Bethesda Interview: Pascale Lemaire
The wardrobe and prop stylist from Silver Spring talks about reality TV fame, dressing Jill Biden, and why her job isn't always glamorous
Digital Tech: Kirsten Wyss. Hair and Makeup by Janice Kinigopoulos/THE Artist Agency. Set Dressing and Assistance: Tony Greene/THE Artist Agency. Location: DC Studios. Photo by Cade Martin
Name: Pascale Lemaire
What she does: Wardrobe and prop stylist
Lives In: Silver Spring
Pascale Lemaire and I are standing on an empty set at Photogroup Inc. studios in Silver Spring. The remnants of yesterday’s project have been cleared out. It’s just us against a giant empty white cyc wall that’s almost 17 feet high. The wall, a backdrop for photo shoots, curves as it reaches the ground and transitions into the floor. In finished photographs, it provides a seamless, distraction-free background behind a subject. That’s a good thing, because I don’t want any distractions from what Lemaire is about to show me.
Dressed in a hot-pink top to match her hot-pink lipstick, she wheels in three racks of hanging garments. She’s brought some of her most prized possessions: fur-collared Roberto Cavalli cardigans from the closet of The Real Housewives of D.C. star Lynda Erkiletian; a red-and-white-checked Givenchy trench scored at a Bethesda yard sale; sequined green hot pants scooped up at a sample sale hosted by former Washington Post fashion editor Nina Hyde; and 200-year-old corset bodices from the University of Maryland’s historical costumes department. As we sort through the hangers, Lemaire is able to recall in vivid detail how she sourced each article of clothing and, more importantly, how it’s been photographed over the years.
Lemaire, 55, is a wardrobe and prop stylist, one of few based in the D.C. area. Brands like Under Armour and Woolrich ask her to press, stuff and steam their wares for ad campaigns. Art directors hire her when a celebrity needs to look polished for the camera—she’s styled swimmer Michael Phelps and the cast of The Real Housewives of Potomac—and magazine editors bring her on board for elaborate fashion shoots. (Full disclosure: I hired Lemaire for assignments when I was the editor of Washingtonian Bride & Groom). She never knows what she might be asked to track down. “I have found stuffed owls, all sorts of weird musical instruments and strange props,” she says. “[The job] forces you to be creative and crafty. Being a good stylist is the ability to make lemonade when all you’ve got are some lemon skins.”
A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Lemaire moved to New York with her family in 1966 to stay with relatives, and settled in Silver Spring two years later. After graduating from the Academy of the Holy Names in 1980 (the Silver Spring school has since closed), she started college at Catholic University, which she attended for two years before transferring to the fashion design program at the University of Maryland. She was fashion and bridal editor at Baltimore magazine for nearly eight years before a run on the WE tv reality show Style Me with Rachel Hunter cemented her decision to pursue styling as a full-time career. In 2006, she left the magazine to freelance, and since then she’s worked on everything from promotional campaigns for The Washington Ballet to dorm room styling spots for German grocery chain Lidl. Last summer she spent four days on a fashion shoot in Iceland.
Sitting on a couch at Photogroup Inc., the closest thing Lemaire has to an office, the longtime Silver Spring resident talked about reality TV fame, dressing Jill Biden, and why what you see in magazines isn’t as effortless as it may look.
What brought your family to America?
My father was an on-air journalist on a local Haitian TV station. He was a favorite of ‘Papa Doc’ [Francois Duvalier, president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971], and these were tumultuous times. [Duvalier] often sent the Tonton Macoute, a kind of Haitian gestapo, to get my father wherever he was. I remember one Sunday we were at a beach, and these military guys came to get my father because Duvalier had something he wanted my father to read on air. They made my father get dressed, drive back to Port-au-Prince, and he delivered the news. This happened often, and my father was like, ‘I’m a journalist. I have ethics. I cannot, I will not, do this.’ So eventually we fled.
You spent two years at Catholic University before transferring to the University of Maryland. What brought on the switch?
I was a French major at Catholic. I grew up speaking French, but my high school French teacher let my grammar and spelling slide because I could speak so well. So when I got to my 400-level classes at Catholic, my teacher cracked the whip. And I was like, I hate French. I’ll never take another French class again, ever. I also did the drama program, thought maybe I’d become an actress. John Slattery [who played Roger Sterling on Mad Men] was in my class early on. But I discovered that there was not a lot of diversity. I would never be cast in Brigadoon as the lead because I was not a blond ingenue. So I had to reassess. My mother was like, ‘You’re at Catholic—it’s expensive. What are you doing?’
I switched to Maryland, which was cheaper. I regrouped. I started taking fashion design classes, and I found I was much better suited to small classes where the teacher cared and nudged me. I took a tailoring class, and I couldn’t really sew to save my life, but I was a good designer. My tailoring teacher saw something in me, and she encouraged me to apply to the Washington Fashion Group scholarship. I won [that] Betty Ford scholarship—$2,000—my senior year. That really pushed me. It affords students that show potential extra money. I could go to G Street Fabrics, where fabrics can be $300 a yard, and I could splurge on my design work.
