Have you ever thought about who is behind Lady Gaga's impressive outfits? Marta del Río is one of those responsible for the artist’s unique and incomparable identity, in which aesthetics are at the same level as music, performance or charisma. Born in Spain, having lived in countries like Italy or England, dreaming all her life of moving to Tokyo and currently responding to this interview from Los Angeles, the stylist (who is also a designer and creative consultant) has made perseverance and passion for her work her core values. Something that Nicola Formichetti saw from her from the get-go, hiring her to explore her full potential.
Behind a great artist, there’s always a great team. They're always filled with professionals in different areas and experts in several disciplines who contribute to creating a consistent and unique communication of identity, and stylists are fundamental in the image-building process. Marta del Río works hand in hand with one of the biggest icons of our era, the one and only Mother Monster, aka Lady Gaga. This is a major challenge for her for which she resorts to authenticity, resourcefulness and diversity, maintaining her connection with the world and trying to reply to every mail she gets, proving that styling is much more than just choosing pretty clothes.
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Marta, for those who may don't know you, could you introduce yourself briefly?
My name is Marta del Río and I’m a creative consultant, designer and stylist. I’m originally from Spain, but I'm currently living in Los Angeles.
You were born in Marbella, a Mediterranean city in southern Spain, but you started travelling around the world at an early age. Italy, Switzerland, England, Japan, and finally the United States, where you have developed the bulk of your career. What can you tell us about your origins?
The bulk of my career was definitely developed in the United States, as that is where I really started working in the industry, initially in New York for almost 9 years and now in Los Angeles. However, a big part of my references and inspiration when working come from my European background and all of the places where I have travelled to. I'd like to think I am quite a curious person, and wherever I go I tend to study up on the place, customs, art, people etc.
I find so much inspiration in diversity and exploring that which is unknown to me. It helps me to really broaden my creative thought process and explore new perspectives and approaches.
Have you always been clear about your artistic vocation? What has been your relationship with creativity, fashion and artistic disciplines throughout your life?
I’ve always had a huge inclination towards art and all of its different approaches and disciplines. As a kid in school, I was lucky to have access to different materials and mediums, so I tried sculpting, collage, painting, sketching, and even welding. I found all forms extremely stimulating, and I was able to create a world of my own.
Creativity and art really created a safe place for me where all my thoughts, ideas and questions, could reside and be explored in the search for answers and understanding. In high school, I would keep large sketchbooks filled with ideas, concepts, sketches, random tears and cut out of visual references I loved. I had a certain order in that known personal creative chaos.
As I grew up, I found that I had a fascination with fashion. I remember staring in awe at the works of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Rei Kawakubo, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood, and thinking that I wanted to live in that world. It felt like the most magical reality ever.
It was art that could be worn, lived and breathed, and I wanted to be part of that, so I decided I wanted to be a fashion designer. Back then, I was convinced I would be a designer and most likely end up in London, even though where I really wanted to live was Tokyo. Little did I know the twists and turns life would take, and that I would end up in the United States working as a stylist and consultant.
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You studied Fashion Design at Parsons, a very prestigious school in New York where such important names as Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs or the duo behind Proenza Schouler have come from but also important stylists and creative directors. What would you highlight about this experience?
I think the main highlight from my experience at Parsons was the fact I was in New York City. Fashion internships were extremely abundant, there were a lot more resources to explore and exploit, and the city was a constant stimulus and source of inspiration. I met some incredibly talented and creative people in New York that presented their art in lots of different mediums. I started to regularly attend parties and nightlife events where a new wave of club kids was developing ideas, concepts and self-expression. I got to meet, through NYC queer nightlife, creatives who then went to become some of the most relevant in their industry.
Why did you decide to study abroad?
From an early age, my parents believed in studying multiple languages, being open to travel and studying abroad. I was very lucky to travel a lot as a kid, and it was normal to go abroad for summer camps to better my language skills or expand on my skills. I got to attend various art colleges when I was still in high school thanks to summer intensive programs, including Central Saint Martins; I even actually started fashion school in Rome and then transferred to New York, after completing a summer course there and applying for a transfer and a scholarship.
While studying there, you did many internships. You worked at Alberta Ferretti's backstage during New York Fashion Week, and as an assistant stylist at Moda Operandi. These were different roles that have shown your interest in trying all areas of this industry. Were you clear about what you wanted to end up dedicating yourself to?
I knew exactly what I wanted to which is why I tried all kinds of internships, including working at a fashion agency, in DeFacto Inc., that represented stylists, photographers, makeup artists, manicurists, etc.
