March 05 2019

Kyle Luu: the Genius Stylist Behind Solange, Travis Scott, Tinashe, Young Thug, and Troye Sivan

We sat down to discuss how Luu's hard work finally began to pay off, making your own lane in the fashion world, working with Solange on the visual album of the season as well as being a trans woman in the Hip Hop community.

During the most recent New York Fashion Week, I ran into Kyle Luu. We had both arrived out of the February hellscape for a family dinner in honor of Telfar at The Standard, High Line. "Phew girl!" Kyle exclaimed, laughing short of breath. She wasn't invoking the weather or the shows, her heels, or even the commotion surrounding the coat check area in which we were standing. We clinked glasses and she told me about finishing her latest project with Solange. Entitled When I Get Home, the album and visual project, released this weekend, was the culmination of a half a year of planning. "Video content and a bunch of shoots in between," Kyle explained to me later when we convened for this interview. "The video part alone took four weeks, so that's a lot of time." Shot between Solange's home turf of Houston, Dallas, and Marfa, TX, the 33-minute art film features direction by Alan Ferguson, Terence Nance, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Ray Tintori, the album including collaborations with the likes of Gucci Mane, Playboi Carti, Cassie, Abra, The-Dream, Tyler the Creator, Pharrell, Sampha, and others. 

The project is but the latest in a series of triumphs for the D.C.-raised, New York-based stylist, who has made a name for herself as a go-to dresser for pop stars like Travis Scott, Tinashe, Young Thug, and Troye Sivan. She's also attracted the attention of industry figures like Carine Roitfeld and Pat McGrath for her disheveled-sexy, genderbending, urban-power-girl aesthetic, which she attributes to growing up in awe of artists like Destiny's Child and Britney Spears. 

I received a text from one of the heads at SONY. Her name was Samantha Lecca. She booked me for Travis Scott's first video. They flew me out to L.A. two days later and that was it.
Solange by Max Hirschberger and Kyle Luu for When I get Home.
Solange by Max Hirschberger and Kyle Luu for When I get Home.
Solange by Max Hirschberger and Kyle Luu for When I get Home.

Were you always interested in fashion?

I was more interested in art. I originally wanted to be an illustrator and my mom was like "artists don't become famous until they die! Are you sure you want to do that?" So, I quickly pivoted to something else that was in the realm. I saw this segment on Oprah where they were doing DIY projects, and they, like, cut a T-shirt into a halter top and I was like, "Oh!" That was what really sparked my interest.

Did you move to New York to go to college?

I didn't get into F.I.T. but I moved here anyway, with an internship. I took classes there anyway but not full time. I was doing my internship during the day and then going to school at night. I felt like I had such a random college experience because I wasn't full time and when I was in school I was surrounded by much older adults. I was taking weird classes like anatomy classes, a human body course where we had to know all the muscles and bones. I felt like I was in a science class. I failed!

Did you originally want to be a designer?

I wanted to go into design but then I realized how expensive and how time consuming it is. I wanted instant gratification and I felt like styling was the one thing that offered that.

So how did you get into styling?

Do you remember Model Mayhem? A girlfriend of mine was modeling at the time and she was like, "I need a stylist to come with me to a shoot, I'm using this website called Model Mayhem." And then it just kind of went from there. I remember Telfar was on Model Mayhem. I remember him delivering samples to my apartment on his bike. This is like 9 or 10 years ago! I then had a friend who was at Elle Magazine and she was like, “I'm leaving and I'm going to take all the contacts and give them to you.” And I was like, “okay!” But then it really did nothing for my career. 

When did you begin to feel a turning point where you realized you were a professional stylist?

