Patti Wilson is a woman of few words—publicly at least, famously only giving a handful of interviews over the course of her storied career. She instead lets her work speak for itself, with over 30 years of fashion experience that redefines the way we look at styling. And boy, does the work talk: Wilson’s ability to thread a narrative needle through a rack of clothing is second to none. Her world-building skill set was formed in the late ’80s and early ’90s in New York City, before she quickly garnered international attention and started working for magazines like i-D and Vogue Italia. Specifically, Wilson’s genre-bending editorials with photographer David LaChapelle, to me, modernized the fashion image beyond studio looks and high fashion.
Beyond that, Wilson has lent her eye and sartorial savvy to stars like Mary J. Blige, Naomi Campbell, and Beyoncé, to name just a few, and even the quartet of Aaliyah, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, and Da Brat for ELLE in 1999. She thrives on new talent, bringing those who deserve it most to the spotlight. This past New York Fashion Week, she styled shows for CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year nominee LaQuan Smith and Dion Lee. For Wilson, supporting young designers is paramount, because they’re the future of the industry. Her ability to spot the next wunderkind makes her one of the most in-demand visionaries to this day.
Within moments of speaking to her, it’s apparent that Wilson’s mind is always turning, spinning something old and new to create something entirely different. Her magpie references span Galliano’s Dior era, the nuns who taught at her high school, and, of course, the streets of NYC. Her ability to decontextualize a hat, a dress, or an entire silhouette, then reimagine it, twist it around, and bring new life to it is masterful. The hallmark of a great stylist is one who makes you think not only about how the clothing is being used, but how the clothing makes you feel. Few stylists today are able to feel as much as Wilson, and it shows in her work.
Above all, Wilson is always, always working—pulling her away from poring over image selects is no easy feat. Her ability to spend weeks creating a story, then pivot right away to the next one, speaks to her unflappable work ethic, and also the way her mind works. It’s unstoppable! Between appointments and preparing for such a public-facing event as tonight’s CFDA Awards, Wilson spoke about her career, what makes her tick, and working with ELLE.
How did growing up in New York City shape your fashion point of view? Were you creative from an early age?
I grew up in Queens and Manhattan, and I went to a Catholic high school on 42nd Street. All nuns. All girls. [Laughs.] I got obsessed with the nuns. Obsessed. So, I would say that was when I started getting into fashion, because I loved how they dressed. I loved the crosses; I also loved the way they lived so minimally, but [wore] these outrageous gowns and headpieces. I liked the priests’ looks, too. Those were good. The purples and the reds. [They were] so Simone-y Rocha with the white going over the black. I had this ugly uniform, but I rolled it up and changed it and made sure it looked cool. I put lifts in my shoes so I could always be tall. Plus, there was an actual model in the school, and I was obsessed with her because she was absolutely flawless. She would appear in Seventeen and that just blew my mind.
You started styling because you got approached when you were waitressing, right?
I was actually a hostess in a jazz club, and a photographer would come in every so often. Every week, she’d come in with Woody Allen of all people, because he was a jazz enthusiast, and they would hang out there. She was a photographer, and she started asking me about my clothes because I used to get all dressed up for that hostess job, which I stunk at by the way. It was terrible [laughs]. I couldn’t remember names, but everyone thought it was really funny, and it wasn’t because I was feeling scared. I met a lot of basketball players. It was kind of a sports club with jazz. Oh, it was wild. Beyond. Muhammad Ali was always there. Wild. It was good though, because I made a little money and I was able to keep shopping for clothes. [Laughs.]
So the photographer had a sister, and the sister was a stylist and she said, “You should work for my sister. She’s looking for an assistant.” I had no idea what that was. I was like, what the heck is that? But I started working for her. I stuck with her for quite some time, and then that same photographer gave me my first job on my own. I really liked it—like, immediately liked it. So, I did both assisting and working at night. It was cool. I was exhausted, but it was cool.
That’s often how it is in the beginning. If you’re so in love with it, you’ll wear yourself thin to make it happen.
I know! It’s crazy that I’m doing the same thing now again. And the money is worse. Because it’s the challenge of it, you know? Now, there’s the challenge of not having the money to make and get the things you need. You have to figure out ways of getting it so you can have it. I can’t believe it’s happening all over again. But I’m finding it a lot of fun now, because everybody is so fresh and there’s a lot of fresh energy around.
You’re always working on so many projects at the same time. How do you continue to stay inspired and keep going?
I’m inspired by the newness of these young kids that are making clothes, and from the fact that we have it and we’re open to it now all over the world. I’m always calling someone in from Copenhagen or something. It’s just fun to find all this, and figure out ways to get the stuff here, and try for somebody to let me shoot one or two pieces and stick it in a story. You gotta be thinking of everyone and how you’re gonna make it all work.
