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Rachel Zoe Talks 10 Years of Oscars Styling and a Red Carpet Return 'Without the Pettiness' (Exclusive)

The legendary celeb stylist for Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jennifer Garner (and star of Bravo's 'The Rachel Zoe Project') shares how she survived rumors, assistants, and even the Fashion Police

<p>Stefanie Keenan/Getty</p>

Stefanie Keenan/Getty

Rachel Zoe knew the orange dress, folded on a hanger, was the one.

It was 20 years ago exactly, days before the Oscars and Zoe — the stylist known at that time mostly for her work at YM magazine, ad campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger, and her work with Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and the Backstreet Boys — was going to style an A-list actress for the Academy Awards for the first time.

“It was the biggest thing I had ever done,” Zoe remembers. “I had been working with Jennifer Garner for a few months. She was shooting her show Alias then. Her schedule was so insane! I would go to her trailer wherever she was shooting. And whatever time of night she had off, 30 minutes or an hour, that's when we would fit her.”

Zoe showed her the orange dress. A vintage Valentino from the house’s archives. Garner was skeptical.

“‘No, no, no. I don’t do one-shoulder,’” she says Garner told her. “‘It doesn’t look good on me.’” Plus, it was orange, albeit a coral orange.  “It was the most unlikely color," Zoe acknowledges, "the most unlikely sort of style where she's like, ‘I don't, I don't do this.’ And it was also like, ‘I don't do big jewelry.’ She didn’t even have her ears pierced at the time, and I had these major Fred Leighton earrings.” Zoe laughs. “It was all these, ‘I don't do's.’”

"Okay, well, can we just try it?" Zoe pleaded. But, she admits, “I was nervous.”

This was 2004, the height of what Zoe terms, "the Fashion Police era," referring to the Joan Rivers-hosted celebrity-style critiquing show that debuted on E! in 2002.  “Like, people crucifying everyone for looking a certain way. I don't miss that pettiness. It made me crawl out of my skin. says, Garner became “obsessed with it.” And, as it turns out, everyone was obsessed with it. Even the Fashion Police.

“Jen and I still talk about this moment to this day,” Zoe says. remembering Garner's "swan like" pose on the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre. "That was when we fell in love." The two became close friends.

<p>Peter Brooker/Shutterstock</p> Jennifer Garner, wearing vintage Valentino, was styled by Rachel Zoe for the 2004 Oscars

Peter Brooker/Shutterstock

Jennifer Garner, wearing vintage Valentino, was styled by Rachel Zoe for the 2004 Oscars

This red carpet season, the woman known for her love of vintage, major jewelry, and dramatic cuts, all swirled together with seemingly little effort into a result best described as SoCal soigné, is feeling a little nostalgic. Zoe retired from celebrity styling a decade ago, stepping away from the sequined world that made her nearly as big a celebrity as her clients Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and Eva Mendes. She wanted to concentrate on both motherhood and her brand. (She has two sons with husband Rodger Berman and serves as co-CEO of Rachel Zoe, Inc., CURATEUR, Rachel Zoe Collection, and Chairwoman of Rachel Zoe Ventures. The third season of her podcast, Climbing in Heels, is out in April.)

Her former world, filled with fittings with Hollywood stars and fits from fashion assistants and lots of capital-F Fashion!, was chronicled on her 2008-2013 reality show The Rachel Zoe Project, which also encapsulated a look, a time, and, well, vibe from the mid-aughts. That very vibe nearly consumed its creator.

“I became accidentally famous,” Zoe says, And, for a time, infamous.

<p>Kurt Iswarienko/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty</p> Zoe in 2008, while filming 'The Rachel Zoe Project'

Kurt Iswarienko/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty

Zoe in 2008, while filming 'The Rachel Zoe Project'

South Robertson Boulevard at Alden Drive in West Hollywood occupies a very particular corner of the pop culture canon.

