Venk Modur sat at his table inside the ballroom of The Beverly Hilton hotel and took in the scene around him — champagne flowing from magnum bottles of Moët & Chandon, giant boxes of Lindt truffles at every seat, and celebrities like Brad and Leo chatting up their contemporaries while Ricky Gervais took the stage to open the 77th Golden Globe Awards.
The surreal then became dreamlike when moments later Modur saw actor Brian Cox, whom he styled that evening in Hugo Boss, win best actor in a TV drama for his role in Succession. It was the beautiful culmination of a magical year.
But that night was far different from where he was just a year ago. As you’ll read in the interview below, Modur was struggling to reconcile where he was in his life when he got a call that changed everything.
Tell me where you grew up and how fashion played into your identity?
I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana and it wasn’t the easiest place for someone like me to grow up. I was a very different kid so I was picked on aggressively when I was young, to the point where I had to go to school in another city. When I was in the 8th grade, my parents made the great decision to send me to this really diverse, amazing Jesuit prep school in Indianapolis.
I didn’t really know how to dress until I went to high school. Everyone was wearing Abercrombie & Fitch and I just wore whatever my parents bought me. I was a mess. I didn’t understand who I was and had no knowledge of fashion. So for me, fashion was born out of a necessity to fit in. I was very much into Banana Republic and Armani Exchange and there was a store called Bernini Beverly Hills where I would go and get stuff. I was the only person my age shopping there. The only other people there played for the Colts and the Pacers (laughs). I was actually voted best dressed and most likely to become a fashion designer my senior year. I was mad about it at first because I was like, ‘oh it’s because they think I’m gay.’ Meanwhile, I am!
How did the need to fit in evolve into wanting a career in fashion?
I was in love with fashion through high school and through college, although, I did have a New York club phase when I wore those shiny shirts, you know the ones that DKNY made. I worked for a bit in NYC and then I moved to Chicago to take classes at Second City — I always wanted to perform and I loved comedy and the dream was to be on Saturday Night Live. I didn’t have a job, so I got a job at the largest Ralph Lauren store at the time on Michigan Avenue. It was incredible. Everything I learned in my years at Ralph Lauren, I’ve applied to what I’m doing now. I didn’t understand at the time that my day job should have been my career and what I wanted to pursue as a career should have just been a hobby. But I was treating my classes at Second City like it was my career. Looking back, I don’t think it was a mistake because I wouldn’t have ended up in Los Angeles if it hadn’t been for that.
What did you do in LA prior to styling? Did you ever get into acting?
Well, I tried. I did this horrible, horrible movie called Fraternity House. It was made for no money and it was atrocious but for some reason I got it into my head, ‘oh, I just did a movie, I should move to LA!’ That’s called not thinking straight (laughs). I came to LA and within a week I was going to shoot this movie in India call Bhopal which starred Martin Sheen and Kal Penn. It was a really important topic and there were good intentions behind the movie but it didn’t turn out the way it should have. So, I did that but I wasn’t really working or making a steady income. I struggled for a lot of years, almost a decade of not knowing what I wanted to do and just doing this and that. I’m not afraid to admit that because I think it’s important for people to understand that you’ve gone through pain and loss and just working to survive which are commonalities between all of us.
It wasn’t until Nisha Ganatra asked me to style her for the Sundance Film Festival last year that all of that changed. That’s when everything started for me and Sundance hammered home that this was what I was always meant to be doing, even though it was later in life.
How did working with Nisha kick off your styling career?
I’ve been friends with Nisha for a few years and I had styled her randomly for a few events and she really liked it. I had finished up my last project line producing and I was teaching for a semester. Teaching was not for me. I was essentially giving up on a lot of artistic dreams that I had and I was not happy. That was probably the most unhappy that I had ever been. Within days of me leaving my teaching job, Nisha called me about styling her for her new movie Late Night. I was very honored and it was really exciting because we had the opportunity to work with designers one-on-one. And at Sundance, I was putting together her daily looks while my good friend was having an epic moment in her career. It was an amazing experience and it was an amazing opportunity to be given by your friend. Like Lady Gaga said, ‘all it takes is one person to believe in you!’
What’s your approach to styling your clients?
It’s a really collaborative process when you’re working with someone to define an image. When I’m working with actors, I’m thinking about creating a look that will help them book their next project. It’s not about changing who they are but elevating what’s already there. For example, I just got done styling the CEO of a yoga brand called Maiya. I was really excited to work with someone who is South Asian and wants to go into this space. His yoga line is bright and airy and fresh. It looks like a summer afternoon. But his personal style is very dark clothes, lots of black. So, I wanted to match him a little bit more to his line with clothing that’s light and airy and breathable so he looks like a cohesive part of the brand. That was a really exciting opportunity to work with someone who is starting his own business and to use their product to hone their personal style.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about a stylist’s job?
