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The power broker

Margaret Maldonado once thought stylists should hang back. But now that her clients are becoming celebrities too, she's out front with them, cutting deals.

August 24, 2008|Booth Moore | Times Fashion Critic

RACHEL, Andrea, Estee and Cristina. You've seen them guest judging on "Project Runway," selling shape wear at Frederick's of Hollywood, even walking the red carpet.

They're not celebrities, they're celebrity stylists. And if there is one person responsible for their rising currency in pop culture, it's Margaret Maldonado.

Founder of the Margaret Maldonado Agency, one of a dozen or so offices that place stylists with high-profile clients, she's the image maker behind the image makers. She learned from the masters, having spent the first part of her adulthood in a relationship with Jermaine Jackson, and being front row for the Jackson family circus.

She left him in 1994, opened her agency, and forged her own path in Hollywood, eventually positioning her wardrobe, makeup and hair stylists as stars themselves.

More than just playing dress-up with celebrity dolls, her stylists create style personas for musicians and film stars, personas that lead to endorsement deals and clothing labels. One of her first stylists was Andrea Lieberman, a Parsons design school grad who established Jennifer Lopez as a fashion figure by putting her in that plunging green Versace dress at the 2000 Grammys and helped create Gwen Stefani's defining O.C. Rasta look.

Jennifer Rade, who's kept Angelina Jolie in slinky jersey and on the weekly tabloid fashion pages for the last five years, is also on her roster. Then there's Rachel Zoe, who came to Maldonado with a background in fashion magazines and left the agency in 2005 when her own fame started to eclipse that of her clients Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie.

Back then, Maldonado believed stylists -- and their agents -- should stay in the background, especially if their "talents" were more about shopping for celebrities than creating unique looks for them. Zoe didn't agree.

But times have changed. And Maldonado, 43, and her agency are changing with them. "I started looking at what a stylist has to offer, what secrets we can let the world in on," she says during a recent visit to her office on Melrose Place in West Hollywood, where bookers sit at a large table facing an expansive dry-erase calendar.

Turns out, there were lots.

In the era of high-profit synergy, new celebrity clothing lines are scheduled like movie releases. By 2006, all of Lieberman's clients had them -- Sean "Puffy" Combs had Sean John, Jennifer Lopez had Sweetface and Gwen Stefani had L.A.M.B. Although she was consulting on the lines, Lieberman was not profiting from them as Maldonado thought she should be.

"I knew that Andrea was the one who really created all those images to get those people to the place where they could do clothing deals," she says. "It was not just because they were famous. It was because they had fans, and those fans liked the way they looked and wanted to look like them."

She realized that the people she represented had marketable talent of their own, and set about getting them what they deserved. This month, Maldonado is opening a showroom for her stylists to present their own jewelry and clothing collections to store buyers. She's launching L'Agence, a new clothing line to be guest-designed by different talents on her roster each season. The agency is the focus of a reality show to air on MTV later this year hosted by model-stylist-designer Erin Wasson, putting stylist wannabes through a series of challenges. And Maldonado's rolling out a fashion trivia board game in November.

What began in her apartment living room 10 years ago with two clients and a laptop computer that was a gift from Janet Jackson has grown into a full-service agency representing 100 stylists. Now, in addition to booking them for magazine and advertising photo shoots, she arranges licensing deals and branding partnerships for them with major corporations such as Tide, Hanes and Jergens, and even brokers deals for them to have their own clothing and jewelry lines.

"All these things we've been incubating for the last two years are starting to come out," Maldonado says, her dark hair topped with an Hermes fedora that could easily have come out of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" heyday. We're chatting in the showroom, a few doors down from her office. Hanging on a rack to her right are pieces from L'Agence, a collection that debuts in November with luxe $150 T-shirts and a $490 Swarovski crystal BlackBerry holder. To her left is the spring Miss Davenporte collection, designed by stylists Cristina Ehrlich and Estee Stanley, and in the next room is a glass case full of jewelry designed by Lieberman.

Although Maldonado won't be appearing in "Stylist" (the working title of the MTV show), that's not because her story isn't camera-worthy. A native Angeleno, she left home at 16, moved to New York City and fell into a jet-set lifestyle that centered on partying at Studio 54 with the likes of international arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi.

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