B. Akerlund doesn't want to be called a stylist anymore. Even though her impressive résumé includes jaw-dropping looks worn in Britney Spears's "Work Bitch," Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi," and Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts," Akerlund prefers the title "fashion activist." It makes sense — her 20-plus-year career has evolved into so much more than styling.
In the past three years, Akerlund has become a champion for emerging designers: she built a fashion app, Who You Are, that showcases their work. She also runs The Residency, an exclusive showroom and full-service PR agency based in Los Angeles. Finally, there's Le Snob, the luxury-accessories line she launched last year with creative director Robert Lussier, as well as an upcoming project with Regan Arts called Parental Advisory, a visually interactive book of fashion, art, music, and crafts for parents and children.
Knowing I would be meeting B. at The Residency, I prepared myself to be overcome with emotion at the sartorial works of art on display. After all, this was the woman who transformed Madonna into a gladiator goddess for the Super Bowl and placed live butterflies on Katy Perry's dress for her Harper's Bazaar Icons performance. There was also the issue of what to wear to meet one of my fashion idols. I grabbed something "happy" — my psychedelic vintage mod dress. I would later discover that I unknowingly took B.'s advice and dressed "according to a feeling." I talked to B. about other people's misconceptions about her job, what it was like discovering her own style as a teen, and her "pink phase."
Marie Lodi: Can you tell me about growing up in Stockholm and how it affected your sense of style?
B. Akerlund: Los Angeles is definitely not like this, but in Stockholm, trends are very big. If there's a jacket that's the "It" jacket — the whole country has that jacket. If there's a hat with a pom-pom on the head, the whole country has that hat. You don't really see it here because it's more diverse, but growing up in Stockholm it was very much like that. 501 Levis when I was a teenager — that was it. The more beat-up and lighter they were, the cooler you were.
You were constantly looking for American products and seeking out what you couldn't have. There were very few that stood out in the crowd because everybody had the same everything all the time, and it was certain brands that were in. And as a teenager, you try to fit in. I was always kind of a little bit off, even growing up, because my mother would go shopping in Paris for me and come back with these balloon pants. It was the '80s. You look back through the photos, and I always had a weird outfit on. She loved to dress me up. When I moved to L.A., I was 14, and everybody was wearing Guess jeans with those big puffy socks, which was the total opposite of where I came from. I thought, Oh my God, this is so horrible.
It was the first time I figured out I had my own opinion and was like, "I'm not going to go with the crowd. These jeans look awful on me, so I'm just not going to go for it." That's when I first found my identity, and I started collecting vintage clothing. I didn't have a big budget at the time, so I would just seek out all these really amazing costumes that I started wearing. I won "Best Dressed" in the eighth grade. I was also really shy growing up, so clothes were a way for me to not have to speak. I could just express myself through them. Even today, I dress the way I feel.
I love hard and soft. I like high and low. I don't like anything in the middle; I like really low or really high.
ML: I love that. Dressing to the extremes. When you started collecting vintage, were there any designers that you were drawn to?
BA: I didn't really know about designers at the time. That wasn't my passion. My interest was finding pieces that moved me, and also costumes. I had a whole year where I dressed in a different outfit. I would wear anything from a Boy Scout to a nun's outfit to an Indian sari. I was really finding myself through character. There were no rules to what I liked. I loved '60s mod. I like punk. I like rock and roll. I don't ever try to limit myself to one style.
ML: That certainly helps with what you do, having to style different clients.
BA: I feel like that was the beginning of understanding characters and creating fashion out of nothing. I tried everything. I went through a pink phase that was really serious. I had a pink bedroom. I had a pink car. I had pink hair. I had a pink cowboy outfit with a pink cowboy hat that I would always travel with. I called it my lucky outfit. Now when I think about it, just ... you made a lot of friends.
ML: It's a happy color.
BA: You were always very welcome wherever you went because people greet you differently. Even today, I feel like if you dress like a bum, then no one's going to look at you, but if you put on a great outfit, you're going to make friends everywhere you go — from the valet parker to the moms at school.
ML: That's so true. I think I might be going through my pink phase. My bathroom is pink. How did you go from having a pink phase to having a successful styling career?
BA: I lived next to a photographer, and my mom kicked me out because I was really an unruly teenager. She basically said, "Either you go back to school or you're on your own." I decided school wasn't for me. I had something else inside of me, and I didn't know at the time what it was, but I was a club kid. I would go to the clubs and dress up in wigs, full-on drag. The photographer said to me, "You should be a stylist." At the time, nobody knew what a stylist did. He explained it to me and he gave me my first job. I did a calendar with drag queens and I dressed them all from my closet. I was like, That's easy, and it escalated from there.
ML: Was there any point in your career where you were like, Fuck this — where you questioned it or thought you might want to do something else?
BA: No, never. All I remember is people kept telling me, "You're so young, you have to slow down." But I wanted all of it, and I didn't want to wait. I was super hungry. I just knew that it was my calling. It comes very natural for me. I don't have to think about it.
I worked really hard doing a lot of crap jobs just to make ends meet and just kept going. I think I did enough music videos where I would dress the background performers, and the background always looked better than the artist, so the directors and photographers started to take notice. I remember a lot of the times they actually looked better than the talent. I did a lot of that, just carving my way forward. Then I started doing the front people.
ML: What's the work you're most proud of?
BA: The Madonna Super Bowl, because it will forever go down in history and is probably one of the biggest shows I ever worked on. At the moment I felt like, OK, if I never style again, [it's fine because] I just proved what I'm worth.
ML: What's the biggest misconception people have about what you do?
BA: That it's glamorous and easy. It's not. It's really hard work. It's one thing to be creative, but you have to be good at other things too. You have to be a people person. You have to be organized. You have to manage money. You have to not lose things. You have to not give up. That's the whole thing. With this kind of job, you have to just keep going until it's done, until you feel it's done. That's what you have to do to be the best. You can't ever just settle for OK.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Marie Lodi is a staff writer at HelloGiggles. She has a framed photo of Cam'ron's pink phase hanging on the wall of her pink bathroom.