Photo: Johnny De Guzman
Most people know Gabriel Held as a ‘stylist and vintage dealer to the stars.’ His style is reminiscent of past eras but somehow manages to remain effortlessly current. His Instagram is universally appreciated due to it’s fashion historicism, and it’s ability to educate you on important past eras and public figures. His archive mainly consists of pieces from the coveted 90’s and 2000’s. One of the most cherished aspects of Held’s Instagram is his utterly original hashtag, “Unsung Shero of Fashion,” which has featured names like Christina Aguilera, Garcelle Beauvais, and Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown.
I sat down with Gabriel on Zoom at 2PM on a Thursday.
Happy: So you were born and raised in Brooklyn, which is also a hometown to other super heavy hitters like Biggie Smalls, Cindy Lauper, Lil’ Kim, and so many others. What is it about Brooklyn that you feel is responsible for breeding so much talent and success?
Gabriel: That’s a good question. I can’t really speak for other people, but I know, for me, there was something outsiderish about being from Brooklyn as opposed to Manhattan. You might grind a little bit harder to make your entry into society or culture, with the intention of showing people that you don’t have to be from Manhattan to be the best.
Happy: I love that.
Gabriel: Also, it [Brooklyn] is culturally very much of a melting pot. There’s a lot of different cultures that are influencing each other, and that can be very fruitful. The overlap of different kind of cultural references that one is exposed to in Brooklyn. And the realness.
Happy: Why do you think you’ve been able to sustain your success in the fashion industry for so many years?
Gabriel: Fashion was a lifelong passion, but it was not anything I ever set out intentionally to do professionally. I went to art school. I was planning to be a working artist. I graduated in 2008, and the economy crashed. I was pretty much unemployable with my course of study, which was an interdisciplinary sculpture major, which is basically any medium of art, but it should be conceptually oriented. Then, I minored in gender theory and took a concentration in photography. So three things that I felt passionately about, but they did not make me an ideal candidate to work anywhere, really. After five years of trying to force this agenda of what I thought I was supposed to be doing… It just wasn’t working. I applied for over 200 gallery receptionist jobs, and I got maybe two or three interviews. It was just not happening. I don’t think it was my calling. But when I got closer to 30, it became clear to me that was maybe not the universe’s plan for me; if I were to maybe just stop trying to force this agenda and just kind of go where I was being led… that might be more organic and more correct. So, I think that probably has something to do with it. The fact that this is where life led me, and it’s thusly, in my opinion, it’s where I’m supposed to be. Also, I consider myself somebody who is perhaps in the fashion world, but not of the fashion world. And back to that Brooklyn outsider thing. I think it does give to have one foot in and one foot out helps me be a better rounded person. Because I have a lot of amazing friends who work in fashion, and then there’s a lot of less amazing people who work in fashion. It’s not the most ethical. The essence of fashion is not based in moral superiority. So I think being ‘in’ but not ‘of’ is definitely part of what makes me successful. As well as following my own path and passions, rather than adhering to all of the rules, which probably in some ways has made me less successful but in other ways more successful.
Happy: Have you always wanted to be a force in fashion?
Gabriel: In my fantasy adolescent mind, yes. Fashion was not necessarily ever my primary ambition, although now it obviously is. But fashion was always on my mind. I remember my first time thinking about fashion. I remember I was probably six or seven years old. I was out with my mom in Manhattan and we saw this woman in a hooded, full length red mongolian lamb coat. I turned to her and said, ‘mom, do you see that? Dress me in the styles of the 90s.’ And she says, ‘well, it’s really more 60s or 70s, but point taken.’ I definitely did entertain the idea of being a designer. I wanted to be a child prodigy, like eleven year old fashioned designer. I still have all my sketches and they’re pretty funny. And you know what? I stand behind some of them still to this day. When you’re a teenager, I think you definitely, if you’re a certain personality type, put a lot of emphasis on being, quote, ‘the best’ at whatever it is that you’re doing.
