How A Registered Nurse Became The Go-To Stylist For The Cast Of OITNB

Photo: Courtesy of Anh Mai.
Women come in all shapes and sizes. We all know this to be true, yet it seems like that memo got lost on its way to Hollywood. There’s a serious shortage of brands and designers representing non-sample size women. But that also means there’s a window of opportunity to actually cater to the 67%, but as recent events make evident (actress Leslie Jones turning to Twitter after being ignored by designers and stylists for a Ghostbusters red carpet premiere, e.g.), not many are stepping up to the plate. Stylist Anh Mai is up to the challenge, perhaps because she’s had an unorthodox career path that began with the idea of helping all women. Mai was a nurse for five years in the cardiovascular department at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson Hospital before making a career change. It's not easy giving up a high paying job to tread the unpredictable waters of fashion, but Mai had a unique vision and mindset to go after her second ambition. “I know it’s cheesy, but I just really like helping people,” she explains. Perhaps her background is her greatest advantage: It has enabled her to curate fashion with a keen, real-world eye. At a previous NYFW show, Mai rocked an all-white, ultramodern ensemble — a long, button-down dress underneath a peplum neoprene tank. The most surprising aspect of her outfit was the sculptural top, which was actually intended to be a skirt. It’s a styling trick your wily best friend might concoct for a Friday night out, but it’s a kind of creativity that’s refreshing in an industry stylist. This aforementioned fashion show was, rather fittingly, Christian Siriano’s, the designer who ended up dressing Leslie Jones for her premiere. Mai and Siriano are both committed to addressing this fundamental oversight in fashion. And it’s precisely what makes Mai so successful; she offers a service that helps women feel as stunning as they look. Mai also attributes her overwhelming success to her blog, which has a minimalist and edgy aesthetic, that first caught the attention of the Orange Is the New Black actress Diane Guerrero. Now, she styles OITNB's Jackie Cruz, works on fashion campaigns, and travels the world at the drop of a hat. We caught up with the Mai to get the inside scoop on her clever styling technique and what drives her hustle to break through the fashion noise.
Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images.
How did you get into nursing? Was it a general interest or suggestion from your family?
"I always loved science! Some of it was pressure growing up in an Asian family. My mom actually wanted me to be a doctor. I know it’s cheesy, but I just really like helping people. So, I took a position at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, PA. I also have worked as a private registered nurse for an international patient. It’s helped me financially and blessed me with the ability to see a lot of the world." What sparked your interest in fashion? It seems like huge leap from nursing.
"I didn’t have a ton of hobbies growing up. I grew up in a really large family —I am one of eight — which meant that there was no extra money for extracurricular activities. I ended up getting a lot of hand-me-downs and figuring out ways to make it my own. Fashion was the only outlet to express myself. In high school, I always wore heels! Yes, you would never catch me in sneakers with the exception of my gym class. And I wore ripped jeans long before they sold ripped jeans. My brother and I would use serrated steak knives, sand paper and pretty much anything from my dad's toolbox to rough up our denim. I spray-painted T-shirts, and cut up my clothes to make it my own. My sense of style was always changing, and it was thrilling to have the school hallway as my catwalk."

So, you decide that you want a fashion career. What are your first steps?
"I enrolled in a fashion program at Moore College of Art & Design and took courses at night. I completed a certificate program in technical design, which involved [a range of] technical sewing classes. Nursing was rewarding, but a part of me felt like I was missing something. This is why I decided to flat-out leave nursing and go for fashion. I applied for a fashion startup in Philly called Kembrel. I landed an internship and worked my way up to [being a] buyer. It was great. I learned a lot about the business end of fashion. [Over time,] I realized that it wasn’t creative enough so I focused on my blog. That’s where I really got my creative juices flowing. I would upload photos of my style, accessories I love, and my travels around the world."

Tell us about your blog; what's your style, and who do you collaborate with?

