Profession: Stylist – Alicja Kowalska By MAJA VON HORN

Maja Von Horn

Maja von Horn is a fashion journalist known for her insightful interviews and engaging writing style. She has contributed to various fashion publications. Her work often explores the personal and creative journeys of her subjects, providing readers with a deep understanding of the fashion industry. Von Horn’s ability to connect with her interviewees brings their stories and perspectives vividly to life


In the late 90s, she was one of the pioneers who kick-started the Polish fashion industry and one of the first stylists.Today, she leans more towards designing clothes. Alicja Kowalska is the first feature in our new series where stylists discuss the evolution of fashion..

Alicja Kowalska recently returned from Melbourne, Australia. For over two years, she studied fashion design for brands at Torrens University Australia. She is one of the trailblazers in the stylist profession in Poland.

„The role of a stylist made sense before Instagram,” she says when we meet at Dzika in Warsaw. „Twenty years ago, it was one of the most creative jobs in the fashion industry. I would create a story, choose the photographer and crew, and even make storyboards. I was a bit like an art director or even the director of the photo shoots. Sometimes, people would tell me they hung a picture from one of my sessions on their wall. That was the greatest satisfaction. Because that’s what fashion shoots are about – they transport us to another world, they let us dream. We aspire to them; we want to be the woman in the picture. Today, Instagram has largely taken over that role.”

„Do you often browse Instagram?” I ask.

„I do, but I mainly follow friends, just a few stylists. Posting your own photos on Instagram is like running a blog a few years ago. If I had a blog with my daily outfits, it would be the dullest blog in the world.”

Alicja Kowalska is a trained theater critic. She studied in the 90s when theater studies in Warsaw were considered a haven for intellectual snobs. Grażyna Torbicka, Piotr Kraśko, and Marcin Kydryński all graduated from there. „In a time when Nike shoes were nonexistent in Poland, carrying a smart book was a form of snobbery in my circle. Later, I often heard, 'You want to be a stylist after studying theater?’ The profession of a stylist has never been associated with intellectual challenges in Poland; it has always been depreciated, and I think not much has changed. In mass consciousness, stylists are people who comment on others’ appearances on TV. Do you know what makeup artists and stylists are called on commercial sets?”

„No,” I admit.

„Powder puff and safety pins.”

For Alicja, fashion has always been a field of art and culture. During her studies, she worked as a model and TV presenter on Polonia. It was the early 90s, and Monika Jaruzelska and Adam Gutowski were shaping the stylist profession in Poland, she at „Twój Styl,” he at „Uroda.”

„I wanted to be like Monika; she was my idol, very impressive. I had a bit of a crush on Adam. He always looked great, very handsome. I even took a styling course with him. I still remember him explaining that combining beige and red is classic, while white and black is fashion.”

When a colleague from TV told her she was going for a job interview at „Pani,” Alicja begged to go along. Both got jobs, her friend in the beauty department, and she in fashion. „My first boss was Ewa Zygadło, who designed fashion in the PRL era, a superb woman. I learned everything about fashion, like the names of clothing parts, from her.”

During her studies, Alicja had a costume history course, knew which of Chekhov’s „Three Sisters” in Aleksander Bardini’s direction dressed fashionably, but knew nothing about contemporary fashion. She had no source for that. „I asked Adam Gutowski to style a few sessions for 'Pani’ under a pseudonym, mainly so I could assist and learn everything,” she recalls.

Soon, she met a 17-year-old photographer, Marcin Tyszka, with whom she formed the most creative duo in the industry for the next eight years. „We learned everything from scratch. Our first sessions were done in Marcin’s apartment. We had a similar sensitivity and taste; we became friends. Marcin was great at finding sponsors for trips; we did our first foreign session in Milan. I had a suitcase full of ball gowns; we did the makeup and hair ourselves. It was all just the three of us: him, me, and a beginner model with unshaved armpits (long before it was cool). Another time, we went to the cinema in Warsaw and met Grażyna Szapołowska. „We were amazed by her look, that one could have wrinkles and be a sensual woman. We suggested a session for 'Viva!’ where I worked then. She agreed. Those were daring photos, with a naked bust visible from under the slip. Tomek Ossoliński assisted me then, and that’s how he met his future muse. The session was a great success; the publisher’s president called me with congratulations.”

The 2000s were the golden era of women’s magazines in Poland. Sessions had huge budgets, and stylists and photographers traveled to exotic places to realize even the wildest ideas. „We had wonderful opportunities. For a session with Grażyna Torbicka for 'Viva!,’ we built separate sets for each photo. I loved that short moment when the heroine, in beautiful clothes and amazing scenery, froze before the camera lens. It was like theater.”

After two years at „Viva!,” Alicja went to the president and said she felt she wasn’t fully developing her talent. She was then offered to create „Viva! Moda.” „I had the audacity and was sure of my vision. I created 'Viva! Moda’ with Filip Niedenthal, now the editor-in-chief of the Polish edition of 'Vogue.’ I gave him his first job in the editorial office,” she recalls with a smile.

Some time earlier, the then-top designer Joanna Klimas showed Alicja Filip’s schoolwork, a fresh graduate of the London College of Fashion. „I remembered the name immediately. There weren’t many people in Poland who knew fashion and had the proper education,” Alicja says. She later noticed his composites at the Model Plus agency, where Niedenthal worked as a model. When he appeared in the „Viva!” office, she hired him on the spot. „After a few embarrassing mishaps for me, like being convinced that Louis Vuitton was a living designer, I realized Filip knew more about fashion and treated him as a partner. In my defense, I remind you there was no internet then.”

„What qualities must a stylist have to stand out and stay in the market?” I ask.

„I don’t want to be too wise because I no longer work in this profession. The realities in which stylists work today in Poland are entirely different from those of my beginnings. But some things don’t change.”

After these disclaimers, Alicja lists a universal set of traits. A stylist, in her opinion, must be confident in their taste, opinions, and choices. They must be able to convince others that what they like is cool. They need to know photography and how clothes work, which you learn by assisting on photo shoots. Different clothes are chosen for daylight, others for artificial light. Different ones for black-and-white sessions, others for color photos.

„And you also need to set boundaries. There was a time when I worked non-stop; we did three magazines at once with three people. The pressure was enormous. I couldn’t handle my emotions; I wasn’t always nice to people. While all my friends were pairing up, I was spending nights in the editorial office. I think that’s why I didn’t arrange my personal life. I regret missing that moment. In the 90s and 2000s, there wasn’t the work hygiene that exists today. Today, young people care about balancing private and professional life when they get a job. I didn’t manage that.”

„How did it happen that after forty, you decided to study again, and on the other side of the world?” I ask.

„After years in women’s magazines, I had a two-year stint as the creative director at the clothing brand Tatuum. I helped designers create a cohesive collection, overseeing its style. Through this work, I realized what I didn’t know and wanted to learn – using computer programs, designing for a brand. While flying on vacation to Australia, I met a girl on the plane who recommended this school. It’s a very comprehensive course, thanks to which I can now design.”

Unlike most fashion design graduates, Alicja would prefer to work in a clothing company rather than start her own brand. „When you work for someone, you can focus on the creative part; someone else handles the finances. In your own brand, business is the most important. At the end of the day, it matters how many T-shirts you sold, not much different from trading at a market.”

And she is a dreamer; she likes to daydream. „Culture and art have always stimulated me; I want to participate in this sphere of life, not engage in trade,” she says.

If she were to have her own brand, it would be one that doesn’t produce pointless things or harm the world. Ideally, it would serve it. „Never say never.”

Published in Polish Vogue, March 14, 2020.

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