Los Angeles-based stylist Keyla Marquez uses her platform to engage her community and create change either overseas or right here at home. Known for the White T-Shirt Project that raised money for the COVID-19 crisis and her NO ICE T-Shirts that benefited families separated at the border, we sat down to chat about how she got here and where she's headed.
This interview took place over the phone between Tate VanderPoel Smith and Keyla Marquez in Los Angeles, California, and was edited by Duc Dinh.
TVS: How did you get to where you are today?
KM: I worked in architecture but fell into styling by accident. Two of my friends, who were starting their fashion photography career, asked me to help them with test shoots—this was around ten years ago.
I was hesitant at first because back then, I was making fashion. I didn't really know how to put things together like a stylist, but I started testing with them and realized I was good at it and actually really liked doing it.
What I did is the opposite of the norm. Usually, people start assisting someone and then test shoot or do their own jobs to build a portfolio, but the experience testing really helped me find my style, my voice, my intentions, and how to deal with people on set.
There are factors that you don't think about when you're going into this industry, like how to communicate with people, your personal style, what you're trying to convey, what story you are trying to tell, and how that goes into the work that you make.
Did you go to school for architecture?
No, I went to school for design and dropped out because I didn't want to be in debt forever. When I worked in architecture, they taught me everything—AutoCad, Photoshop, InDesign. School is great for connections and technical skills, but I was learning all of it on the job.
I think there should be more opportunities outside of school for people who are going into art school. There are so many jobs behind the scenes that I wish I had known when I was a kid.
Even with my job, there are many different kinds of stylists. There are celebrity, commercial and red carpet stylists, also TV & Movies but that's more costume designers. Personally, I do a little bit of everything—campaigns, commercials, music videos, lookbooks, short films, musicians, etc.
My family still thinks that I just put clothes on people, but it's more than that. I have to put together a creative deck, talk to the client, the producer, the director, the agency, etc—it's not just an outfit. It's a big world, and there's a lot of people and opinions involved.
I find career experience is so much more valuable than school in so many ways.
It is, but what I learned in school helps me so much now. I learned the principles of design, color theory and balance—which all play such a big part in styling. Understanding the balance of a photograph or the whole creative behind a shoot is crucial.
I'm happy that I did school in the beginning. It definitely helps me a lot, especially with putting creative decks together for my clients.
Backtracking a bit, what happened after your test shoots? Did you start working right away?
After a month of doing tests, I was ready to go full-force. I wanted to work for a stylist to get more experience, so I sent Sissy Sainte-Marie a DM on Instagram and asked her if she needed an intern.
I can’t remember exactly what I said but it was along the line of, “If you ever need an intern, I would love to help you out. You don't have to pay me. I just want to learn as much as I can.”
I thought to myself, "I'm probably gonna have to intern for six months."
How was that experience for you?
Sissy was the one that pretty much opened the door for me; I learned a lot from her. She was so humble and so good at her job. As soon as I interned for her once, she hired me as a paid assistant. I was just hungry [for work], I didn't even care about how much I'd get paid.
Sissy also started getting my name out to other stylists—because in the community, people are always looking for a good assistant. From that, I started working for this other stylist named Rita Zebdi who got my contact info through the line.
I love this community aspect between the stylists.
I would always get jobs and I have no idea how they even got my contact info. I remember at that time, Juliann McCandless was also assisting a lot, and somehow we both had each other's contacts. And whenever I couldn't do jobs, I would send them to her and vice versa. I didn't even know who she was [in real life].
Sometimes you would be on set with two or three other assistants, and you just bond with them. That's how I started building a community for myself in a styling world, by helping each other out. And now 10 years later, it's funny looking back at the fact that we came up together and we didn't even know each other then.
That’s so beautiful.
Randomly, I would get assisting gigs for really cool stylists that would come to LA who somehow got my contact info. I assisted Julia Sarr-Jamois, and she was the coolest. I got very lucky assisting people like her because she approached things on a certain level that's so admirable. She was never freaking out or being negative on set.
