Stylist Erin Walsh On What It’s Really Like Dressing SJP For The Met Gala

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Thandie Newton and Kerry Washington in evening dresses at red carpet events

The Zoe Report's Best Dresser is a series that profiles top red carpet stylists, diving into everything from how they got their starts in the industry to their proudest fashion moments to date. For this installment, Senior Fashion Editor Aemilia Madden spoke to celebrity stylist Erin Walsh.

Thandie Newton had a look custom made for the premiere of Solo: A Star Wars Movie. Then she saw the Dior: a black tulle dress with asymmetrical shoulders from the label’s Spring 2018 Haute Couture collection. “My jaw fell open,” Newton recalls.

For a celebrity stylist, this is the stuff of nightmares. Red carpet dressing takes months of delicate coordination, so ditching a custom gown last minute could upend relationships and countless hours of planning. But the red carpet is also where celebrities establish their personal style and, increasingly, what they stand for. The job requires the deftness of a bomb technician and the emotional intelligence of a seasoned therapist.

“Erin Walsh always finds a way,” Newton tells TZR in an email. Walsh, who styles Newton, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, among others, didn’t make the actor feel bad about disappointing the original designer, Newton says. The stylist could see how the sheer gown, covered in star-like paillettes, complemented the evening’s intergalactic theme, and the duo switched gears at the last minute.

“I love her ability to be spontaneous,” Newton says. “It takes real confidence and skill to make things like that happen.”

Thandie Newton in Dior Haute Couture. Phillip Faraone/WireImage

Walsh, 37, is one of Hollywood’s most quietly influential stylists — and the industry’s seventh most important, according to The Hollywood Reporter’s annual ranking. While other stylists’ rosters tend to circle a single signature look, Walsh specializes in dressing the type of awards season fixture who has their own distinctive perspective on fashion. She sees herself as their creative partner.

“I can't just come as a force of imposition to a person who is creative, who is going to be out there in the world displaying whatever we ended up deciding to do together,” she says. “I always look at it as a collaboration and I think that makes it more fun.”

As a result, Walsh has built long-term relationships in an industry where it’s typical for clients to rotate in and out. Year after year, for example, Walsh works with Sarah Jessica Parker on her Met Gala looks. (Year after year, SJP is on the best dressed list.)

“I can't think of anybody who I admired more personally than Sarah Jessica … she's someone who knows fashion inside and out,” Walsh says on the phone from Brooklyn. “Who would I be if I was going to walk into a room and pretend it'd just be all about me?”

Sarah Jessica Parker in Oscar de la Renta at the 2012 Met Gala. Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage.

A Palm Beach, Florida, native, Walsh came to New York to be an actor. She took the classes, went to the auditions. While it quickly became clear a life on screen wasn’t in the cards — “I was terrified of not making it,” she says — Walsh credits her “acting box of tools” for her ability to think about how a red carpet look incorporates an actor’s personality, politics, and their onscreen persona.

“I have so many stories to tell and I will always believe that the clothing part of it is... Well, what a gift.”

“I've always been a fan of clothes and the art of it, but if I was ever going to make a career of it,” she says. “the storytelling component was a huge, huge part of that.”

After stints in retail and PR, she got a job as a temp at Condé Nast. A friend in the ad sales department at Vogue introduced her to peers in the fashion closet, who suggested she join them. Walsh hoped to segue into features because she knew little about styling at the start, she says, but “Phyllis [Posnick, executive fashion editor] was the first person I worked with, the first photo shoot I was on was with Irving Penn.” It was like fashion boot camp: “The Devil Wears Prada came out when I was working at Vogue,” she says. “I watched it and it just shook me. It was very scarily accurate. It was like I had PTSD.”

Walsh was thrilled to work with some of the people who were overtly shaping fashion at the time, but her “softer persuasion” wasn’t the right fit for the position, she says. She decided to strike out on her own. “I was working on a portfolio and doing test shoots constantly on the weekends,” she says. “I was scheduling meetings with agents far before I was ready. I was just so eager to get out there, and to own it, and to make something.” Styling a range of actors for publicity shoots eventually led Walsh to work with Jason Sudeikis. From there, she was connected to Kristen Wiig, who needed help with a look for the Emmy Awards.

Walsh’s big break was something she’d never done before: Samira Nasr, who she'd previously assisted, asked if she’d be interested in cleaning out Kerry Washington’s closet. “I had never met Kerry before, but had always been a fan,” Walsh says. It was 2012 and Washington was doing press for Django Unchained and starting to work on Scandal; Washington warned that the show may never get picked up (it eventually ran for seven seasons). After paring down Washington’s closet, Walsh told Kerry about her styling work, and they began to work together.

“Kerry took a total chance on me and we fell in fashion love,” Walsh says.

Kerry Washington In Marc Jacobs. Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

By the time Scandal was in its second season, Washington was synonymous with Olivia Pope’s power suits and solid sheaths. For the 2015 Emmys, the challenge was creating a look that complemented Pope’s and what resonated about that character, while showing a new side of Kerry Washington. There was a Marc Jacobs dress that Walsh had seen the day before, on the runway in New York. “I remembered the dress being pretty, but it didn't seem like it was going to be fancy enough really,” Walsh says. “We put it on, and we just started laughing.” Dressed in the armor-like maillot design, Washington stepped away from her Olivia Pope’s signature suiting while preserving her aura of power.

“Some people want to challenge and subvert [their character’s identity] more than others,” Walsh explains. “It's exciting to do something different because you don't want to get too literal. They are the person behind the character, not the character. It's about choosing variations and tangents that extend from that. You can plan it long-term so that it's an evolution.”

Increasingly, red carpet fashion is used to tell a larger story than the relationship between an actor and her onscreen counterpart; a stylist can help a celebrity champion their cause of choice. Newton, for one, sends Walsh pictures of looks from new or under-the-radar designers. “I remember telling her how much I loved Duro Olowu and Ashish and the next fitting their pieces were on the rack,” Newton says. “It can be hard to wear and promote smaller designers because they don't have the finance or stock to send multiple pieces to stylists all over the world. But Erin always finds a way.”

Walsh includes young, sustainable, and female designers whenever she can. “I'm given a platform, the people I work with are given a platform and I believe it's my responsibility to help bring people like that to the forefront,” she says.

Now, Walsh is finding new ways to tell these stories through SBJCT, a website she launched with her husband in 2016 to feature the creatives she’d come into contact with during her career. The site focuses heavily on A-list interviews, skipping the Goop-esque shopping and wellness features for a more streamlined form of aspirational content. Walsh holds the title of editor-in-chief, allowing her to bring together fashion and personality and feature both original photography and Q&As with stars like Sandra Oh, Liv Tyler, and Cleo Wade. The result feels like the online equivalent of a photo-filled coffee table book — beautiful to look at, but also filled with substance you’re curious to return to time and again.

“I have so many stories to tell and I will always believe that the clothing part of it is... Well, what a gift,” she says. “You get to play with clothes and make a story out of it. That's fantastic.”

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