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  • Vanessa Friedman

The Yes Man

The celebrity stylist and self-described “image architect” Law Roach tried to retire, but he can't say no to Zendaya. By Vanessa Friedman
The stylist Law Roach, photographed in New York in April. Photography by Justin J Wee.

Fifteen months ago, Law Roach seemed to be at the peak of his career as a celebrity stylist. He had won the first stylist of the year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and was working with Zendaya, Celine Dion, Anya Taylor-Joy and Anne Hathaway, among others. Then, out of the blue, he announced on Instagram that he was quitting.


“The politics, the lies, and false narratives finally got me!” he wrote. “You win … I’m out.”

Cue shock, horror and a lot of speculation. There were rumours that he had called Priyanka Chopra Jonas fat. Rumours that he had thrown a tantrum because Louis Vuitton wouldn’t seat him next to Zendaya in the front row.


Whispers that he had become more of a diva than the divas he served. (He did call himself an “image architect”, trademark the term and insist that everyone else call him that, too.) But there were also questions about racism in fashion. And there was curiosity. Was it really over?


It was, it turned out, a somewhat dramatic career pivot.


On May 6, Roach dressed Zendaya, a host of the Met Gala, which he also attended. (He has also been choreographing her wardrobe for the “Challengers” promotional tour.) The same day, he made his debut as a judge on a new E! network show with Julia Fox, “OMG Fashun”, a competition series focused on upcycling old textiles into one-of-a-kind garments.

He has a how-to book coming out in September. And he is plotting a certification course for would-be stylists that will essentially mass-market and formalise his approach.


It’s about getting “at the core of who someone is”, he says. “The dress is the last part of it.” Here’s some of the rest.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Were you surprised by the reaction to your Instagram announcement?

The first two, three months were really hard. So much of who I was depended on what I was doing, and I felt like I didn’t know who I was. I was just tired. Also, my nephew died the year before.


He was three, and he fell out a window the day before Thanksgiving. I never had a real time to grieve because I was working and working and working. So I went through this grieving process for him and for my career. I went through guilt, thinking that people who look up to me were going to see me as a quitter, and sadness.


But you chose to announce that you were quitting. Was it because you think stylists don’t get enough respect?

I felt like every time I came into a room, I still had to prove myself. I changed the trajectory of people’s careers, changed their visibility, but I still have to argue for what I think is the best look. And if the gatekeepers don’t like the relationship, automatically I became too expensive or too problematic.


How much of a diva are you?

A big misunderstanding is that I’m unapproachable. But I kind of created that because I didn’t want to be distracted by LA and New York and the lifestyle, so I decided to be mean and make people not like me so they wouldn’t invite me to their birthday parties, so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty for not going.


Also, I have a reputation on television of really being in your face — “I don’t like you, why did you make me look at that, the performance was terrible.” So people were like, “Oh, he’s so nasty.” I think that at the moment I wrote that post, I just wanted to be left alone.


What did you actually do?

I am from Chicago and live in LA, but I have a property with 19 acres [eight hectares] in Georgia I bought during Covid. I was able to trace my family lineage back to slavery, and I found both sides of my family, including that someone on the white side owned one of my ancestors.


When the owner relative died, he left the other relative, who was then five years old, to his nine-year-old son. Thinking about a nine-year-old owning a person was so painful for me, I thought, I want to own a plantation. It became a safe place for my family to go.


Then I did a book, “How to Build a Fashion Icon: Notes on Confidence From the World’s Only Image Architect”. It’s essentially a self-help book.


You don’t seem that retired.

I’m the most unretired retired person. But everything I’m doing now is on my own terms. I’ve been saying no to a lot of unhappy people. Except Zendaya. I can’t say no to her.


Roach with Zendaya, who is wearing Maison Margiela, at the Met Gala in May 2024. Photography by Nina Westervelt.

Speaking of Zendaya, tell me a little about how you work with her. She has been your client since she was 13. Do you tell her what to wear?

We call each other our fashion soulmates. We also refer to our relationship as “big ideas, small details”. I come in with, “You should wear 14 dresses, and you should change, and you should have a wig on and take it off so your hair should fall down!” And she’s: “No, no, no, no. We’re going to do two dresses, and I’m going to keep the same hair.”


It’s like, I write the script, and she does the rewrites. Not saying that we don’t argue, because we do, and we fight over things. But I know my place. I know she’s the boss, and she also has enough respect for me and love for me to let me be the boss sometimes.


Is wanting to be the boss what’s behind your desire to go into styling academia?

I always asked the question, “Why don’t we see more people who look like me doing this job?” We just don’t get the same opportunities. This is one of the ways I’m going to combat that.


You can take all the masterclasses you want, but that doesn’t necessarily give you a shot at entering the industry. My idea is, you take a certification course, based on my way of styling. There will also be electives from industry people who support the curriculum, like financial literacy, because as an independent contractor, I learned from my mistakes.


What mistakes?

My first year, I made $120,000 [about $AU180,000] . I thought I was rich, to be quite honest, but nobody had ever tapped me on my shoulder and said, “Hey, most of that has gone into taxes.” So I spent $100,000.


And then I got into tax debt. I owed $65,000 [about $97,500]. The only reason I knew is because I went to the ATM and there was no money in there.


Roach with the actress Kerry Washington, at left, at the CFDA Fashion Awards ceremony in November 2022. Photography by Nina Westervelt.

Hold on a second. Is that your hair on a stand on the table?

I have a really, really short haircut. When I started doing television — I did “Legendary” for three seasons, and the final two seasons of “America’s Next Top Model” — I was inspired by a stylist and DJ named Andre J. He was really cool in the early ’90s, and he did a French Vogue cover, this Black man with this hair and a beard, and it kind of changed my life. So when “America’s Next Top Model” came around, I thought, “Oh, I’ll put on this long, straight hair and create this separate, diva-ish person, and my clients won’t recognise me.” But it didn’t work. It’s become part of me.


What’s the difference between the private you and the public you?

When I’m with my clients, the client is always the priority. But when I started doing television, I got to feel like the priority. I love having my own identity. I don’t want to be known as Celine Dion’s stylist or Ariana Grande’s stylist. Being on television gave me the licence to demand to be treated as my own person. I want my headline to be “Law Roach, former stylist, now sits at the helm of a billion-dollar company”.


So you have a plan to get to a billion?

We can write books and manuals. We can take what we do with the course and package it and sell it to other people. We could buy a brand. I really want to buy a brand. I have one in mind.


Which brand?

Emanuel Ungaro. I need a brand that has a legacy. It’s a natural transition, I think, from good stylist to good designer or, hopefully, great designer. I want to own the brand, which may turn into buying other brands, which can turn into my own version of LVMH or Kering. I actually have the wedding dress that was the last look of Ungaro’s last couture show in a dress box under my bed. It’s been there for six, seven years. I’m using that to manifest. I really believe in manifesting. I think that’s my next book. 


© The New York Times

 


This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 20 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “The Yes Man”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  

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