Part of fashion’s allure is its enduring mystery. It’s something we continue to ponder and learn about, from the construction of garments to the importance of celebrities wearing designer brands on the red carpet. Part of the intrigue revolves around the people behind the scenes, people who are sometimes as colorful as the images appearing in fashion magazines and billboard ad campaigns.
Patti Wilson is just such a figure—just seeing her requires a double take. The petite stylist is the epitome of cool, with her long black hair with blunt cut bangs framing her face under a wide brimmed hat. She is one of those people who you know are important even before you know what they do (although what those people do usually does turn out to be important, too).
What Wilson does—what she’s done for more than two decades, in countless magazines (Italian Vogue, V, German Vogue, I.D.) and books, such as the forthcoming volume by French make-up artist Francois Nars—is roughly equivalent to what a movie director does: she makes all the component parts of a fashion feature—the models, the clothes, the photography—come together into one seamless fantasy on the page. When she does it right, you don’t even know she was there. No wonder you’ve never heard of her.
Even today, she says, the work is fulfilling: “Such a profound sense of accomplishment,” she says. “What appears to the reader as an effortless image of beauty or glamour is the result of so much hard work, from the photographer to the hair and make-up, the set design to the styling—all the moving parts I love to see come together harmoniously.”
I can remember the first time I saw her, even though at the time I had no idea who she was. I was working at Bergdorf Goodman as a teenager, anxious to be in fashion, and although I cannot recall her exact outfit, I remember the dark glasses and long shearling coat (it was winter). But what I recall most vividly was the feeling I experienced: an excitement similar to seeing a major celebrity, what I imagined it must feel like to see Cher or Madonna.
Women like Wilson were part of what lured me to New York, part of my fantasy of a glamorous life of working in fashion or media, being gay, having cool friends, and attending swanky parties. As my career progressed, I found out that Wilson was a major stylist whose work—ranging from iconic and glamourous to whimsical and outrageous—was always in demand and who collaborated with top names in the industry.
I always wondered where she came from and what her inspirations were. Finally, the shy Native New Yorker sat with me and revealed a bit of her mystery and what path brought her to this career in fashion.
“I think it was a girl in my all-girls Catholic high school class—she was a model with Ford and she was beautiful,” Wilson said. “She was always in Seventeen magazine, and I couldn’t get over how incredible she looked. She showed me her portfolio and told me how she wanted to move to Paris and introduced me to all the fashion magazines and showed me what clothing could be outside of the uniforms we were forced to wear.”
Music has also been a huge inspiration since childhood for Wilson, from the Beatles to Michael Jackson to Diana Ross to Prince (who she worked with professionally, along with other stars including Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, and Whitney Houston).
Most stylists tend to start off assisting other stylists or working at fashion magazines, but a couple of decades ago, Wilson was “discovered,” like a movie star, and all thanks to her own personal style.
“I was a hostess at this fabulous jazz club, and a woman who turned out to be a photographer approached me one night because she loved my look. She said, ‘If you can do that for yourself, can you do it for my shoots?’ That’s how it started. After that it’s all a blur of hustling and hard work.”
While her work has mostly been editorial, she has worked with celebrities as well as a season on TV’s The Face. But the essential part of her core talent has never changed.
“Every project has its hiccups,” she says. “If everything went smoothly, that would be incredibly boring. It’s key to keep a cool head and an open mind. Sometimes these obstacles force you to redefine your entire vision and you end up with something new you never expected.”
Whether she is dressing a model, a celebrity or a friend for a night out, the priority never changes. The question is always, “How can they look their best? Because the hardest part about being a stylist is trusting your instincts. It’s easy to second guess yourself, but nine out of ten times your first idea was the right one.”
Unlike many in fashion journalism who come from the world of print, she is optimistic about the advent of social media, calling it “a great tool to expose more and more people to the editorial fashion. Not everyone has access to international magazines, but now they can experience this wonderful, artistic aspect of the fashion world anywhere.”
A look at Wilson’s Instagram feed makes it clear she never stops working, moving, creating, on and on and on. When I asked what her perfect day looks like, she says, “I’d love to say it’s sitting on the beach with a drink in my hand, but to be honest I’d rather be on set working on my next story.”