What makes the difference between a good fashion image and an amazing fashion image?
A great photographer [laughs]. A really good photographer. And then you have to drag in the hair and makeup, too. That’s so important.
What was it like working with Steven Klein?
It’s hard to make a story look good when you have to use all different people, and when you come up with a theme and the theme has to carry through. To make a story, it’s really hard work, but he’s brilliant. For me, he’s got all the tension and the angst, and it all comes out in his work, and it’s so good. He’s so powerful. I’m really lucky.
You started working in fashion way before Instagram was a thing. Do you think social media has changed the way that we consume fashion? Do you think it’s changed the way that you work?
Well, I gotta work quicker [laughs]. That’s for sure. I like it, and I don’t like it. I still can’t quite make up my mind to this day. I did not want to get involved. I wanted nothing to do with it, and then I read this remark that Marc Jacobs made, and I thought, he’s right. He said, “Get over it!” And I just went, “I guess I better join them.” It’s the competing and getting it out on time that is not great, but the idea that you can see other people’s work and see what’s going on, that’s cool. It also makes you have to look for new ideas and new things, because once you see all this stuff you go, “Ugh, I’ve seen this already.” You’re constantly having to come up with something that you haven’t seen, and that’s what’s gotten harder, because everybody’s doing something. You have 20 million other ideas going on, so you really have to work hard to come up with something that’s not been seen. It might get watered down after a while, because it’s a lot to keep up with. Everybody’s in on it—it’s good and it’s bad. You have to get over it.
What’s been your favorite story that you’ve styled for ELLE?
I liked the Doja [cover] because I just thought she never looked like that. I said, “Let’s put her in suits.” Oh, she’s fabulous. I loved her. I liked doing that story because she went for it. She was cool, and even her stylist came on the shoot and he was cool about it. She’s looking better and better now that she shaved all her hair. I wish I could’ve done it for that story, but anyway, she’s something—and the music is good!
Who are your some of your favorite fashion icons of all time?
I would say Alexander McQueen, Steven Meisel, Isabella Blow. Nobody knows about Isabella Blow, and I’m sure a lot of kids don’t remember her. I loved seeing her brought up again, because she was amazing. I used to see her so dressed. The funniest thing is, I was in London, and they would not respect her. They made fun of her. In London, they’re so minimalist, and they just thought she was wild, and I thought, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen.” She had it. And McQueen loved her. He knew what he had there, and she was an amazing muse for him.
You’ve been to so many runway shows. Are there any that stick out in your mind as favorites? I’m sure McQueen had a few.
Yeah, McQueen, and then Balenciaga has had a couple of real killers. Riccardo Tisci used to stand out for me. The early Givenchy days…I mean, those barking dog bags! That guy was just great. I also have that to say about Galliano. And Margiela also, the real one and the fake one. I love John Galliano. I love him! I look at his work all the time. It’s so good. How about his last show by Margiela? That was so fabulous!
Is there anybody young and new that you haven’t styled yet that you want to work with?
I’ve been dying to do Dua Lipa! I love the fact that she likes clothes. It’s half the battle! If you can shoot one of these stars that love clothing, then you’re there. It’s rare to find them also [being] into it.
You’ve been in New York your whole life. What’s your favorite store to shop at?
I live for Dover [Street Market]—in every city. I just love it! It inspires me, and it makes me lose all my money. It’s the best for seeing the fresh new things that are happening. And I cry that Opening Ceremony is gone. I miss that one. I also love going to R13. That’s another little haunt.
Right across from the old Opening Ceremony.
I know…so sad. I was devastated, because I used to just pop in there and just get inspired and just buy a T-shirt and be happy. We need to get that back. I don’t know how, but we have to get that back, because we don’t have it.
What do you hope for the future of fashion?
That we can all afford it [laughs]. If all the numbers came down and we were to get everything we’ve always wanted. If that Stephen Jones hat wasn’t $2,000.
Who are some of your new favorite up-and-coming photographers?
I love Quil [Lemons]. I love, love, love Campbell Addy. Renell Medrano is genius—she has attitude. There’s this English boy that I worked with in London, Felix Cooper. He’s really fresh. I love working with new photographers because it’s nice to get a fresh view, and your styling looks different. Or it makes me style differently, or they capture in another way. I find that interesting, especially if it looks new to me. Change is all about that. It’s terrible, but it’s all about the next story.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kevin LeBlanc is the Fashion Associate at ELLE Magazine. He covers fashion news, trends, and anything to do with Robyn Rihanna Fenty.