I've worked with this insanely mean and terrible stylist once. However, I think it's important to have bad experiences assisting because then you learn and you're like, "Okay. When I'm on my own, I'm definitely not gonna be like this.”
Right, you can learn even from bad experiences. Were you assisting full-time or did you do other projects?
While assisting, I was testing every weekend with Dana Boulos. She hit me up on Instagram saying that she loves my work and would love to collaborate.
Some of my favorite shoots were the ones that we did together. We produced some really beautiful work that I'm still very proud of. I was always creating content to update my Instagram and my website. I think it's important for people to see your work.
I would always tell my assistants, "You should start a website and go testing. Go into my huge [styling] kit, borrow whatever you want for your shoot." I'm always pushing them to branch out. I love my assistants but I don't want them to assist forever.
How long after assisting did you start taking your own jobs?
It happened slowly. I started doing little jobs styling lookbooks for my friends' brands or friends who were creative directors at these small companies [in LA].
I remember like MeUndies hit me up in 2016 and asked me to style for a shoot but they could only pay me $150. I showed up on set with a full rack of things from my kit, and they were so impressed. Because of that one job, I've been with them since, and now they've grown, they pay me pretty well. They’re my second biggest client.
Who’s the biggest one?
It's this makeup brand called NYX Cosmetics. I got them because of the photographer Brooke Nipar. I did a test shoot with her styling one of my friends. I pulled all these pieces from showrooms and we created these beautiful images at Bombay Beach.
When she came on board with NYX, they were looking for a stylist that understood the LA-edgy girl vibe. Brooke brought me on board because she was so happy with the work we did together the week prior. I've been with them for two years and that happened because I did a free test shoot.
Sometimes you just have to take a chance and create art because you never know where that's going to take you or what doors are going to open.
It’s about planting the seeds for your future harvest. You’ve done some really amazing work, my favorite is the shoot for i-D magazine. Can you tell us more about that one?
That shoot was very special to me. I do like all these commercial jobs and it's really important for me to do work with substance on the side. I always have insane ideas for shoots and I’d make these creative decks for them.
I’ve always loved [the American punk rock band] Bikini Kills and [the underground feminist punk movement] Riot Grrrl means a lot to me. It portrays this image of super badass, rebel girls who have a lot to say going against the grain.
I was talking to my friends Eva Sealove and Symrin Chawla [who ended up being the creative producer and creative director for the project] about it, and we came up with the idea of shooting a dozen women in LA who are doing important behind-the-scenes work in various fields. Symrin also suggested we ask them questions about how they see the future.
How did you meet the photographer, Bethany Vargas? Were you also friends?
Bethany messaged me saying she really loved my work and would love to meet me. We went out for coffee and told her about this idea. She said, “Let’s do it together!”
So I made this 40-page long deck and pitched it to i-D for their website. They agreed to do it with a $500 budget for the whole shoot, but I was ready to fund it all by myself.
Can you walk us through the process of preparing for the shoot?
It was quite stressful because we shot 12 talents in one day, each with a different art direction, so there was a lot of prep work.
iD gave me an LOR. In the beginning of my career, I didn’t even know what a LOR was until all the showrooms were asking for it. I had to google to find out that it stands for Letter of Responsibility, which is a signed letter from the publication’s editorial team insuring the clothes for the stylist in case of loss or damage. But once I got that, it was great because with the i-D name, I was able to pull everything.
Because of the budget, I did most of the prepping myself and picked up everything from showrooms. Usually, on a regular editorial shoot, the assistant would help check the samples, take photos of everything so when we pack it up for returning, it’s the same as how it came in. Since I pulled LA–based designers and brands that have showrooms here, it was easier.
On the day of the shoot, it was smooth sailing. My friend Eva produced it, and everything was the most organized ever. Everyone was so happy on set, and the energy was so high because it was just us women—except for two male hairstylists—hanging out, celebrating each other. You don’t have shoots like this that often. It was really nice to have this powerful, divine feminine energy on set. It was really beautiful.
