Even the most hands-on musicians need a little help expressing themselves. That’s where a whole industry of designers, directors, glam squads and fashion experts comes in, ready to transform an artist’s imagination and identity into an entire world for fans to consume. Meet the LGBTQ talents doing the work — and redefining their roles as the music business evolves
Quinn Wilson creative
Behind Lizzo’s relentlessly positive, super-size vision lies a group of queer creatives — Quinn Wilson, Marko Monroe and Alexx Mayo, alongside allies Shelby Swain and
Eri Ishizu — who have amplified the message that your greatest asset is your own authentic self
BET Show, Grammy Awards: Kevin Winter/Getty Images. BET Red Carpet: Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images. Wilson: MediaPunch/Shutterstock. Mayo: Marko Monroe. Monroe, Swain: Theo Wargo/Getty Images. Ishizu: Courtesy of subject.
Read more of the team’s behind-the-scenes stories here.
When given the incredible opportunity to work on the highly anticipated return of the Jonas Brothers, I knew we had to create a campaign that had never been done before. I am particularly proud of our Happiness Begins tracklist reveal — this was the first time an artist [did that with] Spotify Canvas [in-app visuals that replace a song's album cover]. Each song on the album had its own piece of collage-inspired content that either had the title of the song hidden or used images and footage that suggested the title, and fans scrambled to figure out the names of the songs. A proud moment for me was when the fans recognized our repurposed use of the patterns on each brother’s shirt from the cover art. The fans also gave credit to the fact that we paid special attention to creating different social assets for each brother that all were connected. Myself and Katia Temkin, whom I commissioned to create the content for Happiness Begins, couldn’t keep our eyes away from Twitter after the Spotify tracklist reveal was released. It’s always a proud moment when you see a fan tweet an exact thought you had while in the process of creating. —AS TOLD TO LYNDSEY HAVENS
Designing great album art isn’t just about how a package looks — it’s also about how it feels. Three art directors break down the process behind some of their most memorable projects
Smith, St. Vincent: Courtesy of Concord. Miettinen, Alma: Courtesy of Miettinen. Vastola: Lance Nicole. Jonas Brothers: Courtesy of Republic Records.
Read more about other album artwork that Smith, Miettinen and Vastola have worked on here.
Makeup doesn’t feel like a job. It just feels like getting ready with your best friend. I’ve done it my whole life, so I don’t really know anything else. I was that person in high school that got the girls ready. But makeup is a business, and a lot of hiring comes down to budget. An artist might not be able to fly me to London or Los Angeles because there are incredibly talented people in those major cities. Someone with less experience might be more affordable, but it’s also a gamble. You don’t know what you’re going to get. Some people also haven’t flown internationally. I once went to China with Charli XCX seven times in one year. I know how to get in and out of China easily, which can be overwhelming for someone who’s newer.
Investing in good glam is one less thing for a pop star to think about. It helps them feel more confident. They don’t have to worry about how they look — they just worry about their job. Speed is also important. I’m proud to say that me and my regular hair girl, Korey Fitzpatrick, can do things in 45 minutes to an hour. But there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. You’ll get 30 minutes to do your job, someone will complain it takes too long, and then all of a sudden, it’s an hour later and they’re ready, and you’re like, “Cool, I could have been doing my job the whole time!” You can ask for two hours, but no one wants that. You don’t want to wake an artist up at 4 a.m. if they don’t have to leave until 6 a.m. because they’re going to be tired and cranky.
As a makeup artist who has worked with Dua Lipa, Icona Pop and Tove Lo, Colby Smith says there’s no bond like the one between pop divas and the LGBTQ community
Lo, Lipa, Charli XCX, Eilish, Marie, Larsson: Courtesy of Colby Smith. Smith: Maxwell Poth.
Read more about what it’s like to be a makeup artist here.
Not long after she began working with Tegan and Sara, Storey started manning the merchandise table at shows each night, selling T-shirts directly to the duo’s fans — often without attendees knowing she was the designer behind them. As she listened to them bluntly discuss opinions and preferences, Storey learned a lot about what they look for in merch. Now she encourages bands to do similar research into what their own fans like. “Think about the psychology of it,” she advises. “The colors, where the design is on the shirt — what is the audience looking for? Is it a band where people want to see their faces, or are slogans more appropriate? If you’re a metal band, are people expecting the shirts to be in a particular style?”
Photos courtesy of Storey Elementary
Read the rest of Storey’s merch tips here.
I was working with Pamela Neal, who took the photos and has worked with Annie [Clark, aka St. Vincent]. We had several different images and decided on this one because we felt like no one really had seen Annie before in this really intimate manner — and that’s exactly what the music is about. It’s the stripped-down, piano version of [2017’s] Masseduction, so we wanted to show that with this grainy, nude photo. It sets you up for the experience you’re about to have when you play the music. What I did with the type was really fun: I wanted it to have this classical nature, with the curviness and the swirls, to emphasize that it’s a piano album. The type got a gold foil, so it feels really rich — you feel its bumps and curves. I remember I went into management’s office to meet with Annie and had all this stuff spread out on the table. When she looked at the specific combination, she said, “I believe in that.” And when she said that, I was just like, “Wow.” It felt like a connection.
