniform, whether a strict suit or a body-con dress. One's too masculine, the other, too femme-y," says Jason Campbell, a private shopper who counts Wendi Deng, Kelly Meyer, Ivanka Trump and a number of "Google wives" among his clients. Adds Ward: "The suit is dead — assistants wear suits to look professional."

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Fashion finally has infiltrated the town's workday consciousness, a side effect of luxury-label designers courting Hollywood A-listers, the corporate merging of show business with style business and the rise of Los Angeles as a major arts center, elevating aesthetics in general. "The communities of fashion and arts advocacy have become totally symbiotic: LACMA with Gucci, the Hammer with Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton in Palm Springs," says Ward. "Design is part of Hollywood life now." As with most things in Hollywood, getting it right takes a lot of preproduction. Time management, walking the line between creative expression and authority, and building a wardrobe that can go the distance are among the bylaws for Hollywood power dressing in 2015.

1. Pick Pieces That Power From Day Through Night

Project-juggling and power-consolidating studio, agency and law-firm superwomen, not to mention producers and managers, practically are required to pop into a phone booth (or ladies' room) at 6 p.m. and pop out cocktail-party-ready. The new added twist? Top-tier insiders need wardrobes almost the size of their A-list stars' — and these women don't have the advantage of borrowing. "In the old days, execs and writers weren't celebrities. Now these women have photo shoots and red carpets — they can't wear anything again. They're shot at TCA upfronts, panels, at functions four nights a week," says Dana Asher, Hollywood's top stylist to power women like showrunner Michelle King, Fox Searchlight Pictures president Nancy Utley, Star Trek Into Darkness producer Dana Goldberg and 20th Century Fox president of production Emma Watts. "For day there's a nonformula formula: color or print Dolce & Gabbana blouses with skinny jeans or pencil skirts and the obligatory structured jacket, like Stella McCartney." For evening, it's a fitted dress without the jacket or covered-up classics by Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera. "There can't be too much boob, arm or leg," says Asher. "These women have to work the room." Bibi Dang, a personal shopper at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills for 20 years, says: "Two things all executives buy who go from day to night are dresses and jackets. Saint Laurent is the best jacket for anyone to own, for 30 years old all the way up to 70." 

UTA's director of corporate communications Lisa Stein, alongside Ward, exemplifies agent style with designer fitted dresses, neutral jackets and heels with some height. "We have to be versatile," says Stein. "You never know what last-minute meeting you might be pulled into or who's in the building. I have lunches and after-work events at least three times a week, so I have to keep a Smashbox makeup palette in my office for touch-ups."

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Emma Tillinger Koskoff was photographed by Eric Ogden on Sept. 9 on Koskoff's residential rooftop in Tribeca, New York City.

2. Yes, You Work With Creatives, But Don't Get Too Creative

"Once, I wore this navy dress with white piping and white patent shoes and a client said, 'You look like Fanny Brice crossed with Courtney Love,' " says Zukerman. "I learned the hard way I can never elicit that response from a corporate person again, which is why I now buy Celine or Jil Sander pants and pair them with Lanvin blouses. If I need my boho '70s fix, I'll add an Altuzarra whipstitch bag."

While it's true what Neiman's Bloom says — that "you don't see the uniform of 'what everyone wears' so much anymore; it's the first time in a long time I've seen so much individuality" — image is still everything in Hollywood, to the point where Asher's services are promotion rewards given to executives. "Women used to wear black Armani suits and it was fine. Now I get calls from their bosses who tell them that their image has to be great all-around. If one woman is in a great dress and one is not, Rupert [Murdoch] notices the one in the great dress," says the power stylist, adding that her employees work with younger executives who want to dress like Dana Walden: "Dana's look trickles down."