Gabriel: And at that age, I was doing more fashion photography, which came back around to be a part of my work now, of course. But yeah, I had all these ambitions about being the youngest or the best. I feel like since then I’ve created a unique space for myself that I can’t really correlate. Not that I’m one of a kind or whatever. But since I’ve created a unique space for myself, I can probably be the best at this very specific niche that I’ve carved out because I don’t think anybody else is in that niche. So I could be the best and the worst at the same time. But I prefer to think I’m the best..
Gabriel: You know, you just got to take your shot, which I usually do, although I was at the club the other night with the intention of securing two photo shoots with two people who are going to be there. One was Saucy Santana and the other one was Willow Pill from Drag Race. But you know what? Ultimately, I decided not to bother anybody. I was standing right next to Willow. But when you see somebody and they’re surrounded by a crowd of admirers… It’s a little bit my ego, too. But to kind of, like, try to push your way in there as one of the many non specific admirers and make this pitch to do a project together. It takes a nerve, which I do have. Also, I don’t know if this is a New York thing, but my attitude with celebrity is that it’s always best to act like you’ve been there before and you’re not too shook. So, I don’t know, whatever. I could have taken the shot, but if it’s meant to be, it’ll come about another way.
Happy: Yeah, I feel that way, too. I think if it’s meant to be, it happens. If it’s not, then it happens later.
Photo: Lula Hyers
Gabriel: Totally. It all happens when it’s supposed to. Also, I’m a firm believer in that because the career that I have now didn’t really get started until my late 20s. I don’t know that before, I would have been in the right place to be where I’m at right now, especially considering the public aspect of everything. I was just so worried in my 20s about things that are now not so relevant to me. For example: what other people think of me. I think it would have been psychologically more challenging for me to be in a kind of public position before the time that I was.
Happy: That’s really smart insight. That’s important for a lot of people to know, because I feel like when things don’t happen instantly, people get super discouraged. So, to here that ‘no, this happened at the right time.’ is super important.
Gabriel: Especially, now with social media with everybody being able to broadcast their own thing with instant results. I think people really want the instantaneous reaction, which has had negative effects in some ways. When I work with aspiring stylists, who have not perhaps, I don’t want to say ‘paid their dues,’ but maybe they haven’t done their homework or haven’t had enough experience to actually do the job professionally or courteously. They don’t care to take the time that it takes to learn how to do all of that stuff; they just want to do it now. I would watch this sermon by this gospel singer, Yolanda Adams, where she said something that stuck with me because it was very funny, but also because it was true, which was, “you cannot rush God’s time. If you eat fruit out of season, it will kill you. And if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you sick.” It certainly won’t kill you. But point taken.
Happy: Definitely. Point taken. No, I love that. It’s so important to know that just for life, because so much of life is timing.
Happy: Okay. So I think that we, as people who have been following your work for years, are definitely aware of what makes your work stand out. But, in your opinion, what do you feel makes your sense of style different from other fashion stylists and designers?
Gabriel: I would say that my background in the visual arts definitely impact that. Like I said, I come from an artist family. I think some of my earliest memories are drawing with crayons on the floor of an art gallery, while my grandfather had an opening going on. So I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime just refining my eye and it knows what is visually pleasing. I feel like just in terms of combining things and aesthetic relationships between different visual aspects click to my eye. This is not so unique for a stylist or a designer, but I’ve definitely done my research. I am just, by nature, a researcher, so I’ve educated myself from a pretty early age about designers and fashion history, which is another thing that tickles me a little bit when there are young people who you might reference something to, and they’ll be like, ‘oh, that was before I was born.’ Really? You don’t know anything from before you were born?’ I used to go to the library and research things. I think that, and my time in art school, where collage was the idea. So I approach styling like collage. It’s mixing colors, shapes, textures, and patterns in a way that feels very similar to me. I think my background in photography also impacts the way that I style things because you’re really doing it for what works on camera, unless it’s a live event, which is not my favorite to do. I will do anything, but my favorite is to make pictures. You know, I think the fact that I have an attraction to bad taste is part of my thing. Or not bad taste, but stuff outside of the established idea of good taste. I think I love mixing references and things from disparate places and putting them together to make a new thing. Such as, I’m kicking this idea around for a particular artist where I say ‘okay, like Dolly Parton but Hip-Hop.’
