A few months ago, Jennifer Austin received the 2019 Rising Star Award from Shadow & Act and Blavity in recognition of her work as a celebrity stylist. Take one look at her resume -- from styling some of the most legendary black women in Hollywood like Niecy Nash, Tasha Smith, and Angela Bassett to working with media powerhouses like Vogue and Style Network -- you’ll realize that it took nearly 15 years for her to become the “rising star” that she is. Midway into the second decade of her career, Austin has overcome the fashion hard knocks to create a portfolio of work that speaks for itself with or without accolades. As proud as she was to accept her recent honor, its less-than-ideal timing adds her name to a list of incredibly talented women of color, including the likes of Ruth E. Carter, June Ambrose, and Hannah Beachler, whose work took the span of some people’s entire careers to be adequately acknowledged. Their stories speak to a much bigger issue that plagues black creatives in fashion who not only have to fight twice as hard to get their foot in the door, but must work even harder to break the industry’s glass ceiling once they’ve sat at the table. During a deep-dive conversation with Austin, she shared her thoughts with MILQ about the the lack of diversity in fashion, how she’s fought through it in her own career, and how she’s used her platform to put on for fellow black creatives along the way.
The first thing that became clear during our conversation with Jennifer Austin was that her path into the fashion industry was unconventional from the start. Ditching a job in Corporate America to pursue her true dream career in fashion, Austin enrolled at the Art Institute and soon after volunteered at L.A. Fashion Week. There, she met a celebrity stylist who would help her land her first big gig as an Assistant Stylist on the set of Twista’s music video for ‘Slow Jams.’ She worked part time in the industry until she nailed her first client Niecy Nash, which motivated her to finally take the big leap into styling full-time. Once she got in the game, it took time and quite a few tribulations for Austin to boast the client list and credits that she’s accumulated up to this point: one of them being the xenophobia that often gridlocks the potential of black stylists, and black female stylists specifically, to excel in the fashion industry.
“I’m still here by the grace of God. I mean you know, with bumps and bruises and the ups and downs of the life of styling...It’s been an amazing journey. It’s been a tough one, but it’s been amazing.”
Austin’s work puts her in the league of fellow A-list celebrity stylists of color like Luxury Law and Jason Bolden, especially when you consider her role in creating some of Angela Bassett’s most viral red carpet moments to date. As much as they deserve their roses, Law and Bolden are the benchmarks for a nearly unattainable level of styling success within the industry’s current politics, as few slots are made available for black stylists to work with A-list celebrities to begin with. As Austin explains during our conversation, the number of them who gain notoriety, proper acknowledgement, and leverage for their work are even fewer:
“…From my personal experience being a black stylist, it’s hard to break that glass [ceiling]. Once you break it, there’s only a few that have crossed over because most of the time, the “A-listers” have white stylists...And as a black woman, it feels like there’s an even smaller percentage [of us].”
As Austin would learn, more often that not an A-list client still isn’t enough to combat the many challenges that black stylists endure. During a time when award-winning legends are passed up by fashion designers for the “it-person” of the moment, it’s become clear that the benchmark of success for black creatives is calculated on a constantly moving scale both behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera. This, Austin explains, is one of the harshest realities that she’s had to learn, especially as her work with Angela Bassett began to gain steam.
“When people found out I was dressing Angela...everybody would assume and say, ‘Oh I bet designers are throwing clothes at you left and right,’ but not necessarily. This industry is [often] based on popularity and who the designers would want in their clothing. it's sad and it's unfortunate that still to this day, we have to come up against that.”
