Behind the Boy Band: Q&A with Caroline Watson, One Direction's Stylist


Since forming on the UK X Factor five years ago, the members of One Direction have morphed from nervous kids in baggy jeans, unlaced gym boots and confused neckwear into self-assured, stylish rockstars with one Chelsea boot-clad foot firmly planted in the fashion world and thousands of people tracking every style move they make.

Increasingly, they’ve been recognized for this transition. Harry Styles, living up to his pop-star name, won the heralded British Style Award in 2013, while Zayn Malik took out the top spot in GQ Readers’ Best-Dressed poll in 2014, with three of his bandmates slotting into the top 10 behind him. From day one, the fashion decisions that have, slowly but surely, lead to their sartorial fame has been all part of one woman’s grand vision for the One Direction’s image and reputation: that of stylist Caroline Watson.

Watson was working as a celebrity stylist in LA when the soon-to-be-members of One Direction were auditioning separately for The X Factor. Upon her return to her native England in 2010, she pitched a long-game concept for the newly formed band’s look that would see them go from teenage unknowns to the biggest and best-dressed boy band in history.

When their current worldwide stadium tour began in Australia earlier this February, I wove through huddles of fans staking out a hotel lobby in Melbourne to meet with Caroline and talk about life behind the scenes with One Direction, her fangirl past, and the part she’s played in creating pop history.

Where does your job begin and end? Because obviously when the band leaves the stage, the guys are still being photographed and looked at. How much input do you have on non-promo or stage wear?…

Oh my goodness, that’s a really good question! Still, to this day, I do everything. You know, I was given a blank canvas, so to speak. Originally I was living in Los Angeles for two years. I didn’t know anything about One Direction, about them being on X Factor. I didn’t know how they were put together or anything. So it was kind of good because I was coming into it blindly; I had no biased opinion. I think after the kind of work I was doing in Los Angeles, and before that when I was living in London—

What kind of work was that?

I was styling a boy band in London years ago called Blue, and when I moved to LA I started to work with Chris Brown, Usher, Britney Spears. I was working with loads of different stylists on different projects all the time. I learned a lot from that, but I was always hoping to do a little boy band. When I flew back to London, my mum was like, “Are you staying in London or are you moving back to LA?” I wasn’t sure, but I ended up staying in London and at the time [One Direction] was looking for somebody. I kind of pitched it out there and they really loved what I was talking about and I really liked where they were coming from. It was just an instant thing, and the magic we kind of created together, you know?

What was that original concept you pitched?

I had this idea that I wanted them to be like the male equivalent to the Spice Girls, but being kind of cool. When I say “the Spice Girls,” I mean being in a group but having an identity. Everyone wore different things and no two girls looked the same. I wanted to create that with the boys. It was obviously a big Simon Cowell project, but I don’t think anybody knew how much it was going to blow up in the way in which it did. I think the look had a lot to do with that. Because people buy into nice things, you know? And it was my job to make them look great.

Their look really is one of the ways they’ve been set apart from boy bands in the past. One of the things people always say about the band is, like, they might be a boy band, but they’re not all wearing the same thing and walking on a beach.

Yeah, we didn’t want that, I didn’t want that, I didn’t want to work with anybody that wanted to do that. At the beginning I didn’t want them all in black or all in leather—that whole stereotypical boy band thing. When I first started working with them, I had an idea for what I wanted for all the boys: Niall was always going to be my sporty boy; Zayn was always the cool, mysterious one that was quite street but could be quite high fashion at the same time; Harry was bowties, blazers, that guy that you want to bring home to your mum; Liam was the boy next door. I mean, now, Liam’s transitioned and completely grown into this whole new, sexy guy.

He’s turned into the Hulk! In the early days, how did you know which of those characters each boy would become?

We experimented quite a lot in the beginning, but then I found the formula and I just knew what would work. In the beginning, it did have that Spice Girl effect so, you know, if Louis was going out seven times on stage, he would wear seven different pairs of braces. He would be known for that, because girls and their mums or dads mightn’t necessarily know his name, but they’d know, ‘Oh, that’s the guy that wears the braces all the time’, or, ‘That’s the guy that wears the striped t-shirt’, or, ‘That’s the guy that wears the dicky bowtie.’ It was good, because it was something people could identify. That’s how it worked, but they were always free.

Have those characters changed over time?