Photo: Gabriel Held
Gabriel: I learned at a certain point to go with my instincts. Like when I was in college… I made this piece, right? It was about Cher, because, ‘diva worship’ was a big part of my work. But I printed various Cher album covers on this gold paper and then punctured it and screen printed white ink from the back. So it kind of seeped out. As time went on, there was increasingly more white and less space. It was kind of about plastic surgery, but whatever. I’m sure I had a highfalutin concept behind it. Then, by the time I got to my thesis work, I thought, ‘I want to know why Beyonce whips her hair so much. I don’t need to know why I want to know that. I can just figure it out as I go.’ And so I take that, too, with styling. Just your instincts. If they never really lead you astray, why would you not trust them? Not that I haven’t made some bad looks.
Happy: I personally have never seen a bad look from you.
Gabriel: Well, I certainly wouldn’t publicize the bad ones, but thank you. There are some that come to mind, and none of them have been so cringe for me. But just ones where I didn’t do as well as I would have.
Happy: I get that. That makes sense.
Gabriel: The one time I got to work with Lil’ Kim was probably the pinnacle of that for me, which is unfortunate, but it was not God’s time on that one. I was just too green to be doing that kind of a project. But I think we might end up together again one day. But, under better circumstances, hopefully, next time.
Happy: Definitely. I think for the two of you, your intuitiveness within your style definitely coincides.
Gabriel: I mean, she’s obviously a huge influence on me. And of course, I have to mention in every interview, Misa Hylton, my mother. You want to talk about God’s time? Look at her right now. She is at the pinnacle. She’s further and higher than she ever was before. And there were times in between; there were peaks and valleys. But in God’s time, won’t he do it?
Happy: What was the best decade for fashion, in your opinion?
Gabriel: That’s a toss up for me between the 90s and the 2000s. I love the 2000s for styling. For actual fashion, I love the 90s… there was just a lot of fun.
Happy: Completely. I agree with that. I think as far as fashion in the early 2000s, what designers were making wasn’t that impeccable. But, like you said, the styling and accessorizing was great.
Gabriel: It’s a lot more mixing in the 2000s, a lot more custom and a lot more expression of individuality. Those things seemed to be an emphasis in the 2000s with all the Tina Knowles originals and so on.
Happy: Very true.
Gabriel: And I want to go on record and say this because I’ve said it behind the scenes. I believe that the Herve Leger bandage dress will make a comeback soon. I think the 2010s is the decade that we’re going into the revival of right now. Although, I’m still getting the trickle down of people reaching out to me for interviews saying, ‘so we’ve heard that the 2000s are back?’ Well, yes, I’ve been doing my gig for eight years as a stylist, and we started with the 2000s back then. But different areas of culture take different amounts of time for things to hit. So while I’m sure we both knew that Y2K was a vibe prior to the last year or two… Other people are getting there now. So I think for the actual provocative people, we’ve got to go a little closer in history for the next revival. So I think either things will go ‘indie sleaze,’ which is the MySpace era, or the ‘Boho Sienna Miller Olsen twin moment.’ Or what I think of as ‘Meatpacking District 2010 bottle service girl,’ with those horrible Louboutins with the platform in the front and the stiletto in the back, and an Herve Leger bandage dress and an Alexander McQueen skull scarf.
Happy: Who do you feel has the most influence on today’s trends?