There stood the first iteration of Kitson— the store in Los Angeles which, for a period in the early 2000s, serviced celebrities like Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, and Kim Kardashian. There they bought Y2K essentials like trucker caps, Juicy Couture sweat suits, and Team Aniston or Team Jolie message tees. (For the record: Paris wore Jolie, her sister Nicky voted Aniston.) That intersection is also where the mid-aughts, mid-20s celebs would get photographed by paparazzi.

Many of the enormously sunglassed women photographed stomping down the street in 2005, Balenciaga handbag in one hand, venti Starbucks in the other, click-clacking in platform sandals, had been dressed by a woman formerly named Rachel Zoe Rosensweig. (She began going by her middle name in 2003, after she moved to LA.) More accurately for some — who were reportedly paying Zoe upwards of $6,000 a day — they were dressing like Zoe. So much so, people began to refer to Zoe’s clients as “Zoe-bots.”

<p>Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty</p> Keira Knightley was styled by Rachel Zoe in custom Vera Wang for the 2006 Academy Awards

Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty

Keira Knightley was styled by Rachel Zoe in custom Vera Wang for the 2006 Academy Awards

“That term made me so mental,” Zoe remembers. “I remember it coming out that I was doing Nicole and Lindsay and Mischa because that's when the mags like Us Weekly were big. There was so much paparazzi [chronicling] my clients’ every move. If they were walking out of the Chateau Marmont, a Coffee Bean, The Ivy. They were chasing them down Robertson. And I think one or all of them would mention, ‘Oh, I stopped by Rachel's house,’ you know. And then the press came after me.”

First it was questions. "How did you create this look? Why did you create this look? Oh my God, Nicole's wearing a calf tan like yours," Zoe says. She says they were "soul sisters" back then. Then came the Zoe-bot stuff. And then, worse.

“But what they didn't realize is at the same time, I was doing Salma Hayek, Jennifer Garner, Cameron Diaz, Kate Hudson, Keira Knightley, none who look anything like me, or have style like me.”

<p>Dan MacMedan/WireImage</p> Anne Hathaway, in Armani Privé, was styled by Rachel Zoe for the 2009 Academy Awards

Dan MacMedan/WireImage

Anne Hathaway, in Armani Privé, was styled by Rachel Zoe for the 2009 Academy Awards

And then there were the rumors. I ask her what was the craziest thing she heard about herself back then.

“Oh my God, that I was, like, a drug dealer,” she says. "That I was dealing, like, horse pills or something. And the funniest thing about that, in hindsight I laugh about it because I can, but in the time, oh my God, did it crush my whole being. And the truth is, and if you asked anybody in the world, who knows me from any part of my life, from age two to now, they would tell you I'm probably the straightest person they know.” Zoe says her wildest night involves “maybe” two glasses of wine. “I'm too much of a control person, I'm too in my head, to do drugs.”

Another rumor: "She starves her clients." she recalls. Over the years, some said her clients appeared to, at times, slim down. “But what the irony was at the time, many of my other clients who I was working with, were not a size zero. Some of them were pregnant, some of them much different sizes and shapes. And they would come into my studio and be like, ‘Do the tabloids know that you feed everybody before they leave?’”

<p>Stefanie Keenan/Getty</p> Zoe and her husband Rodger Berman

Stefanie Keenan/Getty

Zoe and her husband Rodger Berman

Being the subject of speculation, the lenses of the cameras turned on her, literally brought Zoe to her knees in 2007. “I sat on my floor and cried. My husband said, ‘These people have never met you. There are people writing things about you that have literally never even said hello to you. You cannot fall victim to this, because the people that do know you know this is the most ridiculous thing they've ever heard." You know? And I was like, "I know, but why isn't that helping me?" You know? Like, and so it was a very crazy time.”

So, eventually, she leveraged the fame — and even harnessed the infamy. In 2007, she wrote her first book, the New York Times bestselling Style, A to Zoe. In 2008, The Rachel Zoe Project premiered on Bravo. She started a newsletter, The Zoe Report in 2009.

