“I can’t cook,” confesses Elizabeth Saltzman. “You come over and I’m going to give you one meal. But I know that I can’t cook; I know what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not good at. I like people who are brave enough to say that they’re not good at something, and they need someone to help them.”
What Saltzman is good at – really good at – is styling. Settling in London after stints as fashion editor at American Vogue and fashion director at Vanity Fair, she now uses her connections in Los Angeles and New York as a stylist to some of the world’s best known A-list actresses.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Uma Thurman, Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton all have Saltzman to thank for their consistently high places on those perennial best-dressed lists. Not that such status means her clients are tricky to work with. “Diva moments are for movies. Usually, the bigger the name, the smaller the ego,” Saltzman says. “Of course, there are moments when you think: can you please just put on the shoes? Can we please not discuss this button any more, or whether the split should be this high or that high? Once I asked Gwyneth Paltrow, ‘How many dresses do you think I’ve gotten in for you in our lifetime?’ And she said, ‘How many do you think I’ve tried on?’ ”
A place on best-dressed lists is the ultimate endorsement, and Saltzman’s pinch-me moment came dressing Gwyneth Paltrow for the 2012 Oscars – she chose a Tom Ford caped white dress. “Knowing what a risk that was – it didn’t have a sequin or a pouf, it had a cape – I wrote all the worst headlines that could possibly come. I didn’t have a back-up dress, there was no other fitting. But that’s been remembered every year since; every Oscars, I turn on to watch E! while we’re getting everyone else ready, and it always comes up.”
The pressure of nights like the Oscars for stylists has only increased since social media caused what she calls “a meteor shower of awareness” of the industry. “Everyone can know everything now, that someone’s been to this party or worn this, and it gave relevance to stylists. It used to be that no one wanted anyone to know they had a stylist; now, they thank their stylist.” But the visibility cuts both ways, and the possibility of getting panned by the press is always there. “I’ve had moments where things just haven’t worked. But that’s when you get to be really creative – and breathe. If you stress and get into a tizzy and pull your hair out, you’re just going to end up overeating with your hair pulled out,” she laughs. “Whereas if you just focus, there’s always a dress out there.”
Red-carpet dressing now is a lot more strategic than just choosing a beautiful dress for an A-list client, says Saltzman. “What are they trying to say at that moment? Are they just about to sign a health and beauty deal, so we’re going to show a lot more skin? Is there a possibility of a brand campaign if we put someone new in front of their face?” Given that contracts with fashion and beauty houses can mean huge sums of money, for both the actresses and the stylists who broker the deals, you can see why.
All in the industry appreciate the power a sartorial moment on the red carpet can bring. When Jennifer Lawrence, a face of Dior since 2012, fell up the stairs on the way to collect an Oscar in her Dior ballgown, the image went viral on social media – a modern-day publicity campaign, if you like. But while some celebrity stylists choose to capitalise on this new-found power, Saltzman prefers to focus on her work.
“It’s a really crazy time in fashion, this uber-stylist moment. There were never awards for stylists before – now there are. There was never notoriety – now people want to be known. I don’t want to be known.”
Today, she has made an exception to discuss her latest project – a line of embellished wedge flipflops, in collaboration with Rocket Dog. “It all started at the Vanity Fair Oscars party, where everyone took off their shoes in agony by 9pm. I ended up buying simple wedgie flipflops and customising them for my girls so that after the awards ceremony they could put them on under their long dresses to go to the after-after-party, without me thinking they were going to cut their feet on the glass or step on their dress. And I ended up wearing them, and then I ended up really wearing them,” she laughs. “Everyone kept asking me where I got them. I thought, ‘What? That’s what people are stopping me about at fashion shows?’ ”
Growing up in a creative household (her mother was fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, her father an interior designer) and in a time before social media and smartphones, Saltzman “would try anything” when it came to clothes. “I remember my poor father’s face sometimes when he’d see me; he’d ask, ‘What’s under the coat?’ But in this day and age, if I had daughters, I’d be like, ‘You’re not going out dressed like that.’ ”
These days, Saltzman says her style has softened. “Now, I like classics, with a tiny little twist.” Her approach to high-stakes event dressing – and one that every woman can follow – is to wear what makes you feel confident.
“My style has definitely changed since I’ve gotten older. I’ve gained a lot of weight, and that’s no fun, it definitely takes away your confidence. I think that’s why I tell the great women that I work with, ‘We’re not using Spanx.’ Even though I love Spanx, I just believe that people should feel confident, and if they don’t, then do something about it. You know: work out for two weeks before you hit the red carpet. Eat well, get enough sleep. Treat yourself nicely.”
Saltzman’s learnt from the A-listers in that sense.
“If you look at Elle Macpherson, or Uma, or Gwyneth, who have incredible skin and legs – Elle’s over 50, the others are in their forties – they have incredible bodies, and they work really hard to achieve them. Five years ago, people would have said they shouldn’t be wearing things above their knees. But that’s just not true.”