COVER STORY

How Liz Uy became an international fashion force

Liz Uy is good at fashion, that much has been said. But what often goes unnoticed is she has also been unparalleled in making a business out of fashion. Now in the fold of The Society New York — who also manages Kendall Jenner and Adriana Lima — Liz Uy is poised to take on a whole new world.

 

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Most people think that because I work in fashion, my work is frivolous,” stylist Liz Uy says.

“But work is work. And I work hard.”

The last few weeks, if not months, have been a Liz Uy tour de force. She’s fresh off a trip from Beijing for luxury watchmaker IWC and the Maldives for Jimmy Choo’s travel edit. Before that, she was jetting from one fashion week to another in New York, Milan, and Paris. In between, a feature in Vogue magazine on Manila style, and of course, countless snaps from street style watchers along the way.

Liz is everywhere these days. Today, we’re in a public school deep in Marikina, sitting in a faculty room-turned-dressing room, with one working air-conditioner that’s fighting a losing battle against the summer heat. It’s a far cry from her worldly exploits, but Liz is just at home here as she is elsewhere. This is where she began after all: styling shoots.

Liz is sitting behind the scenes and overseeing outfits as Maine Mendoza, a long-time client of Stylized Studio, shoots her latest TV commercial. We’re six hours into the shoot, and filming has just begun. Despite her growing number of international commitments, Liz still makes it a point to sit in the shoots of all her clients whenever she’s in the Philippines — long hours and all. She says it assures clients that she’s there whenever they need her.

Photo-7 EC.jpg The recent years has shown Liz Uy as a force to reckon with in the international fashion scene, catching the attention of Bill Cunningham, Harper's Bazaar, and The Sartorialist as well being featured in Vogue and The Coveteur. Photo by BJ PASCUAL

The 35-year-old is famously hands-on, even in the months of preparation before the shoot. From the outfit pegs to the slide presentations, the client approvals to the store pullouts, she will have her say. There are WhatsApp groups for every endorsement of every client Stylized manages, just so she can keep track of each one.

“It doesn’t matter if Liz is in New York Fashion Week. You will wait until it’s waking hours in New York because she will look into every detail until she’s happy with it,” says Pearl Acuesta, Stylized account manager.

Today, if everything goes according to plan — and Liz makes very, very detailed plans — Mendoza’s wardrobe should only need minor tweaks.

The straps of her jumper fall out of place when she’s dancing. The creases of her shirt make unsightly bumps on her sweater. Small details, but Liz spots them and orders them fixed nonetheless. When the cameras start rolling, Mendoza is every inch perfect.

As she should be — celebrity endorsement is a multimillion-peso business, and nobody is at the top of their game as much as Mendoza. She shills everything from food to personal care, household products to text promos.

And yet Liz, who has styled Mendoza and a bevy of other A-listers, will still repeatedly have to parry the question: “But what do you really do?”

She says, “People come up to me and say, ‘Liz Uy! You’re my favorite designer!’ And I have to say, ‘Hindi po ako designer, stylist po ako.’”

IG1.jpg Stylist Liz Uy is responsible for the looks of many in-demand celebrities, such as Maine Mendoza, Bea Alonzo, and Sarah Geronimo. Photo from LIZ UY/INSTAGRAM

***

Behind every breakout moment is a long, gruelling climb to get there. For Liz, it began more than a decade ago, an editorial assistant in Preview starting out at the very bottom rung of the fashion ladder.

Pauline Juan, the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief, recalls how Liz learned the ropes. “Fortunately for her, she was part of the last batch of stylists who produced their shoots themselves,” Juan wrote in her foreword for Liz Uy’s book, "Stylized."

There was the shopping and the styling, of course. But there was also the unglamorous work of taping up shoes, steaming clothes, and sewing buttons. Lunches had to be packed, venues had to be booked, and mannequins weren’t going to rent themselves.

Liz’s time in Preview was crucial for another reason. She had developed her interest in fashion late in the game, but tasked with organizing shoots week in, week out, she quickly caught up. She not only started experimenting with her own sense of style, she also began understanding the often erratic pulse of the industry. Soon, she moved up from editorial assistant to fashion editor.

