Five minutes into a discussion with Rachel Zoe and three things have become clear: She loves her son, Skyler, more than vintage Givenchy. She devours fashion for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (When cut, Zoe almost certainly bleeds Chanel Le Vernis in Dragon.) And, finally, she’s… nice.

It’s not the image that first comes to mind when you think about the pint-size stylist whose own reality TV show, The Rachel Zoe Project, often paints her as, shall we say, high-strung. So it’s surprising that Zoe isn’t just pleasant—she’s funny and cheery and, when talking about her 2-year-old sidekick, tender in the most motherly way.

For all her success, Zoe (pronounced “zoh”) has also endured unending criticism—not by colleagues or clients but by outspoken members of the media, film executives, and the public at large, who disliked the attention she garnered through celebrity tabloids. Who disapproved of the starlets she dressed while rocketing to fame. Who think she’s too thin. Who assume fame and fortune landed in her lap wrapped in a glittering bow. As Zoe’s lifestyle empire grows, it’s easy to forget that the woman who peeled back the curtain on image making, from the dressing room to the red carpet, worked damn hard to get there.

Rachel Zoe Rosenzweig’s life of glitz and glamour was decades in the making. “My mother says that my first client was 8 years old,” the stylist says today, at 41. “There was this boy, and I hated how he dressed. I took out his clothes and laid them out for him.”

Though she loved fashion and admired the style of the strong, intelligent women of the day—Bianca Jagger and Brigitte Bardot, but also her mother—she didn’t spend her childhood locked in her room with piles of clothes and dreams of making it big in the fashion world. “I never thought you could make a career of it,” she says.

Instead, she majored in sociology and psychology at George Washington University. Those college years remain a time of her life she remembers fondly: freshman year in Thurston Hall, her one-bedroom apartment at 2140 L Street NW, and Rodger Berman, the waiter she met her sophomore year while both were working at Washington Harbour’s Mona Lisa. (Two decades later, they’ve been married for more than 15 years.)

Zoe spent a lot of time in Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and, of course, Georgetown. “In Georgetown we always ate at Paolo’s [Ristorante],” she says. “It was my first date with Rodger—I was 19.” She remembers fondly their subsequent dates at their other favorite DC spot: Sequoia.

But Washington is more than a series of memorable haunts to Zoe; it shaped who she is today. “DC is a somewhat conservative city, but it’s filled with so much culture and fun. It gave me an appreciation for cities,” she says. “It was the beginning of my independent life, being on my own.”

Still, she did most of her shopping in New York (more options then) when she returned to her parents’ house in Short Hills, New Jersey. The Big Apple became her home after graduation, where she took a low-level fashion assistant job at the now-defunct YM magazine. By the time she went freelance—at 25, no less—Zoe was the magazine’s senior fashion editor.

“It was terrifying,” she says about leaving a steady job to start her own styling business. “Thankfully I have a really supportive family to catch me if I fall.”

At first, she scraped by on nearly nothing—including a lack of sleep and lackluster personal life. She didn’t become a household name until the early 2000s, when she started dressing Hollywood’s wild child clan—Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, and Mischa Barton numbered in the ranks—landing in Us Weekly as often as the young celebs she styled. From there, she published her New York Times best seller Style A to Zoe. Bravo then approached her about The Rachel Zoe Project in 2008. Subsequently, she designed an accessory collection for QVC that became one of the company’s most successful launches, started a website and newsletter that now boasts more than 450,000 subscribers, founded her own fashion line, and recently opened a New York hair salon.

“I think it’s just persistence. I worked literally every day until I had my son,” she says. “But when you love it, it doesn’t feel like a job. The truth is, I love what I do.”

Zoe enjoys shopping and dressing up, but she also understands materials, textures, and cuts, and how to make them work for women with different shapes, styles, and aesthetic objectives. (Just look at the classically minded Jennifer Garner and sultry Eva Mendes, both of whom she still styles today.)

“Rachel is in this business not because it’s a great way to make a buck, which it is,” says Hal Rubenstein, editor-at-large for In Style magazine, who has known Zoe for eight years. “She’s in it because she loves this stuff.”

It seems only natural, then, that after a decade of scouring racks for Hollywood’s elite, Zoe would want to create her own designs. “I always knew in the back of my head I’d do it, but I put it off as long as possible,” she says. “I knew it would take a ton of time and patience.”

Zoe launched her eponymous collection in anticipation of New York’s February 2011 Fall Fashion Week, with a busy schedule and a baby on the way. More than two years later, Zoe’s designs have matured. Rather than the flowing maxi dresses that have been her signature, her Fall 2013 collection evokes menswear, with flashes of equestrian flourish, and a bit of a rock ’n’ roll vibe mixed in—think clean lines, plenty of leather, structured jackets, sequins, and fur accents. They’re designs that would appear at home both on the streets of New York or Sheila C. Johnson’s Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia.

Her Resort 2014 collection departs from the fall aesthetic, showcasing a sporty American style: Nautical-themed pieces in red, white, and navy seem both wearable (frayed jean shorts) and fun (a killer red leather mini dress)—and entirely accessible for DC’s fashion-forward types. “Rachel has great taste,” Rubenstein says. “[She] knows what the girl on the street loves to wear because Rachel is that girl on the street.”

Jennifer Wheeler, vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom, adds: “The instincts that make her a standout stylist are evident in her collection, and our customers have come to recognize the name Rachel Zoe as an arbiter of on-trend fashion.”

Wearability and function are big considerations for Zoe and her collaborative design team, and they work to create looks with the everywoman in mind. “For me, it’s a constant challenge of thinking, ‘What do the women in my life want to wear?’” she says. “I want people to go into their closet and wear these things. Don’t treat them too preciously.”

Zoe is in the midst of designing next summer’s pre-fall collection on the day that we chat; the assemblage will hit stores in June 2014 (sneak peek: the fashion maven reveals it’s “boyfriend but sexy,” with plenty of prints, plaid, and denim). She is also writing her second book, Living in Style, a lifestyle tome that will aim to teach readers how to dress themselves as well as their dining room tables. And she’s still working overtime to style a handful of A-list clients for red-carpet appearances.

Despite the packed schedule on the horizon, Zoe says she has plans to scale back somewhat: She doesn’t anticipate signing on for another season of The Rachel Zoe Project. (“We’ve done five years. I think it’s time to probably move on,” she says.)

And if she does more TV—she and Berman are in talks with NBC to bring a sitcom based on her life to the small screen—it won’t be of the reality variety. The Rachel Zoe Project was meant to be a show solely based on fashion and designers and all of that, and clearly it wasn’t,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want my personal life in television.’”

Maybe because she’s too busy living life—with style, of course. The outfit she’s wearing for this interview pairs a long black fishtail skirt with a draping top (both from her spring collection). She’s topped it off with a chunky gold belt, Chloé stacked wood heels, and jewelry from Cartier, Jennifer Meyer, Anita Ko, and Hermès.

And yet, Zoe exudes a wise, mellow vibe mixed with glimmers of joy. “When you’re a parent, you kind of approach things differently. It’s a much healthier approach. It’s knowing what are the most important things in your life versus things you used to think were pretty earth-shattering,” says Zoe. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”

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