<p>Andrew Durham/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty</p> The cast of 'The Rachel Zoe Project' in 2009: Assistant Taylor Jacobson, Zoe's husband Rodger Berman, Zoe, and assistant Brad Goreski

Andrew Durham/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty

The cast of 'The Rachel Zoe Project' in 2009: Assistant Taylor Jacobson, Zoe's husband Rodger Berman, Zoe, and assistant Brad Goreski

The TV show was the hardest, she says. Zoe originally wanted it to be like Style with Elsa Klench, the very straight-forward fashion journalism show that aired on CNN from 1980 to 2001.

"I thought, 'Okay, I'm making a ton of money. I don't need to do this for money. I don't want to be famous. I don't want someone in my private life.' Right? But if I can uncover the brilliance of the fashion world, and the process by which it happens, then that, to me, would be the dream." She chuckles. “Clearly, Bravo, and production, the way that my life worked at the time, and the way fashion unraveled at the time, clearly, that didn't happen.”

The show ran for five seasons and had elements of Elsa, but, as her friend and Bravo executive Andy Cohen told her, “"Real simple, Rach, people just want to see you styling."

“Am I not boring?” Zoe asked him.  The answer was “no.” Zoe says Cohen is one of her "mentors."

“At the time people were scared of doing television,” she says. So the reality show became Zoe’s version of reality: celeb clients, the fizzy drama of getting the right dress for the right event for the right A-list star, Zoe’s very solid marriage (she and Berman met in college, when they both studied at George Washington University), and her series of assistants: Taylor Jacobsen, Brad Goreski, and Jeremiah Brent. Of the three, Zoe only remains in contact with Brent. "I am sure you know my thoughts," is all she offers when her former employees come up.

Zoe became a prolific inventor of catchphrases. Surely you remember: “I die.” “You look bananas.” “Witch vibe.” “Hero dress.” “You are shutting it down.”

She says she’s asked constantly, whether it's when she's on vacation or appearing on a podcast, if she would bring back the show. “And yet, at the same time, the only thing I could say is that the very accidental horror, of terrible, dramatic assistants and stuff, that would never occur in my life now. If that's what people want, then no, I can't.”

Doing the show was challenging, she says. “The hardest part of all of it was trusting people to work with me. And you know, just being very honest, I think I had been hurt so badly, by so many people close to me, and by the way, I don’t mean the clients. Because, you know, that is something that unfortunately I very rarely had success with. I don't know if it's being naïve. I don't know if it's giving people too much access.”

“I haven’t watched my show since it ended.”

<p>Jason Merritt/Getty</p> Jennifer Lawrence in Christian Dior Haute Couture at the 2013 Academy Awards. Lawrence won the Best Actress Oscar that night. "And fell so beautifully up the steps," Zoe remembers.

Jason Merritt/Getty

Jennifer Lawrence in Christian Dior Haute Couture at the 2013 Academy Awards. Lawrence won the Best Actress Oscar that night. "And fell so beautifully up the steps," Zoe remembers.

I met Zoe at a party in Dallas in 2011, at the home of an executive at Neiman Marcus. We all ended up having to shelter in place as a series of tornados touched down all over the city.

You may not remember, I tell her. But we met many years ago.

“Oh my god. You don't think I would remember that?” she says. “Are you kidding me? I had just had my first child and hadn't left him. He was like, six or eight weeks old. I think I had only been to Texas maybe once in my life with like, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys."

"I was having a full panic attack that I was going to die in a tornado.”

Working in fashion was all Zoe ever wanted to do. She remembers getting her first job, as an assistant at YM when she was 22. She was making $75 a day, three days a week.

“What it was like for me, you have to imagine — you know that scene of Sarah Jessica Parker when she goes to Paris in Sex & the City? Like that was me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can't believe I get to do this. I can't believe I get to be with these clothes. I can't believe I can close the door in this fashion closet and be surrounded by all these things.’”

She quickly encountered the cliched fashion archetypes. “But there was so much pettiness, and so much nastiness. I just was not that girl. I was not that girl. I was never a mean girl.” But she was a risk taker.

