THE POLITICS OF STYLE | Lawren Howell
I can't actually remember when I first met Lawren. A close mutual friend brought us together, being both stylists. Yet that is where the similarities end. Lawren is completely elegant with a striking grace that will stop you in your tracks. She has this effortless Californian vibe that is uniquely refined, a total class act from the inside out.
I remember going to meet her at Vogue in New York, where she was assistant to the editor-in-chief Anna Wintour at the time. It was a Carrie Bradshaw moment for me, being a kid who lived for fashion growing up on a farm in rural Australia where the nearest clothing store was pretty much in the next state. Yet here was this young confident women, so naturally at ease in this world, who was so gracious and excepting of my rough and tumble self that we unnaturally became friends.
Fast forward to motherhood and her transition from city to country life in the Californian hills of Ojai, our worlds are not so far apart. It's here in Ojai that Sam and I spent the morning with Lawren at their beautiful home (she is also an interior stylist) with her husband Kris and two children Peter and Louisa talking about the evolution of career and style when family life is put at the forefront.
So Lawren thank you for having a chat with me today. I love nothing more than catching up with my Ojai mates.
You are welcome. You kind of belong here; it feels like you’re an Ojai mate.
I do miss it. For people that don’t know where Ojai is it’s about 1.5hrs out of LA. So when you’re shooting or you have a job on, do you have any secrets on how to manage the work and the kids?
I wish I did, it’s never easy and I’m realising that a lot of people feel that way. I’m not the only one but it’s particularly challenging when you don’t live in a place where you have to go to work. You really need to have your week planned out. It also forces me to really pick, choose and prioritise what I need to do. It’s crazy if you think about it; today it’s possible to be a fashion stylist and live in a small town 90 miles outside of a major city, 10 years ago you just couldn’t do that. And I think now the way we all communicate (digitally); there are great parts about it and there are not great parts about it. Maybe the not great part is that we’re always kind of working and even when we’re on a vacation, we’re tending to something; or sometimes a shoot’s been trailed into the end of a vacation; you know about all of this stuff Sheree.
It’s sounding very familiar. What was it that made you and Kris say ok time to move, we’re going to try and give Ojai a go?
We kind of did it as a family move, not so much a career move. I knew the kind of parent that (Kris) and I wanted to be, involved in our kids lives, able to attend school functions and honestly, if you’re in LA and you’re doing that you’re spending all day in your car driving your kids to places and we didn’t really want that. Nature is really important to us and exposing our kids to the camps that the kids go to up here…they have these incredible nature programs and that’s the kind of childhood we wanted for our kids. It really was about giving opportunity to the kids.
Have you noticed any surprising changes to your career since you’ve moved there, that perhaps you didn’t expect; something that you thought might’ve gone one way, has gone another?
I guess I was worried that with my career in the fashion world, I might’ve been a bit out of sight out of mind. It’s just not having people on a daily basis that you can talk shop with, go to appointments or talk about the same topics. I thought you’d lose your interest or trail off – it hasn’t been that way for me. We live in a time now where we’re all so connected and I have a big enough body of work, people in the industry know who I am, so I can still get work. I go to New York and have meetings to try and stay active and keep my network but it’s not something you’ve got to do on a daily basis.
I don’t know if it’s for everyone; it’s hard because you tune in and you tune out of this life a little bit. I think when you love something and you’ve been doing it for so long and it’s just part of your experience, you just build it into your life and then there’s other facets of your life too that have nothing to do with it.
Sometimes you have to leave really early in the morning if you get an early call time or if you’re headed to a meeting and you’re stuck in really bad traffic but overall it’s a trade off, like everything. In some way being in a small town, I feel like I can get more done in a day. There are less distractions, it doesn’t take as long to do your errands, you just have more opportunities to focus, and you’re not having to go to events. In some ways you can feel more productive in a small town.
Ojai’s such an exciting family town. It has it’s own heartbeat It’s a little exciting even though it’s quiet - it’s a great combination.