These constantly shifting measurements of success often tip the scale of opportunity for black stylists to diversify their portfolios. Austin has always set her sights on conquering every facet of styling. But even with years of diverse experience under her belt, it’s become increasingly difficult for her to land opportunities in editorial -- even though her work often lands her clients regular spots on the “best dressed” lists of these very same publications. Many of these publications, as Austin explains, have their own network of Stylists and Fashion Editors who they exclusively work with and few of them, if any, are black. Considering that Vogue appointed its first African-American photographer to shoot a cover in the magazine's 125-year history only last year, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
“There’s very few magazines that I would say have actually reached out and hit me up as [Angela’s] stylist and spoken to me. As far as the black publications, never...There have been times where they’ve brought other people in and I’ve had to come in and play the side role [during her editorial shoots]. I’d get the chance to pull items from the pieces they bring in, but I won’t get credit for it.”
Some black stylists, like Cardi B’s Kollin Carter and Zendaya Coleman’s Luxury Law, have managed to break through the clutter. Kollin Carter was credited as the Fashion Editor for Cardi B’s March 2019 cover of Harper’s Bazaar, and Luxury Law was credited as a collaborator for Zendaya’s S/S 2019 Tommy Hilfiger collection. However, this hasn’t quite become the industry standard, meaning that these limitations make coveted opportunities only available for a select few.
”...As far as we have come, we’re still battling that. And add that to being a black woman because you have so many men that are stylists. It feels like the circle is growing smaller for us as well.”
And these limitations are propelled within almost every other subsidiary in the industry; from talent management, to designers and the showrooms that house their collections. Many industry insiders, Austin explains, accept this as the status quo and aren’t hesitant to express their surprise when they discover that an A-lister is working with a stylist of color. While there is still some work to be done where black media is concerned, a bond of solidarity is cultivated among black creatives as they realize that the only way to break this cycle is to use their influence to make opportunities for people of color in these impenetrable spaces.
“When I meet other black stylists, we all have this sense of “OMG, yes” especially if they are a black actor or actress who has a black team. We love to see that among each other.”
Austin’s own career is the perfect example of this unspoken solidarity; not only has her rolodex of clients mostly been women of color, but she landed her 5-year stint as Angela Bassett’s stylist by a recommendation from her longest client, Tasha Smith.
“The majority of my clients are black so I always want us to represent that. From our skin tone to every aspect of us.”
Photo courtesy of Terrell Mullin @terrellmullin
Claiming an outright legend as a client was not only affirmational for Austin as a rare victory for a female stylist of color, but it became a full circle moment that brought her back to her first experience in the fashion industry. You can sense Austin’s giddiness as she recalls her journey from asking Angela Bassett for a selfie during L.A. Fashion Week as a fan, to becoming a part of her team years later as a Creative Director. There’s no question that Jennifer understands the magnitude of her role as the fashion visionary for a treasured gem and staple in the black community. And her work has proven to live up to this magnitude as we’ve all witnessed Angela Bassett’s vibrant transformation as a red carpet belle over the past few years.
“I am blessed to say that Angela is an amazing client, she is the model for what you want your client to be as a stylist... Working with her has been one of the most gratifying experiences for me as a stylist. She truly is a muse...The journey and the process that I’ve had with her has been a blessing.”
When Austin speaks about her relationship with Bassett, she emphasizes trust and synergy as the keys to their success as a duo. Once she got the opportunity to get to know Angela Bassett beyond the body goals and legendary acting that we’ve come to love her for, Austin made it her mission to allow the world to see Bassett for who she really is through the expression of her style.She did so, in large part, by making her self-proclaimed “nubian chic” aesthetic a key staple of Bassett’s look.
“I don't dress her as a 60 year old woman. I dress her for the energy and the woman that I know her to be within that...I always put her in vibrant colors because she is the kind of woman that can come into a room and grab everyone’s attention [without] trying to do it. So [I told her] if they’re gonna look at you, we’re gonna give them something to look at.”
Austin lived up to that promise when Angela Bassett unveiled one of her biggest style transformations to date during her Black Panther movie press tour in February 2018. We witnessed the Queen of Wakanda influence Bassett’s off-screen style as vibrant Afrocentric patterns, rich textures, stacks of regal gold jewelry, and a mane of natural-textured hair became staples of her new look. We also witnessed Angela Bassett embrace her blackness through her hair and fashion during a pivotal moment when Black Panther placed black culture front-and-center, both on and off the silver screen.
