Designers Behind the Music: LA Designers Specializing in Making Clothes for Top Musicians

Call it the other side of the red carpet.

Los Angeles is a capital of the entertainment industry and awards shows, and the city is a center for red-carpet fashion. With music companies keeping headquarters here—and so many musicians based here, as well—many local designers specialize in making the clothes for the world’s most famous musicians.

For some, the stint is as fleeting as a one-hit wonder when a designer spots a musician wearing one of his or her creations in aYouTube video. But for others, it’s a gig that can last a career.


GLAM RACKET: Maggie Barry (pictured) has made clothes for musicians ranging from Nicki Minaj to Van Halen and Cher. Photo by Courtesy of Maggie Barry.

It takes the coordinated effort of designers and stylists to outfit a musician—from brainstorming a new look to pulling all-nighters making costumes for a tour that starts the next day.

“There’s a whole glam squad who makes it happen,” said Maggie Barry, one of Los Angeles’ most established clothiers for musicians. “It’s the coordinated effort of a lot of people.”

Barry most recently worked with Nicki Minaj, the “American Idol” judge and chart-topping musician. Barry’s clients have ranged from hard-rock band Van Halen and country group Lady Antebellum to outfitting Cher in 1990.

Despite looking like creatures of leisure, most musicians don’t have the time—not to mention expertise and resources—to create their own look.

“The artist ultimately picks what they are going to work in,” Barry said. “They don’t have time to run to 50 stores to find the right T-shirt.”

Getting started

The entry point for outfitting a musician seems to take a page of classic Hollywood fantasy—the designer gets discovered. “Stylists will find you,” said Barry, who also works as stylist, scouting new looks for musicians, along with making costumes with her self-named company, Maggie Barry, and designing her upcoming M8 Urban streetwear line, which is scheduled to be introduced in May.

Stylists scour clothing and accessories lines, boutiques, and other sources to find a specific look for a celebrity client. Designers can get the ball rolling by sending clothes to stylists and artist-management companies, Barry said.

If a designer’s looks are chosen for a celebrity, the designer will most likely continue working with a stylist throughout the entire process of crafting the look.

Giuliana Mayo, co-founder of Junker, a Los Angeles–based fashion label, has worked with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and up-and-coming group Black Veil Brides, along with pop singers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Mayo said this styling has its roots in other disciplines. “It’s very much like costuming,” she said. “We have to make sure that we made something that represents a character. That is exactly what you are doing—you’re enhancing a character.”

Developing a look for a celebrity often starts with the slightest bits of inspiration, such as a color used in a video, a mood of a song or a mere sketch of what the artist should look like, Barry said.


PRINCELY CLOAK: Prince wears a cowl-neck top by LA designer Salem Gita at the 2013 Grammys. Photo by courtesy of Gita Salem.

The initial point of discovering a designer can seem to be wrapped in Hollywood legend. But building a relationship is not glamorous work. In 2010, designer Gita Salem was minding his atelier on Melrose Avenue when music superstar Prince walked in the studio. He was intrigued by the keyhole jacket in the window of the store, then called Sequoia & Gita, currently called Gita Salem. With a musician in his touring band, Prince shopped the atelier for 45 minutes and made purchases.

It could have been a one-time gig, but Salem followed up by making the keyhole jacket in Prince’s favorite color, purple. He sent Prince’s London-based management clothes and sketches of clothes for Prince. More than a year later Prince’s management company, by direction from Prince, invested more heavily in Salem’s collections. It took a lot of effort to build trust, he said. There were a lot of other variables, such as where the designer is headquartered and if personal chemistry exists with the artist. “You get lucky and they find you,” Salem said. “But it’s some kind of personal connection. It’s about personalities. It’s also about location and being well-positioned.”

Other factors come into play with designers and musicians. Most importantly, do musicians have money to afford stylists and have clothes made for them? What kind of fashion trends are influencing musicians? What kind of look best fits them? For Alejandra Hernandez, who styles Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, finding the right look is a matter of experience and intuition. “I know it when I see it,” Hernandez said.

Stylists also are the domain for the most established, well-off musicians, said Chloe Chaidez, vocalist for Kitten, a rock band signed to the Elektra music label last year that will start a national tour with rock band Paramore on April 25. “I don’t know of any band that [uses] stylists for shows,” she said. Rather, stylists typically work with bands on magazine and video shoots.

For shows, Chaidez typically puts together an extreme version of her own style, which she described as “Kurt Cobain meets Missy Elliot meets Arabian princess.”

Changing business

The music business is much smaller than it was 20 years ago, and there are fewer musicians being professionally groomed by music labels. At the same time society is increasingly more attuned to visual images—thanks to social networking. Clothes typically create arresting images that help artists stand out when music fans dart from YouTube to Twitter, often spending no more than a minute on each site, Barry said.

Despite the attention poured on fashion icon Lady Gaga, many rock bands keep a traditional look when it comes to fashion, said Henry Duarte, a career couturier to musicians ranging from Bob Dylan, Guns ’N’ Roses and MC Hammer to New Kids on the Block.

They keep returning to the iconic 1970s looks minted by Keith Richards and Iggy Pop, Duarte said. For new styles, hip-hop stars such as Kanye West have been making appearances with a Japanese look of drapey jackets and drop-crotch pants.

Branding over business

For designers, clothing a musician does not immediately translate into wholesale dollars. Performers want unique looks and often don’t want streets and stadiums to be filled with people wearing the same pieces. But fans do seek out their idol’s styles, said Maya Reynolds, founder and designer of Clade, a downtown LA–based label that has been worn by musicians such as Steven Tyler, Lenny Kravitz and heavy-metal band Korn.

“I’ve had guys come into Clade downtown who come from Japan,” Reynolds said. “They looked through the Clade press book, and they wanted to see Steven [Tyler’s] tail coat in person. They wanted to have a little piece of that charisma.”

Working with a musician also can add to a designer’s cachet, Mayo said of Junker. “Steven never sold anything for me,” Mayo said of Aerosmith’s Tyler. “He just made me look cool. It gives you credibility.”

The final result could be nothing but a good time, though. Victor Wilde, designer of downtown LA label Bohemian Society, designed some jackets in 2004 for George Clinton, one of the innovators of funk and urban music.

“As far as the fashion world is concerned, I don’t think it raised my profile at all. I am certainly a fan of George, so above all I got a big kick out of hanging out with him, listening to his stories, and I was paid well to create things for a living legend who really likes what I do,” Wilde said. “One of the best ‘cool-factor’ moments of my life was when [Clinton] answered a call and proceeded to tell whoever was on the other end that ‘I had everything.’ What else can I say?”