Unsurprisingly, Gucci's and Dolce's Rodeo Drive boutiques note that requests for "suiting" pieces for women — tailored jackets, pants, skirts in menswear fabrications — are at an all-time high. "We call it 'waist-up dressing,' " says personal shopper Meg Chapman, who, with Jordan Lane, caters to executive women, philanthropists and Hollywood wives. "Bottoms are easy: tailored black pants and pencil skirts. What's important is what's seen over desks, boardrooms or lunch tables. That means simple jackets by Brunello Cucinelli, with feminine blouses that tie at the neck by Theory. Celine and The Row also make great basics. None of these pieces scream 'label' — they whisper 'importance.' "

Campbell is encouraged by the new trend of dressed-up casual: "Now clients are looking in the Marissa Mayer direction: With power, you dress down, but not too down. It's strong tailoring as anchor, with a softer blouse and shoe. It's about balance: Jeans work, if what surrounds them is dressy; and dresses work, as long as heels aren't too high." High-low mixes have finally hit Hollywood after years of infiltrating Manhattan's power closets. "We're getting here what my friends in New York have always known," says producer-manager Hilary Shor. "You match Dior coats, Valentino jackets and Dolce & Gabbana dresses with fast-fashion pieces from Zara and H&M, and vintage pieces, too."'

3. Get Grounded With Heel Heights

"We've all been tripping over our own shoes for too long," says Bloom. "Every woman's happy now that there are lower heels — you can change into higher ones for dinner." Asher notes how Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Chloe shoes come in three heel heights now. Adds Chapman: "Every one of our clients has a wardrobe of heel heights. Classic Roger Vivier shoes are a great sexy power crossover." Even the right sneakers can work. Says Emma Tillinger Koskoff, production president of Martin Scorsese's Sikelia Productions, where she's worked on The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and now HBO's Vinyl, co-produced by Scorsese, Mick Jagger and Terence Winter: "I love a black suit paired with great funky sneakers. I've also got Christian Louboutin wingtips for a different look. ... I gotta be able to run. I'm bad in heels and always have Havaianas in my car." Koskoff, who exemplifies a top creative's style with a chic practicality, adds, "I like what I like. I have no shame walking up to someone and asking, 'What is that jacket?' " Shooting requires comfort (Lululemon pants, Isabel Marant tunic), but bags are her passion. "I wear two Birkins I got for birthdays all the time, one from Marty, the other from Rick Yorn. And yes, I told them what to get me!"

4. Shopping Is Overrated

Ward used to love the hunter-gatherer aspect of shopping, but now it's all about clicking on middle-of-the-night email sales blasts. When in a pinch, Koskoff heads over "to Wanda McDaniel at Armani and Susan Chokachi at Gucci, and they take wonderful care of me." Clearly, time is at a premium. (As is value: "These women can afford anything," says Asher, "but they still won't spend $4,200 on a Gucci dress or $10,000 on a Chanel.")

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"My women hate to shop," says Asher, who schedules fittings for a top female studio exec and mega showrunner at nights or on weekends, packs suitcases when they travel and documents outfits for their closets. "I'll show up at my showrunner's house with 40 dresses," she laughs. "I spend $300,000 to $500,000 a month at Neiman's, Nordstrom, Saks, Prada and Elyse Walker, and take it all to their homes, with a tailor."

Says Koskoff, who's doing post-production in France and China for the Scorsese-directed film Silence: "I can pack and leave for Europe in 20 minutes flat. My entire life is bouncing: I could be in preproduction, or shooting, or in our office on West 57th Street." Her go-to's? "Jeans with great cashmere sweaters, Isabel Marant jackets; for anything dressier, it's pieces by Maria Cornejo. And always a massive Neiman Marcus black cashmere wrap and diamond studs. That covers a wide gamut of locales and circumstances."

Perhaps most important is to look like you never think about it. "You need to look polished and together, but the irony is, it has to come off as effortless," laughs Naomi Scott, an independent film producer of projects like 2015's The Overnight (with husband and producing partner Adam Scott), "and we all know how much effort that takes!" After all, as every woman knows, there's nothing natural about the natural look.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.