Interview with Kathryn Lamont of the Irish News
With access to rail upon rail of gorgeous designer clothes, trips to exotic location shoots and a backstage pass to the season’s hottest events, a career as a fashion stylist is the dream job for many. Surely it can’t be all glamour? Well, maybe - hoping to pick up some tricks of the trade, Kathryn Lamont catches up with Northern Ireland’s top stylist, Sara O’Neill, just before she leaves for an afternoon flight to Italy...
Admittedly, it’s not a business trip that’s taking Sara to Europe - she’s catching a flight to attend her sister’s wedding. And when she’s not jetting off to the Continent the stylist, who is originally from Portrush, spends much of her time here in Belfast.
The birth of Sara’s fashion career is the stuff movies (and 80s pop songs) are made of - she was was discovered working as a waitress, hopefully in a cocktail bar. “I graduated from the University of Ulster with a degree in Fashion and Textiles in 2004 and spent a year waiting tables while I decided what I wanted to do,” she tells me. “One evening I got chatting to a photographer who came in to the restaurant - Gavin Miller. He invited me along to do a shoot for Northern Woman magazine and it went well. Afterwards I had a booking with Khara Pringle Photography and it all just snowballed from there.”
Eight years later, the snowballs keep coming. You’ll have seen Sara’s work on every surface and medium imaginable across the country - she’s styled onscreen campaigns for BBC and UTV, as well as ad campaigns for M&S, Northern Bank, Forestside, Junction 1, Belfast City Council, Belfast Visitor Bureau ... the list goes on. She’s also been busy behind the scenes at a number of fashionable events including Belfast Fashion Week and Down Royal, and you can see her styling in numerous magazine and newspaper editorials. It’s fair to say she’s a bit of a success.
Barely into her thirties, she’s already very much in demand in the fashion world, and so more than qualified to answer my next question: what does it take to be a successful fashion stylist in today’s climate? “You have to be incredibly professional,” she answers. “And realistic too - there are times when you are going to have to work for free. You don’t go in to styling for the money - you have to do it for the love of it.” And there are a lot of things to love about the job. “The best part is the end part. I love seeing the finished outcome after weeks of preparation - the final result on the model, combined with hair and makeup, lighting and photography,” says Sara. “Fashion shows are great to work on too. There’s a lot of buzz and camaraderie back stage, and you have the chance to catch up with old colleagues.
“Shoots are a bit different - I normally have more time to work on a look and it’s easier to concentrate. I absolutely love location shoots. Shooting for hotels in particular can be great fun - they often put us up in luxurious suites so we can get a feel for the setting.” Amongst others, Sara has styled campagins for the Gibson Hotel in Dublin and the G Hotel in Galway. “The shoot we did for the G was very rock’n’roll; a little Rolling Stones-esque. We had two models dressed as brides sitting in a bath, wearing just a veil. When most clients say they want risque, they don’t really want risque. Well, this one kinda did.”
When The Merchant Hotel in Belfast completed its new renovation project, they called in Sara to style the campaign. The resulting images are dramatic art deco depictions of luxury and glamour. If you’re ever lucky enough to be checking in there, don’t check out before taking a closer look at the pieces printed on the lifts and the doors. In one, a model poses in the nude wearing just a pair of Louboutins and a diamond necklace. “We had to do the shoot at 3am when there was no one about,” remembers Sara. “There were people stationed at each end of the street to be on the look out for passers by, while I hid behind pillars with a robe ready to jump out at any moment.”
This job will stretch your organisational skills, too. Sara is booked weeks in advance and it takes every spare second to prepare for the shoot ahead. “When you arrive on set you only have the clothes that you have with you, and if these don’t work then you’re in trouble,” she explains. “I like to be over-prepared. In the weeks leading up to a booking, I’ll meet with the art director to discuss a theme and choose a model. I’ll then go out to shops and designers and look for items that will fit in with the brief.” Surely this sounds like getting paid to shop? Not quite. “When you’re styling a shoot it’s
your vision, but within certain boundaries,” says Sara. “You have to be willing to go to extreme lengths to get what your client wants.” A leisurely browse around Victoria Square, fuelled by multiple Starbucks breaks, this is not. She recalls a particularly challenging Christmas campaign. The art director envisaged a young boy holding up an especially hideous sock as his centrepiece. “I searched the shops for hours looking for a pair of socks that were just the right amount of ugly. By the end, I had photo- graphed 30 pairs of ugly socks until he found one just ugly enough for him.”