Yeah, because I think after a while that whole preppy thing went away. You know, we were the first to start that, and we wanted to end it as well. We wanted to evolve, and I did say to them at the start, ‘We’re not going to be doing this all the time, I want to work with you.’ I’ve been able to grow with them. I said, ‘I want you guys to eventually become more like models and rockstars, as opposed to being that cheesy pop boy band.’ They’ve really trusted me and it’s gone from the cargo pants to skinny, ripped jeans and longer hair, a bit of stubble, tight-fitting t-shirts.

A lot more labels, as well.

Yeah, they’re into a lot more high-end stuff now. In the beginning they didn’t really know designers—they were young boys, they weren’t really interested—but I taught them so much that now they’ll call me and be like, “I went into Gucci the other day,” or “I went into APC the other day and saw this.”

What kind of labels are they into?

We love everything!

YSL is like, synonymous with Harry at this point.

Yeah, he loves Saint Laurent, Zayn loves APC. They love Sandro, they love Kooples…

When I first started following them, Niall was wearing a lot of Comme des Garcons. I remember seeing a picture of him and not knowing who he was, but seeing his Comme polo and being like, ‘What’s happening here?’

That was at the very, very beginning. That was their thing then. It was good, because I wanted to introduce them to fashion. I didn’t want their life expectancy to be two years—I wanted to evolve with them, and for people to be thinking, ‘Oh my god, these kids are cool.’

Now, every time we do a red carpet—especially when we go to America—peoples’ heads turn. I know what I’ve created, but when I see other people’s reactions, or when they get asked who they’re wearing when they get interviewed on E!, it’s cool for them as well because it’s not just about the music; people are interested in them, what they’re doing, their lifestyle, what they wear.

I get excited every awards season, because for me it’s a chance for us to take it to the next level. People get to see them on tour all the time, but then they’re like, ‘Okay, so what’s One Direction doing now?’ And if we have a new single or album to promote, that’s my opportunity to show the fashion world, ‘These are the boys, they are cool, they are still at the forefront of fashion, they’re not some eenie-weenie cheesy boyband that is going to shrivel up and die’.

You’re right in how it’s prolonged their life expectancy; we’re kind of used to this idea that boy bands would have to try to cling desperately to what their image and sound was when they started to remain relevant down the track. But that approach has never worked.

They’re not like that at all; they’ve grown and evolved and it’s just brilliant. And someone like Zayn, for example, just lets me do what I want. A perfect example—and he’ll tell you about this and laugh about it now—we did the AMAs and I got him this beautiful gold Alexander McQueen belt to wear for the performance. We had a fight backstage and I said to him, “I don’t care if you don’t talk to me for a week!” and he was like, “Fine, but I’m not wearin’ it!” I was like, “I don’t care if you don’t talk to me! But you’re gonna wear it!” And he was like, “…Okay, I’m gonna wear it, but I’m gonna take it off after the performance.”

And the next day he came up to me and was like, “I’m so sorry, I watched it back, I looked amazing, thank you so much, I totally love you.” We’re like brother and sister, so as much as we may fight about stuff, he still listens and that’s what I love about him. He takes fashion risks and it pays off.

Two days ago, I’d got him this MTV sweater top from Topman or something. It was just a cheeky little thing to wear. He came to me and was like, “Caroline, it’s just so hot on stage, I need some more t-shirts and stuff.” My assistant was like, “Look, Zayn, I know we sent you loads of sweaters and stuff, so just cut the bloody arms off them. You’ll be fine.” So he cut the arms off it and now it’s everywhere on Twitter and Instagram, just from a little conversation that we had.

Do you see him as being the one who takes the mosts risks?

Yeah, he’ll take the most risks and he’ll definitely push it, but it works. He’ll have the ponytail, he’ll wear the gold belt, he’ll wear the creepers and take those chances. He’ll wear something a little bit different that sets everything off. Before we did the AMAs, I had this whole vision to go for the rockabilly look and I knew how I wanted the hair. I could envision it. Then I had a quick conversation with Lou [Teasdale], the hair and make-up artist, and I was like, “Today’s a big day. We’ve gotta do it. We’ve gotta slam-dunk this.” It was all about rockabilly, rock and roll, Johnny Depp in Cry Baby. I just wanted them to look like they’ve walked out of that movie. I remember Zayn and Louis came back out from seeing Lou and I was like “…Oh my god. Lou, when they put their clothes on, you have no idea what we’ve created here”. It just looked absolutely amazing. There was no fuss or fight. When they put on the clothes, with their hair and their whole demeanor when they were walking that red carpet, it was just great.

I love working with someone like Louis as well, because Louis is very laid-back in his style.