How did your focus shift from design to styling?
I took a class with Dr. [Jo] Paoletti, the head of the costume department at UMD. She had a New York stylist, Katherine Cooke, come in, and she showed us her portfolio and also brought videos of Campbell’s soup commercials and music videos she had styled. When this woman spoke, I was like, ding ding ding! That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to dress people for photo shoots.
Cooke was styling the Congressional Black Caucus fashion show that year , and she had a casting call for local designers. I brought my stuff and I brought a model, and I was one of four local designers to be in the show. None of my clothes came down the runway, but she tied a couple of my sweaters—I did these crazy sweaters with multiple patterns and leather patches—around the necks of a few guy models. That picture came out in The Washington Post, and I was quoted. Not long after, Washingtonian magazine named me a ‘Person to Watch.’
What happened next?
After graduation, my friend Mike Wilson and I visited a friend who was a model in Milan. Backing up, I also used to do makeup for [former professional boxer] Sugar Ray Leonard, and I was on a job doing grooming for him. I mentioned in passing to the photographer that I was going to Milan. She said she had a friend that shoots for Italian Vogue, and she gave me the guy’s number. He was nice enough to meet me in his tiny little apartment in Milan, where he was like, ‘Look, nothing happens quick in Italy. Bottom line, if you really want to break into [styling], you have to bite the bullet and stay.’ I remember going back to our pensione [Italian boarding house] and calling my mother collect. Mom, send cash. Wire me money! My friend Mike left, and I stayed almost the rest of the summer. That was the pivotal moment my eye changed forever.
How did you start working in Milan?
I had the good fortune of being sort of adopted by this makeup artist I met. She would call and say, ‘I have a photo shoot, and they don’t have a stylist. Try to find whatever you can and come meet me.’ I would throw together whatever outfits I had, and she would bamboozle the photographer. That’s how I started doing portfolio shoots for models. After a while, my own clothes weren’t cutting it, so I figured out a way to borrow clothes from boutiques. I used my passport as collateral—I couldn’t go anywhere without it, so you know if I left that with a vendor, I was coming back for it.
Eventually my pensione got too expensive. This woman [the makeup artist] had a one-bedroom apartment, and she said I could pay rent and live with her. I slept on a mattress on the floor. She and her two daughters slept in the bed, and a photographer lived in the dining room. His name was Noel Sutherland. He was a New York photographer who would come to Milan because at this point, in the ’90s, Milan was the hot place where it was easy to get access to all these young new models and work with Italian Vogue—they were open to using up-and-coming photographers.
[Sutherland and I once] shot at the beach in Marghera, a remote little town. We shot one model in a turquoise-blue skinny pant and a turquoise-blue cropped top on a blue background. Everything was tone on tone, and [the model] just popped. It reinforced everything I saw in Italian magazines. It forced me to get to the essence of what makes an image interesting, to break it down to the simple essence of the thing [we were shooting] and let that speak. It’s still one of my favorite shots. I could put that in my [portfolio] today and it would still be relevant.
In 2005, you took a leave of absence from Baltimore magazine to compete in the reality show Style Me, hosted by supermodel Rachel Hunter. What was filming like?
We stayed at a ‘tricked out phat crib,’ which was the Flatotel in New York. I remember walking in and thinking, this is sort of familiar. They definitely used it on Project Runway. The flat had two bedrooms, which a bunch of people shared. I stayed in the living room behind a partition. We walked into a conference room, and [the cast] was such a motley crew. I remember going to the ladies’ room, closing the stall and thinking, what the hell have I done? It occurred to me that when people don’t know you, they immediately judge you based on whatever they see. Later on it occurred to me that there were Omarosa comparisons. People were intimidated, because of everyone there, I was the only one that had actually been a stylist. It was a rude awakening for me.
I did become friendly with this photographer [who was] trying to become a stylist. He was Latin, so he and I chitchatted in Spanish all the time, but the show cast him as though he was my nemesis, which was sort of weird. The producers play with your head. I understand fully now why people break down and cry. The first order of business was to collect everyone’s cellphones and lock them in a safe. You had no access to TV, to computers, to anything. You’re completely isolated with 12 people you don’t know from Adam.
Were the challenges similar to the real jobs of a professional stylist?
The challenges were completely unlike anything you have to do in real life. As a good stylist, you want to prepare, you want to research, but you couldn’t do any of that. Everything was on the fly. For our first challenge, we all got black J.Crew dresses and a mannequin. We were let loose in a flea market with $50 and told we had to get accessories to dress up this little black dress for [host Rachel Hunter] for a night out on the town. I found a vintage leg-of-mutton jacket. I turned it into a shrug, found an earring, and I was done. It was very unrealistic, but then they judged you on what you put together and what you bought.