She took a chance a few years later by going freelance, and stepping into the world of celebrities. Jessica Simpson was one of her first clients. “I remember being in the studio and her coming in. She rolled in with her entire family. She had, like, press-on nails and orange hair. It was the funniest thing. She was so bubbly and so cute.” With Simpson, with whom she worked for seven years, Zoe established a paradigm, this symbiotic thing. “I became mom or big sister. I can't just be this rando person that hands them clothes. I care about you too much.”

She took another chance by moving to LA in 2003. She quickly took a meeting with a publicist. “I was like, "I want to start dressing people for the red carpet. I had been going to all the fashion shows and I was like, ‘Why isn't anyone wearing these dresses? Why aren't the most famous people in the world wearing the prettiest things I've ever seen in my life.’” Zoe wanted to merge the worlds of fashion and Hollywood. And, well, she did.

<p>Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty</p> Zoe with her children Skyler Morrison Berman and Kaius Jagger Berman

Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty

Zoe with her children Skyler Morrison Berman and Kaius Jagger Berman

A little over a decade later, she took another chance. Zoe retired — from styling. “I had had my second son, and I had launched many businesses at that time.” Her worlds, which she had long tried to keep separate, were colliding and she was splitting. “I think because styling is so who I am — and still to this day is who I am, and it's how I breathe, and it's how I think, and it's at the root of everything I do — I had to step away. I'm so emotionally attached to it."

She concentrated on motherhood, growing her businesses — “I always have trouble explaining what I do to anyone who doesn’t know me,” she says, deciding “entrepreneur” is best— and launching a podcast. In 2021, she briefly came out of retirement to work with Dylan Penn at the Cannes Film Festival.

“I did it because Sean asked me to and I love Dylan. We had such incredible time doing it. I loved every fricking second of it.” She admits that it stirred something in her.

Getty Zoe styled Dylan Penn for the Cannes Film Festival in 2021
Getty Zoe styled Dylan Penn for the Cannes Film Festival in 2021

It's been 10 years since retirement, 20 years since the orange dress. “I am having that light in my soul again," Zoe says. She's getting excited. But, she says, she has some new rules.

"It would be for one or two people that really wanted to have a good time, and dream, and collaborate, and do the art, and do the fun, and the magic. And not the nonsense. Not the politics. Not the pettiness. Um, because I can't do that. I have too many other jobs." She exhales at the thought. "I feel this overwhelming desire, this weird responsibility, to place the most beautiful things created in the world on really talented people.”

For Zoe, the state of the red carpet today is "safe." I ask her if that's really a compliment. "Listen, I think as a result of all of the Fashion Policing, people do play it safe now." Like a lot of red carpet fashion fans, Zoe admits to missing what she calls "risk takers" on the red carpet. (She refuses to think in binary "good or bad" terms. She won't even talk about the really good-bad fashion.)

She does seem to yearn for the good-ol' days, before most people even knew celebrities had stylists. Before we all know too much, really. "Today, as soon as a celebrity hits the red carpet, whether it's Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon, literally the biggest stars in the world, within 30 seconds of them being dressed, the hair, makeup, nails and stylist, plus the talent themselves have all posted on social media what they're wearing, what the look is, who styled it, who did the hair, who did the makeup, who did the nails, and then the Glam Squad has their own content that they post. That is the way that it works now. Back then, I wasn't even talking about who I was working with. Like, I couldn't even mention the name of my client without approval from their publicist."

"When I started, it wasn't about a million opinions and actors having contracts with fashion houses. The days of seeing 50 different designers on a carpet are over. Now you see 10. I think people got really scared to be themselves.” And that's the thing about Rachel Zoe today: she seems to have no fear whatsoever.

On Oscar night, Zoe and her husband will be where they always are, at Guy Oseary’s annual party. “I never not go.” Like a lot of us, she will be eagerly watching the red carpet fashion. Zoe notes a few stylists whose work she admires these days, including Samantha McMillen (whose clients include Brie Larson) and the team of Rob and Mariel, who work with Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani. Yes, Zoe will be in a "hero dress."

But, are you dressing anyone for the Oscars? I ask. Are you back?

"Am I back..." she says quietly. "I can be back, for the right reasons.”

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