How did you manage to get all that done with such a small budget?
I was very fortunate, especially in situations like this, that the community always comes through for me. I got nothing but support from my friends, and even strangers. It feels powerful and magical to have that behind you.
We got the studio for free, thanks to my friend Jazzi [McGilbert] and her husband, who runs Edge Studios. I paid for hair, makeup, and probably spent $2-3,000 of my own money, but it's nothing compared to the feeling I got from this job.
Throughout the shoot, the talents would tell me, “Oh my god, I've never been done up before.” It made me so happy to be able to put them in cool designer clothes and make these women feel honored and powerful.
I remember dropping things off at my mom’s because I was using her garage as storage, and she asked me how it went. I started crying happy tears because of this indescribable sense of fulfillment. I told her, “This feeling is honestly the reason I love doing my job.”
I know that you also did two very meaningful fundraising projects. One was the NO ICE T-Shirt and the other was the White T-Shirt Project. Can you share with us more on how they came about?
They both came from childhood traumas for me. The NO ICE T-Shirt project comes from my experience crossing the border when I was five with my mother. When the first photos of the kids in cages started resurfacing, I was so triggered and angry. I remember calling my mom and telling her how that could have easily been me.
I messaged my friends and suggested we should sell t-shirts to raise money for the Refugee & Immigrant Center for Education & Legal Services (RAICES) in Texas and Border Angels, both of which were providing legal aid to the immigrants. My friend Gabbie [Bautista] volunteered to do the graphics and within an hour, we had the design. I went downtown to grab three dozen shirts and thought, “Even if we just raise $500, that'll be good.”
We started selling them on Tiermarq, a brand I founded with my friend, Kelynn Smith, and used it as our platform. Thanks to that, it got so much traction. Both i-D and PAPER magazine did a story on the shirts.
We raised $5,000 in total. We also did a second round with only pre-orders and raised over $11,000. Seeing the power of community manifesting itself was so beautiful. Nothing feels better to me than being able to give back.
Wow, that’s wonderful. What was the idea behind your White T-Shirt Project?
It was mainly because of COVID-19. When I learned that lots of people, especially immigrants who work under the table who are most affected by the pandemic, weren’t going to get financial help from the government, I knew I wanted to do something to raise money for them.
Quarantine life reminds me of the time we spent indoors during the civil war that happened when I was little in El Salvador. I remember vividly when the guerillas left our town, people came out waving these white fabrics—kitchen cloths, rags, blankets, and for me, a t-shirt—celebrating that it was finally over. That’s how the idea for the project came about.
I invited 30 designers and artists to make something from a white t-shirt, no boundaries or rules bound, and we had an auction on eBay.
It was so cool to see people expressing their creativity with just a simple white t-shirt. My best friend [Ceilidh MacLeod] made a lamp! It was incredible, we raised over $5,000.
I love that this fundraiser encouraged pure creativity because it didn’t have to be commercially viable.
If you have advice for your younger self or anyone who wants to do styling, what would they be?
Be respectful and be nice to people. I see a lot of jealousy and rudeness go around, and people talk, people remember, and people won't work with you if you have an attitude. I treat everyone with the respect they deserve because you don't know where people have been, you can't judge people by what you assume.
But also, work hard. I feel like so many kids that hit me up for assisant work and I give them a chance, but it doesn’t seem like they want to put in the work. They have this Instagram idea of instant gratification and fashion glamour, but this job is not easy.
I once had an assistant who texted me 20 minutes prior to call time saying she’s on her way, and she ended up being ten minutes late—that’s not how you do it. When I was assisting, I would show up to Rita's house with coffee. I'm not saying that stylist assistants have to do that, but there's a level of respect we should have for each other.
You have to love this job because sometimes it can feel meaningless, but it's so beautiful when you're able to create beautiful images with amazing teams—there’s no better feeling than that.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Keyla Marquez
Special thanks to Polaroid