When faced with a virtual award season, which began with the 2020 Emmys in September and concluded with the Critics’ Choice Awards in March, fashion stylists pivoted, adjusting their methods for the new pandemic-friendly format, and broadcasting their hard work on social media. As a result of their strategic modifications, this award season's red carpet was as glamorous as it was memorable. The 2021 Oscars, the first major award show to take place in person in a year, marked the return to IRL red carpets. But the stylists that made this season a success believe the move to virtual changed red carpets for the better.
Micah McDonald and Wayman Bannerman, the styling partnership behind Regina King’s red carpet looks this season, say that they actually preferred digital red carpets. The duo — who just landed third on Hollywood Reporter’s 2021 Most Powerful Stylists list, after Zendaya’s Image Architect Law Roach and Beyoncé’s stylist Zerina Akers — used the switch to virtual red carpets to make statement after statement.
For example, for the Emmys, they dressed the Watchmen actress in a blue Schiaparelli Haute Couture gown. To showcase the sculptural look, they teamed up with photographer James Anthony to create a virtual reality backdrop for her pre-show photoshoot. The result was better than any award season step-and repeat — a video showing King dancing against a moving drawing of two Black women that was meant to evoke feelings of sisterhood. “Going digital allowed us to tell a story,” McDonald says. Later in the night, King honored Breonna Taylor when she changed into a T-shirt that read, “Say Her Name.”
In the absence of red carpets, stylists were able to craft their own photo and video shoots to showcase the fashion, rather than rely on photographers assigned to shoot the events. According to McDonald, that allowed them to work with photographers and other creatives in a way that wouldn’t have been possible pre-pandemic: “We finally could collaborate with people of color that we love and admire like the photographers [and other creatives] that were all Black and of African descent.” The move to Instagram and other digital platforms also allowed McDonald and Bannerman to offer fellowship opportunities to young talent this year.
Stylist Jason Bolden, whose work with actress Cynthia Erivo this season landed her on every best-dressed list of the year, agrees that the digital format had a lot of advantages. “It allowed us to bring back that really cool part about red carpet interviews that people used to love," he says. Whereas years ago interviewers used to ask celebrities in detail why they chose their looks, now, few have enough airtime to go beyond the standard, “Who are you wearing?” — and sometimes, they don’t even ask that. By showcasing looks on Instagram, Bolden could share every detail of a particular ensemble, from a specific jewelry moment to a distinct beauty reference, all in the form of a caption.
“Now, I get away with things that might not be [otherwise] photographed,” says Bolden. When, at the 2020 SAG Awards, he styled a Roberto Coin necklace backward on Erivo, so as to have it lay on her back, the moment was mostly overlooked, with every camera aimed at the front of her orange-and-pink Schiaparelli dress. “Now, with something like that, I can actually show you 360 degrees of a look and give you the full moment that you would have otherwise missed,” he says. Case in point: The stylist put Erivo in sky-high platform heels for the 2021 Golden Globes. “[The digital format] has really allowed us to be more creative with what we do for the red carpet,” Bannerman adds.
The virtual aspect also pushed Bannerman and McDonald to be more environmentally conscious when planning a look for an event. “We're being more strategic about what we call in,” Bannerman says. “We’re no longer pulling items that we don't necessarily need. The goal was to avoid being excessive in anything that we did,” he says.
Of course, the strangest award season on record wasn’t without its hiccups. “It was frustrating [at times,]” says Bolden. “In many cases, we were having to try and get everything done in one [fell] swoop: picking the dress, altering it, making a decision on jewelry, etc.” Before the pandemic, there could be multiple fittings and dress changes involved in a single show’s look. This season, the entire process was tightened to minimize social interaction. “Not being able to truly see people and actually fit them in person was challenging,” he adds. He also admits to having missed the lavish nature of the red carpets, as did his clients: “They miss the fantasy, the glamour, the layering on loads of diamonds — I think they miss all of that,” Bolden says. “Award shows are their time to shine.”
That said, going back to the old way of doing things isn’t an interest of Bolden's, or Bannerman and McDonald’s for that matter. “What we plan to do [in the future] is a healthy mix of both,” says McDonald. In this hybrid version, stylists would tell the story of their client’s look on social media — hosting their own photoshoots and capturing every possible angle — before sending them off to the IRL red carpet. “What that does is allow us to first, display our narrative, while still celebrating the tried-and-true narrative of the red carpet.” According to Bolden, it also allows the public to get to know the talent — people like hairdressers, makeup artists, and stylists, who previously existed behind the scenes. After all, they are the ones who made this year's red carpet so unforgettable.