I think when I was younger and I stepped into a real showroom and got to pull clothes, I was like, “oh, I'm doing big things!” You know? And then it probably went from there to like, getting rates more than $100. When you see the rates and you start seeing better clothing options; it was things like that… I never assisted anybody. I never landed jobs that I interviewed for growing up. At one point, my mom was like, “let's get real: you're living in a fantasy world and you need to get a job!” So, I ended up working at Forever 21 in Times Square and we opened the store there, which is kind of insane. That job only lasted 3 or 4 months and then I was like, back to the fantasy! My mom was using her life savings just for me to survive in New York City so it was really crunch time. I said, “give me 3 months, I'll get my shit together.” And then I remember... I was actually at the Standard Hotel, and I received a text from one of the heads at SONY. Her name was Samantha Lecca. She booked me for Travis Scott's first video. They flew me out to L.A. two days later and that was it.

Mark Akeshame and Kyle Luu for CR Fashion Book 14
Mark Akeshame and Kyle Luu for CR Fashion Book 14
Mark Akeshame and Kyle Luu for CR Fashion Book 14
I'm not going to go around sucking dicks just for editorials.

Now you've worked with so many musicians. Is music your go-to when it comes to the commercial side of your work?

You definitely see coin over there. It's definitely cute when it comes to payouts but it's also a lot more work than editorial. You're dealing with one personality, which is the artist, and then the teams, music heads, and you have a lot of people to answer to. There are so many different layers when you work with a musician. I think that makes things a little more challenging—too many chefs in the kitchen. It's not just the managers, it's the entourage; the entourage always has something to say!

So, when musicians or labels come to you, what is it about what you do that they're drawn to?

I think, I'm able to make them still look like themselves but elevated. A lot of people forget you have to make artists look and feel like themselves. It always ends up feeling like a costume. Too conceptual. I think my personal style is a little sexier and that works with musicians. I always have that sexier touch, but I also can still offer an editorial standpoint.

What would baby Kyle think of grown Kyle working with these artists?

It's so weird because every artist I've worked with has had a unique connection. Tinashe, I literally prayed on. I knew I needed a girl artist and I thought, “I want to work with Tinashe.” Out of the blue, Matthew Henson called me, who I'd never worked with or even talked to before. He was like, "hey I love your work and I think I have a client for you." And I was like, "who?" I was actually watching Tinashe on the TV at the time, and he said, "it's Tinashe." I was like, “Oh my god, it's so weird.” Even with my friends Jacky and Elvin, we were having dinner on my birthday and they were like, "who do you want to work with" and I was like, "someone who could understand me like Solange," and then she ended up calling me 3 days later. It's destiny, it really is.

In your editorial work now, what have you been working on and where do you see yourself going in that regard?

Well, I just did CR 14 and a little bit of Interview with Remi Lamande, and I did Allure with Lizzo and that should be coming out soon. I have always been that person who's taken odd jobs because they're the only jobs that have been offered to me. I'm that person who takes everything until I don't need to anymore. I come from a place of yes (laughs) but there are ups and downs to it, because sometimes you're on set and you're kicking yourself in the head like, “why the fuck did I sign up for this?” But, I mean, as far as my career goes, I think I'll get into a little more creative direction with artists. I work with artists so much, I feel like I should just use that as my strong point or jump off. As far as editorial, I'm just continuing to put out content with friends and creating new language, which is amazing. I'll just continue to do that, I'll continue to create my own lane because I think fashion is so political... You don't ever really get to break in to certain magazines because they just want to book certain teams together. So, I'm like, then I'll just work with my friends and I'll build those teams out. It's going to be the next wave. I already know it is. David and Solomon [Torso] have always been so ahead of their time and I'm so happy to see that they are finally moving into this commercial realm. Everyone featured in the new CR has done something so left, for me, and it feels so ahead of what everyone else is doing that it's like “fuck you,” I'm just going to skip what you're doing and work with my friends! You guys want to be over here and that's fine, we'll play over here and that's cool. People are seeing it and maybe they won't understand it now, but slowly and surely people are going to start understanding it. You see people like Heji [Shin], she's going big things now. People are slowly catching on. I'm at a point also where I'm not going to go around sucking dicks just for editorials. You know what I'm saying? I'm just not that bitch. I'm not that pressed.

