by Egomeli Hormeku
Fashion is always looking for the next big thing. Which means photographers, models, designers, editors and stylists are continuously pushing themselves onward and upward. Sam Russell is not the next big thing. He is the now; an underground staple in the fashion industry. In conjunction with Red Light PR, his project The Giving Closet is a one-way-ticket to mainstream glory.
It was Friday, a crisp fall day in October and I’m greeted by Tiffany, an Account Executive from Red Light PR who gives me a rundown on what was to happen. I was in for a huge surprise walking into Red Light PR New York expecting another high quality fashion function with the same story of the new brand that wants to take the fashion world by storm. However, what happened took the term brand awareness to another level.
Alex Blaszczuk, a third year law student at Columbia University, is the survivor of a car accident that resulted in paralysis, leaving her to live everyday with physical assistance. She did not know a celebrity stylist who decided to boost her look with a $10,000 wardrobe and his accomplice, her loving friend William, were about to give her the news. The moments before the surprise was a sight to see. Alex engaged in conversation with the most wonderful energy. She told her story of a driver who lost control of the car before an 8am camping trip reaching for a coffee cup, leading to a rear end accident that changed her life forever.
While the small talk continued, Alex made it clear that her positive attitude, demeanor, and spirituality came from mentors with regenerative and mobility impairments who defied the odds placed on them by their peers. Surrounding her were racks of clothes that I would describe just as I would describe her; pretty, subtle, soft, simple yet still inspirational. Sam Russell, although respected enough to assume he was another daunting heavyweight in the stylist world by resume alone, stands out in the crowd with his sentimental and organic approach to fashion, his career, and endearing fashion gems in everyday conversation. I heard more about what he did from the chatter around him. The Giving Closet is a fantasy come true and Sam Russell was this magician who transformed the closets and lives of everyday women into fine-tuned, sexy, and sophisticated spaces to die for. On this perfect fall Friday in Manhattan, he was ready to perform his eighth trick.
Interns and fashion students start to gather and I begin to see space being made for the announcement, all part of Red Light PR’s master plan to show the true power of PR, and how the stories such as The Giving Closet, often overlooked or drowned out by the glamour of the industry, is actually the glue that holds the runway and the real world together.
Sam gets the attention of everyone while conversing with Alex and gracefully intertwines the surprise. The loft erupts. Emotions are high. The interns gasped as Alex and Sam went through some of the pieces with oohs and aahs filling the room with each unveiled piece. I was told that an onlooker could almost see the wave of chills felt by all in attendance. I was not aware of it because it was impossible to take my eyes off of the two stars. I had to speak with Sam and Alex about what the story leading up to this point and where they go from here now they their paths have crossed.
Q: Alex, the energy is high and you are probably going to give me answers as honest as anyone right now. What is the best thing you love about fashion/favorite thing?
Alex: It can really reflect who you are. You can wear something that makes a statement without having to make that statement aloud.
Q: …Because it seems like you gravitated to some of the pieces and very interested in everything. what’s the first thing you saw that made you say “I like to dress up.”?
It can really reflect who you are.
Alex: I moved to New York in 2008 and I realized there is something called fashion week. I think saw the shoes from the Calvin Klein collection on the street one day. Having come from the suburbs of Chicago, if someone told me about fashion shows or the idea of Fashion Week, I automatically thought those are clothes you could not wear every day. Then, I see the shoes and think, “That women is wearing the shoes from the runway on the street. I think that was the moment of transitioning. I told myself I could pull that off. I could pull that off and I can look good in it, too.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to become a lawyer?
Alex: I was considering doing a PhD in philosophy after my Masters, but realized I wanted more practical application of the theoretical ideas I was studying. I love knowing how the world works!
Q: What do you see yourself getting into? Talk to us about law and fashion. It seems like you’d be great at Fashion Intellectual Property or Mergers and Acquisitions.
Alex: I think people associate fashion with looking good but there is so much to do behind-the-scenes. Just think about the Mergers And Acquisitions with a fashion titan like LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey Corporation). Lawyers have to be in place and also know the business. I want to be part of that background work. Something really cool about being a lawyer is learning how a brand works behind the scenes. In order for the show to work, someone has to keep everything intact behind the curtain.
Q: You’re almost done with school. How do you think the fashion will help in your interviews and everyday life?
Alex: After I was injured in the car accident, I had a lot of trouble deciding what my style was going to be and I don’t like the feeling of looking like I’m a dress up doll. I literally need help getting dressed these days. I still wanted it to be a reflection of who I am.
Q: How would you define your style?
