Lupita Nyong'o in Prada at the Oscars last year
It’s 4pm in Los Angeles on Sunday 2nd March 2014. Lupita Nyong’o is about to arrive on the Oscars red carpet to begin a 500ft parade in front of the world’s press. The two-month hoopla of awards ceremonies, interviews and parties leading up to this point has, by now, catapulted her from “Lupita who?” to Hollywood’s fiercest new talent, tipped to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her breakout role in 12 Years A Slave. She has also been packing some serious sartorial punch on the red carpet. Every designer in the world would give their right arm to see her step out of the car in their dress. When she finally does, it’s in a perfect baby-blue A-line confection by Prada. She lifts up the chiffon, crystal-sprayed skirt to twirl for the cameras. The audience of press, pundits and Twitter gives the look an enthusiastic thumbs up.
Watching it all unfold on TV in a hotel down the road is the woman who helped mastermind Nyong’o’s red-carpet tour de force. She put her famous client in the car half an hour ago and now she can pour herself a glass of champagne. She’s Nyong’o’s stylist Micaela Erlanger. “As soon as the Twitter reaction starts coming in, or a great review of the dress pops up online, then I can breathe,” she says, recounting the night two months later from her apartment in New York’s West Village. Nyong’o’s Oscars dress – the grand finale of two months of fashion bullseyes – had been planned in meticulous detail. There was the exact blue shade of fabric that reminded Nyong’o of Nairobi (and which gets #Nairobiblue trending on Twitter), the drizzle of crystals to mimic champagne bubbles, the plunging neckline as Nyong’o wanted something “very Elizabeth Taylor”. There was even a custom-made gold frog ring – her family’s good-luck totem. “It worked beautifully,” says Erlanger. “But we plan over time to really get it right.”
At just 29, Micaela Erlanger is a rising star in Hollywood’s elite group of “super-stylists”. It is largely her work with Nyong’o that has put her on the map (she was ranked third in The Hollywood Reporter’s annual stylist power list after the Oscars), though her other top clients are Michelle Dockery, Winona Ryder and Olivia Munn. “I’m so sorry,” she says midway through our conversation as her phone pings for the third time. “A client.” Erlanger is on call 24/7. Even today, theoretically a day off, there are messengers coming and going with bags of designer samples, and she was up at the crack of dawn speaking to a fashion house in Milan. Despite having two “wonderful” assistants and four interns, ultimately, the creative buck stops with her. “Thank god for FaceTime,” she says, “I can see someone in an outfit without actually being there.”
Just 15 years ago, the red-carpet scene was a comparative mouse to the elephant it is now, with big awards ceremonies held only a few times a year. Now Oscars season is a solid two-month chain of ceremonies, luncheons and parties. In a world where a string of expertly chosen red-carpet looks can rocket a celebrity’s profile and win them lucrative fashion campaigns (as it did with Nyong’o, who is now the face of Lancôme and Miu Miu), the role of the stylist has mushroomed. The best can command fees of up to £3,000 a day. “It’s tough to break into. You have to have a good sense of yourself – and people,” says Erlanger. “I was on the school cheerleading team, dealing with the sweetest and most difficult personalities. That was good training!”
Erlanger’s office is uptown in the Flatiron district, where the white, wooden floors and cabana-striped furniture create a serene space for visiting clients. Her employees don’t use pens (“Can you imagine if I got an ink blot on couture?!” she gasps), so the constant stream of frocks, jewellery and shoes are noted in pencil on forms stored in magnolia folders. Running a tight ship is essential as, during awards season, a client like Lupita can have 200 outfits to choose from.
A lot of Erlanger’s day is spent popping into designer showrooms, going to press days to discover new labels and maintaining relationships with the fashion houses who lend dresses to her clients. It’s easy to imagine Erlanger striking up a rapport. “Working with Micaela is like getting dressed with one of your best friends, who just happens to have all of the most amazing new designer clothes,” agrees The Newsroom actress Olivia Munn. “She’s really collaborative. She also has the best eye for putting a whole look together.”
