The enduring success of the Rolling Stones is due in some part to William Gilchrist, the virtuoso stylist who conjures up their flamboyant stage looks.
By Stephen Doig, photo Philip Sinden.
“Each member of the band is an individual in their own right. It’s a living colour palette, and each person is painting their own picture on a joint canvas, so you have to be aware of that. I know that Keith likes Saint Laurent, for example; I know that with Ronnie he tends to be much more eclectic, but they all have strong ideas about what works.”
Against the sedate pinstripes and pocket squares of the private members’ club George in Mayfair, William Gilchrist is a refreshing antidote as he weaves through the dining room like a particularly well-attired fox, with his vulpine features and lapis-blue eyes, a sweep of grey stubble, a narrow suit and trainers. He folds his elongated limbs – he’s 6ft tall and refers to himself as “a gangly bugger” – into an armchair, all angular elbows and knees, looking as far from the average club member as is possible in a jacket that, he reveals, he had his tailor create from a towelling material (“fantastic for travelling and I can just bung it in the washing machine”), a gauzy Sunspel T-shirt and nondescript trainers.
Gilchrist, 50, a stylist of more than three decades who has helped to cement the sartorial message of some of the world’s most famous men, and who previously worked at L’Uomo Vogue and Arena, is undoubtedly the best advertisement for his particular services. Relaxed yet impeccable, he is the right-hand man at the British brand Oliver Spencer, a long-term stylist to Jude Law and, perhaps most visibly, the man who dresses the Rolling Stones.
For when it comes to some of the most enduring images of the Stones in recent years, it has often been Gilchrist’s Prospero-like manoeuvring behind the scenes – nipping, tucking and editing from the wings of stadiums in the Midwest or at a shoot in a studio in New York – that has contributed to their status as one of the world’s most stylish rock ensembles.
“Each member of the band is an individual in their own right,” Gilchrist says. “But when they come together collectively they become the Rolling Stones, and it’s my job to build on that.” Gilchrist began working with the Stones on their 2005 Bigger Bang album cover, shot by Nick Knight. He gelled so well with the band and their aesthetic that he joined them on their 90-date worldwide Bigger Bang tour, the second-highest-grossing of all time. He also works with them on photoshoots and other appearances, but it is styling for those gargantuan stadium tours, Gilchrist says, that has been the most challenging.
“When I first began working with the band, I swiftly realised that tour styling is a very different beast from other forms. You can’t just care about the details of the outfit up close – you need to be thinking about what the people in the nosebleed seats are seeing. It’s a living colour palette, and each person is painting their own picture on a joint canvas, so you have to be aware of that. It has to be noticeable but in keeping with their own personal style.”
And that personal style is well pronounced: perhaps more than any other all-male band, the Stones have redefined men’s fashion. It was Mick Jagger’s androgynous style and his borrowings from his girlfriends’ wardrobes that ushered in new proportions and a more fluid, feminine aesthetic in the 1960s. Keith Richards’s jet-black, skin-tight aesthetic has long been the benchmark for rock-star cool. So is it intimidating putting ideas forward?
“It’s a dialogue. I source and scour constantly for pieces, and after a while you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. You get to know the nuances of each individual,” Gilchrist says. “I know that Keith likes Saint Laurent, for example; I know that with Ronnie he tends to be much more eclectic, but they all have strong ideas about what works.”
Gilchrist is responsible for styling the band as a unit, while individuals such as Richards and Jagger have personal stylists – the latter employs the team of his late designer girlfriend, L’Wren Scott.
Are there any defining Stones style moments that he’s particularly proud to call his own? “No, I would never say, ‘Oh, that’s a look that I’m really proud of, that’s a particular outfit that I thought really worked.’ I think it’s egotistical for a stylist to think like that. It’s not about me, it’s what they bring to the table, how they wear it and how they incorporate the pieces that makes an outfit,” Gilchrist says. Even when touring, he says, he’s a small cog in the mammoth juggernaut that is the Rolling Stones cavalcade.
“I work with them at the start and then perhaps for a while when the tour gets under way, but I’m a small component. It’s a very, very tight-knit family. I’ll then usually come out during the tour at certain stages to make adjustments, make sure that everything is working properly. It’s a strange world when you’re out there – you’re very much in a bubble. I get back to reality and find myself wanting to ask someone, ‘OK, when do I eat?’, or, ‘What are we meant to be doing next?’”
Gilchrist’s fashion education came by way of punk in the 1970s, which enthralled him as a boy at Abbotsholme boarding school, Staffordshire, which he attended after living in South Africa and Mauritius. “I loved punk and Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries,” he says. “I bought an outfit, and when my housemaster found it he burnt it, claiming he thought it was rags.” A tenure at London College of Fashion studying fashion design followed, and Gilchrist showed his own-name label in London for two seasons before relocating to Milan to work as a stylist, going on to work with Versace, Moschino, Alexander McQueen menswear, Hugo Boss and Dior Homme fragrance campaigns.
Gilchrist’s style tenets are well pronounced, as might be expected from someone who leaves fashion shows to the thunder of camera shutters as street-style photographers swarm around him. “I think for a man, style is about attention to detail and avoiding the urge to be a peacock and coquette, because it comes across as very forced. It’s about a lack of effort but an attention to detail. I think male peacockery is a thing to be avoided – it has to look at ease and natural.”
And have Mick and the boys imparted any style wisdom in his time working with them? “I think what I’ve learnt is that the music comes first,” he says. “Everything else is just a complement to that. With them, it’s always about the music.”