Alex: What I like doing is having an understated style with a, “Wait… What is that little thing she is wearing?” going on. Something has to be bit different. I want people to say, “She thought about her outfit today and I like it a lot.”
Q: What was the first article of clothing you ever loved?
Alex: I always fall in love with my clothes and end up wearing the same outfit over and over, because I love it. Probably the first thing I ever did that with was a Snoopy sweatshirt I had when I was three or four years old.
Q: How will Sam and a day like today add to your story?
Alex: Sam reminded me that I can continue loving the clothes I wear and getting excited about fashion!
Q: Describe the general process you go through when you get dressed (physically, mentally, emotionally).
Alex: Since I get assistance in getting dressed, it involves a lot of calm, direction and spiritual transcendence. And planning!
Q: What are fashion pieces you can’t live without?
Alex: Boots and scarves. Definitely.
Q: Describe your emotions before and after the big announcement.
Alex: Confusion before and complete and utter shock and excitement after.
Q: Where do you get your everyday inspiration?
Alex: It’s all about how I’m feeling that day! Sometimes I see a detail I like somewhere in a movie or in the street and I try to incorporate that.
Q: Do you have any advice for people that have gone through what you go through?
Alex: People don’t realize that I can still be vain. It’s a frustration. “Well Alex, why do you want to put on make up?” Things like that. Now, I have the tools to feel fashionable regardless of what others think I should look like.
People will try to take away your vanity. They will tell you to just focus on physical therapy and survive. Hold on to that vanity. I want to look pretty, too. Hold onto the way you want to look. Yes, style is different when your appearance is different but that does not mean it goes away. You can still own it. You may have to think about it a little bit longer but that does not mean a thing.
Q: I’m going to make a firm prediction and say you will be the best dressed 3L in the history of Columbia Law School. How does it feel?
Alex: (Laughs.) I’m really excited! It feels great.
Q: Let’s talk to the man behind this amazing idea, The Giving Closet. Sam, when did you realize you wanted to become a stylist?
Sam Russell: I have always used fashion to help tell my personal narrative. There is a power in attracting and entertaining people with your fashion choices. Early on, I was aware of that. Working in Texas as an actor/model in my mid-20’s, this art director approached me at a party and commented on my sense of style. Vickie Snow suggested I become a stylist and had me follow her on a few photo shoots for no pay. Funny thing, an unrelated friend offered me a styling job two weeks later. The universe had a plan for me.
Q: What made you pick this as what you want to do? When did you say The Giving Closet is where you spread random acts of kindness in the fashion world and be great at it?
Sam Russell: Thank you. I was in Hollywood for twelve and half years with a very exciting prosperous career. I was coming out of a really bad relationship and searching for the next chapter of my life. I had a client’s girlfriend who was always hounding me for a free pair of shoes but she had this 2.5 million dollar home and always flying off to Australia for trips. She always called me when she wanted free stuff. I just thought to myself if I can just reroute a portion of what I can get my hands on and give them to great women who can benefit, then I’d rather spend my time doing that. You can’t convince all the publicists and designers to stop gifting. It’s part of the business. However, if they could just re-route a small portion of it to really great people with great stories, the recipient is going to be a fan for life. That word of mouth is priceless. This society is so divided in politics, gay versus straight, rich versus poor. We have so much in common and once we can see and go back to that, we will be stronger and grow spiritually. That is my journey in fashion. No one told me to be here. No one pays me to be here. This is me.
Q: Wow. When did you fall in love with fashion?
Sam Russell: Fashion helps our narrative. You can tell whether someone is in a good mood or bad mood by how they pull themselves together. Going back to my childhood, I grew up in a very stormy household. My dad was very abusive but my mom, through all of that, was able to focus on her studies, her career, and being the best mom she could be with her boys. She pulled herself together everyday. Even though I have these memories of the bad times, I distinctly remember my mother pulling it together head to toe. From hair to handbags, I fell in love when I saw her get through the week, impress her boss, and excel at her job for almost 40 yrs. For The Giving Closet, I see my mom in all of these stories. For some reason, they all make a connection to me.
Q: What was the first article of clothing you ever loved?
Sam Russell: My earliest memories are of my t-shirt collection. “I shot JR” and “Battlestar Galactica”, you could not get me out of those. In Junior High, I had every pair of parachute pants in every color. Ty Hunter, Beyonce’s wardrobe stylist, also went to the same school as me in Austin. I recall him dabbling in that parachute craze. We bumped into each other at the 2009 Presidential Inauguration in DC. He was with Beyonce and I was with Stevie Wonder.
Q: I like to think of you as this fashion philanthropist. Where would you like to take this cause/initiative?
Sam Russell: Thank you for for that!
