The Buggles might have been the first to truly understand the importance of proper styling when they released their single “Video Killed The Radio Star” back in 1979. Like it or not, with the advent of television, a group’s physical image became as big a part of their success as the music, but lucky for today’s artists, there are people like Shai Spooner around to make sure they look good.
As one of the UK’s most sought-after stylists, Shai makes sure musicians and other celebrities look their best on stage, in videos, on the red carpet…basically anywhere they might be seen by fans. His work has been featured in the magazines Vogue, RWD, 125, Wonderland, and Nylon, and he currently travels the globe as the lead stylist for number one-selling UK group N-Dubz (think Black Eyed Peas with British accents), working with male members Dappy and Fazer on all photo shoots, music videos, and press.
During a recent trip to Los Angeles, Shai did two very awesome things: got tattooed by Kat Von D for her show, LA Ink, and sat down with LA Music Blog to discuss how he got his start in the fashion industry, what inspires him, and his advice for anyone considering a career as a stylist (spoiler alert: be ready to work).
Can you tell us how you got your start in styling?
I started off about 18 months ago with an internship with a really big fashion designer in the UK called Wale Adeyemi. He was styling David Beckham when he first started getting coverage for the way he dressed, and he also used to be Victoria Beckham’s stylist. At first, I was literally clueless. I didn’t know how anything ran or what to do, so I shadowed him for three months and just took in everything.
From there, I networked. I met this person, met that person…If you don’t know anyone, then you’re not going to get anywhere. I made sure that at every shoot or event I went to with Wale, I met somebody else and got their details. The rest is history. [LAUGHS]
What pushed you from being a general stylist into styling for musicians?
It was never planned. I just wanted to be a stylist and work in fashion. My brother and a lot of my friends and peers are musicians, so I know quite a lot about music. The chance came up to style musicians, and because I’ve mainly been doing that, those are the jobs I seem to get now.
I’m totally happy about that because I love doing music stuff. Plus with music industry styling, there’s a lot more budget, a lot more money to be made. Everybody wants to be respected in the trade they do, but everybody also wants to get paid.
What does someone who wants you to style them have to do to grab your attention?
It’s not really me looking. I run a business. I’m a brand, so they get in contact with my agent, and my agent will let me know, “I’ve got this act that wants a meeting with you.” I’ll sit down with that act. We’ll go over ideas. I’ll see their vision. They’ll get my vision. We’ll do a mood board. After that, it’s the business side. My agent will talk to them about money and what budgets they have. Then if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That’s the way it works at the moment, so that’s the way I work it.
Who has been your biggest influence in fashion?
I get most of my inspiration from iconic movies. My favorite film is called Quadrophenia. It’s a British film set in the ’70s, and it’s kind of based on the mods and the rockers. I get my inspiration from that era more than anything.
You worked on X Factor as an assistant stylist. What were some of the lessons that you learned about fashion and styling from that experience?
I know a lot of people that think they want to be stylists, but they don’t know half of what goes into actually doing it. It’s nowhere near as glitzy and glamorous as people would think. On X Factor, I experienced the reality of, “Do I really want to do this? This is not as easy as I thought it was going to be. It’s not as rewarding as I thought it was going to be.” But I loved fashion, and I still love it.
X Factor is literally the biggest show in the UK. I think they get around 20 million viewers a week. It’s filmed over a three-month period, so you’re working six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, for three months. It is really intense. You’ve got big deadlines to meet, and when you have someone like Simon Cowell as your boss, you can’t afford to mess up.
X Factor made me the person I am today. I was under intense pressure every single week, and I’d never been under that pressure before. Now I’m quite established in the UK, and I’m dealing with one of the biggest bands in the country. After X Factor, everything else I do is just like, “Yeah, I can do that. I can do anything.”
You brought up that you’re working with one of the biggest acts in the UK, which is N-Dubz. Can you tell us about that band and how you got involved with them?
N-Dubz are like the UK version of Black Eyed Peas. They just signed a deal with Def Jam with LA Reid, so you guys will probably be seeing some more of them in the future.
I originally worked with Encore, another group that is signed to the same management label as N-Dubz. N-Dubz’s management got in contact with me through a friend and said the group needed a stylist and wanted someone who was on the same wavelength as them. I hooked up with them, did a great job, and got a call in August last year saying, “Is your passport valid? We want you to fly to St. Tropez tomorrow.” I went to St. Tropez, and the guys liked my vision, liked what I was bringing to the table. The rest is history.
