Ten years as personal stylist to Sean (“Brother Love,” formerly “Puff Daddy”) Combs, and alumnus Derek Roche rarely leaves home for a video shoot or red carpet event without the costume design textbook he used as an undergraduate in UNC Greensboro’s Department of Consumer, Apparel, and Retail Studies (CARS).
“If you want to be the expert and compete with those kids at Parsons (The New School, New York) and FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology, New York), pay attention and learn the first go-around,” Roche said when he spoke at UNCG on Monday during CARS’ final Alumni Industry Speaker Series of the year.
The 37-year-old celebrity stylist from Goldsboro, who has dressed singer Nicki Minaj and basketball star Kobe Bryant, spoke fast, but not without a North Carolina drawl.
“My momma will tell you I had a briefcase in fourth grade,” he quipped. “I thought I was a businessman.”
Roche’s business savvy is an important thread woven throughout the story of his rise to the top of the fashion world – beginning at UNCG.
Shortly after entering the speech pathology program, a friend encouraged Roche to check out Textile Products Design and Marketing (a former name for CARS). He was spending weekends at Greensboro’s Design Archives and Carolina Thrift, bleaching and cutting jeans to style his buddies, dressing them in everything from peppermints to saran wrap.
In Textile Science class, he was inspired by fabrics. He read GQ and Vogue. He worked part-time for a bank and spent breaks faxing resumes to New York for CARS’ required internship program – ten companies a day. Out of 50 applications, Roche got five calls. One of those calls led to a job – with stylist and fashion designer Patricia Field of “Sex and the City.”
That summer, Roche kept a notebook in his back pocket. When he heard a name or business, he jotted it down. After work, he walked the streets of Manhattan until his feet ached, returning to his dorm room to scour the internet for more information.
“So if someone said, ‘Oh that’s Whitney Houston’s stylist,’ I didn’t have to ask my supervisor, I already knew,” Roche said. “You be your own teacher. Thank God for people like Dr. (Nancy) Nelson (Hodges, CARS department head) who give you the tools, but once you get those tools, you have to figure out what to do with them.”
The tools he gained from CARS catapulted Roche from Field to Vibe Magazine, onto Macy’s, Nike, Estee Lauder and Conde Nast before a two-month interview process with “Puff” (Roche’s nickname for Combs).
“He is probably one of the hardest-working people I know,” Roche said of his boss. “Beside my mom.”
But it’s probably why he’s so successful, he added. “He pushes you to be really, really, really great.”
Roche admitted that even now, he’s still learning and challenging himself. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and he had this advice for those at the beginning of their journey:
- Whatever area of fashion you want to be in, you need to be the expert.
- If you want to be a stylist, you have to figure out how to be part of that community. Get involved – you can’t have big dreams and not be active in them.
- Don’t downplay yourself – whatever you are good at, be proud of that.
- Start doing something: Style mannequins, work in retail, join THREADS.
- Styling is not just about fashion. You have to deal with budgets and know how to manage people. Logistics is probably the biggest thing you need to learn as a stylist – calendars, travel, tailoring, sourcing fabrics.
- Don’t sell yourself short – I would hire someone with no experience if you have a great personality and you’re trying to work hard.
- Throw your net wide – you can’t have tunnel vision. You can’t be so hard on yourself that you don’t allow yourself to think outside the box.
“I’ve never claimed to be the best stylist, but I can outwork anybody in this room,” Roche said. “It’s just because I’m passionate about it, and I want it to look good and be right.”
Story by Elizabeth L. Harrison, University Communications
Photography by Xine Benz