“I’m a working class hippie,” Nicole Chavez assures me, though almost everything about her would suggest the opposite.
As one of Hollywood’s best fashion stylists, she’s spent decades dressing some of the most photographed—and richest—women in Hollywood in the most glamorous—and expensive—clothes in the world.
All of which keeps her name far from synonymous with working class people. Or hippies. Until she starts diving into her past.
“My intention as a child, I think, was to always create, and I was always really inspired visually. I loved all things that were beautiful—fashion, makeup, art, film…
“I just never really thought that it would be a career path for me.”
From the age of six, Chavez’s parents made her work for everything she wanted, like running a lemonade stand to ‘earn’ a puppy.
“They instilled a really good work ethic in me and told me I could have anything that I wanted, as long as I worked hard for it.”
Still, she wasn’t sure what she wanted for many years. That is, until a high school art teacher began mentoring Chavez independently, encouraging her to explore her creative talents with photography.
“I started styling my friends and myself for the images and that’s when the styling bug really got me,” she says, “as I was drawn more to the creation of the image than the technical side of taking photos.”
Unsure how to break into the industry, she began working as a nanny for the family of an executive at Disney Studios and, in time, shared that she’d love any opportunity to break in to costume design.
Not too long after, a film shooting in Miami offered her $100 a day to work as a production assistant—as long as she was willing to fly herself out and find a place to live. She jumped at the shot.
“I thought it was the most amazing thing to ever happen to me, even though I had no idea how I was going to get out there,” admits Chavez.
“I went in with a good work ethic, showed up every morning on time, stayed late, and did whatever they asked me to do. I basically just said yes to everything at the beginning of my career because I so badly wanted to learn.”
After accumulating enough experience she was able to join the costume union and, with many years and projects under her belt, start a life-changing role working on The OC.
“Rachel [Bilson, who played Summer on The OC] and I had a great relationship and became very close friends working on set. It felt very organic and natural to style for her since we had a similar aesthetic.”
As Bilson’s profile grew, sending the actor to more and more red carpets, an opportunity to style her away from the show arose. So quickly, in fact, the choice became something of an ultimatum.
“It was a leap of faith,” says Chavez. “I had to stop taking other jobs in my union because it became too hard to juggle both. I wasn’t going to be making a lot of money, but I thought it was the right thing to do.
“We used to work around 80 hours a week. When we were doing The OC, it was physically exhausting work—you are on your feet standing on concrete or cement all day, so I was really excited about the opportunity to be on my own and try new things.”
Maintaining the pace of studio work to build a name for herself independently, Chavez took Kristen Bell on as a client soon after and the rest, as they say, is history.
“My business started to grow because I started to get out there more—going to events with Rachel and Kristen, where they would introduce me to some of their friends in the business. A lot of my success in the early days was through word of mouth.”
But success hasn’t always come easy.
As they don’t have a union, celebrity stylists have little choice but to accept the financial risks posed to creative freelancers.
And ‘average’ rates fluctuate between $500 and $5,000 per day. A not-too-shabby six-figure-plus salary, if you’re styling multiple celebrities multiple days a week, but much, much less otherwise.
Especially in the last year.
“When the pandemic hit, I was left with no work,” says Chavez. “For the first time in my career, there were no red carpets, and I was left with nothing but time to think about and strategize my career.”
Leaning into her skillset and growing online presence, she decided to launch a website of her own—Nicole Chavez Style—where she could recommend products and build stronger bonds with her followers, partnering up with Squarespace and using affiliate links to keep the money rolling in as organically as possible.
“I had been a stylist for hire my whole career; if my clients were busy working, I was busy working, but if they decided to take a year off and not work, I wasn’t working,” she says.
“Had the pandemic not happened, I would not have been able to strategize how to be in the driver’s seat of my career.”
Which she’s incredibly grateful for, as she wasn’t making “anywhere near” the money she used to make 15 years ago pre-pandemic.
“The studios started excluding stylists from flying with our clients for their press tours,” she explains. “Studios started to tell the actresses that if they wanted a stylist, they had to pay out of their own pocket, which inevitably led to our rates being cut, as clients couldn’t pay as much as studios.”
The move caused a dramatic decrease in stylist salaries, and they’ve never truly bounced back.
“In the last 10 years, stylists have had to find ways to brand themselves and grow their business outside of styling. That’s why you see so many stylists doing other things— because we have to.”
Not that she’s anywhere near throwing the towel in on her original dream. Chavez simply loves her work and clients too much.
Even now, she can recall how she felt when Katherine Heigl won an Emmy nearly fifteen years ago, styled (by Chavez) in a white Zac Posen denim gown. “After I styled her, she went to the carpet and I went to my parents’ house to watch in my pyjamas.
“I remember crying and it was really emotional. I was really proud of her and proud of the work.”
Chavez is truly, purely driven to create. And, despite a few difficult turns, feels more excited than ever to do so.
“It reminds me a lot of when I took the leap into styling 20-plus years ago,” she says. “I feel like I’m jumping into a second life, like a new phase.”