I don’t know if people understand thoroughly how hard it is to come up with ideas. People see how quickly you work and don’t see how much work happened behind the scenes to accomplish that task. The idea of assisting someone in creating an image where they feel beautiful is not an easy art form. You’re painting a picture on someone. It’s an art form in and of itself and it should be looked at as such.
Where do you get your inspiration from when you’re styling?
I’m definitely inspired by the people I’m surrounded by. My friends inspire me all the time. I like people who are not shy about making bold fashion statements. The first time I hung out with a friend years ago she had on these cool, huge dinosaur earrings. And I thought, either she is crazy or she is fabulous. And she’s both, she’s crazy fabulous! The actor Nik Dodani, who is also a friend, I think his fashion sense is off the rails amazing. His sense of fashion freedom is inspiring especially because he’s brown and like me is a member of the LGBTQ community. To see someone like him doing what he does, his ability to express himself with his clothing, who has a fashion point of view and he’s brown — we need more of that.
How would you describe your own personal style?
I used to be very preppy. I think as of late, I’ve merged my preppy wear into more of a vibrant, whimsical style. My choices are ever evolving and I’m better able to express myself with what I wear more than I ever have. And it’s going to continue to evolve.
What’s something that you bought recently that you wouldn’t have before?
I recently bought a pair of red Buscemi high top sneakers that have gold detailing with the lock on the back and they’re amazing and they’re crazy and they’re fun. Also my jackets have become a little bit more wild. My jacket and my shoe game have completely changed. I also just bought a pair of Gordon Rush oxfords — gentleman shoes with laces with a little English detailing. But I’m going to pair it with something that’s a little bit more fun. If I have a shoe that’s classic, I make sure that everything else is something fun.
How do you stay current in terms of what’s happening in fashion?
I would say that Instagram has taken over everything when it comes to staying current and discovering young designers. Instagram has completely changed the conversation of fashion because it’s instant visuals, instant emotional reaction. It puts everything in hyperdrive.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
The lack of inclusivity and diversity I see from designers that is not reflective of the reality of America. If designers could expand their sample sizes beyond 0s and 2s to include sizes 6, 8, 10 that would make a huge difference. It’s not easy and it’s not fair and I think fashion should be accessible to everyone because the more voices we lend to this conversation the more beauty and art we can create.
I don’t think that a movie or television star who is a size 10 should have any difficulty getting any designer to dress them but that’s not how it is. On my end, it’s a challenge that’s exciting to tackle but it does make me angry because it’s just showing me that we have a long way to go in our quest for the truest form of visibility.
What has been your favorite styling moment so far?
It was a look that I did on Nisha at Sundance. She wore a thrifted jacket with a Theory button down shirt and we used a chain that she had as a tie. It’s a really simple outfit but it was a moment where she was really happy and that just meant so much to me. The best style moments are when somebody is smiling and is authentically happy.
How did the opportunity to work with Brian Cox happen and what was it like being at the Globes when he won?
I was asked by Matthew Lesher, Brian’s manager, to style him for the AFI Awards Luncheon, BAFTA Luncheon, Vanity Fair party, the Globes, and the upcoming Critics’ Choice Awards. I had known Matthew for a few years from my time in independent film casting. He was so gracious to have given me this opportunity. And, I got to work with a legend who I respect greatly!
To be at the Golden Globes when Brian won felt like a win for me. This past year has been an incredible experience that I credit to Nisha Ganatra and her belief in me. A decade ago, I had no idea I would be doing this. It feels really good!
What’s your advice to someone who wants to become a stylist?
I would say to get experience in retail. I learned so much from working at Ralph Lauren, it was just a wealth of information. Become an expert in your industry and have an innate curiosity about color and art and design and have a passion for things like that. Get a side hustle in the industry and don’t be afraid of jobs that don’t pay well to get experience. I don’t think anything in the arts is an easy road so be prepared to have people pass on you and “no” is a word you’re going to hear a lot. And unless you’re a top tier stylist, it’s not really a lucrative career.
If it’s not financially lucrative then why do it?
Because I love it and what I’m focusing on is knowing my niche market. I want to style the people that have been marginalized. I have access to the South Asian community who have been very loving and very supportive. I want to work with everybody and not exclude anyone but there’s just not enough attention being paid to Asians and South Asians in this industry.
It’s also a great precursor to things that I want to do in the future and one of those things is launching a menswear collection with my business partner Mariko who lives in Mumbai.
Tell me more about your business?
I’ve always wanted to start a fashion line and we are launching Mariko & Venk, a lifestyle line and we’re starting with menswear featuring 100% organic hemp. It’s still in the early stages and right now now we’re trying to find manufacturers. I’m going to be in India for the next few weeks to work on it!
Images courtesy of: Venk Modur
It takes more than talent to make it on Hollywood’s red carpet.