In my mind, since I was studying fashion design, I was going to become a fashion designer after I graduated. I decided that I might as well do every single internship that was not fashion design. This way I would learn what all the other departments of the industry did and the weight of their work and contribution, and how to best work with them since our industry is mainly built upon different teams and creatives collaborating. Funnily enough, I did not end up designing on my day-to-day as I had always imagined.
“I think respect in the industry is key and, no matter how big or small someone is, their creative work should be treated with respect and responsibly.”
In mid-2015, you joined Nicopanda, the street brand led by Nicola Formichetti, known for having worked as a stylist for Dazed & Confused or Another Magazine, in addition to his work as a consultant for some of the most important fashion houses in the world. How did you find out about this job offer? What do you think Nicola saw in you to bet on your talent and hire you once your internship contract ended?
I was finishing my previous internship at Moda Operandi and completing my thesis when one of my classmates mentioned he was completing his internship at a small company that seemed to have similar vibes and values as mine. We talked about it a bit and left it there. A couple of weeks later, when I was applying to different job postings and internships, I decided to look into it a bit more and find their contact details and shoot over an email. Nicopanda did not have any internship or job posting, however, it felt like a place where I could enjoy working. I figured that I could ask if they needed extra help – free help is always welcome – so that while I was looking for a job, I would be learning and building up my resumé.
As they got back to me, they informed me that they did not have any job opening in fashion but that they were starting a new lifestyle department. I immediately scheduled a meeting with them, and after two rounds of interviews, I was their new intern. I offered to work five days a week full-time until I found a job.
It was later on that I began to get to know Nicola and present to him some of the development I was doing for the brand. He was always going through everything we did and had an affinity for some of my designs and sketches. It seemed like we were very much on a similar wavelength, which was exciting as I really admired his body of work. As time went on, I never left, and I began having more and more responsibilities. I was hired as a full-time employee and began working directly with Nicola on all kinds of projects both in Nicopanda and Studio Formichetti.
As you've just mentioned, not only did he see in you something different from the others, but he wanted to count on you in his trusted team at Studio Formichetti, where you currently work. What does this job consist of?
My job is an every day changing one, and I actually quite love that. Sometimes it is all about research and development or execution and logistics, and sometimes I will spend all day on set dressing people, other times I just have to do production and accounting from a desk. I like to think that in this industry one must be multifaceted as no two days are the same. Officially, however, I am a stylist and wardrobe director at Studio Formichetti.
That's when you start working hand in hand with Lady Gaga. The first photo in which we see you with the singer and Nicola dates from June 2019 and corresponds to the official opening of Haus of Gaga, the artist's personal creative team. How do you remember this moment?
Funnily enough, the moment you are talking about is much later on, probably a year into having first worked with Gaga. Many don’t know this, but our first picture together is an unwanted paparazzi shot from back in July 2018 when we were shooting for Elle Magazine on the beach in Malibu.
It was one of my first times in LA, and my second time working with her. I remember it was my first time seeing the whole celebrity paparazzi scenario. I was very secretive with my friends and family about why I was going there as I had signed non-disclosure agreements and there was something that felt very exciting about those kinds of projects.
After the shoot, as I was still in the city, I got a text from a close friend, who happens to be a fan of Gaga, asking what the hell was I doing in Malibu with her, followed by a paparazzi picture that some fans had captioned “Grimes & Gaga collaboration.” Seems that the low-resolution picture and my coloured hair had accidentally misled some people into believing the artists were working together.
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The first time you met her was through doing the Enigma poster for her concert residency in Las Vegas from the end of 2018 to 2020. An image defined by neon colours and movement that gave a glimpse of a new stage in her career. Were you afraid when facing your first assignments for the artist?
I remember feeling excited and a lot of ideas coming to mind. I don’t remember being afraid of the assignment, it felt like a project that was right up our alley and that we could execute well. I think since it came as a work assignment, there was no fear or uneasiness. My mind kind of processed it like, "I am meeting Lady Gaga, creative and potential new collaborator and client," not like, "I am meeting Lady Gaga, multi-award-winning musical and fashion icon." I feel like separating that in my brain helped me keep calm and confident in the work and not overwhelm myself too much.
You have not stopped working with her since then. From the cosmic music video for Stupid Love to the energetic choreography of Rain On Me, your name is behind all these projects. I guess that each project is approached differently but, what is the first thing to take into account when working with an artist of this magnitude? How many people are involved?
I approach all projects in the same manner. Whether it is Lady Gaga, or a smaller artist, whether it is a publication or an advertorial. Once you take on the job and you agree to it, I believe you have to treat it in the same manner as you would your best and most important client. Because, in the end, we are creating and expressing our own form of art, and we should always strive to do our best, challenge ourselves and explore new things, in my opinion.