Vince Uy points to this period as his sister’s formative years. Liz may be branching out well beyond editorial work today, but this is the foundation: a gut feel for fashion and the grit to execute it. He says, “I always tell her that this is what she will keep on coming back to.”

Photo-9.jpg The real turning point in Liz Uy's career came just this year, when The Society New York approached Liz and offered to represent her. The Society New York manages the likes of Kendall Jenner, Adriana Lima, and Liu Wen. Liz would be one of only nine creatives in the agency’s line-up, and the first Filipino on the entire roster. Photo by BJ PASCUAL

***

Despite making waves for her work in Preview, Liz only truly broke into the public consciousness when she became linked to the actor John Lloyd Cruz around 2005.

I ask Vince if he feels this is unfair to his sister’s body of work. He shrugs it off. A creative director with Preview at the time and today an industry veteran, he points out that breaks can come to you at every which way. “The only thing that matters is what you do with them.”

And it’s true — many women have been linked to Cruz and to no effect. But during his time with Liz, Cruz morphed from doe-eyed teen actor to veritable style icon — a change everyone noticed even well outside fashion circles.

I can say this because my dad, whose footwear of choice then were Crocs slippers, started referring to Italian loafers as “the John Lloyd.” Paired, of course, with cropped trousers, socks optional. If that’s not enough proof of mass appeal, know that there’s a Google image search term for “John Lloyd Cruz bitin pants.”

This was just the beginning. Liz swiftly realized the untapped potential in bringing celebrities and fashion together.

“Celebrities are commercial, high fashion is editorial. That was the way it was before,” Vince explained. “But then Liz pitched to us her friend Anne Curtis, and so we had our first celebrity cover on Preview.”

1.jpg Left: Julia Baretto styled by Liz Uy on the cover of Preview Magazine (July 2013). Right: Bea Alonzo in a Balenciaga tribute, styled by Liz Uy for the November 2006 cover of Preview Magazine. Photos from PREVIEW MAGAZINE

2 (1).jpg Left: Maine Mendoza on the cover of Preview (November 2016). Mendoza has been a client of Stylized Studio ever since her career took off. Right: Pia Wurtzbach wearing Louis Vuitton and military regalia on the cover of Preview's December 2016 issue. Photos from PREVIEW MAGAZINE  

And how the tide has turned. Since then, Preview has published some of the most iconic celebrity covers in the industry. Juan lists some of the “enduring images” Liz helped capture: Bea Alonzo... [in a Balenciaga tribute] in November 2006, Julia Barretto sporting Doc Martens, June 2013. Just last December, she had Pia Wurtzbach trade in her gown and crown for Louis Vuitton and military regalia.

Not only did this move help Preview reach a broader audience, it also gave celebrities a newfound appreciation for couture.

Vince recounts, “I remember dressing up Gretchen Barretto in Louis Vuitton’s fall/winter collection [Preview Magazine, September 2006]. And look at her now — she’s so crazy about fashion!”

“It creates a ripple effect. You help them try new things and then when they see what it can be like, they want to work with you even more.”

Barretto would be just one of the many celebrities Uy styled for Preview who would later on secure her services as a stylist. Curtis and Sarah Geronimo also graced the magazine’s covers and to this day remain clients of Stylized studio. Uy dresses them for all their public appearances, from their endorsements to their red-carpet events. 

***

Liz Uy is good at fashion, that much has been said. But what often goes ignored is how she has been unparalleled in making a business out of fashion.

Now, stylists naturally have to be ahead of the curve (your off-shoulder button-downs were already on @lizzzuy two seasons ago). But Liz has been a first-mover in all senses of the word.

Take the case of Maine Mendoza. She was just starting to build a following in 2015, playing Yaya Dub on Eat Bulaga. A novelty character on a noontime show, she hardly fit the Stylized bill. But Liz snagged her as a client for her first ever TV commercial and hasn’t let her go since.

