A life in fashion: talking to super stylist Brent Lawler about celebrity, style and beauty in the pandemic age

Looking through the online portfolio of New Zealand-born, New York-based hair stylist, Brent Lawler is like shining a light on some of fashion’s most iconic moments. There’s faces like Gigi Hadid and Irina Shayk, alongside Paris Jackson and supermodel Stephanie Seymour – the latter of whom is a personal friend. It would be safe to say that the enduring creative lives and breathes fashion, and even when we talk at 3:30am New York time, he’s more than ready to wax lyrical about some of his favourite moments.

Rita Ora at the Met Gala, hair and hairpiece by Brent Lawler

Rushed off his feet with work as New York gradually opens up after being hit hard early on in the pandemic, he says he’s relieved to be “incredibly busy after pretty much doing nothing for the past 14 months. What has happened is that big companies need to get people back in stores again, and advertising is key. They want people to know that they’ve changed things up and are ready to welcome them back, and fast”.
He says that the whole industry has had to work out how to re-engage safely, which includes a dramatic reduction in the number of people on the average set. “It used to be hair and makeup, the photographer and his five assistants along with advertising agency representatives,” explains the stylist, “and that has all shrunk. It’s a small set now, everyone is tested and everyone has to show their vaccination card, which is on an app provided by the New York government.” He adds that there are still a lot of people who aren’t willing to be vaccinated, “which is why we’re blowing up again. It’s a hard landscape to navigate, and to be honest it was utterly heart-breaking”.

Hair by Brent Lawler

Amazingly, Lawler was in New Zealand when the pandemic hit, working with designer Adrienne Winkelmann – who he met when he was 20 year old – on her Winter 2020 advertising campaign. He spent Sunday on a boat with Winkelmann watching orca at play, flew back to New York the next evening and by Friday? The city that never sleeps had been shut down. “The only people on the street were the US Army, protecting the stores,” he elaborates, “it was surreal. I’m an insomniac and would often walk to Times Square in the middle of the night, which as a native New Yorker you would never normally do because of the millions of people and tourists. Last year it was just me, and maybe one other person. The billboards were still going and it felt like the apocalypse.”
Talk turns to the upcoming New Zealand Fashion Week, which Lawler flew home to work on in its first year. He was invited by WORLD designers Denise L’Éstrange-Corbet and Francis Hooper to collaborate on the hair looks to complement their fantastic runway creations, and it’s a relationship that has endured. “I remember it being so exciting and such a fun time,” he says, “and everyone was doing their own thing: Adrienne (Winkelmann), Patrick Steel and Zambesi. WORLD wanted to create something people had never seen before, with drag queens walking the runway at a time when they would never be seen in a fashion setting like that. The message was always so creative, and inspiring and different, and I would say to Francis: ‘is that wig too big, is there too much glitter?’, and he’d reply, ‘it needs to be bigger, more glitter!’”

Irina Shayk, hair by Brent Lawler

Nowadays he focuses mostly on editorial work, saying “my strength really lies in images, and that’s where I shine creatively”. He also has long time celebrity clients that have sought him out after seeing his editorial work, like a certain Celine Dion who saw a shoot he’d worked on in Vogue. “She’s delightful and hilarious and a very creative person,” he says of the unabashed diva, “she really is up for anything and we have a lot of fun.” When asked to name his favourite model he hesitates, saying “they are all so unique and special in their own way, and I love all of them. Stephanie Seymour (below) is one I really love though, she’s just so smart and so sexy and an absolute pleasure to be around. She is a beautiful person inside and out.”

Stephanie Seymour for Vogue Italia, hair by Brent Lawler

His creative life has been full of highlights, the first being his big break just months after arriving in New York. “I was called by Peter Lindbergh to meet with him about a project based around the theme of the world ending,” explains Lawler. “He asked me to do some drawings so of course I did, then the next day he booked me and I found out the job was 22 pages in Italian Vogue. Two days later I was on a Roberto Cavalli campaign with him, and the rest is history.” The moment set in motion what has been an exceptional career, “and I still feel so lucky to have landed something so prestigious so early on. Some people work for years in New York without getting a break like that, but I was always very determined”. He asserts that the fashion industry is a tough place to survive in at times, “and you have to have a thirst for it as well as be ridiculously talented if you want to last. It will eat it you up and spit you out, you have to be ready”.
The creative laments that shoots of a truly grand magnitude just don’t come around much anymore, with the growth of disposable fashion and its associated imagery. “During months in isolation I had a lot of time to think,” he reflects, “and I did have moments where I thought perhaps it’s the time for me to leave the stage graciously and move on. But this is what I do, and I do it very well. It’s where I find myself most happy, and I become better by being around people who are likeminded – the makeup artists, the photographers.”
“I think going forward the big shoots may happen less, but they will be more about the craft. Great work by great people who are incredible at what they do.”

This story first appeared in VIEW magazine, click here to read the latest issue and here to follow them on Instagram.


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