We asked Courtney Madison, what does a stylist do, anyway?

Stylists like Courtney Madison are in demand. The L.A-based Toronto ex-pat - who works alongside industry heavyweights Hayley Atkin, Mel Ottenberg and Marni Senofonte, and with clients like Beyoncé, Mindy Kaling, and Rihanna - knows how to carefully select the right pieces to help communicate an idea. It’s a skill she’s been developing her whole life.
Beyonce (Courtney Madison)

When the video for Rihanna's new song "Work" came out, people flipped out over her thigh chain and mesh dress as much as they did the hypnotic "work, work, work, work, work" refrain. With the dress on display in Toronto's The Real Jerk, seen against a backdrop of dancers winding down low, Rihanna's see-through ensemble sent a subtle message to anyone well familiar with Jamaican culture — "Work" is a dancehall reggae tune.

The mesh marina is as Jamaican as the plaid lumberjack shirt is Canadian, and an important cultural reference — in wearing it, the Barbados-born artist, signalled to anyone mislabelling the song a Tropical House track that it is a bona fide riddim.

Such is the power of fashion, which is why stylists like Courtney Madison are so much in demand. The L.A-based Toronto expat — who works alongside industry heavyweights Hayley Atkin, Mel Ottenberg and Marni Senofonte, and with clients like Beyoncé, Mindy Kaling, and bad gyal Rih Rih herself — knows how to carefully select the right pieces to help communicate an idea. It's a skill she's been developing her whole life.

Courtney Madison as a budding stylist. (Photo: Courtney's mom)

Madison's love of fashion began at the age of four, when her style-conscious mother — who "has always been a high and low shopper" — started teaching her about textiles, colours and shapes. Everyday before school, her mom would snap a photo of the day's attire. Even in those photos, you could tell — she didn't just know how to dress well, she knew how to curate a look. At only 18 years old, Madison began her professional styling career and now styles the biggest cultural icons of the millennial generation.

Madison spoke with CBC Arts about styling as a legitimate art, working with clients under a massive spotlight, and developing a unique identity.

Styling sounds like a fun job, shopping for a living — or is that a misconception? How would you describe what you actually do?

Well it really depends on the job. For some projects I actually don't shop at all and might be dealing strictly with showrooms, designers, or having custom pieces created. Even when you are shopping retail it can be for a needle in a haystack that was needed yesterday. It's definitely not a leisurely stroll through the mall.

Give us a brief overview of what a styling project entails.

Typically the most conceptual projects are editorials or videos. Those concepts are usually a collaboration but sometimes we may just be given a direction where the client already has a specific look in mind and we're hired to execute that. That execution is really what makes each stylist's taste unique, though, and ultimately, why they would be hired over another person. Anyone can pull together racks of clothes. The interesting thing is seeing how they're pulled together to make something striking.

Who or what has inspired you over the course of your career?

Without a doubt, my mom has been my biggest influence. She's the best! I do really admire a strong women though. Women like Iris Apfel and Diana Vreeland. I just always think, "Why be a swan when you can be a peacock?" Beyond that, I am fortunate to have met some very talented people along the way that took the time to mentor me. Nothing is more valuable than relationships.

A model poses in a magazine fashion shoot. (Styling: Courtney Madison, Photo: Hannah Sider)

In music, you can set yourself apart with a unique vocal style; in painting, a particular brushstroke. How does a stylist go about creating a unique identity for themselves?

Like every creative person, there's always something special about them. Personally I love wearing bright colors and interesting shapes, but just because I like that doesn't mean I would suggest that to a client if it didn't suit them. I think a key to making your mark is getting to know your client really well. If you can consistently work with someone who comes to trust your taste then you can have the opportunity to consistently make a statement. I think Mel [Ottenberg] has been able to do that with Rihanna, for example. If you look back at what she's worn over the years you can get a strong sense of what Mel has accomplished as a stylist. I don't think I have made my mark yet in my own career. Right now I am happy to be recognized by my peers for working hard.

Courtney Madison, Canadian-born stylist, has worked with everyone from Rihanna and Beyonce to Mindy Kaling. (Photo: Aimee Laurel)

What do you hope audiences take away from your work?

I love that fashion, as an art, is subjective. It's great to put your own intentions into it, but at the end of the day there's a real beauty in the viewer being able to experience it in their own way and interpret it for themselves. We're always trying to fit into boxes, and fashion — as with any art form — should be able to exist outside of that.

A model poses for a fashion shoot. (Styling: Courtney Madison; Photo: Hannah Sider)

What would you say to someone who would argue that styling isn't an art?

I don't like arguing, but I do believe that we are all walking canvases. True style comes from having a creative eye and a need for self expression.


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