On TV talent contest The X Factor, style can be as important as the songs

They are known as the Pretty Committee, the team behind the scenes whose job it is to make the contestants and judges of television's The X Factor look good each week - and in a talent show where the stage outfits are often judged as harshly as the song choices, appearances matter.

Kylie Cooke and Katherine Gould head the fashion and beauty teams, those backstage at every show putting shoulder pads into Stan Walker's jacket, freshening up Ruby Frost's lipstick, straightening dancers' stocking seams and helping Melanie Blatt out of her ugg boots and into her 6-inch Charlotte Olympia heels.

Backstage before Sunday's show, there is some friendly ribbing between judges - much friendlier than the arguments on the judging panel later - with Walker teasing fellow judge Daniel Bedingfield about his outfit, a pale blue gingham ensemble. "I've figured it out: hospital pyjamas!"

Bedingfield, with his signature plaid on plaid, largely styles himself. Cooke, the key stylist on the show, will sometimes guide him - sending him into World Man in recent weeks - but generally, "he is a law unto himself".

Tonight, Bedingfield is not happy, worried about creases in his outfit, but there is no time to iron them out, with a producer yelling out for him to return to his spot at the judges' table.

Soon after, contestant Tom Batchelor walks by, wearing the pair of snakeskin boots gifted to him after going barefoot last week; but he is swiftly told by Cooke to take them off.

"But I love them!"

"I know you do - but not on my watch," she says. Off they come for a more stylish pair.

One of the last stops before taking to the stage, the styling corner is a hive of activity where contestants have last-minute hair and makeup tweaks, put on stage shoes, have their suits lint-rolled and, often, watch and cheer on as the other contestants perform on a television screen. Here sit the styling team - Cooke, who previously worked on another reality television show, New Zealand's Next Top Model, and assistants Daisy Uffindell and Sacha Young, who have taken to dressing in matching uniforms each week (tonight's is a matching marl tracksuit) - and Gould's beauty team of around 12, made up of makeup artists from M.A.C and hairstylists from Servilles Academy.

Their week essentially begins as soon as the Monday night elimination show ends. Discussions about the next week's performances and treatments are had that night and the next day Cooke's team head out to source the appropriate clothes, shoes and accessories - either bought, borrowed or made especially. On Thursday, it all comes together, with fittings to perfect stage outfits for each contestant.

The X Factor wardrobe department is two rooms in the Henderson studio where the show is filmed, with a rack of clothes for each contestant, walls of earrings and necklaces, another of belts. Organisation is key: lint rollers are lined up neatly, boxes of shoes are labelled with contestants' names; others tidily hold ribbons, flowers and elastic, another is just for hats.

At a Thursday afternoon fitting for boy band Moorhouse, Cooke and her team have sourced a rack of streetwear, including pieces from local labels Federation and Thing Thing. For local designers, the show has become an opportunity to showcase their clothes to a massive audience - although some have been hesitant to lend their clothes.

As the show has progressed designers have begun to thaw, no doubt wising up to the platform it offers to see their clothes worn in front of the whole country.

Cooke has managed to turn the show into somewhat of a New Zealand fashion spotter's dream: Jackie Thomas has worn dresses by Coop and Liam, Benny Tipene has donned Zambesi Man, Nica Israel of the girl group Gap 5 wore Huffer dungarees, while Blatt has been dressed in TK Store; Frost in Georgia Alice and Stolen Girlfriends Club; and Walker in Jimmy D.

Some designers have been obsessed with the show from the start and get a thrill when their clothes are worn by a favourite contestant: a red, sequinned dress by Twenty-seven Names was worn by 14-year-old Cassie Henderson, a favourite of the designers Rachel Easting and Anjali Stewart since her first audition.

Rather than an effect on sales, they noticed more of a push on social media, something designer Juliette Hogan mentions too when discussing the effect of the show. Her stunning sequin dress was worn by Blatt on Sunday's show.

"It's really good to see it on someone of note, and for people to see it worn by someone other than a lookbook model," says Hogan, who has grown to love Blatt's directness on the judging panel.

"TV does definitely have an impact - it reiterates the brand in people's mind. It's another avenue for people to know and hear about us."

But before a garment gets on TV it has to get the seal of approval from Cooke and the act's mentor. At Moorhouse's fitting, the group swarms upon their rack, trying things on, while their mentor, Blatt - arriving bearing Pineapple Lumps and Cadbury Favourites - comments as bluntly on the look as she does on the panel during live shows. "I'm not liking any of it, to be honest," she tells them, "but if that's fashion and if that's Moorhouse fashion ..."

"I'll say no if I don't like it, but they can dress themselves," Blatt explains later of how much input she has.

This styling process is a complete collaboration between Cooke, Gould and her beauty team, the judges, and the contestants themselves, taking into consideration everything from song choice to lighting.

"As much as I'd like to do crazy, creative makeup every week, sometimes it's just about pulling back and letting the outfits do the talking, and some weeks, the makeup does the talking," explains Gould.

Cooke agrees. "Sometimes you go into battle over things, other times you just fold and go with what the artist or the mentor wants. It depends on the situation. Everyone is really involved; it's a total collaboration on all parts.

"Especially because the nature of the show that we're making; the contestants themselves are total amateurs, so you're having to teach them along the way about how the process works."

Some need less guidance than others: "Some of the contestants have a really strong opinion about their looks and their sense of style already, and some are happy to adapt a little bit more," says Gould.

Batchelor has an already defined style, while Tipene is really into fashion too, says Cooke, and credits his openness in developing his look as a performer.

"He's a sponge who takes in everything and he is really into every level of what this show is providing for him."

Moorhouse have a "look" too, which is mainly all about the hair: some get a trim each week. "They've got a really sharp image, and it's nice to keep them looking really crisp," says Gould.

She also credits Gap5 as being especially open to work with their hair and makeup.

"They have always been loads of fun, because they're all really good-looking girls and they like strong, poppy colours. We tend to try our more full-on stuff on them, because they can all pull it off," she explains.

"The female groups have been loads of fun, because you can create variations of one look."

Both Cooke and Gould see their jobs as essential to helping the contestants figure out the image they want to portray as performers beyond the show.

"Until this point I've been quite laid-back about not pushing people too far, and having them be comfortable and feel good about how they look and what they're wearing on their feet," explains Cooke, "but I've been quite vocal this week and in today's fittings, that moving forward everyone needs to really step it up, and start looking at themselves and visualising themselves on stage.

"I want them to all to start looking at it as a job. If you're going to be a pop star, how do you want to really look and what is the image that you want to portray?"

Ultimately, of course, it always comes back to the songs.

"As I say to everyone every week," says Cooke, "No one goes home for wearing a bad outfit - they go home for singing badly."

"Do they sleep in their outfits?"

Much of The X Factor online chatter has focused on the contestants wearing exactly the same outfits on the Sunday and Monday shows. "Do they sleep in their outfits overnight?" people ask, with endless quips about the Kiwi budget.

"Yes, it has been a commonly asked question,"acknowledges Cooke, who explains that, though the reasons are partly financial, they are simply following the format of the show internationally. It's also to make the contestants easily identifiable to the audience, especially at the beginning of the show, with 13 acts.

But expect things to change as they get closer to the end of the show.

"When they get to the top four or five acts, they will start to wear a different outfit on the Monday night shows."


By Zoe Walker Email Zoe