Erlanger was raised in New York and originally wanted to be a doctor. She dropped out of her pre-med course when she realised her love of fashion (which began as a child when she made a crushed-velvet dress for her cat, grandly named Sarah Honey Minnie Mouse Oreo Erlanger) should be more than a hobby. A string of style-related jobs followed: working in the fashion cupboard at Lucky magazine, as a fashion PR in a busy showroom and even a brief stint in film costume design. But she enjoyed none of these more than working for Annabel Tollman, stylist to Scarlett Johansson and Liv Tyler, who tragically passed away from a blood clot aged just 39 in June last year. “She taught me everything – the ins and outs of the whole industry. She was a tremendous part of my life.” It was while working for Tollman that her old friend, make-up artist Jordan Bree Long, introduced her to Michelle Dockery, who was looking for a New York-based stylist.
This was around the time that Downton Abbey – and Dockery – were becoming big news stateside. “I am eternally grateful for that introduction because Michelle and I became really good friends,” Erlanger says. The first look the pair collaborated on was an elegant cream and gold Alexandre Vauthier dress for the 2013 Golden Globes. Dockery hasn’t been off the best-dressed lists since. “Working with Micaela is good fun,” Dockery tells us, “which, for me, is exactly what dressing for the red carpet should be. She has great taste and vision, but she also listens.” When Dockery became close to an as-yet-unknown Kenyan actress called Lupita Nyong’o while filming thriller Non-Stop, she knew who to recommend.
When Nyong’o and Erlanger met last autumn, a little early buzz was building around Nyong’o’s role in 12 Years A Slave. “I had read a bit about it and I knew she was a dear friend of Michelle’s,” says Erlanger. “She seemed an intelligent, beautiful woman.” She is cautious about discussing her famous client further; her job depends on trust and discretion. Nevertheless, their meeting was a match made in heaven. With Nyong’o’s openness and ability to work every colour and shape, and Erlanger’s knack for translating high-end fashion to the red carpet, the pair got on a seriously stylish roll. There Nyong’o was at the Golden Globes in crimson-caped Ralph Lauren; in luminous, embellished aquamarine Gucci at the Screen Actors Guild Awards; popping over to London in emerald Dior for the Baftas. Every look was simple and sleek with a fashion-forward twist.
Nyong’o and Erlanger began planning that Oscars look in December last year. For six weeks, sketches, moodboards and ideas whizzed between Prada HQ and Erlanger’s studio. “There is a lot of back and forth about the colour, the silhouette, the shape.” The finished product is shipped to Los Angeles a week before the ceremony for final fittings. Despite all this prep, the celebrity client might not make the final decision on what they’re wearing until the day itself. “It’s a little anxiety-inducing!” says Erlanger. Then there are last-minute emergencies. Recently, Erlanger had to sew a client into her dress on the way to an event when her zip broke. Hence she carries a “surprise kit” – a bag packed with needles and thread, Spanx, double-sided tape… her fashion toolbox.
During awards season, she and her team get little to no sleep. “But do I still love it? Of course.” Things seem calmer today, though with Nyong’o gearing up for the Met Ball, Erlanger’s on the phone to Milan organising that headline-grabbing green and brown beaded Prada number.
She’d never push a client to wear something, though she does coax them to try new things. “If I love something and they’re not keen, I just say, ‘That’s fine, but let’s revisit it as I think there’s something special here.’” She always tries to include a little vintage on her rail, which she sources from a treasure trove called New York Vintage near her office. “I also like clothes that define the waist. Otherwise, I have no real no-nos.” This means her clients never have an identikit, styled-by-numbers look. “If you [overdo] it, a client will lose their personality. For me, it’s about highlighting their natural beauty and getting the right amount of surprise. It should be polished, but not done to the nines,” she says. “It’s not a beauty pageant.”
Micaela's Top 5 Lupita Looks
In Calvin Klein at the Critics Choice Awards
"You have to have a slammin' body to pull this look off. I loved seeing her in something so minimal and cool."
In Ralph Lauren at the Golden Globes
"This was a really bold choice that I think put her on the map. It was so modern and clean."
In Chanel at the MTV Movie Awards
"I don't think anyone other than Lupita could have worn this dress so well. It was cool but playful - perfect for the MTV Awards."
In Gucci at the SAGS
"With that floral lattice over the neck, we didn't need any extra fuss - just the dress and Lupita."
In Prada at the Oscars
"It couldn't have been more perfectly suited to her personality, or more romantic."