I remember telling my parents we were moving to Ojai and they thought that’s strange, cause most people your age are moving the to the city, they’re leaving the suburbs to go to the city. I just feel like there’s an empowering movement within our generation, we’re the generation that like to make things; we’re trying to be more makers. I think we now live in an age where you don’t need to necessarily be in an office all the time; people are taking advantage of that. Frankly I love Los Angeles. I go in a lot and I enjoy it but it’s nice to come out... Biking through Ojai, which we do, is like being in a perfume bottle. Between the wisteria and the orange blossoms this time of year, it’s just so heavenly.
Give me three good reasons why I should go to Ojai…
The air is fresh, the mountains are beautiful and there are a lot of really special people here - I think you feel that when you’re in this town.
I think that too you get to a certain age and you prioritise the thing that makes you the most happy and you say, well everything else will just fall into place around that and if you just do it, it just does.
Yes exactly. And I also feel that this is maybe a secondary point but when you’re not so obsessed with making money, it just happens you know. This has taken me a long time to realise but when you’re doing something you love, I think it becomes much easier to make money.
As soon as you just let all that go, it does happen and you’re just so much happier.
It sounds like you’ve got a similar kind of thing going.
It’s very similar, we’re about an hour out of the city, and we live in a village. There are a lot creative people around, a great community. Life is so different these days; work is where you live and thank goodness because it makes being a mother and having a career so much easier.
I agree. I just couldn’t imagine it any other way.
I remember when you had me meet you at Vogue H/Q in New York way back when we first met, man I was so star struck. My brain couldn’t comprehend that you worked with Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington; that they were possibly in the next room. Did you have any Carrie Bradshaw moments in your early days working with them?
I do think for sure, when you’re working in that office you feel like you’re in a very unique experience. You’re surrounded by people who are really really good at their jobs and are at the top top level. You kind of feel like the world is looking at this whole machine that is being produced and I’d have to think about whether there was one particular moment, because I think it would happen on a daily basis.
How long have you been working for Vogue?
Well I’ve been there in different capacities and now I’m a contributing editor so my role is pretty specific to whatever shoot I’m assigned to. When I first started I was the assistant to the editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and that was in 2002 I believe, so it’s been a while…
Can you tell us about your journey? How did you end up there?
I would say that fashion has always been something that I’ve been very interested in and along those same lines I had an interest in beautiful spaces and beautiful lifestyles and that image making process. I studied art history and I love photography - I wrote my senior thesis on the rise of consumer culture and advertising culture - so I definitely think that image making and the process of that has been something I’ve always loved.
I was living in New York and working for Kate Spade with ; I worked for the creative director Julia Leach and they just did some of the most amazing ad images ever, really beautiful narratives and just some really great photography.
Before that, through college I was interning with Christies and The Guggenheim and different independent art curators; I thought after school I wanted to go more into the art world, and work in a gallery. But what happened instead was I got a job at Condé Nast and got flung into the centre of the fashion world, where I worked at Vogue in different capacities.
After working for Anna I then worked for Phyllis Posnick who is an amazing amazing editor and her pictures to me, well no one else can do them. They’re unique beauty images, food images, still life; she does a lot of work but those are specific to her talent. We worked with Irving Penn in the last days of his life… so I did that for a few years and then I moved out to LA and was doing some of the really small up and coming actresses, the front of the book styling and then LA started becoming more on the map for fashion. Photographers were moving out there and all the photo shoots were happening out there; so I got to work with many different brands and many different photographers and magazines. And then I had kids…
Recently you styled the last editorial of the girls from Girls for Vogue. I remember the very first shoot you did with them when the show launched. That must have been pretty cool to be a part of that process, creating these defining moments in time culturally, especially as women. What was that gig like?
The photographer Norman Jean Roy worked on the first with me; I mean we didn’t even know what the show was. I think I remember kind of doing the research for it and thinking it was Sex in the City but it’s not really at all… it’s just funny looking back because obviously it’s a show that’s so much part of our pop culture right now. And the girls, they’re just super connected and there’s this moment too of expressing themselves on social media and you feel like you know them.
Norman is a photographer I’ve worked with a lot over the years and I definitely connect with him; he’s just great at portraiture - he can elevate the person by just trying to really tap into who they are. It’s a very respectful gaze he has when he shoots people and he gives them a scene where it just has a classic feeling. And that process is really, well you feel like you’re part of history.