With all the cover photos that I’ve done, we’ve wanted to go with a similar look. We’ve always been into the film camera look — not anything polished or clean or super American, because we’re Finns from this poor family, so we’re used to just taking shitty Polaroids and being creative with that. It’s more interesting than a beautiful portrait taken in a studio. The tape is actually done by hand — I write on a piece of tape, put it over the photo and then scan it, print it out and do it again. Usually the stuff we do is pretty random. [For “Lonely Night,”] ALMA had one day between studio sessions in Los Angeles, and the label was asking for the cover. ALMA was just like, “Fuck, I have no idea what we should do.” We walked around in the streets, just vibing. We found that car, and then I also did a lot of editing and taping afterward. We just play around. ALMA obviously has to play the game a bit, but I don’t. With the artwork I do for ALMA, I want it to be super real. I want to show people that not everything has to be super-expensive clothes and stuff.
Get Into The Mind Of A Fan
Build Your Own Focus Group
Before you giddily run off hundreds of your prettiest designs, consider showing prototypes to friends or members of your team. Storey suggests making a mock store with a dozen or so options and asking friends to pick two favorites. “It shows you a lot,” she says. “I’m a total environmentalist and really encourage bands not to make landfill fodder.” To better assess fans’ appetites — and to keep extra stock to a minimum — Storey recommends trying a preorder system. “That can be a good way to gauge interest in a product and not be wasteful about it. Fans know what to expect, and you know how many to make.”
Make Your Web Store Work For You
Right now, it’s basically impossible to sell merch on tour, but that doesn’t mean sales are finished. Opening a web store for the first time? Storey suggests working with a merchandising company that can print your shirts and build a user-friendly interface, like The Cardboardbox Project. “You have to think of the whole package of the buying experience,” she says. Good product photography is also key, even if it’s shot without professional equipment. “One thing that I’ve done with quite a few bands now is a casual photo shoot of them in the merchandise — fans love to see the band in the merch,” she says. “Or do a look book, which can show how a product hangs on a human body. It doesn’t have to be crazy expensive — it can be selfies — but it helps them envision the product more. The more pictures, the better.” —GAB GINSBERG
Lizzo is the vehicle and the vessel. But she needs all of us: myself, our stylist, our hairstylist, makeup artist, choreographer, dancers. We’re all mirrors reflecting her light, making that light bigger.
When I hear Lizzo’s music, I see color, and we’ve literally played with every shade in the rainbow. A lot of the time, she doesn’t get ready in front of a mirror. She has no idea what she looks like, which puts so much trust in me. I’ve gotten to show my most creative side with her. It’s playtime.
The BET Awards red carpet was one of those moments where we were having fun. I told Lizzo I found the wood-grain dress, and she was like, “What if I had wood-grain nails?” Great. [I asked,] “What if you had wood-grain boots?” Shelby was like: “Could we do hair?” We were all screaming.
All this wood grain? I couldn’t be the only one missing out! So my crazy ass decided to come up with wood-grain hair. It was hot as hell that day, and we were painting this hair piece an hour before Lizzo went on the carpet. It ended up matching everything perfectly! Then we get to the carpet, and everybody’s like, “We love your hat!”
Wilson The performance [that night] gave us permission to do whatever the fuck we wanted — permission to be like, “Let’s have a big fat-ass onstage [at the MTV Video Music Awards].” The VMAs gave me confidence, but we wouldn't have been able to do that if I hadn’t said to BET, “I don’t care if it costs $20,000. We’re making a giant cake.”
Monroe Lizzo knew I wasn’t a stylist [at the time], but she had belief in my creativity, belief in Quinn and me. Even though we didn’t have the experience, she fought to keep us in our roles and allow us to grow. That is a huge testament to who she is as a person.
When I started working with Lizzo, I was going through a breakup. Her uplifting energy and the message she wants to send — it meant so much to me.
Mayo She is changing the world and how people see themselves. One of the most amazing things I saw [on tour] was a little boy who was there with his dad. He had on full glitter and a feather boa. I was immediately brought to tears. I was like, “This little boy is experiencing acceptance.” Having that sense of pride within himself — it’s what gives you the support to do great things. —BROOKE MAZUREK
As an image architect, part of my skill set is watching the physical transformation in the client: the posture, the smile. I know right away when a client puts something on whether they like it. I had the Vetements Titanic sweatshirt for at least a week before I showed it to her. I didn’t want her to think it was too campy or too cliché — but now we all know Céline is the queen of camp! She had planned to wear something else that day, but she loved it and was like, “I want to wear this now.” The sweatshirt was so disruptive because it was coming from a place where people never would have expected her to go. To see the queen of Las Vegas wear something that was so toned down and at the same time so loud when it came to streetwear? It didn’t make sense for people. But I think that’s when the best things in pop culture happen: when things collide that don’t necessarily make sense.