The number of people involved really becomes a technical and conceptual thing. Depending on the number of dancers and additional talent, we will need a larger crew. If there are multiple changes, more designers will have to be collaborated, commissioned, etc. There is no one formula to use, all projects are treated uniquely and a plan best fit for it is developed.
Her innumerable look changes in the VMA 2020 were very commented on. From an impressive dress signed by Iris van Herpen to an oversized coat by Candice Cuoco. And all the outfits accompanied by masks, a statement of intent. What was the most difficult part of this challenge? What message did you want to convey to the audience?
The hardest part of this was to adapt to the new way of working during Covid-19. It was the first time any of us were doing this in the middle of a pandemic. New safety measures had to be taken into account, materials and resources took longer to procure, some of our designers had smaller staff or none at all. Everyone was adapting to the situation, but still giving it their best. We also wanted to make sure we were thoughtful and respectful of the situation and how lucky we were to be working and presenting to the world our work.
I think having all the dancers, band and both performers wearing masks, was a great message of unity and respect. No one on that stage was above anyone else, everyone was wearing a mask to protect others and themselves. It also gave us a new accessory and styling piece to explore and play with, which was an absolute blast.
In addition to world-renowned brands, you also bet on emerging designers and recent graduates from around the world. Jisoo Jang, Andrea Brocca or the Spanish brand It-Spain are good examples of this. What does a brand need to have to grab your attention?
I love the diversity in design, and I think young designers sometimes have the purest forms of creativity as they are still not influenced by the demands of the industry. They are not tied to seasons, markets or buyers, which can lead to very visceral and unrestricted designs. That said, I try to treat all designers the same, whether I am talking with the Alexander McQueen team, or a recent graduate. I share the same information, use the same language and treat them in the same way in order to collaborate with them. I think respect in the industry is key and, no matter how big or small someone is, their creative work should be treated with respect and responsibly.
I actually try to make sure I spend a couple of hours every other day going through magazines, websites, art schools, Instagram tags and messages, trying to find new designers I can use. I have had designers email me, direct message me, send written letters, drop off look books or work at the studio. There is no one way or right way to communicate your work. I try to get back to as many designers as I can, and let them know I have reviewed their work and will keep in mind for any upcoming project where they could be a right fit.
You have highlighted authenticity as Lady Gaga’s core value. But you also seem to embody this value, at least in the way you dress and in your work. Coloured hair has become your hallmark. What other values do you consider fundamental in the creative field?
Yes, authenticity is something that I believe in a lot. It has been what has allowed me to really grow as a creative and find my own voice. Resourcefulness I have found has been key to my work and it's extremely helpful. Honesty and kindness are also two values that I hold at a very high standard and would like to think I apply in my everyday work.
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Photo: Norbert Schoerner
What does your family say when you return to Marbella on holiday? Do they understand what you do?
I feel like there is a lot of confusion about what exactly I do. Since I come from a design background, I feel like some of my family members are very stuck on the idea that I design all of the wardrobes I work with. Others have understood that I style, but are slightly perplexed at the fact that people need to be told what to wear. I have been asked various times if my clients really can't choose clothes on their own. It is hard to explain styling and consulting as it varies so much from job to job.
My sister is probably the person that best understands my job (and is one of my biggest fans) as she lives with me and has watched on a daily basis all the different aspects of what I do. That said, my mum has been extremely attentive and has been taking notes. She always says how much she has learnt about my industry and my peers through me. We joke around saying she taught me all I know growing up and I have now educated her back in pop culture.
Do you think there is widespread ignorance about the work that stylists do?
Absolutely, I think the work we do gets reduced to tropes and stereotypes. A lot of people have questioned me about why my clients need a stylist. Why can they not dress themselves? Do I really buy underwear and underpinnings as a living? Anything can be made to sound simple and irrelevant if you try. However, for those who have asked questions wanting to learn, I have been able to show them that stylists do so much more than just choose pretty clothes.
We do select garments and clothing but we also manage the brand and client politics. We have people skills and deal with all kinds of people every single day, we do outreach and logistics, we project budgets for clients and manage teams, we commission designs and then execution of pieces, we fight with shipping companies on a daily basis to locate packages, we are expert at commercial invoices and organisation... And yes, between all of that and more, we dress people, but not like anyone else would. We dress people with a concept in mind, with a purpose and idea. It is our way of presenting something in a visual tangible way.
What projects are you currently working on?
Being in LA has allowed me to work on a new array of projects and with new clients. I have been very fortunate to be working in the current climate, as I know there are a lot of limitations in the world and we should be grateful for being able to do what we love every day.
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Photo: Norbert Schoerner