IG3.jpg Liz Uy considers Stylized her turning point — the moment she realized she’d made it. Not meeting a celebrity or getting invited to fashion shows, or bagging a coveted international gig. “With Stylized, I have something bigger than myself,” she says. Photos from LIZ UY/INSTAGRAM

Mendoza admits she didn’t expect to attract anyone’s attention early on, much less Liz Uy’s. “Akala ko sa maliit muna kaming studio. Medyo nagulat nga ako na sa Stylized na 'ko agad. Siyempre ‘yun na ‘yung pinakakilala.

But Liz knew from the start she had to have her. She says, “When I met Maine, I knew for sure that she was going to be a star. You just see it in [her] eyes.”

Today, Mendoza is arguably the top female celebrity endorser in the country. And under Liz’s wing, Mendoza has bloomed, her style evolving from kooky, over-the-top outfits on T.V. to chic travel #OOTDs on Instagram. It’s paved the way for her to break out of the gag show genre and make her mark from movies to magazine covers.

Any entrepreneur will know, however, that being first is an edge that doesn’t last for very long. Celebrity styling has boomed in recent years, and many others have put up their own studios.

I ask Mendoza why she’s chosen to stay with Stylized. Surely, with her status, she has first pick of any glam team she wants.

She says of Liz and her team: “Gusto ko talaga na ang pinipili nila para sa’kin, ‘yung bagay at ‘yung tugma sa personal kong style.”

The answer seems straightforward, but Mendoza explains it’s not very common. Other stylists will often give her clothes they like, even when she doesn’t feel comfortable in them.

“Maine and Sarah [Geronimo] don’t like sexy outfits,” Liz states, clear as day. “It’s not just about their personal branding, it’s about their personality too. You have to respect that.”

“People come up to me and say, ‘Liz Uy! You’re my favorite designer!’ And I have to say, ‘Hindi po ako designer, stylist po ako.’”

 

Its something Liz feels strongly about: never imposing her decision on her clients. While she will make recommendations, they will always build on her clients’ style, not change it. And she will defer to their choices in the end.

Incidentally, this is the most common criticism of her work. You think of the Stylized stars and no real theme, no signature look comes to mind. It is Liz Uy by brand and by publicity, but nothing more.

If she’s worked years to cultivate her own style, to win recognition here and abroad, surely she should have a more authoritative stamp on her styling.

When you’re in the business of yourself, it’s a thin line between the business and yourself. Success lies in knowing the difference.

Vince says, “As a stylist, you work with clients, not Barbie dolls. They’re the ones who are hiring you to manage their look, not the other way around.”

Liz goes one step further. “We’re suppliers,” she says. As such, the standard operating procedure for Stylized is to attend shoots dressed down and wearing black. “There’s only one celebrity in there, and that’s not us.”

Liz is just as clinical when it comes to her brand. Mia San Agustin worked with Liz for her clothing line Harlan + Holden. Together with influencers both local (Kim Jones, Tim Yap) and international (Mr. Porter's Jeremy Langmead, Tank Magazine's Caroline Issa), they went to Bhutan for a tour highlighting Harlan + Holden's new collection.

"She was very straightforward about what she was willing and not willing to do in a project," San Agustin says. Liz respected how many Instagram and blog posts were required of them and what the content should contain. But she would hold her ground when it came to her brand integrity.

IG2.jpg With over a million followers on Instagram, her online presence paved the way for several digital collaborations last year, including edits for Style: Singapore and Matches Fashion. Photo from LIZ UY/INSTAGRAM

"She didn't want to tag Harlan + Holden because it would have been too explicit. And she wanted the freedom to be able to wear our clothes with her other pieces and style them the way she normally would." In the end, San Agustin says, this makes sure the power of Liz Uy's — as well as Harlan + Holden's campaign — isn't diluted.

***

With a strong editorial portfolio and an extensive network of celebrity clients, it wasn’t long before Liz Uy was noticed beyond Philippine shores.