Solange in Iris Van Herpen and Brother Vellies at the Met Gala, 2018 styled by Kyle Luu.

Solange in Iris Van Herpen and Brother Vellies at the Met Gala, 2018 styled by Kyle Luu.

Tell me about the new project with Solange ("When I Get Home")

It was such a whirlwind. We worked on it over the span of half a year. She does everything very on her own time and that's great because it's better to take your time with things. It's very mom-and-pop shop over there, she has a very small team. It's great because we have more of a voice. Your voice is more heard because the team is smaller and it means opinions do matter. So, we worked on the video for four weeks throughout Houston, Dallas, and Marfa. We spent most of our time in Marfa. We did everything from costume design to pulls, to on-the-spot cut-and-sew. We were also dressing hundreds of extras at the same time. You'll see in the video, it's like hundreds of extras at a time. That was fun, it was really challenging, though, because we were in the desert so we would have to unload... I think it was 42 racks of clothes.

Solange is very specific with her inspirations. What were some of your inspirations that you were able to really get across in the project?

This project was the perfect time for me to go and pull archives—things that I would see as a child and go, "oh my god how does that even work? Is that real? Where does it go after it's done?" So, we got to go and play with the Mugler archives, a lot of Iris Van Herpen, Viktor & Rolf sent a lot of their archive. Things you would see in magazines, you're getting to finally see it in person. It was crazy. They would ship these huge crates and it looked like a museum the entire time. All of our pulls looked like we were getting ready to set up some fashion exhibition—some Met Gala installation—which is amazing but also really scary at the same time because, you know, here is this archive Mugler, and you're like, “if this falls on the floor... I don't know, I don't even know what to do.” We wore white gloves too. I'm like, “I wear NARS and it's not that sheer! No makeup.” But the video was fun, we got to play with archives and custom stuff, so all that stuff was really fun too.

That will be a big deal! I'm sure you'll be getting a lot of calls…

I hope so! Because I'm ready for some fucking bitches to put some respect on my motherfucking name.

What has your experience been like being an openly trans artist working in hip hop and in fashion?

It's not that significant to my story. I'm just living as is. I just show up to set and I'm like, "hey boo!" Sometimes it's like, "surprise!" They're like, “oh, Kyle?" They're thrown off.

Travis has actually had to tell people in my presence to shut the fuck up, and he's told people that they need to put some respect on it.
Kyle Luu at The Standard, East Village

Kyle Luu at The Standard, East Village

Was transitioning in and of itself impactful in terms of how you would style other women?

I think my feminine energy has a lot to do with how I style. And I think maybe what's interesting is that such a feminine presence can be in the same room as someone like Travis Scott, who I worked with for four years. And, yes, that is interesting and it's not talked about too much. It should be talked about! Because people go into those spaces with a preconceived notion that maybe they might be judged or have a harder time. Working with Travis was cool; he completely supported me. It was sort of midway through my transitioning, and he never questioned it, he didn't really care, it was not even really a thing.

I think there is the perception that hip-hop is rife with phobias. But urban communities have always had trans girls.

Yeah, or you think that it's so aggressive. But it's okay. Everyone has, you know, at least an uncle that's gay, everyone knows someone that's dippin' it and doin' it, you know? So, it's not a shocker. But the thing that really made me respect Travis is that Travis has actually had to tell people in my presence to shut the fuck up, and he's told people that they need to put some respect on it. He's actually stood up for me before, multiple times. So, when the Amanda Lepore controversy happened, I knew, it's not even like that.

Culture at large has taken so much from the trans community. You look at the Paris Is Burning thing and how far that culture has gone. Cardi B and the Kardashians are expressing in a particular way and we know where it originated. Do you feel a responsibility to represent in that way?

Now I see guys, rappers wearing pearl earrings, I'm like, “okay sis, I see you!” In terms of representation, I don't even think about it. I think it just shows in the work. I don't think I need to make an announcement. Everyone has their own way of representing and I just represent by putting out quality work.

Photographer
Elvin Tavarez
Writer
Patrik Sandberg