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The cult of Rachel

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THE most influential person in fashion right now isn't Vogue's Anna Wintour, Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld, or even pop star-turned-designer Gwen Stefani. She's an unknown stylist from Los Angeles who has legions of New York City fashionistas unknowingly emulating her look: a deep perma-tan on a skinny frame, long, blown-out hair, oversized sunglasses, and a slouchy, gargantuan it-bag cavalierly cradled in the crook of an elbow.

Meet Rachel Zoe, progenitor of the ubiquitous celebrity magazine, "oh, I-just-tossed-this-together-for-my-paparazzi-chronicled-Starbucks-run" look of the moment.

As stylist to Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan, the 33-year-old Zoe (pronounced "Zo") transformed her charges from chunky, Ugg-wearing fashion disasters to tabloid "style icons," influencing hordes of New York style mavens in the process. Her style is so ubiquitous that celeb magazine editors have started calling it "The Rachel."

"I love it! I think it's amazing!" says Zoe of her East Coast imitators, who are actually channeling a third-generation version of Zoe's look through acolytes Lohan and Richie.

"It think it's incredible," she continues, in her Valley-Girl cadence. "Every girl, from 8 years old to 30 years old, is dressing like them. I see them in airports and malls around the country."

She pauses. "It's weird," she admits. "It's weird."

Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, agrees - especially when it comes to the denizens of downtown New York.

"It's really surprising to see the East Village and Williamsburg hipsters dressing like Nicole Richie," Astley says. "Celebrity's been reigning for a really long time, and I think it's the ubiquity of Us Weekly, but I'm sure there will be a backlash. For super-hipsters, it's not that cool to take fashion images from Lindsay Lohan."

Zoe politely disagrees.

"God, here's a perfect example: I was just in Europe," she says. "Literally, I was with Lindsay, and the chicest women in Europe were like, 'Where did that dress come from? Where does Nicole get her hair cut?' It has gone around the world."

Zoe, who was raised in New Jersey and says she has always been "obsessed" with fashion, got her start at YM right after college - accidentally, she says. "I got the job through a friend of a friend, and worked my butt off. I did styling, market research, fashion stories, covers." She quit in 1997; "I needed more," she says.

She began working as a freelance celeb stylist for the likes of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Vanessa Carlton - hardly fashion icons. She decided to move to L.A. to cut back on her commute and make herself more available to her celebrity clientele.

And then, a year and a half ago, reality star Nicole Richie - mocked for her ratty extensions and penchant for pink Uggs - hired Zoe to class up her image.

"Nicole showed up to meet me in an airport once wearing a sweatsuit, with a leopard-print neck pillow tied around her neck, an 'I Love L.A.' cap, and her hair in pigtails," says Zoe, laughing. "I think she was doing it to torture me."

It's a measure of Zoe's talent that Richie's transformation landed her on the cover of this month's Teen Vogue.

Still, industry insiders find it odd that such a distinctly West Coast, mainstream, celebrity-driven look - which can be sourced in the back pages of downmarket tabloids - has reverberated so strongly in New York, which typically generates trends.

"These girls want to be Lindsay Lohan, and it's very depressing for a fashion editor," says Elle's Nina Garcia, who is also a judge on "Project Runway" and considers Zoe "a dear friend."

"I have noticed on the streets of New York a predominance of oversized glasses, lots of accessories, vintage dresses, cowboy boots - when fashion is actually getting chic and glamorous," she says. "But people want to dress like Jessica Simpson."

And that, tragicomically, includes the junior staffers at Us Weekly itself.

"The poor assistants here are going to flea markets and garage sales to emulate [Nicole and Lindsay]," says Hayley Hill, fashion director at the New York-based tabloid.

Zoe's had such an impact that, despite her relative anonymity, she's just been hired by The Gap to promote their line of bras, and will make promotional appearances in New York during Fashion Week.

"I think they hired me because several of my clients are the people in the weeklies," Zoe says, using the classier term for "tabloid." "So that reaches their audience."

The stylist says she cultivated her own look 15 years ago; she describes it as a late-'60s/early '70s pastiche of louche glam, offset by an earthier, "Ali-MacGraw-in-'Love-Story'" prepster/hippie chic.

Us Weekly's Hayley says that Zoe's influence is known around the office as "the Rachel look," - a reference to the mid-'90s haircut made famous by Jennifer Aniston's Rachel on "Friends" - mixed with "Golden Girls" frumpiness.

"It looks like they're all going on a cruise with their grandmother," Hayley concedes of New York's fashion clones. "But it's an L.A. moment, and Rachel Zoe has turned fashion on a dime. She's wildly influential."

Yet Zoe cites supermodel Kate Moss (along with retired Gucci/YSL designer Tom Ford) as her biggest fashion influence; Moss, in fact, is the girl Lohan is most trying to look like.

"We're obsessed with the way Kate looks - Wellington boots with shorts? Who else could get away with that?" asks Zoe, who makes up to $6,000 a day and receives piles of free clothes and accessories from major houses and struggling designers alike, all hoping her clients will be photographed wearing one of their pieces.

When Lohan hired Zoe a year ago, "I asked Lindsay, 'What are we trying to do?' And she said, 'Kate is my style icon.' So I said, 'OK. Let's be influenced, but let's not copy.'"

Yet Lohan and Richie are widely viewed as photocopies of Zoe - especially when it comes to their sudden, dramatic weight loss, which has had its own trickle-down effect.

"Their weight loss - I really think it was timing," Zoe says. "It has nothing to do with me. I would never, ever, ever promote anorexia. It is a serious disease. They don't have eating disorders. It makes me extremely uncomfortable."

Severe thinness aside, Zoe admits that the look she's created is about aspiring to the idea of a celebrity lifestyle: "It's about dinners, parties, shopping, going to work, to shoot," she says.

Or, if you're a New York civilian with a dreary 9-to-5 job that leaves you with a little disposable income, it's about looking like the minutiae of your daily errands are Us Weekly-worthy enterprises.

"It's like all these girls are from the same factory," says 24-year-old Lawrence Gega, who admits that he and his other straight male friends have a passing familiarity with Us Weekly and hate the impact it's had on formerly stylish New York girls.

"It's not fun to see," he says. "It's like, We get it: You have the same $200 jeans and $200 flat sandals. This is New York City!" he exclaims. "You think you'd see a little diversity. But when everyone congregates downtown, everyone looks the same. From downtown to Midtown to uptown, there's no such thing as personal style."

"Everyone's walking around like Stepford children!" exclaims a Lower East Side event planner named Liza. "I think it makes people feel close to celebrities, like they know them. But it seems neurotic to me."

In fact, New York psychotherapist and author Heide Banks says that when she meets a client who looks like a Lohan or a Richie, she reads it as a sign of low self-esteem.

"My job is not to be a fashion commentator," Banks says, "but the way someone dresses tells you a lot. When everyone's dressing like celebrities, that means they're trying to access some other life, because they're unsatisfied with their own."

It's a sentiment Zoe herself gets. As thrilled as she is by the impact she's had on the streets of New York, even she admits her look isn't necessarily for the masses - and that no one is ever served by copying an entire look head-to-toe, no matter how stylish it seems in a magazine.

"I think if you are looking to adapt a style, it's great to be influenced. But the key thing is to interpret for yourself. Don't copy."

And, ironically, the woman responsible for generating numerous trends says she never, ever follows them.

"I don't believe in changing my style because something's a trend," Zoe says. "People are mislead: They think because it's a trend, they should do it. And it's not going to work."

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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