"I would describe my personal style as minimal. It's a reflection of my fast-paced lifestyle. I like to keep my wardrobe as simple as possible, especially when traveling. I typically write about trending styles, my personal experiences. I will be shifting more towards lifestyle, home decor; and healthy mind, body and soul. My blog, Mai Style Pages was created through a collaboration with Sophie Cécile Xu (my photographer). We met through a project for her biannual magazine, Stardust Magazine. We immediately meshed and became fast friends who appreciated one another's knowledge in style and photography." How did you come to styling the Orange Is the New Black actresses?
"My blog was like a portfolio. People knew that I could style, because I was styling myself. That’s how I connected with Diane from Orange Is the New Black. She had been reading my blog and followed me on social media. We would go back and forth commenting on each other’s photos on Instagram. I left a comment saying, 'Congratulations on all of the success. It would be so much fun to style you.' She reached out to me immediately after and was like, 'Hey, I don’t have a stylist, and I’ve been reading your blog. Would you be interested in working together?' She mentioned that she loved the minimalism and edginess of my style. I styled her for a Latino Cosmopolitan event. That got the ball rolling for me. We became friends after and [I] went to events with her. I actually met Jackie Cruz through Diane. I style them for Fashion Week, parties and red carpets."
Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images.
Those two actresses don't represent the typical Hollywood client. How do you approach styling women with diverse body types in general?
"Let's be real, most of us aren’t 5'10" and sample-sized. I've never seen dressing real women as a challenge, being that I am a petite gal myself (just shy of 5'2"). I realize that there would be challenges even when dressing myself. I have always had problems with pants being too long, or buying a crop top only to have it be a normal length on my torso. So that has helped me be very aware and empathetic towards all body types. Is it a challenge? I think styling can be a challenge but that's what keeps me excited. "For my clients, I always ONLY focus on the positives. If you love your arms because you have dope tattoos, and want to show them off, let's do that. If you love your back, let's make sure we get more open back dresses and tops to emphasize your back. I'll even go as far as pulling out my makeup bag and dazzle your back with a highlighting powder. There are many ways to emphasize on your favorite body parts that makes you feel so good you won't remember you hate your wonky pinky toe." Do you think your science background has helped you to approach styling differently?
"Any field that you’ve worked in contributes to your new experiences in your life. At times, nursing can be really hard. You have to be creative when you are in tough situations and when you do not have something on hand. For example, a patient needed a hot pack and I did not have one on hand. So, I just found towels and Chucks and heated them up in the microwave to make an impromptu hot pack. You just have to think on your feet. It’s something that has helped me a lot in tough fashion situations. Zippers break; dresses rip. You just have to grab pins, find the perfect bra, and use duct tape if you have to, to make it work."

Do you employ any particular techniques or custom styling tricks when working with women outside the Hollywood norm?
"It’s all about the elevated high and low price point styling technique. When styling my normal clients, there are enough websites that will have proper sizes for all people, like ASOS. They carry larger sizes and different brands. You can pair something cheaper with a designer piece to make a custom, elevated look. When you find the right balance of high-end and low-end products, you can achieve the look that you want. It doesn’t have to be super expensive. "I recently styled Diane for the Emmys. The dress was less than $200 and we just paired it with a designer clutch and shoes to make it a really great outfit. It does not have to come from a major designer to look good. You have to be able to make anyone look and feel good. Even the Kardashians have that same style technique. You think that they are wearing really expensive clothes, but in reality the whole outfit can be less than $400 to $500. Which is still affordable for the working woman. Kourtney wears like really great Australian brands that are in the $200 to $300 range and she literally wears it to a red carpet. "I think I am like their stylist Monica Rose, who buys affordable pieces and elevates them with the way that she styles it. The thought is that you can always buy a really expensive pair of shoes and wear it a hundred times but you can’t buy an expensive dress and wear it a lot. It’s better to buy the cheaper dress and invest in a great pair of shoes." Have you come across the Leslie Jones/Christian Siriano debate in the media? What are your thoughts about his position?
"I think we should support designers like Christian Siriano who design for all body types. I followed Christian's plus-size line for Lane Bryant and in the beginning when he designed shoes for Payless. It's awesome he is offering his designs to diverse demographics whether it’s sizes or prices. Not all of us can afford the $500 price tag for a pair of designer shoes. I believe if we continue to support designers like him, perhaps other designers will see there is a market for all of us non [sample-size] consumers. But more importantly designers should design for 'real women.' I say, Christian has started a revolution for real women; the mainstream media just hasn't realized it yet."

Other than Siriano, who else is dressing women of all shapes and sizes?
"I’ve worked with Michael Costello, and he is really great at custom clothing design and he turns it over super quickly, like a few days. He will fit a plus-size or curvy woman and do it really well."

How are you able to overcome challenges with resources? Will brands lend you clothes?
"In the beginning it’s tough to make a name for yourself. Given my [background] in nursing, I couldn't prove my artistic abilities. It meant I had to hustle a lot. First I reached out to independent designers, then as my portfolio grew so did my choice of designers. Working with the ladies from OITNB has certainly helped. Now I have designers reaching out to me to pull from their collections. I remember there was a time I pulled things out of my own closet and went thrift and vintage shopping for shoots, (which I read was something Kim K's stylist Monica Rose also did). It’s not easy but worth it when you love what you do."

How familiar are you with a client's taste and how do you merge your taste with theirs?
"You and your client may not always meet eye to eye. I think when clients reach out to me they have done their research and know what my style is. But as a stylist, I am capable of working with an array of styles, so the clients and I are always able to find a happy medium. But I always tell everyone I work with, the most important thing is that you "feel" good and love what you are wearing. That's my main priority, other than that we just have fun. If you don't love it, let's take it off and start again."

If you could dress anyone in Hollywood who isn’t the typical starlet running around in custom Dior, who would you dress?

"I really love Uzo Aduba from Orange Is the New Black. She has a great athletic build... I just love working with positive people with good energy. She is insanely sweet and normal and definitely a big name now. She is a positive influence for a lot of people."

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to make a career change into fashion?
"Be persistent. Be a genuinely good person and put out positive vibes. Network, network, network! It is the most important thing. Don’t just meet people expecting to get a job out of it. You have to know that fashion is really hard. Even when you meet someone, it might not happen right away, but if you keep building on these relationships, they will remember you. They will reach out to you when the time comes. Passion is infectious; if you really believe what you do, people will believe it, too. That has happened to me."

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