You mentioned before that now you’re sort of moving into a second phase with your career and getting into the interior side of things a bit more. Do you find you’re tending to move away from fashion and more towards that space where it’s merging between the two?
I’m definitely not completely abandoning fashion! Certainly the prep work involved in doing an interior shoot verse a fashion image is very different - based on logistically things like who are your piano contacts, what brands are you going to call in, all the things you have to think about ahead of time. But I do think that when you’re talking about the actual process of putting elements together, like when you really break it down, they’re not that different. Colours and shapes and textures, balancing all that stuff and creating a mood; you know all that’s pretty much the same. But I do think styling an interior is way less political than working on celebrity portraits.
Yes, when you take humans out of the equation it gets a little simpler…
Yeah and I just love the manusha of it, the details of what makes a picture really pull you in and make it interesting. It can be something very small, like all the elements sort of reduce and you’ll just notice something that may be a real life situation, like putting an open book by a nightstand, that bring life into a room; or having a curtain open in a certain way. All of those things kind of help make a room have a little more life to it and I like that detail.
And don’t you feel like the audience that you’re talking to now is so much more broader than before social media and the Internet? It’s just a creative expression that is so common across all age brackets, demographics and markets. Interior’s is now a tool that everyone is using to have a form of self-expression, which I think changes the whole industry in itself.
People now, because there’s so many different modes of expressing yourself and your case and your style; the home is just one other aspect. It’s like travel and food, it’s just sort of that lifestyle category now. If you look at someone’s Instagram, it’s really boring if you’re only posting fashion images or brands. You want to get to know someone, how they live, where they’re travelling. All of those things now are much more home, fashion, style; it’s all one in the same.
Which is good news for creatives; the scope for projects has becomes so much more exciting.
Yeah I agree. There’s just more possibility, techniques and more to work with.
It seems like such a natural progression for you because you are already well known in your hood for being an interior style queen. What you have done with your own homes kind of says it all. When we spent the afternoon up there shooting you and your gorgeous family there was this amazing print, the ram print, and it was split in two, what’s the story behind that?
Yeah I love that photo. That was from a store that I love in San Francisco, Hudson Grace, and I knew I needed something really big there and that was one of the first things we bought for the house. It’s fun to just start somewhere and kind of build a room around something. With that, I was like, well that’s the scale we need for this house cause it’s huge and it felt like the right feeling. It’s fun to just start with a piece of art actually and then build a room around that.
You grew up in San Francisco, can you tell us about that?
I grew up in the city right near where the Procidio meets the Richmond and Laurel Heights. My parents still live there; my sister lives there, she’s a designer, she has a really beautiful line Stevie Howell and she does loungewear. It’s beautiful. She’s a painter and she went to art school and my mum and I convinced her to make prints from her work so she’s been printing and experimenting on different materials.
Amazing, so you have a sister, any other siblings?
Yeah I have a brother who lives in New York.
And are you all creative because it sounds like you’re from an all-creative family?
Yeah, we’re confused about my brother though, he’s a programmer but he also is very creative. He’s a great print photographer but he’s super high tech, I don’t even understand what he does…
He sounds like the smart one. We got into fashion and he got into tech. I’m thinking he nailed it.
He’s makes me feel really old cause like I don’t understand what he does…basically.
If the phone was to ring tomorrow and there was the perfect job on the other end, what would it be? What’s a job right now that would get you excited?
Honestly something that merges (for lack of a better word) the lifestyle image. Collaborating with a brand or magazine that wanted to shoot architecture and interiors or people that is not posed; or just visiting a world that you’re not familiar with. Imagine going to a village in Russia that has amazing cellars or something and you could just shoot their places and match that with beautiful ornate clothing. It isn’t new but I love the idea of brands approaching that.
So maybe its instead of big brand like Ralph Lauren having very separate divisions of home and fashion and sportswear, there are ways to make these pictures all talk to one another a little more and make one really cool campaign that’s a narrative that shows a little bit of home, shows a little bit of fashion, shows a bit of moments, just really great moments.