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A ‘Lemonade’ Stylist on Working on the Most Important Music Video of the Year

"You start off with lyrics that were written based on something, and you add visuals to it that have nothing to do with that, and people are going to get different messages."

A still from Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”
Photo: Lemonade/iTunes

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In December, Newheart Ohanian got the call every stylist dreams of: to work on a top-secret project for the most powerful woman in music. Less than two weeks later, she’d wrapped Beyoncé's Lemonade, having dressed its celebrity co-stars Serena Williams, Zendaya, Winnie Harlow, Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis and more — known to those involved as the "Secret Society."

All this, from a woman who never set out to be a stylist in the first place. "My goal was to become a fashion designer," Ohanian tells Racked. After graduating from FIT in 1997, she took corporate design jobs, freelanced for downtown stores like Patricia Field and Tokio 7, and finally, worked in PR for a for the fashion brand Pony with the intention of transitioning into the soon-to-launch women's design team. And yet, "Everybody at the company kept telling me, ‘You should be a stylist,’ and I was like, ‘No way, I’m a designer!’" she says. "It was almost as if [styling] was something below a designer — I had no idea it was one of the most difficult occupations."

A visit to the wardrobe department on the set of Jessica Alba's film Honey changed her mind for the better, and the rest is history. But unlike many stylists, who built their personal brand (translation: Instagram following) before making a name for themselves in the industry, Ohanian (no relation to Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, who coincidentally also happens to date Serena Williams) has about 2,000 of them — large for an average person, of course, but relatively modest in comparison to others who are in the business of making celebrities look good.

She discusses this, as well as her experience on the Lemonade set, and her advice for aspiring stylists, in our interview below. Bonus: Ohanian provided Racked with some of the original mood boards she presented to score the job.

How has the job of a stylist changed over the years you’ve been in the industry?
In the ‘80s and ‘90s stylists were in the most amazing position, because there were very few of them. There were extravagant budgets, they flew around the world, and it was exactly what stylists dream of today — and in some cases, it is! But now, the reality is that there are millions and millions of stylists, and not everybody has the opportunities that the very few did back then. There was this very small circle of industry people in New York and LA, and by the time 2001 came along, finances changed. Budgets were slashed, there were very few jobs in comparison. It completely crumbled at the time, as did a lot of other industries.

People tend to have this idea now that a stylist’s job is to be on vacation all the time and hang out with celebrities, whereas before the profession wasn’t really in the spotlight. When do you think that shift occurred?
It took a turn when one of the first bloggers created this whole fabulous world. Chiara Ferragni put the whole "stylist-slash-blogger" on the map. All of a sudden the real stylists took a backseat because everybody was more interested in having bloggers at their shows. Once that happened, it was a big change in the industry that you had to change along with. It was a weird time, but I think now designers are realizing there needs to be a balance.

Chloe x Halle and more members of the "Secret Society" in "Lemonade."
Photo: Lemonade/iTunes

Now it’s like, no one cares if you have an outfit blog.
It’s all just very bizarre to me, that anyone would want to see a photo of a cell phone next to your cereal with some fresh berries and a cool purse. I love the beautiful travel lifestyle, but unless you have a million, two million, or three million followers, you don’t have a business.

It’s all these bloggers — I call them "follower bloggers" — that are doing this and calling themselves stylists. They’re not stylists. There’s no substance to their work, there’s no creativity. And a lot of those bloggers come from money, so it’s easy for them to buy the products and the travel to create this brand for themselves. And good for them, but there’s a difference between me and a blogger.

Do you feel pressured to have a huge social media following?
Of course. A lot of people are buying their followers, but I’ve kind of taken a backseat to watch where the industry is going. I find it very frustrating, but then I look at some of the most amazing creatives that work in this industry, and they have, like, 500 followers. As long as you have the work and the content, then that’s what matters. Of course, I have to be part of the current times as well. One of my good friends is Mario Dedivanovic, who’s Kim Kardashian’s makeup artist, and he has, like, over two million followers.

So for young stylists who haven’t built up much of an Instagram following, is it still possible to achieve huge success?
If you start working for somebody that has a celebrity clientele and eventually segue into your own career path and have your own clients, you will achieve high numbers and followers.

Speaking of Lemonade, how were you approached for it?
The director, Kahlil Joseph, reached out to me. He was really interested in having me bring in a high-fashion aesthetic.

I think it was December 16th, and I started working on it from midnight until five in the morning to present my boards. Then I worked for the next three days, and got approved for the job on the Saturday, and flew out [to New Orleans] on Sunday. We started filming on Wednesday, and I was there for a week, and so was the entire wardrobe team. The last day was the day before Christmas, so we really couldn’t go any further. I think the most sleep I got was one night for six hours.

One of Newheart’s original mood boards that she presented prior to her hiring, based on the notes that director Kahlil Joseph provided, includes images from Valentino’s spring 2016 ready-to-wear collection.
Photo courtesy of Newheart Ohanian.

