miley cyrus' stylist on the evolution of hannah montana
Simone Harouche is Miley Cyrus’ stylist. She helps channel Miley’s vision, knows where to find dresses shaped like rainbow flags, and ignores the constant internet commentary.
photography alex aristei
Before we talk about Miley, we have to talk about Xtina. As in Christina Aguilera's Stripped-era alter-ego. The "X" on the butt of her red underwear in the video for "Dirrty," the scandalous best-selling track from the 2002 album, marked the beginning of a radical transition in the pop star's career: from a former Mouseketeer to a wearer of assless leather chaps. That outfit will forever be associated with a specific moment in Christina's career, and in post-millennium pop.
Around the same time, Simone Harouche was a college graduate in her early 20s, living in Los Angeles and interning with stylists. This was back when "styling" was not the ultimate job to write home about. "It was in the beginning, when there were only, like, a couple agencies and it was a much smaller business," Simone tells me over the phone from her cacti-filled office in La Brea. But her father was a clothing manufacturer and her sister is a fashion designer. "So it's kind of in my blood," she says. And, as it happened, Simone's friend lived above one of that handful of styling agencies, so she simply sent her resume downstairs. That same friend soon became Christina Aguilera's manager.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, I guess," says Harouche. That time was 2003 and that place was in close proximity to the then-exploding pop sensation Christina Aguilera with a generous supply of ripped-up tank tops. "I used to cut up my shirts and do weird shit with them and Christina would be, like, 'Can you make that for me?'," Simone remembers.
One day, she brought three garbage bags full of clothes over to her friend's house and customized them for the singer. Not long after, she began working on small jobs for her, which turned into a full-time gig designing Aguilera's world tour outfits. Suddenly she was flying to Florence to consult on the creation of custom Roberto Cavalli dresses and supervising the next phase of Christina's evolution - away from assless chaps and towards the retro pinup girl bustier dresses that defined her more mature Back to Basics persona.
As CD sales hit all-new lows, we increasingly identify performers' musical phases with what they wear on red carpets and Instagram, rather than with their album covers. Which makes music world stylists' job ever more relevant. Case in point: Try to remember what Miley Cyrus' Bangerz album cover looks like. (I can't.) But the image of her beige latex bikini and foam finger at the 2013 VMAs is probably burned onto your retinas. That, not the actually far more subdued 80s-inspired stylings of the CD case, is the iconic image of Bangerz.
That outfit was also Simone Harouche's work, and another iconic transitional moment in an artist's career. Harouche understands exactly the power of clothes in communicating an artist's voice and vision. And, more significantly, she knows how to really listen to what that voice is saying - as has been the case in her now six-year-long collaboration with Miley.
"I met and started working with her while she was still Hannah Montana," Simone recalls. When Christina's touring schedule mellowed, Harouche began taking meetings with other artists (she still works with Aguilera, as well as Jennifer Lopez), and she flew out to do a shoot with Miley and her mom on a movie set. "She was 16 at the time, and from the beginning we just kind of clicked," she says. "Her and her mom are great. I love them very much." Almost immediately after that, Simone started work on Miley's Breakout tour costumes and the larger campaign to shed her squeaky Disney image.
"The transition of her as a person and as an artist, and of her interests - it's so cool to see that evolution and be a part of it," Simone reflects over the phone. I ask her how that transition works, and she makes clear it comes directly from Miley.
For example, here's how designing the costumes for Miley's recent VMAs hosting gig went, in Simone's words: "She and I discussed different references (everything from 1960s space age stuff to more trippy floral things), and how she wanted the overall thing to look: visually overwhelming and fun. Then we threw ideas back and forth, and I went out and talked to designers and worked on sketches. It's always an organic experience. She's very hands on. And you're making really fun shit - so it's fun!"
On the night, Miley wore seemingly countless different outfits. Simone approached Prada for the futuristic pieces - a custom sparkling mylar coat and a full mirrored look - Versace for an instantly iconic Barbarella-like metallic harness and Courrèges for all the retrofuturistic accessories Miley could hold up. "I picked the designers that I thought would make these ideas come to life," Harouche explains. "We can create whatever we like. We just go there."
What was her favorite look? "Tough. But I loved the Versace on the red carpet. I felt like she was giving us a moment." The 2015 VMAs were, for sure, a moment. More than any appearance since, well, the 2013 VMAs, the show was a declaration of what Miley is about. It proved that her visual language was even more fantastical and extreme than the everyday glitter explosion documented on her Instagram. But the event also reinforced, on a very public stage, that Miley is about more than aesthetics. Harouche commissioned a dress shaped like a rainbow flag from Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, which made Miley's campaign for LGBTQ rights just about as visible as possible.
The internet picked out what some saw as a less positive aspect of Miley's outfit choices, however. For certain critics and Twitter commentators, her blonde dreadlocked ponytail was just one offense in a career of cultural appropriation. Simone finds the negativity that circulates on social media frustrating to the extreme. The internet can become an echo chamber for opinions, especially when those opinions are critical and about someone as prominent as Miley Cyrus. "I just can't listen," she says. "Let the girl live."
Miley is not an artist who wears what her record label tells her to wear. She's been there, done that, and got a whole lot of misery from it. Now she is truly just being Miley. She doesn't even wear exclusively what Simone suggests she wears. "She is very into fashion and hits up designers separately from me - especially younger ones," says Simone. "She definitely has an eye." Earlier this year, Miley discovered the French designer Simon Jacquemus on Instagram, they became pen pals, and she published a tribute to his "sacred geometry" and "heart of gold" in her column for V magazine. "I am thankful for the innovators like him who bring tech to a level where oceans and land can't divide us," she wrote.
With fashion, as with everything else, Miley dances to the tune of her own Tibetan singing bowls. And, as she was for Christina, Simone is there to guide, not teach, her as she evolves.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Alex Aristei