Which has changed so much since the braces-and-stripes!

Yeah! And he’s from up north, so he’s into quite vintage-looking stuff.

For someone who doesn’t know England, what’s it mean to be from the north?

Okay, so think The Stone Roses, that kind of thing. When I style him, I think of that kind of era, of Stone Roses and Oasis. So you’ll see him, when he’s on tour or in his downtime, his hair will be slightly down, he kind of wears vests and skinny black jeans and Vans. He’s also got this skater boy look that he really likes and that really works for him. He’s comfortable in oversized Adidas and the vintage denim jackets.

Like in the Midnight Memories video?

Yeah, that’s his whole feel! For him, that was a great style change because he was known for stripey t-shirts and braces, and he wanted to break out of that. It was a really good change for him.

Was that a natural transition?…

Yeah! And it’s always been natural for all the boys as they’ve got older – as with anybody, getting older and knowing this is me, this is what i really want. I love dressing Louis like that, but what I love about him the most is he’s not afraid to turn it up for the red carpet. So the Louis that you see on stage or kicking a football is a completely different Louis to who you see on the red carpet. He will go out there in his double-breasted jacket and his loafers. He brings it to the red carpet, and he never ever says to me, “I don’t want to wear this”. He knows, when it comes to a red carpet, he’s gotta look sharp. And he comes and he turns it up and I cannot fault him. I love him to pieces and he’s just amazing to dress.

They all are, I get such a buzz off them. People are like, “What are you doing in menswear? Why are you doing it for so long?” And it’s because I get a real buzz out of it and I love working with people who appreciate the work that I do. And there’s been such a growth over the years.

The new album has a lot more of a grown-up, rock and roll sound. Some reviewers have compared it to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Their style has become looser and more confident as well. Do you ever relate the looks to the sound they’re aiming for?

From day one of working with the boys, the music and the styling has gone hand in hand. It’s not a deliberate thing, it’s just a natural progression. I don’t necessarily need to listen to a song or anything like that. When I go to a show or listen to a song I can be like, “Wow, this really works.” We did X Factor in the UK recently, I don’t know if you saw that performance?

The one with Ronnie Wood?

Yeah, with Ronnie Wood. I hadn’t heard the song, but I knew it had to be rock and roll and off the Richter scale.

I like working with a lot of red, and Lee Lodge, the set designer we work with, likes a lot of red too, so we work really well together. I was able to find this amazing Balmain jacket for Zayn—you know the one? I was like ‘That. Is. The jacket. This kid needs to wear this.’

The military style coat?

Yeah! It was an X Factor final in the UK, with a Rolling Stone. I knew he had to wear it. It looked absolutely amazing.

We used a lot of Alexander McQueen, Harry had on Marc Jacobs. When you spend so much time with people, I think you can just feed off each other’s energy; I don’t need to listen to anything, it just comes to me naturally. I know that must sounds really weird.

It doesn’t! How long has it been now? Four years?

Yeah, four years now. This last campaign has been amazing. I’ve been able to do my own thing and use all these designers. Every red carpet has worked and all the boys have taken risks.

I’m glad you brought up the red carpets, because when I was prepping for this interview I started to write down all the style moments I’ve really loved and they’re almost all awards shows where the boys’ looks start with consistent black, with touches of the same color – like mustard or gold or white paisley – across all their outfits. There was one look I was searching for specifically, that turned out to be the Acne shirt Zayn had on last year, and Liam had the pocket square in the same pattern –

Yes! The one we did in Cannes, I think it was.

Yeah, the NRJ awards. At all these events, Niall will always have a much more relaxed version of the rest of the look. Like, at the AMAs when Zayn wore that gold belt, Niall had the McQueen t-shirt with the gold skull on it.

That’s all him, that’s his personal preference. We make it as dressed up as we can, but in a casual way so he feels comfortable. And for me, it’s about making sure my client’s comfortable, because if they’re not, they’re not going to photograph well or perform well. It’s just not going to look right. And it’s good for him to be a bit different.

He’s getting into boots now, so I’m happy. He’ll go through his phases, like in the beginning when he was into Supras. Then he was into Vans or Nikes. But all of a sudden he’s into boots! I’m like, ‘Oh you want to wear boots? Amazing!’ So now that we’re in the boots phase it’s all good in the hood. I’m ecstatic and he knows I’m ecstatic.

He’s getting older, and certain things he wants to be smarter about. We did the BBC awards in December and everyone was quite smart for that. He did the skinny jeans and boots, a smart jacket and shirt. Still relaxed, not too over the top.

