Some musicians' looks are as iconic as their art—think Siouxie Sioux's gothy cat-eye makeup, Annie Lennox's edgy androgyny, Elvis Presley's gold lame Nudie suit, Madonna's gilded cone bra, or basically any era of David Bowie. But how do they get that way? The answer, sometimes, is stylists. In Durham, two women have helped a few local musicians take greater strides into style.
Stella Cook and Donna Orr started Dear Hearts in 2013, beginning by selling clothing and accessories out of a vintage camper trailer. They eventually moved in to a storefront on Foster Street, across from what's now The Rickhouse.
"The store was fun and awesome, but also incredibly difficult," Cook says. She and Orr were both working other jobs, which meant that keeping the store open at consistent hours was a constant struggle.
In August 2015, after a little more than two years, Orr and Cook closed their storefront. But the duo had already earned a local reputation for finding eye-catching pieces. The two took to dressing musicians when their friends Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, aka Sylvan Esso, recruited Cook and Orr to style them for publicity photos and videos surrounding the press cycles of the band's first single and subsequent debut LP.
"Some of the best shots that came from that were the ones that were simple, clean, plain, and them. So it's like, What's the best thing for this person? What are they trying to look like, but how can we also not make it feel convoluted and make it feel like them?" Cook says. Orr adds, "We're really just hired to be eyes, essentially."
They've also applied those eyes to Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor and Mipso, which proved to be more involved because of the four band members' different individual styles and personalities. Orr and Cook met with the individual players and helped them select outfits for their photo shoots. But a key factor was keeping Mipso, Mipso.
"You don't want to flip it so hard on its head that you jar everyone. Mipso had a really solid fan base on their own—you don't want to isolate that fan base by making them something like, 'OK, now you look like a goth band,'" Orr says. "It has to be subtle and natural and organic. The people have to internalize it, too, and want to do it."
Cook and Orr have no interest in trying to completely reinvent someone's look—they've gotten that request and turned it down in the past. Especially in the field of music, they want to help artists' appearances best reflect their art and personalities.
"A lot of people in music are interested in showing their identity via fashion, but they're not as caught up in 'I'm wearing this,' or 'It cost me this much,' or whatever. It's more of an extended version of their voice in a lot of ways," Orr says.
In addition to styling musicians themselves, Cook and Orr have also used their expertise to style spaces for artists at music festivals. For three years, they've styled artist trailers at Eaux Claires, the summertime shindig in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, that was cofounded by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and The National's Aaron Dessner.
Though they don't consider themselves interior designers, when Vernon asked the two if they were interested in taking on the project of finessing twenty-something artist trailers for the first festival in 2015, they took the chance. They've returned to Eaux Claires each year since, and after they posted photos of their work on their website, another company tapped Cook and Orr to style artist areas at getaway events in Riviera Maya, Mexico, featuring Phish, Luke Bryan, and Dave Matthews.
Both have spent significant time in and around the music industry; Cook used to bartend at The Troubadour in Los Angeles and is married to Megafaun's Brad Cook, while Orr once worked at Warner Brothers Records and has toured with bands. They've seen enough grimy green rooms with lumpy, damp couches and bad fluorescent lighting to last a lifetime. Thus, for festivals, they focus on adapting utilitarian spaces into spots where artists and their guests can completely relax. They joke that it's like "polishing turds, constantly."
"Trailers aren't cozy, especially the ones we get. They're nice, and they're new, but things don't stick to the walls, you can't hammer anything. So you have to figure out, How do I decorate this thing where everything about it has been built to not be decorated?" Orr says.
"It doesn't need to be anything but comfortable and feel really good," Cook adds.
For artist areas, the two get a lot of foundational pieces from IKEA, which they credit with being inexpensive, durable, and easily stored. But to keep their backstage areas from looking like they were ripped straight out of the catalog, Orr and Cook add in other details—art, throw blankets, and more—sourcing the décor as locally as possible.
Dear Hearts' efforts, however, aren't all play all the time. In order to make the creative half happen, Cook and Orr have to do the unsexy administrative stuff of managing budgets, contracts, and insurance forms. What's more, the two both hold down other jobs in addition to their Dear Hearts duties: Orr works part-time as a special events coordinator at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art, and Cook runs her own Pilates studio. Even amid all the hustle, they love the work of getting people and places to the best versions of themselves.
"With people, we do like to try to bring out what is already sort of there. I still don't always know what looks good on me," Cook says. "Sometimes you need a little help."