“ A lot of people sitting in a room wearing fucked up shoes” are trying to tell Lysa Cooper about fashion. Those were Lysa’s words as she described the rather odd predicament she finds herself in lately – trapped in meetings with ill-heeled executives, mere mortals, telling the legendary stylist how to perform her magic. Cooper blames much of this on the Internet, whose democratization of information has deluded laymen into thinking they’re experts. “It’s almost backwards,” says Cooper, as she delves a bit further. “Shouldn’t we make the beautiful product, and then decide how to sell it, rather than already know what you’re selling and then try to make the product match. It never works like that and that’s why music has sunk to the level that it has. And that’s why everybody looks like a hooker,” she says casually. It’s this environment that has Cooper baffled, and even worse, bored.
Before pop stars and their disciples were posting half naked photos of themselves on social media – in the name of art, rebellion, or whatever. Before the popular, almost embarrassingly self-aggrandizing hashtag “no filter.” Before the recent incarnation of brown beauties confident enough to rock their natural hair in public. Before all of that, there was Lysa Cooper. A barren-faced beauty with natural hair (not styled to perfection, or styled at all for that matter), completely naked, holding a motorcycle helmet, on the last page of the October 1999, Black Girls Rule Edition of TRACE magazine – an issue in which Cooper also guest fashion edited. Lysa’s version of racy read more like art. It was interesting and forward. Not tawdry or simple. And while that image may be a thing of the past, the truth is that, Lysa, her raw talent, unfiltered perspective, her impeccable work, is still informing the present. Just ask the Bajan beauty, whose image Cooper (and others on the glam team) helped to transform from pop star prototype and Beyonce clone, into, well, Rihanna – one of the most powerful and culturally relevant superstars on the planet. For well over a decade, Lysa Cooper has created remarkable moments in fashion for some of the most iconic artists in music, fashion, and film.
As I interviewed Lysa, who is every bit of an artist herself — with all the quirks and eccentricities that accompany the title — I couldn’t help but wonder how she’s been able to navigate so long in an industry where the geniuses behind the scenes are often relegated to the whims of those artists in front. I asked her about that dynamic during our interview. Her answer was candid, funny, and her language was, of course, colorful. At one point during our conversation, as she was in mid-story, she unhooked her purse from the side of the chair, and stuffed her phone inside. And when she slung the bag over her shoulder, I understood. Our interview was over. She was ready to move on. I, too, had bored Lysa Cooper. And while I mortified with myself, the sweet sound of redemption was soon to follow. As we stood up from the table, Lysa looked down at my feet. “Cute shoes,” she said matter-of-factly, as she headed towards the exit. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. While I may have bored Lysa Cooper during our interview, at least I wasn’t wearing “fucked up shoes.”
Below are excerpts from our conversation, where superstar stylist Lysa Cooper offers a rare glimpse into her fascinating reality.
You’ve been in the fashion industry for so long. What is it about fashion that you love?
I guess what I love about fashion is that it’s always changing. It’s always evolving, and it’s always going back and forth. It’s completely unpredictable. It’s fun. It’s vibrant. It’s just that, now I guess fashion isn’t quite that anymore, so you look to the past for it. I’d like to say that it would be great to look to the future. We’ll see what’s around the corner.
In what ways have you seen the industry change or evolve?
I think we’re all in this weird moment right now and the World Wide Web, as I like to call it because I’m an old lady, has really fucked some shit up. It’s true that there are many pluses to everybody having access to information, but, what happens, when people have access to information, is that they think they are the authority of that information. Or quite frankly, that they made it up themselves. Or even better, that they know better than you do.
So what you’re dealing with is a lot of marketing people, a lot of executives, a lot of people sitting in a room, wearing fucked up shoes, trying to tell me about fashion. And you don’t even know how to get down to the cobbler and fix your heel, and you’re going to tell me what I should be doing?
And the fact that marketing is even involved in the hiring is, to me, insane. It’s almost backwards. Shouldn’t we make a beautiful product, and then decide how to sell it, rather than already know what you’re selling and then try to make the product match? It never works and that’s why music has sunk to the level that it has. And that’s why everybody looks like a hooker.
They’ve gone into that Coechella-esque white girl…I don’t really have money, but you know that these shoes cost a $1000 moment. That’s another thing that’s really bothering me. I like a floral print. I like a denim jacket. I like some dirty hair. Throw that all together, that’s not fashion. Everybody is so boring. I’m bored.
Who is inspiring you right now?