Attending fashion weeks abroad, she started to get snapped by renowned street style photographer Bill Cunningham, The Sartorialist and Net-a-Porter — some of the most-followed style watchers online.

Vince says, “Liz didn’t care if they didn’t know her name. What mattered was she got herself out there, bit by bit.” And bit by bit, she did.

Uy started building a steady following on Instagram — today’s de facto platform for the fashion industry. With 1.4 million followers and counting, she outranks most models, designers, photographers, influencers, and even celebrities — some of them even her own clients.

This paved the way for several digital collaborations last year, including edits for Style: Singapore and Matches Fashion, as well as a feature on The Coveteur — one which ended up topping their best-of list for 2016.

But the real pivot came just this year, when The Society New York approached Liz and offered to represent her. The Society New York manages the likes of Kendall Jenner, Adriana Lima, and Liu Wen. Liz would be one of only nine creatives in the agency’s line-up, and the first Filipino on the entire roster.

If Liz was making baby steps then, The Society New York catapulted her forward and into the international spotlight. In the five months since she’s signed with the agency, she’s worked with Jimmy Choo, Gucci, and IWC — and she hints there are more projects to come.

Vince admits they’re still struggling to wrap their heads around everything that has happened this year. He says, “When we started, we didn’t set our sights this far.”

“But whenever Liz accomplished one thing, we would regroup and I would ask her, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ And we just set higher goals, and higher goals, and higher goals.”

Tellingly, in a letter addressed to her younger self, Liz writes, “Life is a process.” She tells her, “Be patient.” But also, “Be strategic.”

It has been a career a decade in the making, but it seems Liz is hitting her peak at the perfect moment. It comes as no surprise — those who find themselves at the right place at the right time are very often those who steer themselves there.

Photo-3-EC.jpg Bit by bit, Liz Uy started building a steady following on Instagram — today’s de facto platform for the fashion industry. With 1.4 million followers and counting, she outranks most models, designers, photographers, influencers, and even celebrities — some of them even her own clients. Photo by BJ PASCUAL

***

At some point during the shoot with Mendoza, Liz sits back and lets her fashion assistant take over. Fresh out of college in Zamboanga City, Joy Bernardo is getting her big break, styling top celebrities on the regular.

Liz says she doesn’t care for background or credentials when she builds her team. What she looks for is hard work, patience, and street smarts. “Everything else, you can train.”

She considers Stylized her turning point — the moment she realized she’d made it. Not meeting a celebrity, or getting invited to fashion shows, or bagging a coveted international gig.

“With Stylized, I have something bigger than myself,” Liz says. It’s a small team — nine people, including two custodians and a driver — but it’s a long way from how she began, making client presentations and even encashing checks herself.

Now, Liz even lets her senior staff manage entire projects on their own. It’s partly because of her ridiculous schedule — she’s barely in town these days. But another part of it is simply allowing the team to grow into the role themselves.

As any entrepreneur will know, when you build something from the ground up, the true test is when you can let it stand on its own. Liz says, “The most fulfilling thing has been being able to see that they can do without me.”

“Life is a process,” Liz Uy tells her younger self in a letter. “Be patient.” But also, “Be strategic.”

I ask her if there’s anything else she hopes to achieve after everything she’s done. For the first time during the interview, she gives an answer tinged with regret.

“Balance,” she answers. “I read somewhere that you should focus on what’s important, not what’s urgent.”

She admits work has been to blame for many a failed relationship, birthdays and anniversaries gone uncelebrated, family and friends unseen for too long.

 

After more than a decade of tending to clients, building a company and developing her team, now she says she wants to keep some things for herself.

“I want to see my family every Sunday, go to mass and then have dinner together. I want to settle down and have a family of my own, too,” she says.

She doesn’t quite know how she’ll make everything fit quite yet. She doesn’t want to let go of Stylized, and there are ongoing talks with new international clients. But she says she’ll find a way.

There are things she will likely lose out on, of course. Things she’s worked her entire life to get. But Liz just shrugs off the thought, and smiles with the quiet assurance that comes with having nothing to prove anymore.