How do you possibly begin planning for something like that?
The norm would be that you start with the research, have countless meetings, exchange ideas, and come up with mood boards. From there, you reach out to showrooms, you go shopping, and then you move into the presentation aspect, the fittings, and the final filming. But in this case, what normally would have taken a month or two months was done in ten days. I started running on the job before I even got the job, just in case I got it. Basically, I needed to be confirmed by Beyoncé and her camp, but Kahlil had already approved me. But I knew I had to be approved by Parkwood Entertainment, her agency, and Beyoncé herself.

Do you remember what you presented originally?
My presentations were mainly for Beyoncé and there were boards for the dancers. That was the very beginning of me being on board. Eventually, what happened was there was the "Secret Society," we called them — all the celebrity cameos that came in like Serena [Williams] and Zendaya and Amandla [Stenberg] and Quvenzhané [Wallis] where I took over. I did the cameos and all the celebrities, and Marni was with Beyoncé and her dancers.

Another one of Newheart’s original mood boards focuses on styling ideas for the dancers.
Photo courtesy of Newheart Ohanian.

What kinds of notes did they give you originally?
It was basically "Civil War, late 1800s." They wanted to give awareness to Black Lives Matter and racism, and so they took a part of our history before the Civil War when African-Americans were a big part of elite society. So it was really nothing to do with "Becky with the good hair." It was just a beautiful concept to bring awareness to something very important to Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph.

Are you annoyed that so much of the media coverage has been around the "Becky" line?
I can’t speak for them, but for myself, I was. But that’s just part of our media. A lot of people who covered Lemonade who came from the creative world, they got it. They understood what was important. But the media just went nuts with it. It was a shame, because it took away from the core of it. It’s okay, because that’s just what happens in music videos. You start off with lyrics that were written based on something, and you add visuals to it that have nothing to do with that, and people are going to get different messages. I think the whole mystique of being an artist like Beyoncé comes from that. It keeps the artist interesting!

When you were reaching out to showrooms for the clothes, were you allowed to tell them it was for Beyoncé?
Originally I had to keep it a secret, and then we had three days to fly in all the clothes and get ready for the fittings, and it was one week before Christmas, so I needed speed to be on my side. I had to approve that we needed to say that it was for Beyoncé.

As we started filming and I started working with some of the celebrities, we needed to be very specific because their bodies are so different. We called it "Project Lemonade" as our incognito name, but they knew it was for Beyoncé and everybody had to be very hush-hush about it.

What were those days like?
I flew out Sunday, and I did my presentation for Beyoncé and her crew on Tuesday. I set it up like a showroom and it went from racks of clothing for her to clothing we referred to as "modern clothing" that were for parts of the film that, at the time, I wasn’t very clear on. But I was asked to bring in some contemporary clothing, and there were tables of ideas and boards, and so I set up the conference room like a showroom for Beyoncé.

This mood board takes inspiration from notable moments in African-American history.
Photo courtesy of Newheart Ohanian.

Was that the only time that you interacted with her?
Beyoncé had to approve all the outfits that I’d intended for Zendaya and Serena and all of these girls. She was very hands-on and specific in regards to her vision, along with Kahlil Joseph. He was very much a part of the process as well, which I found really enlightening and refreshing. He was just very interested in the conceptual part of the wardrobe.

Did Serena and the rest of the "Secret Society" have a say in their wardrobe?
Of course. They were taking time out of their own lives to come and be part of this beautiful project, so they wanted everybody to feel comfortable and love what they were wearing.

I’m sure you had to sign a ton of nondisclosure agreements when you were working on Lemonade — is that normal for a shoot like this?
Yeah, it’s very common. You have to do that these days for a person or a brand to protect themselves.

Where do you think the future of styling is heading?
How about where I’d like for it to go? [Laughs] I really think that it’s a confusing time for a lot of the fashion industry, with all the creative directors leaving their brands, but I think it’s a positive thing for stylists. Finally, everyone needs to slow down a little bit. As soon as something is shown on a runway, it’s being made by Zara and H&M, so that by the time the actual collection hits the floor — and mind you, in that interim, the stylists are dressing the celebrities in the new collections — it's already yesterday’s news; it's trended out. Things need to slow down a little bit.

What I like about what Tom Ford’s doing is that he’s going to be showing his collection in the fall, and it’s going to hit the stores at the same time. I kind of love that. It’s a throwback — it’s a beautiful idea. I’d like for things to be a throwback, to strip our layers of social media and get to the beauty of fashion. I’d like to see less of the gluttony of the fashion industry and more of the art and the passion.

What advice would you give aspiring stylists?
Don’t do it! [Laughs] It’s a lot of hard work and dedication; it’s not as glamorous as it seems on the outside. I literally feel like it’s one of the hardest jobs, as far as hard labor is concerned. I’m about to take on an actress as a client, and you constantly have to think for them. You really have to love it; you have to be married to it, and it has to be a part of you, and if it’s not, it’ll feel like a very stressful job. For me, it’s what I love to do. I love to look at beautiful things and see who it would work for. Although I complain about it all the time, I think I found my niche.

This interview has been edited and condensed.