Homeless people and kids. They’re like the two groups that have flare and are daring. And I say that very sincerely. Especially in California…there’s a new trend in the homeless where you tie everything around your waist. It’s amazing. And how they’re all communicating it together, I don’t know. But they’re doing it.
What would you like you to see happening fashion-wise?
One of my strongest issues and points with the young women I’ve been working with, is to bring “pretty” back. And I literally mean, bring it back. Pretty means you wash your hair. You smile, and you’re feminine. It doesn’t mean you have to be girly and frilly…just really bringing the beauty of the woman back.
You were one of the masterminds behind Rihanna’s image transformation (along with Ursula Stephen and others on the team) that helped propel her into superstardom. What was it like working with Rihanna on the cusp of her transformation?
I worked with her without knowing who she was. She was just some cute girl, and Ellen von Unwerth and I were shooting her. The one good thing she had was Ursula Stephen, who I knew. And so when I walked in, to tell you the truth, the only person out of her crew that I knew was Ursula. And I thought, Ursula is here, so at least I know the level I’m on. Then she wasn’t working yet, with Mylah Morales doing her makeup. Mylah is one of the best in the business. Her hair was to here (shoulder length), and we cut her shit up to here (above her shoulders).
She had a lot of hair back then. And now, there is a lot of hair again. We’ll get into that later. Everybody needs to stop with the hair, including Beyoncé.
So that was how I kind of connected with her. It was on a job with Ellen. They’re all looking at me like “you don’t even know who you’re working with?” And I was like “no, I don’t really care.” She’s cute. She’s nice. She’s an island girl. I had a good time. We did some really sexy pictures. I kept it moving. I’m not a big practitioner of staying too long. Her and Shakira were probably the two girls that I worked with for a long period of time. I’m more of a hit and run kind of a person. I like to hit it and run.
Why is that?
I don’t know. That way you’re not bored. That way you don’t become somebody’s slave. That way there are boundaries. And those boundaries got blurred with Rihanna. And with her previous management, we had some major falling out. Also, I’m a lot older than her. I don’t entourage it up. I don’t like to hang out like that. And when I do hang out, I hang out hard and I think that can be very intimidating to people who aren’t use to the old way of partying.
What’s the old way of partying?
Go out dancing all night long. You’re not Instagraming every fucking moment. You’re not smoking wack-ass weed with some bad blunts. Sorry. I smoke weed, but I smoke good weed. I feel like everybody is a little lost in the sauce right now.
But we’re dealing with the number one artist, so that makes certain things more difficult and complicated. She is the number one artist, right? Is she ahead of Beyoncé? I can’t really tell.
In terms of the current numbers, she might be ahead. I’m not sure though.
But I think Beyoncé is more revered. I mean, we’ll see, right? I almost love Rihanna’s personal taste, more than what she does on stage. And the one thing I can say about her is that she is very big on wearing new people and young designers. She’ll buy anything. I love that. And I’m kind of like that. Because where we are right now in fashion is everybody is wearing the same thing. And I don’t want to go buy something and know that ten other girls are wearing the same thing. I just don’t anymore. Especially now that everyone is taking pictures of what they’re wearing and doing, and shitting, and eating.
You mentioned Beyoncé earlier…
Who I love, love, love, love. I’m not joking. She has to be one of the nicest people on the planet. She is a joy to be around. She is kind.
Really? I’ve always wondered if it was authentic.
Oh yeah. And super-southern. I mean, she’s really from Texas. It is not a joke. And it is so authentic and so sweet. She’s had the same stylist since day one. They are intimately close. I work with her a lot, because we’re so close (her stylist and I), that he’ll hire me for things that he’s not available to do. I love them. She is lovely. And she’s one of those people that remembers everything. Things that there would be no reason for her to remember. She’s aware of the people around her, in a good way.
And it’s weird that people can’t tell [how nice she is]. And for me, that’s a problem. If people only they knew exactly how sweet she was.
There are a lot of people I don’t like, and I like her. I like how she feels about herself. I like that she likes herself. I like that she likes her body. I like that she likes her life. She’s appreciative. I think we need more examples in the world of pop culture that encompass, life, passion, art, and skill altogether. And I think it’s great to see her and Jay-Z have a kid – it’s a great example of all those elements coming together.
What was it like working with her on the GQ Super Bowl-inspired cover?
Hilarious. So funny. Magazines now are so nervous. Everyone is afraid to lose their job. They’ve already planned every shot. Nothing is very organic anymore. They had an idea of what they wanted to do. And then Beyoncé told me that she didn’t want to do any of that; so we didn’t.
