Meet Dianne Garcia, the woman behind SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s best looks

For the TDE stylist, the music leads the clothes.

May 29, 2018
Meet Dianne Garcia, the woman behind SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s best looks Dianne Garcia.   Photo via Dianne Garcia.

Spending most of her childhood in Thailand, Dianne Garcia’s distance from American fashion and music made her crave them even more. Now in her late twenties, the Los Angeles-based stylist, best known for her work with SZA and Kendrick Lamar, is as deep in the game as you can be. Working with both artists since their earliest TDE days, she’s helped each hone their distinct styles over the years. She's played a crucial part in developing SZA’s comfort-first style that alternates between dreamy and lush and boyish and grown, while also guiding Kendrick's clean looks that subtly carry the history of Compton.

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When we spoke over the phone a few weeks ago, she was catching a breath in her hometown of L.A. before her work schedule would enter into a busy upswing, including red carpet season for SZA, and the launch of TDE’s Nike merch collaboration, which she helped design. Through award performances, red carpet appearances, and music videos, Dianne’s now a power-player in the same crossover of music and fashion she grew up obsessing over.

Meet Dianne Garcia, the woman behind SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s best looks Kendrick Lamar's "Kings Dead" video looks, styled by Garcia.   Aftermath Records.

You said you’re on your way to the gym. It seems like you’re always on the go, especially with your two main clients only getting bigger. How do you make sure you’re taking care of yourself in the midst of it all?

I felt like being in my late twenties, I had to pour everything into my career, especially last year. As of late I find [making time for myself] important, and I have had this realization that a lot of people rely on me. My two main clients [Kendrick Lamar and SZA] only work with me, so I have to make sure that I'm healthy and centered so I can physically perform and generate creatively and quickly. I realized that I have to make sure that my business structure catches up to the pace of my clients’s careers.

I’ve found that it was important for me to learn how to let go a little and delegate, have a good team. I have an assistant now who is with me full-time so I can focus on the bigger picture. Early last year, I started noticing how crazy things were getting, in a good way — Kendrick [Lamar] came out with DAMN. and SZA dropped CTRL. I felt like it was important for me to establish trust [with a team]. I've gone through a lot of people [in the process of assembling a team], but I feel this sense of gratification in being able to mentor someone. I don't have to hire just girls, but there happen to be a lot of girls, and I feel like I see myself in their positions years ago. I want to be able to help someone be able to do what they like.

You mentioned earlier that you wanted to be a good mentor to these women who you're hiring. Was there someone who was a mentor for you, when you were starting out?

I feel like I've had several in my life. Even at a very young age, there were people who thought, Dianne could really do something, she has the perspective, the drive, the work-ethic. One of them was my friend Chris Natalio, rest in peace. He passed away quite a few years ago, and he was the first person who I worked with when I was 18, 19. I was working for this brand called Crooks & Castles during their heyday. I would intern, help him with PR, and work at the store at the same time — they had a flagship on Melrose. Those guys not only put me on, but the places they took me, trade shows, parties, seeing how they were growing, really helped me feel like there's more to life than just school. There are [other] things that you could do like be observant and build relationships with people, [develop] a skill set that is not necessarily tangible. After that, I have my friend Jerome D, who directed Kendrick's early videos. He thought that I had potential.

I think the most crucial person out of all of this, during the mid to later stage of my career now, is Dave Free, who is Kendrick's manager. Dave and I are great friends, and I am grateful for him, and I don't think I tell him enough that he has something that is really important and precious — an artist that is not just next-level but important in our day and age. For him to trust me to work on this stuff really means a lot, and I think throughout the last five years, the trust continues to grow. Being able to pull of things for him, and grow with them, has allowed me to gain self-confidence. To me that is an indirect form of mentoring.

Meet Dianne Garcia, the woman behind SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s best looks Kendrick Lamar's 2018 Grammys performance, styled by Garcia.   Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NARAS.
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“It’s the music first, then the clothes second. If the music is excellent, the clothes fall into place in the natural way.” — Dianne Garcia

I know you lived in Thailand for a significant part of your life. When was that?

I'm Thai and Peruvian— my mom is Thai, my dad's Peruvian. I'm more in touch with the Thai side, because that's where I grew up. I was born [in the U.S.] and my parents got a divorce. They couldn't really afford to take care of me, and things were crazy, so I grew up with my grandma in this little town in the western part of Thailand. I went to an all-girls catholic school from when I was six, it was really strict. When I was 14 and about to be a freshman in high school, my mom thought it was necessary for me to come back and be in an American public school. So I moved back here, and I lived in the suburbs in Chino Hills for four years. Right after I graduated I started working with the guys at Crooks & Castles, and they were the reason why, even though I was dead broke, I was like, "I'm gonna move to LA." At that time, intuitively I felt like it was important for me to be [in LA] and have my feet on the ground, to observe. That's how everything started.

Were you interested in style from an early age? Did your time in Thailand inform that interest?

It was the not-having of being in Thailand that made me want to experience it. It's like, I never had that, I want to see that. I appreciate it because it was not there all the time. We were poor, and to be able to sometimes go to my cousin's house, who had cable and MTV, to watch music videos — those were the times I would cherish. That was the heyday of music videos. That carried on until I was in high school. We were the MTV age. That's kind of what attracted me to music and fashion, and the link between it. I didn't know that I wanted to do anything with fashion per se. It kind of just naturally happened.

I've always loved Missy Elliott. I loved Dave Meyers’s work, Hype Williams’s work, Francis Lawrence's work. Even videos like “One Minute Man” — it's so raunchy, but so energetic, and a lot of colors. I think back in the day they had the advantage of music video budgets being a lot higher because people placed such value on them back in the day. I think they really pushed the boundaries. It took imagination to come up with a concept and push the artist to buy into it, and I know that there's a huge ecosystem that was involved in that. I love that era. I know it may sound like I'm stuck in the 2000s. They were just the most crucial and impactful time for my life. I know the 2000s is trending, but I've been stanning the 2000s since the 2000s. It established a really vivid memory and inspiration in my mind.

Meet Dianne Garcia, the woman behind SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s best looks SZA's "Drew Barrymore" video looks, styled by Garcia.   SME (on behalf of Top Dawg Entertainment/RCA Records)

I know you mentioned those videos captured the intersection of music and style, but now in your day-to-day work, how and where do you see that dynamic come to life in your own work?

I think because I do have a certain level of a personal relationship with the people that I work with, I'm able to digest the personalities, the history, and the perspective in the music of the people that I work with. When a director gives me a treatment, I'm able to bridge the personalities with the videos and what we're trying to project. That's the way that I link clothes with music. For me, in order for things to look natural and effortless, the story has to lead the clothes, always. That's my philosophy. It's the music first, then the clothes second. If the music is excellent, the clothes fall into place in the natural way. I think that's where you find this happy medium. In Kendrick's "Element" video, he was [dressed] very scaled-back and simple. It was more about what the visual connection is with the lyrics, and the message. The act of pulling back makes it more beautiful as a whole.

You’ve been working with Kendrick for about six years now. How would you describe Kendrick's own style evolution? What's stood out to you about it?

Music is the most important, and I follow. I think DAMN. was a more fun album, even though it's still very in-depth. He's creating a space for us to be able to have more fun with his clothes, and performances. I move at the pace of what the artist is comfortable with. Having more fun with the visuals, doing songs that are a little more upbeat, bigger production, and doing a little bit of the fashion thing without having it overpower the music and the message.

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He also seems to get across the essence of where he’s from in most of his looks. Do you guys work together to bring Compton to life for him in that way?

I think it's subconscious, because I'm also from here and I grew up seeing these things. I didn't grow up in Compton or in the hood myself, but I definitely have been around enough. I just know in my heart that it's important. If you want to progress, you want to grow, you want to keep pushing the limits, I think your feet always have to be at home, and on the ground. You don't have to know Kendrick as a person, even just listening to the music, you know that home and being grounded is important. I try to emulate that. We always have a subtle hint of something that pays homage to home because that's important. It's the subtle things — choosing the Cortez as a favorite Nike sneaker, wearing Dickies occasionally, the way we pick white tee shirts. If you know, you know and it'll always be that.

I also wanted to ask you about your work with SZA. You've mentioned before that it's important for her to feel comfortable and good in what she's wearing, and to project that to the world when she is outward facing. What does comfort mean to her, and you?

Comfort, literally needs to be comfortable, because she's quite a free-spirit, free-moving person. She's a singer. You've gotta be able to expand your diaphragm. With, her it's like, Hey, clothes and stuff is cool, but I need to go out there, I need to sing my heart out because, I know that this music and this album helps so many people. It helps me. So it definitely means comfort in a literal sense, and also comfort the sense that I feel like this is me, true to me and my art form, and my message. I think both aspects are equally important. I know that when I find something that works for me, and it makes me feel comfortable, I feel like fashion's almost an armor in a way.

Meet Dianne Garcia, the woman behind SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s best looks SZA on the 2018 Grammys red carpet, styled by Garcia.   Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images.

What's a trend that you're particularly excited about right now in fashion?

I don't know if this is a [wider] trend, maybe just amongst people like me or just my circle. The idea of going back, referring to what was good, what was old, what was archived, and bringing that stuff back. I feel key stylists will do that, you know? And I'm not talking about what's popular in the ’90's and 2000's — that's kind of everywhere. Amongst us, there is a tendency to find what's old, original, and good, and use that. I don't know. Right now I feel like everything is referring to the same things. Everybody is doing the same type of crafts. Same type of colors and silhouette, you know, it's kind of boring.

Who is someone who does this well?

I sound like a fucking fan because I've mentioned them before, but it's the truth — I really, really love Alastair McKimm and Mel Ottenberg. When I look at Mel's work, I feel like he's lived through that era — whatever era it is, ’80's, ’90's. He's able to refer to those times and start with an inspiration and reference that I recognize, and translate it in a way to where it's modern and original, with a nostalgic feel. I respect that so much because a lot of times as stylists, we get references like, "Oh we want to do this ’80's video. Let's bust out the neons" — it's tacky to do those things so literally. I like people who are able to nod to something but still make it current and modern, that's what I respect the most.

I think nobody does high and low better than Alastair, there's always this street element and a signature look. He's able to make hoodies and Carhartt jackets and big pants look editorial-worthy while still feeling very original and grounded. I think that's really, really cool. That's me being attracted to that style personally, too. I grew up around a lot of sneakers and streetwear, it'll always be in me. But being able to be someone who could do it with respect, and with pace at that level — I really admire that and look up to that. I hope that when I'm their age, somebody will look at my work in the same way.

You've recently designed some TDE merch, as well as a few pieces for ScHoolboy Q and his daughter. Tell me a little bit about your foray into designing merch — how did that come about?

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At the time, I was working with Q. He was coming out with this new album, and I feel like his personality was still vivid. You listen to his songs, and he just identifies with them. He's a really a true personality, and very much a very real person. We were inspired by a lot of tie-dyes, and [TDE] wasn’t really doing a lot of merch at the time. I just wanted to bring it to Dave's attention. It's actually me and my best friend's partner, like, "Hey, we just came up with these designs for Q!" We had a creative impulse. My gut instinct is "If Q were to be translated into clothes, what would he look like?" I had brought that to Dave's attention for fun, really. It works, so I've been helping him in the merch department.

Is that something you see yourself doing more of beyond styling or in addition to it?

That's what I want to do in the long run. I don't know how far, or where it will take me just yet. I just know that I'm really grateful to TDE for once again trusting me with these opportunities. It allows me to use another form of creativity and touch on things that I didn't think I would be able to do. Going back to the Crooks & Castles time, I saw them making clothes and graphics and it all looked intimidating, but once you start doing it and you find the right people that help you, you can make it happen. If all goes well, yeah, maybe why not? If it feels right, I'm going to continue to do it and see where it goes.

What is next for you?

I want to be more focused on the job that we do. I want to do more research. I think my biggest goal is to just find more structure, always, in my life and in my career. Making sure I’m putting food on people's table, make sure people are working, because other people are putting food on my table. Making sure we're putting out quality work. We've been fortunate — the nature of the job is always so last-minute, but we've been good workers that have been able to pull things off under pressure.

Going back to the conversation about being more balanced — now that I have that, how can we make [our work] even better? And even more focused? And being more meaningful? Because I know Kendrick's only going to keep getting better, and everybody else is growing. TDE has a great roster for talent. I want to be able to assist that better. And music first — if you don't have good music, you have nothing.

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