Do you consider an album promo period “a campaign”?

Yeah, that’s how I think of it.

I’ve always thought of their SNL appearances as those kind of annual touchstones, as a way to look back and see them grow over time. My friend was watching their first appearance from the audience at SNL and she said one of the show’s writers commented that it looked like the guys were wearing different pieces of the same suit, and they were all so nervous! By the second one, they were really slick and sophisticated, and Harry had the silver sparkly boots. The most recent appearance was so confident, a bit more casual.

Yeah, it was a bit more rock and roll. That’s a really good example. For me, as a British stylist, doing that first Saturday Night Live was like one of the high-points of my career because I grew up watching it and understood only the best of the best get to go on that show. And for them to do that and for me to be a part of that, I think I had a tear in my eye because I was like, “I cannot believe we’ve done SNL. Do you know how big that is?” Then to be invited back to the show a second and a third time is amazing. They’ve really grown.

There’s also a lot of pressure with the show, not just because it’s live, but because SNL has such a different audience to their usual shows, or even the awards performances. Not everyone watching it is going to be a fan.

Definitely. There’s a lot riding on it and it’s definitely taken seriously. For them to go on that show was amazing and career-defining. We’ve really seen the boys grow; they came to their US label as unknowns and [Sony] got them these appearances and opportunities that really broke them in America, which I don’t think anybody had done for many, many years. I’ll never forget the boys coming in on a bus in New York that first time, all wearing reds, blues, grays—I wanted it to have that kind of British invasion feel. It was another iconic moment for me, just really ground-breaking. I think from then on, people were really interested in their fashion. Like, Zayn would wear a suit with sneakers and only Kanye would do that! But this little kid from the UK, wearing a suit and shirt with sneakers? And he’s in a boy band? People just loved it.

And still do! Zayn won the GQ UK readers’ style poll last year, and Harry, Liam and Louis were in there as well… Poor Niall though.

I know! Poor thing. I said to him, “Well, you’re wearing boots now, so maybe this year!” We’re rooting for him this year. He’s like, “Caroline, leave me alone”, and I’m like, “Listen, we’ve got you in boots, we’re pushing you!”

I do push the boys, and you can see it with someone like Liam. When I first started working with them—and he’ll tell you the same—he wouldn’t want to wear any color, any patterns or stripes. He knew what he wanted – grays, blues, blacks. That was it. And I don’t know what happened … I think we broke for the summer and he came back to work and I was like, “Liam, what happened to you? Did you go through the Hot Tub Time Machine and come back out? You’re sizzling like bacon right now! What’s happened?” It’s really weird how people grow so quickly.

Growing physically?

Yeah! Physically, mentally. He came into his own and I could see that. And I very much style based on people’s personalities, their body language. And I was like, “This boy has got some confidence! I can work with that!”

But at the start he was less so?

I think he was trying to find his place. You know, everybody tries to find their place.

How’s he changed over the years?

In the last two years, he cut his hair, he grew his beard. We did the This Is Us premiere and I got him a little leather jacket, with a black tie, white shirt, skinny jeans and boots. And I think that week he got GQ‘s Best Dressed of the week. He came in and he goes, “Oh my god, I got GQ Best Dressed. Oh my god, oh my god.” And since then we’ve been killing it and they’ve all been getting in the top 10 this, and best-dressed that. And it’s good to see because… they’re a boy band.

They’re also going to the fashion shows and it can sometimes be really hard for the more mainstream pop stars to be accepted in that world.

Yes! The crossover is tricky. They’re accepted now, but it hasn’t come overnight. It’s something we’ve worked very hard at for many years, and it’s nice to be recognised for that. It’s nice that designers phone us to ask if they can dress the boys. Sometimes the boys may not understand what I’m doing, but when they see it, or they see other people’s reactions in a magazine, or their friend calls them, or their mum calls them, or someone makes a comment, they’re like, “Wow, okay then.” And there’s no jealousy or anything; they’re five individuals and each have an individual look.

On that very early first tour, each of their individual styles was so distinctive that there was one show – that has gone down in fan history – where they came out for the encore and had all switched those signature, preppy looks.

Oh yeah! And that’s all their own doing!

If they were to do that now, who would switch for the maximum impact? Who are the most polar opposites?

Like, okay. Niall wearing Harry would be the polar opposite. Because Niall’s into sporty and Harry’s into high-end. If I saw Niall walking with a shirt undone, and a ponytail and boots, and then I saw Harry in hi-tops and a t-shirt I’d be like, “Okay, someone got the wrong laundry”.