And, what I loved, is that Beyoncé knows what she’s going to do, and what she’s not going to do. And what’s she’s comfortable with and what she’s not. And I thought that was a very racy shoot for her. And I kept teasing her and saying that this is going to become the cover. It was amazing. And of course that’s not what they wanted. They wanted some white t-shirt GQ bullshit. And I kept saying to her “Watch, this is the cover.” And it was. And it was so cute. Little vintage shirt. And you know, they wanted to put their designers on it. And really at the end of the day, I think a lot of the way things are run now is about selling shit and they forget that they’re dealing with personalities. She looked great.
In a heartbeat. Reality shows can be positive. It’s just a matter of deciding to make them that way. I’d love to do a show that really helps people to feel good about themselves. I know that some people would say that it won’t sell and that nobody would watch it, but I don’t believe that. With the right producers and team, it could be something special and really big. I think that’s what’s happening in the world right now. Like-minded people are starting to come together.
I think most people have the impression that styling is such a glamorous job. But it’s really hard work. It can get very blue collar quickly. Not easy at all…
Exactly. And everybody thinks you’re their personal shopper, and I don’t do that.
Have you ever considered leaving the profession altogether?
Every day. Every day. I can’t stand it anymore. I really can’t. Like, I’m not even joking. But I’m also a person that was taught you don’t leave a job until you have another one.
Have you considered doing a clothing line?
I’m really not interested in doing a line. There is enough crap being produced and enough kids making it. We don’t have anywhere to put it. Everyone asks me to do a clothing line. I would like to do, maybe, home accessories or something like that. I like accessories. I like this idea that people are really creating their home. When you decorate a home, your creativity comes out. But nobody needs another pair of jeans, or a t-shirt, or some sweatpants.
What are your thoughts on all of these celebrity lines?
Bullshit. Go to school. If you go to school, then maybe you can talk some shit. The only one that’s any good, and I hate to say it, are our girls, the twins. The Row. But the reason that works, is because they hired designers. They [the twins] “yay” or “nay” [the concepts]. And they are the best line at ripping off other lines that I’ve ever seen. I mean they’ve taken Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester. But it’s good. You know, they’re good at it. I don’t buy it, but they’re good at it.
Who are some of your favorite people to work with?
The nicest person I’ve ever worked with is Elizabeth Hurley, and her boyfriend or husband at the time, Hugh Grant. He was an amazing man. That’s the first time I ever received a “thank you.” And every time I worked with her, it would be a card, flowers, a bottle of wine. It’s very English, actually. These people were not raised by wolves. They have good parents.
As I told you, I really enjoy working with Beyoncé. And one of the best people to work with is Little Kim, because she is actually fucking hilarious. She is so open and so smart. Completely demented. So it’s just really exciting to be around her. She has really funny, good energy. I don’t know, I really like her.
You also work with a lot of male clients…
I work with all the boys. Love Common. And with the actors, there are so many that are perfect gentlemen. I worked with Ashton Kutcher for a long time. He was funny, charming, and said “thank you.” He was very aware of his surroundings. I bet you, he is still like that. You can tell.
Does it ever bother you when artists don’t give credit to their glam squad? Because, in many cases, it’s those geniuses behind the scenes that are really helping to craft the celebrity’s image. In part, it’s that genius that the public falls in love with.
Yes. Especially when they start saying it’s their idea and that they did it. But what’s more annoying, is the other people (label people/management) that take all your shit. It happens all the time. I won’t give presentations anymore. I won’t do mood boards or any of that. I learned my lesson the hard way. Because they take your idea and hire another stylist. They can’t have you come to set, because it’s your idea. If you do, then everyone will know it’s not theirs.
Why are you so comfortable, being so non-conformist, in an industry that requires so much conformity, at least from the people behind the scenes?
I think the very important thing that works to my advantage, and sometimes my disadvantage, is that I’m not out to make friends. I’ve got plenty of other friends. I like to keep it really professional. I don’t hang out. I don’t go to little dinners. I don’t “kiki.” None of that. And I think, for a lot of people, they want me to entourage it up for free. I’m not interested. Hence, it’s better to work with people you don’t really know. You don’t have to waste your time trying to be best friends. I don’t have enough time to be circle jerking all over the place. For what? They’re all going to fuck you over eventually. It’s true. Ask anybody who’s had a long-standing relationship. I mean, Tom Cruise is the only one who has been able to maintain the same glam squad. [Keeping] the same people around them. But most people, just want to be more fabulous. But the thing to remember is that, just like ex-boyfriends, they always come back. And when they do, you’re twice as expensive. That’s the God’s honest truth.