When Luke Combs walked out onstage at the Billboard Music Awards to sing his most recent single, “Better Together,” Katy Robbins’ phone started blowing up.
Instead of his trademark trucker hat, Columbia PFG fishing shirt and black jeans, the singer was sporting a single-breasted brown windowpane Jack Victor made-to-measure sport coat, black Eton shirt, Tom Ford polkadot pocket square, black Joe’s Jeans, with a close-cropped haircut, trimmed beard and custom M.L. Leddy boots.
“In 15 years of dressing everyone from Debbie Harry to Scarlett Johansson, this is the thing that had everybody freaking out the most,” Robbins says with a chuckle. “He looked great and sounded great. Although I’d love to say this was some huge, planned thing, it wasn’t. Luke has worn tailored jackets and custom suits before — he went to the Grammys in a tuxedo, but he didn’t perform and he didn’t win, so no one noticed. But this is the one everyone noticed.”
Robbins said the outfit was actually something that he had worn to the BMI Awards, a music industry event that is not televised, last year. “I was at his house shooting some promos before the Billboard Music Awards and I went into his closet and said, ‘No one saw you at the BMIs, wear that again.’ So it was recycled — which is very 2020.”
Combs won three awards at the BMAs, and he’s up for six awards at the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 11 — Entertainer of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year, Single of the Year and Song of the Year (twice). And for that big night, Robbins says he’s going to wear another outfit that was originally planned for something else.
“Because his clothes are custom, we need to plan ahead,” she says. “In late February, we measured him for a suit for the Academy of Country Music Awards in April because he was supposed to be on tour. The suit was ready in mid-March.” But since his tour was canceled, the show was delayed until September and held remotely with artists performing in different venues around Nashville. There was no red carpet, so Combs opted for his PFG shirt and a camo trucker hat for his performance at the Bluebird Café.
But at the CMAs, he’ll wear a Jack Victor custom suit and Eton dress shirt, and leave the camo hat at home.
“He actually likes wearing a well-tailored suit,” Robbins says. “He enjoys picking the fabric, the buttons and other details. And he also likes to take it off and put on his fishing shirt. For his life, he just wants to be comfortable, but he also has respect for the CMAs, which is the biggest night for country music, so he wouldn’t go in a Columbia shirt.”
Combs isn’t the only nominated artist Robbins will be dressing that night. She’s also working with Eric Church, who is up against Combs for Entertainer and Male Vocalist of the Year. Robbins has been working with the singer for around eight years and helped him establish what has become his outlaw style.
“When I met Eric, he dressed like every other country singer,” she says. “Now other singers want to dress like him.”
Church, who is nearly always photographed in a black leather motorcycle jacket, black T-shirt, distressed jeans and aviator sunglasses, worked with Robbins to create the image. “He showed me a book of pictures of Bruce Springsteen,” she recalls, adding that his biggest hit to date is the song “Springsteen,” another example of how the singer was leaning. “He didn’t want to look overly styled or like every other guy either,” so she came to him with a number of leather jackets and he was all in.
Although the sunglasses were his idea, it was Robbins who suggested he wear an American flag scarf for the “Springsteen” video. “Men weren’t really wearing scarves then,” she says, “but I was thinking ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ and the American flag.” John Varvatos had just come out with a flag scarf in a distressed sepia-tone, she says, and Church wore it in the video. “I went to one of his concerts and couldn’t believe that of the 40,000 people, half were wearing some sort of flag scarf. It became his symbol.”
For the CMAs, she says Church will probably opt for a slim-cut Tom Ford suit when he’s not on stage and “an amazing leather jacket” for his performance, from Varvatos or Dsquared2, the latter of which she picked for his ACM performance because its bright red collar fit perfectly with his “forceful” rendition of “Stick That in Your Country Song.”
Although Robbins has worked in New York City for the first several years of her career, she has a true country music heritage. She was born and raised in the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville, Tenn., and her late father was an award-winning country songwriter, Kent Robbins. Since her musical tastes leaned more toward Madonna and Jane’s Addiction than Clint Black and Martina McBride, she left town “with my hair on fire for New York City” right after finishing school. “I wanted nothing to do with country music.”
Although she had appeared in a few videos before leaving Nashville, she liked being behind the scenes better. So in New York, she worked with a couple of fashion publications and made some extra money by being an extra and intern in the wardrobe department of “Sex in the City.” She brought her own clothes to the set and the wardrobe team was impressed. This led to her meeting a celebrity stylist who was looking for some help, and before she knew it, Robbins was jetting around the country working with major photographers and big stars.
After a year doing that, she decided to start her own styling business and worked with Blondie and Debbie Harry for an album cover, Johansson for film premieres and a number of other celebrities. But she eventually moved back to Nashville and started exploring styling options there.
Her big break came when Sony in Nashville decided to “take a chance on a New York stylist.” Although she had made her mark in New York, they knew of her country music pedigree and got behind her. “They knew I wouldn’t try to do something too ‘inside.’ At that time, country singers weren’t really into fashion.”
Thankfully, that has changed, especially among the younger artists and the female singers, and Robbins has amassed musician clients who include Brett Eldridge, Michael Ray and Josh Turner.
Eldridge, who is known for being “more buttoned up,” was looking for a change for his new album and Robbins found some “cool vintage pieces” that are “a little more relaxed, but rough around the edges.” And for Ray’s new single, “Whiskey and Rain,” she dressed him as “a bad boy with a heart of gold,” in rich earth tones “to go with his rich voice.”
She also helped Turner, who is “pretty straightforward country,” to update his look for his most recent album of cover songs, “Country State of Mind.” Keeping with the theme, she dressed him in a vintage fringe jacket from the Eighties for his video for “I Can Tell By the Way You Dance.”
Robbins says she walks a fine line when working with a country artist to update their style. “They want to try new things, but they’re worried their fans won’t like it,” she says. “So they come to me to figure out the very best version of themselves. They don’t want to look so different that people don’t know who they are, but if they don’t change, that’s just boring.”