“ I really wanted [Angela] to be that representation for who we are. Because as an actor and as a fashion stylist, we are at the forefront of influence and we have to set that example of what is made to be acceptable. Because if we don't accept it and we don’t stand for it every time we have an opportunity to do it, that’s what makes the difference.”
Barely three years after Zendaya was ridiculed for wearing dreadlocks to the 2015 Academy Awards, black actresses like Viola Davis and Lupita Ny’ongo were making a statement by normalizing natural hair on red carpets. Recognizing that the Black Panther premiere was the perfect time for Angela Bassett to join the conversation and show her solidarity, Austin transformed her look to take the message of Black Panther to new heights.
“I knew at the time when the press for Black Panther was hitting that I wanted to make a change for her and [the Black Panther premiere] was the perfect opportunity for us to do so. When [the film] came out, it was a celebration of who we were as a people, in this film, in the fashion industry. I wanted to bring the tribal drama to it. I wanted to bring the black to it. I wanted it to kickstart a movement when it came to Angela and the look. “
Black Panther created a rare opportunity for the mainstream spotlight to be placed on black creatives from nearly all arenas of Hollywood, from screenwriters to set designers -- and during Black History Month, no less. Staying true to the industry’s unspoken black code, Austin made sure to spotlight Black brands in Bassett’s looks, sourcing pieces from emerging designers all over the world including Darrell Roache, Kashmirviii, Mafishi Doll Co., and Mombasa. Many celebrities and stylists tend to focus on choosing designers that’ be a good answer to the inevitable “who are you wearing” question on the red carpet -- but this isn’t a factor for Austin, or her star client Bassett, at all. Rather than looking at the biased selectivity of high fashion designers as an obstacle, Austin considers it an opportunity to really get creative with her clients while creating more points of entry for up-and-coming black designers.
“All of the [black] designers that I’ve worked with were good to me and have been fortunate enough to work with me at the beginning of my career and later in my career...It’s not always necessarily [about] the high end price points. I’m a stylist that styles with energy and by the feel of what I want [the look for] each event to look like. So I’m always open to [working with] any designer.”
Austin has always been proactive about cultivating strong relationships with black designers -- even long before the recent Gucci debacle made it cool to do so. Embracing her role as a gatekeeper, she’s remained adamant about keeping a pulse on emerging designers of color and creating more opportunities for them in the industry. Although she expresses conviction and passion for forging more diversity among red carpet designers, she acknowledges the challenges that sometimes come with working with up-and-comers.
“ I always want to support us and be here for us and bring back the whole FUBU for us by us slogan so I'm always proactive to go to Black designers to get things. [But sometimes] you can reach out to pull pieces and it can be very hard depending on the professionalism of the designer. That's a problem that we run into.”
Still, Austin emphasizes how much she enjoys working with black designers, who she considers to be essential to her signature “nubian chic” aesthetic of rich textures, patterns and ethnic handmade jewelry. She offers one key piece of advice to young black designers who are still hustling to get that big break;
“I always tell black designers to be ready for the call because you never know when it’s gonna happen.”
As our conversation with Austin came to an end, it became clear that there might have been something to that Rising Star Award she received. When asked where she saw her career going from here, many of her future plans involved charting new territory in the fashion industry -- from starting her own accessories and handbag line to adding to her roster of incredible clients and mentoring the future generation of stylists coming into the industry.
“It’s always a journey to figure out what the next step is for my brand and my career. I’m always looking for unique opportunities to work outside of my comfort zone because I always feel that makes me a better stylist.”
Austin’s drive to constantly push the limits of her career and her nonstop quest to learn more about every facet of the fashion industry makes her a rising star in an entirely new sense of the term. She’s only begun to hit her stride -- and as she continues to break all of the rules and define herself in the big leagues of the styling game, she’s determined to bring all rising stars of color with her along the way.