When she’s not hiding behind pillars with a robe or trawling tie shops as a Goldilocks of fashion, Sara is busy contacting London press offices for permissions and commissioning any designer pieces. The day before the shoot is spent collat- ing and photographing outfits, taping up shoes and putting together rails. Arriving on set with the photographer, this is where Sara’s creative skills really come to the fore. Sometimes though, it’s not so much of a creative challenge that awaits her. “One of my strangest briefs was back at the very start of my career. A newspaper booked me for a topless spread. My sole job was to make sure nothing slipped out on show - I was on nipple watch the entire shoot.” “You must be thinking all of my shoots involve a lot of nudity and very little clothes,” she laughs. (Just a little). “Most of the time though, I don’t turn up with just a pair of shoes in hand!” she reassures me. In fact, the onset role of the stylist sounds just as stressful as the preparation. The clothes need to be returned in pristine condition, and it can be an ordeal trying to look after these precious commodities. “I spend a lot of time running around with masking tape, making sure that nothing gets marked,” says Sara. Of course, some shoes demand the highest protection: “I have to cling-film the Christian Louboutins.” What’s it like working with expensive designer pieces? Scary, is the short answer: “Sometimes the photographer will want the models moving around a lot to get the shot, and I get nervous that they’ll get makeup on the clothes or scuff the shoes. I can be really protective of the pieces!”
When it comes to choosing designers, Sara likes to keep it local and uses Irish talent wherever possible. Her favourite names? “I love the cut of Una Rodden, and the way her clothes fall. Ruedi Maguire is also fabulous. For bridal shoots I’m a big fan of Alison Jayne Couture - her designs are historically influenced with beautiful corsetry. I used one of her pieces on another campaign for The Merchant. We had the model dressed and made up as Elizabeth I and the effect was really striking.”
Further afield, Sara adores the slinky style and heavily beaded detail of Jenny Packham. On the high street she favours Zara and Topshop, and loves to browse vintage stores for individual bits and pieces. After a shoot, Sara packs up all the clothes and returns them, types up the credits and writes any blurb and inspiration quotes needed. Another essential skill of the stylist is the ability to diversify - Sara produces copy for some of the ad campaigns, and writes various trends and commercial blogs as well as her own style advice column.
She’s also somewhat of an artist, creating pencil drawings inspired by her fashion work. “I took up drawing as a hobby and have had a couple of exhibitions and signed with a London-based commercial illustration agency” she tells me. “I’ve been lucky to learn a lot from photographers as a stylist - about light and shade and how to put images together. I’ve also got to know a lot of models on the job, so I have no shortage of people to draw!” I ask her for some insider knowledge on this season’s trends. “The nineties are back (and I was lucky enough to experience them the first time!) inspired by grunge and films like Clueless. Textures are another big trend this year - lovely fluffy jumpers and leather skirts will be all over the high street. And pink - it’ll be nice to bring a summer colour in to brighten up our winter wardrobes.” “Last year there was a lot of fast fashion, with consumers being dictated to and wear- ing trends that weren’t necessarily the style for them. This year fashion is more grown- up. It’s about finding your own unique style and collecting a few good pieces.” Lastly, I put Sara’s skills as a fashion agony aunt to the test. What’s the single piece of advice she can offer to those wishing to style their own unique look this autumn? “Don’t look at stuff at face value. If you find something you really love but there’s some- thing you don’t like about it, it can always be changed.” And with that she neatly sums up both the role of a fashion stylist, and the nature of this fast-moving industry itself: “Always tailor and alter to suit your look - fashion is about being able to adapt.”