Gabriel: Well, practically speaking, probably influencers, but that is not ideal, in my opinion, because influencers are influenced. I don’t really feel influencers are creating trends. But obviously, no one can touch Rihanna; no one can touch her fashion wise. I feel like you can tell in the way she dresses that she’s involved in the process. I have never worked with her as a stylist. I’ve worked with her as a vintage dealer, and I did kind of customize this piece that she ended up wearing in Wild Thoughts with her breasts exposed. It was like a Betsy Johnson kind of like Empire waste peasant blouse that I hacked up. But I’m only speculating. But I imagine that working with her as a stylist is like, you bring her all of the materials and she goes through with you and it’s like, okay, I want to wear this. Maybe with that, I just feel like you can tell she naturally loves fashion in a way that shines through more than some other people who dress amazingly. Some people have been put together. I just feel Rihanna has an understanding of fashion.
Happy: Rihanna is definitely unmatched.
Gabriel: We’re going to say, also, that 90% of females in the rap game are walking the path that Lil’ Kim created. Even Nicki Minaj herself had an interview with Joe Budden recently, where she said that she and Lil’ Kim should have been on the cover of American Vogue by now. She says, ‘you can open Instagram and look at most of the girl’s rapping today, and you can see Lil’ Kim’s influence.’ I think it’s huge for Nicki to acknowledge that because, come on now… I did make kind of a shady comment, and no disrespect to Nicki, but I stay in the Shaderoom comments. When they posted her saying that, I commented, ‘she’s absolutely right. But all she needs to do is go to the mirror to see Lil’ Kim’s influence.’
Happy: Oh, my God. Wow.
Gabriel: From my point of view, that’s not shade. That’s just a fact to me because there was this huge shift made by Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown and Misa Hylton. Females in Hip-Hop went from concealing their femininity, trying to play with the boys, channeling that sentiment fashion wise, to utilizing sexuality, body, and femininity. You compare your Queen Latifah to a Lil’ Kim or your MC Lyte to a Lil’ Kim… You can see that those are just two different worlds. That change that got ushered in the 90s, is still the direction for a lot of female rappers. It’s still about body, sexy, conspicuous consumption, designer, maximalism, colored furs, bikinis, lingerie, logos, jewels, colored wigs and all of this. You cannot really, if you are based in reality, negate that Lil’ Kim has been a tremendous influence on females in the rap game.
Photo: Mateus Porto
Happy: I’ve seen you post so many icons, specifically femme icons, with your hashtag Unsung Shero of Fashion. What inspired that hashtag?
Gabriel: What inspired that hashtag for me really was the fact that there are so many people who don’t really get the acknowledgement, even though they obviously served amazing looks, including behind the scenes . People like Misa honestly, because I didn’t really know about stylists when I was a teenager. I thought Lil’ Kim had the greatest style, but there’s people behind the scenes contributing to all of that. I enjoy shining a light on people who I don’t feel have necessarily gotten the acknowledgement that they deserve. I guess maybe it’s back to that Brooklyn outsider thing, but I just feel like credit should be more democratized. I see the fashion world often referencing the same handful of people… ‘Brigitte Bardot inspired shoot,’ or ‘Marilyn Monroe inspired shoot,’ when there’s just so much more than that. So really, the only criteria for an unsung shero fashion, is that I’ve never seen an editorial inspired by them, and typically they end up on the Worst Dressed List’ sometimes.
Photo: Corey Olsen
Happy: I’m the biggest ‘Real Housewives’ fanatic ever in the world. So I have to ask, what was it like working with the incredible Leah McSweeney?
Gabriel: Incredible. I would consider her a friend. She’s really one of the only ‘Housewives,’ I’ve ever actually wanted to work with. We know a lot of the same people. We’re from the same town. When I saw her on the show, I just DMed her saying, ‘why don’t you come over and we’ll do some pictures?’ And I have to say, I have nothing bad to say about her. She’s very honest and open. There was a situation with our photo shoot where the images were actually stolen, like, physically stolen. So we only had screenshots from the monitor to publish for that Paper Magazine piece. But when I told her that, instead of saying, ‘oh, no, that sucks. This shoot was so good.’ She said, ‘Can I have the photographer’s phone number? I want to text her and make sure she’s okay.’ She’s nice and real and fun. Yeah, I f*** with her. That’s all. She loves Lil’ Kim, too.