Did you win the show?
I came in third place. I got eliminated on a Thursday, and they wrapped the show on Friday. [Back at home], everybody thought I won. I [had to wait to tell] my mother if I did or didn’t because they make you sign confidentiality agreements that scare the crap out of you.
What are your go-to stores when you’re shopping for work?
The Value Village and Unique Thrift stores on Randolph Road. I find all sorts of gems at these places, but you have to have an eye to recognize it. I once found a bridal gown for $15 for a Woolly Mammoth Theatre campaign. Of the higher-end stores, definitely Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase. Tabandeh for jewelry.
You’ve been in an industry that celebrates youth and newness for over 30 years. Do you ever feel discriminated against? How do you combat it?
It’s hard. You do feel ageism. You feel like art directors want to choose the next young thing because they have X amount of Instagram followers. But it’s one thing to stage your own stuff on Instagram—try to get Neiman Marcus to let you borrow $30,000 worth of merchandise instead.
When you book a stylist, you’re booking for what they can do, but it’s also what they have access to. There’s something that’s lost in translation with millennials not understanding that sometimes you need to pick up the phone and call someone. You need to send a handwritten note to someone who has gone out of their way to make you a custom design for a photo shoot. I think that’s what people buy into when they’re choosing someone like me for a shoot. It’s about my resources. I have relationships with boutiques that trust me. I have a network of people that I can reach out to for all sorts of crazy requests. The security guys at Neiman Marcus know my name. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s Pascale, that’s fine. She always brings everything back right away.’
You’ve dressed a number of celebrities. Any experiences in particular that stand out?
Working with celebrities is definitely a challenge. Unlike working with a model, where you can say, ‘Here, wear this,’ a celebrity has to like what you put them in. Again, it’s about doing your research. My first experience with a major celeb was for George magazine. I did an editorial with ABC News anchor Sam Donaldson. I was given a list of designers that he would wear, and I was told that he would only wear red ties. It was the kind of shoot where everyone comes in hours before to prep, and you only have 10 minutes with the person. They wanted him in casual clothes, and they had puppies because he loves Labs. They created a turf pad and a little white picket fence for the shoot. To see this major personality…be disarmed by all these little puppies licking his face, it was really funny.
I also had the honor of dressing the second lady, Dr. Jill Biden, for [a] cover story of Capitol File magazine. We shot at her office in the old executive building adjacent to the White House. [Biden] couldn’t have been nicer, and she had about five handlers. I pulled a frilly Oscar de la Renta dress. She put it on, and you could tell she thought it was fun because she started twirling in it and giggling. Her people said, ‘She loves this dress, but she can’t wear it for the shoot. It’s not setting the right example.’ She ended up wearing a very serious teal dress by Jason Wu that I pulled from Saks Fifth Avenue.
I did the grooming and styling for a shoot with Michael Phelps in Baltimore for Hilton Hotels. I had to slather him with a concoction of baby oil gel and self-tanner because they didn’t want him to be pasty white. That man has zero body fat. The producer was nervous because he has a bad-boy persona, but I started chitchatting with him and he was shocked that I knew so much about Baltimore. We got along great.
Have you worked on any movie productions?
I have major respect for people who do film, because it’s a different beast. [In 2016] I worked on a film called Fishbowl. They wrapped, and then they decided they had another seven to eight days of reshooting. They brought me in because the original costume designer was on another project. Keeping continuity is hard. There was a character who wore his own clothes in the original scenes, but the scenes have to match, and for the retakes he didn’t have his original olive- green polo shirt. I sent my assistant out and she found something in a sage color, but it didn’t match. We were in a church about to do this scene, and I don’t know what struck me, but I asked for coffee. I thought maybe I could stain it. I got a big pot, put black coffee in it, dunked the shirt, and it turned olive. I had to wring it out and put it on a hanger, and we blew that sucker dry with a fan.
What don’t people understand about your profession?
As stylists, we’re entrusted to execute a vision. Sometimes it’s not our own vision, but we’re entrusted to translate the braille spoken by the art director and re-create it in a way that you can see. It’s very ephemeral. Someone can say, ‘I want red,’ but they’re not telling you what type of red to use or what red garment to use.
I might get one thing here and one thing there [for a job], and somehow it all has to come together to say something in the end. That’s what’s hard to teach. It’s not just enough to have style. Styling isn’t about being able to look fierce yourself—that’s irrelevant. You have to be able to be fierce on a page.
You also can’t be a glamour-puss, because you get dirty. You’re putting on mud boots to schlep to some mountain, where you have to trek to the summit and then you have to dress a model in a million-dollar frock. Nobody sees that, but you’ve got to do it, and your legs are about to fall off because you never sat down once in a 12-hour day. Stylists are the unsung heroes.
Sarah Zlotnick is a lifestyle and wedding writer based in D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.