How To Be An International Stylist: Interview with Mary Fellowes

A job in fashion, if you’re lucky, can lead to exciting opportunities to travel the world. Whether you’re a designer on a research trip, a buyer attending international fashion weeks or a blogger being whisked away on a press trip, exploring the globe goes hand-in-hand with the fashion industry.

Mary Fellowes

That’s certainly been the case for top stylist and consultant Mary Fellowes. Her first international assignment after leaving British Vogue was an accessories story for Vogue Japan and since then she has gone on to become founding Fashion Director for Vogue Turkey and create editorials during the launch period of both Vogue India and Vogue China, as well as numerous other jobs around the world. It’s something she believes has enriched her career massively, “It’s a real luxury to be able to constantly have a 360 degree look at how fashion is in the world because it’s much richer and more interesting and diverse than just one market,” she told CAF.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to take her career international, but a natural extension of Fellowes’ inbred wanderlust. “I’ve always been a traveler, and when I say traveler I mean very extreme travel. I go diving with sharks, I go to really remote parts of the world. So I’ve always had a very nomadic, very adventurous spirit. Working with international publications really complements me because I’m fascinated by other cultures.”

When she was offered the job as Fashion Director at Vogue Turkey in 2010, the first ever edition of Vogue in a Muslim country, she met it with excitement, “What’s not to love?! The idea of bringing the heritage and language and sophistication of Vogue and everything the Vogue brand stands for combined with the insane heritage and complex, amazing culture of Turkey.”

Photography by Mariano Vivanco, styling by Mary Fellowes for Vogue Turkey

Of course, it wasn’t without its challenges. Despite a deep-rooted heritage in textiles, the fashion industry in Turkey is still in its infancy and trying to put in place standardized rules was not always easy. On the reverse of this though, the lack of rules gave Fellowes an element of freedom when organizing shoots, “We would be shooting on a beach somewhere and I would see an amazing old boat yard where they had all these old boats that were being taken in for restoration. I thought that would make the most amazing image in the hull of a boat,” explained Fellowes, “If that happened in America they would say ‘You can come back in a week when you have your insurance permits and paid $2000 to shoot here, you can’t put your tripod there.’ In Turkey they were so excited and flattered that we wanted to photograph them. We gave them a handful of cash and then we ended up drinking beers with them underneath the boats when the sun set.”

In an up-and-coming market, some might fall into the trap of patronizing readers and underestimating their knowledge of fashion. Though Turkey might not have its own well-oiled fashion industry, Fellowes explains that Turkish women are keen followers of the international fashion weeks and campaigns put out online and on social media. Fellowes adapted a Western aesthetic to the Turkish audience by using stories from their history as inspiration such as a shoot based on an old Turkish Empress to show the brocade fashion trend that season. She also used historical places as locations, such as caves in the dessert, and juxtaposed them with contemporary fashion ideas.

Spring/summer 16 has been one of the most heavily laden with cultural inspiration; from Prabal Gurung’s ode to Nepal to Tory Burch referencing Angkor Wat in Cambodia to Valentino’s tribal influence. However, some have come under fire for being culturally insensitive. Fellowes, on the other hand, sees this as a wonderful celebration of different cultures but agrees there is a fine line, “I think that as long as the way that somebody has appropriated something is done sensitively and respectfully, rather than in a pastiche-y way or using a very literal visual code,” she says. “If they’ve done it in a way that they’ve taken their time to explore and research and there’s an authenticity and a sense of respect in how that’s communicated then I think that’s ok.”

Where others might be wary to tread for fear of offending, Fellowes has thrown herself in, immersed herself in the culture and spoken to the locals to give herself a strong understanding of the places her job takes her, “The Japanese are so evolved and fluid in the language of fashion so when you’re working with that magazine you have to make sure the styling is very forward, very progressive, very directional,” she cites as an example “In China we had to shoot a swimwear story for their summer issue, but people don’t put their face in the sun, they carry parasols in the city. So we were trying to shoot a swimwear story where the brief was not to show the girls sunbathing.” In India her experience was one of a very celebratory fashion culture, “Indian culture is very colorful, they love color, they love texture. They’re very joyful in their fashion.” The common theme through her work is to look beyond stereotypes and acknowledge that your audience knows and sees Western fashion all the time.

Photography by Sophie Delaporte, styling by Mary Fellowes for Vogue China

While many emerging markets are embracing Western fashion, it’s also important that they develop their own creative output and promote their own culture which can sometimes be lost in their aspiration to follow the West. “It’s not just fashion, it’s luxury goods, homewares, cars, it’s across all sectors,” says Fellowes, “They want to embrace everything Western because they haven’t had it. So then once they’ve gone through that cycle, then it settles back down and they start to feel like it’s ok to embrace all things China or Russia etc.”

There’s plenty to be gained by the West from supporting fashion businesses too. Despite the mocking memes that emerged from this year’s Met Gala of Rihanna wearing an extravagant dress by Chinese designer Guo Pei, Fellowes calls it one of her “favorite moments in style history” for its cross-cultural significance. “A girl from the Caribbean who has become a global sensation, wearing a Chinese designer at one of the oldest American traditional institutions throwing a costume party; you can’t get a more cross-cultural moment than that.”

She also praises Anna Wintour for being open to including global designers in the editorial pages of US Vogue and the coverage of international fashion weeks outside of the ‘big four’ on major fashion news sites. Of course, there is more that needs to be done. “I thinks it’s about constant conversation and exchange from the people who are authorities. That includes media and retail to support brands and give them as much advice and nurturing and mentoring.” While it’s difficult for buyers to take a punt on unknown designers from countries where manufacturing is perhaps a challenge, Fellowes suggests that if buyers can take just 10 minutes to provide valuable feedback to designers it can benefit everyone in the long run. “It’s about that conversation always being there and people in the West not being patronizing or dismissive because certain fashion brands don’t have the same infrastructure in their industry, so don’t judge them for that.”

As well as the wider fashion industry, support needs to come from governments, “Great strong brands from the country that get on to the red carpet and in the right magazines and the right stores, it really helps put that country’s voice out there,” explains Fellowes.

She has a few emerging designers on her ‘ones to watch’ list as well. Hakan Yildirim, a Turkish designer who has collaborated with Mert Alas (of Mert + Marcus) on his womenswear label, is one such brand and she praises New York-based Chinese designer iJin for his timeless, baggy leather pants and quirky bomber jackets. Over her sixteen years in the fashion industry, Fellowes has explored fashions and cultures far and wide. It comes naturally to her but it’s this deep understanding of markets around the world and her willingness to explore that has made her one of the most sought after stylists in the business.

In a world of political correctness it can be tempting to shy away from cross-cultural projects, or abandon the ones that started. Fellowes is proof though that, with the right approach, it could be the best career move you ever make.

Words: Olivia Pinnock

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