Happy: She does love Lil’ Kim. I love that about her. I love that you had a positive experience with her because that is exactly what I would expect.
Happy: You have worked with countless female artists, like Rico Nasty, Azealia Banks, Kehlani, Keke Palmer, and so many others. What is one thing you’ve learned from working with so many powerful women?
Gabriel: Well, I definitely enjoy for it to be collaborative. I’m not the kind of person who would ever push somebody to wear something they don’t want to wear. There are subtle ways to kind of advocate for your own choices, but just having an attitude of respect and appreciation for people’s time. The idea of collaborating to create some images in a truly collaborative way works best for me. And nine times out of ten, they’re all receptive and great. Also, I mainly work with people, for the most part, who want to work with me.
Happy: I feel like it’s not hard to want to work with you at all.
Gabriel: Oh, bless you. I don’t know. A lot of people consider me an ‘Unsung Shero of Fashion,’ or a hidden gem. And I think, ‘well, maybe.’
Happy: I don’t know that you are very hidden!
Gabriel: Listen, if that’s my identity… I’m okay with that. But I also don’t know that it is.
Happy: Yes, I definitely don’t know that it is either.
Gabriel: Also, one thing I’ve learned is to shoot your shot. Even though I said I didn’t do that the other night, and approach somebody that I wanted to. There’s no shame in asking for what you want. If you get ‘left on read,’ that’s fine. I certainly won’t hold it against anybody… no, actually I will. I think it’s so rude. But anyway…
Happy: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 25 year old self?
Gabriel: Oh, boy. I would tell myself, certainly to trust in the process of life. You know, I was struggling a little bit. Like I said, I was unemployable, and the one job I got was working retail, and it made me so miserable. But I guess one thing I would tell myself is that life does generally take you where you’re supposed to go. Even the times that are not ideal… there’s a reason usually. I wouldn’t necessarily take away the struggles because it made me equipped to deal with a lot of stuff. I would tell myself to trust your instincts. How other people perceive you is a lot less important than you think, and how you perceive yourself is quite important. Ruminating on the negatives actually just keeps them present. Thinking about positive things until they become reality… it works. Manifestation works. Name it and claim it, if you want to work with somebody. For instance, I have a list of 100 people that I want to work with. Shooting the moon… Rihanna, Beyonce. Why not? I wrote that list right before Quarantine. Even though we’ve been in a different situation, I crossed one name off the list the same week that I wrote it, and five more since then.
Gabriel: Having intention, being focused, and just not putting so much emphasis on being ‘the best.’ Just be the best at ‘doing you.’ Don’t compare yourself to other people so much. Comparison is the thief of joy. I can say so many other things. I bet you anything that when I’m 40, I will have plenty to tell my 30 year old self, too.
Photo: Johnny De Guzman
Happy: If today was your last day on Earth, what is the legacy that you would hope to leave behind?
Gabriel: I think about that a lot, actually. Especially, with all due respect to everybody who does what I’m about to say, I think about people who feel that their physical body is their priority. I think, ‘well, when you die, that’s just going to be a pile of dust. So don’t you want to leave a more enduring kind of legacy?’ I would love to leave the legacy of having created several iconic images that are memorable and that are part of the zeitgeist. I would hope to have made some kind of contribution to culture and maybe even change some ideals and rules about stuff. Through my work and the way I choose to feature things and people, I would hope to have left a reputation of being reasonable, nice, respectful, and being … I don’t want to say a local celebrity, but just a New York figure of the type that I grew up looking up to so much. I was more star-struck talking to Amanda Lepore than I was talking to some of the people I work with. I’ll add a little tag onto the end of that just because I think it’s good for young people, or all people, to hear. My grandfather was an artist, very dedicated to his work. I used to talk to him, when I was growing up and aspiring to be an artist. One thing that he told me, when I told him what I thought would make me feel successful, he said, ‘well, I hate to break it to you, but your definition of success is never static. It always moves relative to where you are. So when you hit there… It goes up, and you might never feel successful.’ But you also have to be pleased and fulfilled by what you do, regardless of that.