The goal is to prove that fashion has a heart, so I guess I will gladly wear that badge. We are all so lucky to work in such a creative and expressive field. I want more and more of these public relations budgets re-routed to real people in need with amazing stories of triumph and perseverance. Producers in Los Angeles keep bugging me to turn this into a show. We shall see, the timing has to be right and so does the crew. I am not doing this for my ego or for the money. Look at what happened to the Nate Berkus Show.
Q: Describe the general process you go through while styling and realizing a piece of clothing is the right fit.
Sam Russell: So many factors have to fall into place. I look at the woman’s lifestyle, body type, and skin tone. I close my eyes and imagine the type of friends she might have and what they would say about her new wardrobe upgrade. Alex will not benefit from six-inch heels. The more something drapes and is less restrictive, the more comfortable she will be in it. Alex has a caretaker that helps dress her. The outfits cannot be too complicated with lots of bells and whistles.
Q: What is one trend you tend to pull most often?
Sam Russell: Fun and expressive jewelry. Good accessories will make or break your outfit. I want each of these women to have unique and strong accessories that I hand select for them. This is a surefire way to freshen up your image instantly.
Q: How long have you worked as a stylist? What is the one lesson you’ve learned from styling everyday heroes to A list celebrities?
Sam Russell: I started in 1996 as an editorial and advertising wardrobe stylist in Houston, TX. On the side I would help aspiring models with their portfolios. I was personally mentored by Page Parkes & a great designer by the name of Richard Tyler. Page Parkes really pushed for me to leave Texas and try out Los Angeles. One lesson I have learned from styling such a range of personalities is that there is so much that connects us all. The fears and pains and joys and highs of life are quite universal.
Q: What do you believe makes a quality article of clothing?
Sam Russell: Intent. Did the designer want to set the bar high in comfort and/or design? Or, were they looking to get rich quick and sell just anything to the masses? Did the team that brought you that polo with a logo plastered on the front just turn you into a walking billboard for them? What was the intent of everyone involved is what I ponder when I look at clothing.
Q: Do we make the clothes or do the clothes make us?
Sam Russell: Both. New clothes are very empowering. A single mom going back to school to further her education with 5 kids greatly benefits from one of these surprises. Last year, The Giving Closet caught Shenee off guard in Long Island. She was gifted 13 pairs of shoes and a full rack of clothes. She only owned two heels at that time. She now has an extra pep in her step and her employer noticed. She got a pay raise weeks later.
Q: Do you consider yourself an artist?
Sam Russell: I do not enjoy politics, so I must be an artist. Growing up in Austin was the perfect backdrop for appreciating art. I am an artist in every way. Energy, synchronicity, magic, art and “artistic types” of people speak to my soul. I have lived a very colorful life, greatly influenced by the arts.
Q: What’s your favorite part about conceptualizing a look for someone?
Sam Russell: Showing it to them. Telling someone in a kind, but direct way that with a good pair of shoes and a deep hair conditioner, they too can be red carpet ready.
Q: Talk to us about how you felt moments after you presented Alex with a surprise wardrobe.
Sam Russell: Relief. It was a month in the planning. While in Los Angeles for work, I hit up a few showrooms and brought back two suitcases full of clothes for her. She was completely surprised and I was so glad that we pulled it off. Before bed I had a good cry and thanked the universe for connecting me to her. It was all meant to be.
Q: Let’s talk about these pieces and the process. I see a great balance between ideal and comfort. There was one piece in particular ( red flats with detailed gem encrusted skulls) showed an innovative take on a very traditional shoe.
Sam Russell: I looked at her body type and shoulders. She likes earth tones. I wanted to please her but also pull her out of her comfort zone a little bit. It was all about finding things that will accentuate her but take her elsewhere. She’ll love the elsewhere. She’ll have fun putting these things on.
*Alex chimes in with “Oh, I will have so much fun!*
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring stylists?
Separate your ego from your work. Clients have lots on their plates and they do not want or deserve any guff from the hair, make-up or styling team. But at the same time do not let people abuse you or manipulate you. Oh… P.S. Young models and high maintenance actors steal clothes.
Q: How would you define your personal style?
Sam Russell: On Alex’s big day, I wore my Alexander McQueen dinner jacket over a quirky t-shirt that I picked up in Echo Park, CA. That is my style. Off the beaten track designers intertwined with more established names.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration?
Sam Russell: Kindness is inspiring. Whether I am sitting at LAX or on a long drive, I get inspired easily. I needed a break from living in Los Angeles. For two years now, my life has been on four acres in the DC suburbs with my partner surrounded by nature. Lots to be grateful for.