Three wardrobe experts recount some of their clients’ most iconic looks, explaining how they came together — and why they cut through the noise
Sting: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images. Solange: Jason Kempin/Getty Images. Dion: Pecquenard/KCS PRESSE/Splash News. Roach: Mike Pont/Getty Images. Luu, Thomas: Courtesy of subject.
Read more about how these looks came together here.
Law Roach on Céline Dion’s 2016
Titanic throwback look
The theme that year was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, but the thing about that imagery is you don’t ever see Black figures, so we wanted to go against the grain for it. I remember starting off talking about the sculpture on the hair, but the dress wasn’t confirmed for the red carpet until the day before. The night before, she posted images on Twitter of dresses she wanted to wear because she couldn’t decide. We ended up following our gut and decided to go with the Iris van Herpen dress. A look stands out when you’re just telling your story authentically. We never go out expecting to be on best-dressed lists — I think that’s too much pressure to perform, and it’s kind of an old concept. We’re not trying to blend in. We’re not trying to follow a trend or start a trend. We’re just living our truth, and that’s what we do every day as queer and trans people. That’s what Black women do every day. That’s how we choose to stand out.
Kyle Luu on Solange’s
2018 Met Gala look
David Thomas on Sting’s 2004 Grammy Awards look
When you’re doing a bunch of awards shows, you want to pace yourself so there’s a distinction between what you’re doing for each. Maybe it’s more appropriate that you wear a traditional black tie for the Oscars, but for the Grammys, we wanted to do something a little more rock’n’roll, a little more out there. Sting always had been a Jean Paul Gaultier fan, so we came up with doing the kilt. He’s kind of fearless when it comes to fashion and the way he presents himself as an artist, so it felt believable — which is essential, I think, if you’re going to put a man in a kilt on the red carpet. We decided on a suit jacket because very often a kilt is worn with a cropped jacket. But I didn’t want it to look costumey, so we decided to go dark on the socks and shoes, which is not traditional if you wear a kilt. The most important thing about clothes is how they make you feel, and he was really feeling it. —AS TOLD TO NOLAN FEENEY
It’s super-intimate work. People will ask, “Isn’t it weird seeing someone naked in a robe? Is it weird being in their personal hotel room with their clothes everywhere?” It doesn’t even register in my brain anymore because I’m just there to do my job. Charli and I have lived on a tour bus together. I’ve seen her at her worst; she’s seen me at my worst. But when you have that bond with an artist, it’s the most fun thing you could ever experience in your life. Dress-up, glam, all rolled into pop music? It’s a perfect recipe. —AS TOLD TO NF
The Spice Girls’ 2019 tour opened with a video message that welcomed all gender identities and sexual orientations. What does it mean to you to work on a project like that?
For me, it has to feel relevant. It can’t just be something that you apply. For the Spice Girls, I wasn’t just a fan when I was a kid — it genuinely felt like a part of my identity was allowed to be because of the girls’ messaging. As a queer and trans person, I’m aware that a large part of their audience also identifies within that [spectrum]. And the Spice Girls themselves wanted to ensure that message of inclusivity. When we were putting together that opening statement, it was a difficult time in the world, so we wanted to create a space where it was joyous and happy but, in that sense, also quite political.
Art director and Studio Moross founder Kate Moross has designed live visuals for megawatt tours by the Spice Girls and Sam Smith — and imbued a message of inclusion along the way
Spice World: Luke Dyson/ Courtesy of Studio Moross. Moross: Panos Demaskinidis. Smith: Kris Goodman/Courtesy of Studio Moross.
Read the rest of the Q&A here.
What’s the side of your job that fans don’t see?
My first big job was for One Direction, and someone who had designed a lot of the show gave me really good advice: Seventy percent of the work that you do before you show up on set will go in the bin. You might design an entire show in preproduction before you arrive on set, but I guarantee that very little of it will be the same by the time you reach the show. Everything gets shelved or changed or adjusted. You see things in real life, and they just don’t look as good as you thought.
Now that LED screens have become more readily available, we have loads more pixels to fill and keep up with. A single song in the Spice Girls show, I think, was 30 gigabytes of data. You might have to rerender that song every day — just think about how much data you’re processing. And computers can be incredibly temperamental. We employed a monitor who watched the renders every night to make sure they happened successfully because one failure can ruin an entire day of rehearsing. We had one night working when it was very cold, and someone unplugged our entire cabin to plug in a heater. We lost all of our work for that night.
Things like that happen all the time. I watched a Game of Thrones documentary that said a producer’s job is to survive. Touring is a bit like that. You’re paid to make it through, and by some grace of God, it all comes together. —AS TOLD TO NF
Emy Storey — the longtime art director for Tegan and Sara
who also has designed for fun., Death Cab for Cutie,
Leon Bridges and others — shares her tips for creating
merch that looks good and sells great
ALMA’s twin sister and creative director
vp creative services at Concord
On St. Vincent’s MassEducation:
On ALMA’s single artwork:
On the Jonas Brothers’ Happiness Begins:
On St. Vincent’s MassEducation:
On ALMA’s single artwork:
On the Jonas Brothers’ Happiness Begins: