Debate its moral rectitude until you’re blue in the face, but any prospering entrepreneur would likely agree: image is everything. From well-tailored attire to maintaining proper grooming habits, simply looking the part is integral to opening doors and closing deals.

No one knows this better than stylist Micaela Erlanger. Erlanger, 28, is the visionary behind the eye-catching fashions of Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan actress whose breakout role in 12 Years a Slave landed her an Oscar.

While Nyong’o’s acting chops are undeniable, her style choices have spawned a different brand of admiration. And mere months on the scene, her status as a fashion icon was cemented when People named her its most beautiful woman of 2014.

To hear Erlanger tell it, however, none of these achievements were frivolous happenstance. Rather, Nyong’o’s ascent represents the transformative ability of fashion to garner influence and sculpt a career.

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“It’s exciting to know that you can have that kind of impact on people,” says Erlanger. “Fashion has the ability to inspire -- to instantly invoke a mood.”

And while taste may be an innate gift, Erlanger’s process is deeply-researched, she says. Of critical importance is that a look not only suit its respective occasion but also resonate within a larger context or self-branding strategy.

Meet the 28-Year-Old Stylist Who Dresses the World's Most Beautiful Woman
Lupita N'yongo at the Golden Globes
Image credit: The Wall Group

Sometimes, though, the choice is viscerally clear. When Nyong’o first stepped out of the fitting room in the crimson Ralph Lauren gown that eventually sent the fashion world into a frenzy at the Golden Globes, Erlanger says she’ll “never forget seeing it for the first time. We knew it was the one. Not only was it a bold color and striking silhouette, but there was a cape. That was an incredibly confident move that demanded attention.”

Thereafter, Erlanger and Nyong’o hit the jackpot all over again at the Oscars in a plunging sky-blue dress that Vogue called “pleated Prada perfection.” Most recently, however, they drew mixed reactions for a netted, flapper-inspired getup that Nyong’o wore to the Met Gala.

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“You have to think about the bigger picture,” said Erlanger, who likened the succession of outfits worn by Nyong’o during awards season to a “campaign” of sorts. “It’s an entire body of work. Everyone has different dimensions to their personalities, so we’re never just going to repeat the same colors or silhouettes.”

Erlanger has been campaigning from an early age. The Connecticut native remembers wearing a velvet party dress and patent Mary Janes to the emergency room when she had her tonsils removed. With a sewing machine gifted to her by her nanny, she was also known to craft garments for the family cat.

But it wasn’t clear until much later in life how she might profitably channel these aspirations. “I didn’t even know that you could be a stylist,” she says, noting the nascent industry has only come into its own within the past 15 years.

And while some may sneer at the profession’s superficiality, a select group is riding high on a digital media landscape that is perpetually riveted by celebrity culture. Industry matriarch Rachel Zoe, for example -- of reality television fame -- is said to take home as much as $10,000 for her services per day.

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After graduating from Parsons with a business degree, Erlanger got her big break as assistant to another figurehead in the styling world, Annabel Tollman. When Tollman died suddenly last year from a blood clot, Erlanger had to soldier on in the face of losing her mentor.

Meet the 28-Year-Old Stylist Who Dresses the World's Most Beautiful Woman
Micaela Erlanger and Olivia Munn
Image credit: The Wall Group

“I worked with her for six years,” Erlanger says. “She was a teacher, a mentor and a dear friend.” From learning how to manage a small business to grasping budgets to cultivating client relationships to shaping a judicious eye, Tollman “taught me the things that can’t be taught,” Erlanger explains.

And these are lessons that she applies to her own roster of clients, which today includes Olivia Munn and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery. In the same way that she gleaned strategies from Tollman, Erlanger endeavors to cultivate her clients’ palates through the collaborative process. “You never want to force it,” she says, “but we’re taking calculated risks and making thoughtful choices.”

As a relative newcomer, collaboration is key. While Rachel Zoe has spun the cottage industry of styling into a multifaceted corporation that comprises reality television, books, an online newsletter and an eponymous fashion label, Erlanger says she’s content with her current station.

“I love what I’m doing,” she says, “and I want to continue to inspire, collaborate and consult.”

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