And the other three are a bit more similar? More street- and skate-wear?

Yeah, they kind of all mesh into one another, but there are elements for each person. You know, there is the odd day when I’ll get something for Louis and Zayn will be like, “I want that. Can you get me one of those?”

Those two are very similar.

They are. They both like their vintage and ripped jeans. Zayn likes his Dr Martens, and Louis is into the old-school Adidas.

Is this the direction you thought they’d take?

I like the fact that [at the beginning] I didn’t say, “You guys are gonna be in khakis for the next five years.” I wanted them to change. I had the vision from day one and could see where they would go. And I’m just so happy that the music and the fashion have gone hand-in-hand. I really do think they’re at the forefront of fashion.

Because they are wearing not just labels, but high street stuff like Topman, they also have the mass impact where people can go out and buy what they’re wearing.

And that’s what I want! I want them to have that appeal. Growing up, I listened to Bros and New Kids on the Block. I was a Bros-ette and a Blockhead. I know what it feels like to be a teenage girl; I was that girl standing out of the street. My dad would take me to the shows. So when I see the girls around, I don’t hate them, because I know what it’s like to be obsessed with a boy band. If I saw Donnie Wahlberg or Joey McIntyre? Oh. My. God. I would’ve lost my mind.

So when I’m styling, I do read my Twitter responses and what the girls have to say, because I do it for them. I know what it’s like to be that person and I want them to be a part of it. The fans are very, very important to what I do. Twitter’s a really good research platform; you can tell by the response and the amount of hits what worked. You know what’s a hit and what’s a miss. These girls are not in my head, they don’t know what I’m putting together, but when they respond the way they respond, I know I’m doing a good job. I know what it’s like to be these girls; I was them once upon a time. Not as intense—I don’t think my father would’ve allowed it! But I understand the hysteria and the excitement to be able to be near your idol. Joey McIntyre? Oh. My. God. Jordan Knight? Oh. My. God.

Have you ever come close?

Well, the thing is, after all those years of running after New Kids on the Block, I actually got to work with them when I was in Los Angeles. I got to work with Danny when he was in England many, many moons ago. And I managed to get a picture of me and all five of them. I was like, “Oh my god, do you know how many years I’ve waited for this?” When I worked with them, I kept it professional, but I had to get my picture at the end. I finally did it: I got to meet my idols. It came kind of full circle, and now I’m working for a band so I know the feeling. I get it. It’s scary, but I get it.

Can it be a bit scary? When I mentioned this interview to my friends who like One Direction, they all knew who you were, which was interesting. You have your own fans and followers, separate – but adjacent – to the band. Was that unexpected, as someone with a behind-the-scenes type job?

I didn’t think I would ever experience anything like that in my life. Coming to Australia I’m kind of known by the fans. In London I’m fine—I don’t get hassled and I don’t think people really know me so it’s alright. But in New York and LA, oh my god, I can’t really go anywhere. It’s really weird because … I just do the clothes, you know?

You and Lou both have young daughters, and people know a lot about them, as well.

Yeah, like today I took my daughter Brook swimming and everyone knew who she was because Zayn is her godfather. Which was a bit scary, because as a mum, you kinda just want to protect your daughter. She’s only two so she doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s crazy, but it’s nice to be recognised for what you do., so I like that aspect of it. I’m quite private, and it’s the same with the boys; as much as people see a lot of them and our team, we all are very private people.

You don’t really go into this job to be such a big part of the story.

No! And my work is my work, and when I go home I’m a mum and a partner, just doing my thing. I think you’ve got to control what you put on Twitter and Instagram; if you put your whole life out there, you kind of set yourself up for people to know everything about you. I give the kids what they want, and that’s important to me. But at the same time, I don’t share everything, I do what’s right and I do my job.

The last question I have to ask, and it’s one that literally everyone I’ve spoken to has told me to ask you, is about how Harry seems to have lost the ability to do up his buttons in the last year or two.

He never did them up anyway! Harry will always be Harry and he will always do his thing. (Harry’s been undoing his buttons since the first single!)[ ] He’s coming into his own now, but it’s always been like that. And will always be like that. For me, it’s nothing new. He’s just got a lot older and a lot hotter, I guess.

Brodie Lancaster is the editor of Filmme Fatales, a senior editor at The Good Copy and a staff writer at Rookie. She lives in Melbourne, Australia and shares too many feelings about Kanye West and One Direction on Twitter @brodielancaster.

Image via Instagram.

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