What are some things you learned getting into the industry that you may not have expected?
If you haven’t got thick skin, then I suggest you walk away. I’m quite sensitive, to be honest, and it’s not a good industry to be in if you’re sensitive, but I’m learning that you get criticism every day. Being a stylist, not every single person in the world is going to agree with what you’re doing. You just got to learn to take in constructive criticism.
There are so many people getting into this industry for the wrong reasons. They think they’re going to be millionaires. [LAUGHS] They think they’re going to be walking down red carpets with people like David Beckham and going to all these amazing parties and hanging out. I literally work every single day. Being self-employed, I can’t afford to take a day off.
I just finished doing costume design on a massive arena tour with N-Dubz. They’re doing like 20,000 capacity arenas, and I’ve never designed costumes for such a big show. I got really ill five days before the deadline to get everything done by. If I was working a normal 9 to 5, I’d phone them up and say, “Sorry, I can’t come in,” and I’d still get paid. That doesn’t work in this situation. If I didn’t get it done, I would’ve been screwed. I was literally running around, my nose running, vomiting every five minutes, but I had to get it done.
What are some of the benefits of working as a stylist?
There are a lot of perks. I get a lot of free clothes and get to be my own boss. I get to wake up when I want to wake up, unless I’ve got major deadlines to meet.
What advice do you have for someone who is serious about getting into styling for musicians and working in this world?
Learn your trade. I don’t think you need to go to a fashion school to be a stylist. It does help, and obviously when you go to fashion schools, you meet people who can point you in the right direction, but it’s not a necessity. Definitely learn your trade. Read books.
Get internships. You need to start from the bottom. You’ll literally be carrying bags, making tea, doing the shitty jobs, but everyone has to do it, and you’ll learn a lot more from a six-month unpaid internship with another stylist than from a year in fashion college.
All that’s going to happen when you go into fashion college is you’ll come up with your degree, and you’ll think, “Yeah, I’ve got a degree in fashion,” and you’ll still have to go and get an internship. So you wasted two years of your life in college sitting around and getting in debt to come out and do another 6 to 24 months running around doing the shit jobs in an internship. Unless you get really lucky, like really, really, really lucky.
Can you describe a day in the life of a stylist?
It really depends on what I’m doing. If I’m doing a video shoot, I will first talk to the director. He’s got his vision, and he’ll send me over the treatment. I’ll put a mood board together, and we’ll go back and forth for a few hours until we reach an agreement.
Once I know what we’re doing, I will literally get on the case. I’ll sort out budgets first, and then I’ll go out and start getting pieces for the video. Sometimes we’ll have a fitting, sometimes we won’t—depends on how much time we’ve got—but that’s how it works.
You have to have contacts with the PR companies and with other brands. If you don’t, the only way it’s going to work is if you get a massive budget, and everyone knows that the music industry at the moment is not the same as it was a decade ago. There aren’t big budgets like there were back then, so you have to use your contacts, or you’re going to be screwed.
What is your process for styling an artist for a red carpet scenario?
Red carpets are normally quite easy because you’re only focusing on one outfit, but they can be tricky as well because you want to get that special piece that nobody else on the red carpet has. Red carpets are also where people are going to see your acts on a bigger scale.
Normally, I’d sit down with the artist and let them know what I want to do and find out what they want to do. Sometimes we meet in the middle, but they often agree to just go my way. Then you have a fitting because you can’t do a red carpet without a fitting. If everything’s good to go, then you’re set.
What else do you have planned for 2011?
In 2011, I’ve already been to Nigeria for Nigerian Fashion Week, which was an experience and a half. I loved it. I did another music video in Italy last month, and now I’m here in LA. I’m hopefully going to come back soon and stay a bit longer. N-Dubz might be coming out to LA in September, so I’ll hopefully be back out here with them then.
I’m also a designer as well as a stylist, but I don’t have time to create a full collection every season, so instead of doing that, I’m working with quite a few up-and-coming UK designers to bring out a limited edition piece every season. I’m working with a brand called Trapstar, which is the biggest UK street wear brand at the moment. I just finished a burgundy quilted biker jacket limited edition of 10 pieces that will likely be available in July. We’re going to do a big party and get some cool people in the jacket and hopefully get it in one of the high-end retailers, so it will be a three-way collaboration between me, Trapstar, and one of the high-end retailers.
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