Categories
2021 June 2021

Bottle Blondie: The Legacy of Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry is an institution. All sangfroid dissociation, a radiating aura of coolness, the Blondie frontwoman has undoubtedly reached legend status. When your name is synonymous with punk, with new wave, tied to Studio 54 and the Mudd Club and Andy Warhol’s Factory, isn’t that really inevitable? Most know her for the hits — the disco-rock “Heart of Glass,” American Gigolo’s Giorgio Moroder-produced “Call Me”—and many more for her solo careers as an actress and a cover girl. But Debbie Harry is more than flashy name-dropping, more than a pretty girl with a good voice in the right place at the right time. She’s the essence of style in the classic sense, the prime example of crafting fashion out of personal charisma, a woman who turned the concept of “cool” into an accessory.  

Debbie Harry by Bob Gruen

Punk fashion, the primordial soup from which a bottle-blonde Deborah Ann Harry emerged in 1970s New York, was formed in the crucible of the abject. After toying with the various archetypes of the 20th-century woman—Playboy Bunny, folk music flower child, working-girl secretary—Harry naturalized into a member of the downtown punk scene. Her style reflected the change of sensibility; in early fashion shoots with photographer Martyn Goddard, Harry perpetually poses on Manhattan rooftops, where impeccably styled punk ensembles (dark shades, graphic tees, bleached denim, slips) offset the physical vicinity of potential self-extermination. “Fashion should always be a bit dangerous,” she once deadpanned as a means of justifying a Michael Schmidt dress made of layered razor blades. On the cover of her 1981 solo debut, KooKoo, her expressionless face is rendered with massive metal spikes making symmetrical impalings. This idea—death-driven apathy as fashionable—is further explored in photos by Bob Gruen and David LaChapelle, featuring Harry as the unscathed survivor of gruesome car crashes. In Blondie’s Dantean dreamscape, mortification of the flesh becomes utterly vogue—“Don’t be afraid to let your body die,” simpers Harry’s character in Cronenberg’s 1981 horror film Videodrome, and one must wonder if she was type-cast. 

Debbie Harry in Michael Schmidt at the 1999 Q Awards

Debbie Harry’s chameleonic style is her biggest asset. Blondie started as a punk project but later became disco, reggae, rap, dance, R&B. Harry’s fashion sensibility likewise shifted while still managing to stay distinctly Debbie. Perhaps the parallels between metamorphoses of personal and musical style are more than a coincidence; certainly, Blondie’s music videos are the best evidence of Harry’s style evolution. In the 1978 “Picture This,” she’s the archetypal ’80s girlboss: big hair and a Lil Kim by VFILES -esque cinched yellow dress, Ivana Trump caught in a wind tunnel on the way to a Mugler show. “The Hardest Part” sees a brunette Deborah, blunt bangs and black shades, her lithe frame donned in a black stringy two-piece ensemble designed by Anya Phillips, the founder of Lower Manhattan’s iconic Mudd Club. She’s a beatnik “In the Flesh,” a flamenco cult member on the “Island of Lost Souls.” Reinvention through fashion, now so common for today’s pop stars, is integral to Harry’s enduring legacy.

The paradox of Deborah Harry lies in the fact that her personal style is at once unpinnable and vastly imitable. The mark of an icon is her ability to inspire, in imagery and in thought, a legacy that long outlasts herself. Harry, still working and releasing music, has the pleasure of witnessing her own canonization in music and fashion. Last year’s memorable iHeart Festival performance by Miley Cyrus, in which the star covered “Heart of Glass” in an Anya Phillips-esque Mugler look, is proof of Debbie Harry’s long-lasting effect on the image and sound of modern-day pop princesses. However, Miley’s Blondie rendition was a somewhat inaccurate tribute; her avid exhibitionism, staggering and wailing over glam-rock bombastics, were a far cry from Debbie’s stage presence, all catatonia mixed with hyperactivity, an aloof platinum head bobbing sans rhythm. The formula is there, but no one can quite nail the same “X-Offender” X-Factor.

 

Within the fashion world—of which Harry has long been adjacent—her legacy is equally well-documented. Despite being otherwise disastrous, 2020 might have been Debbie Harry’s much-deserved renaissance. Even before the Cyrus cover, Japanese designer Junya Watanabe used Harry’s image as inspiration for his Fall 2020 show. Tulle and leather, two-tone hairstyles, black stockings, and strappy accoutrements were soundtracked by a greatest hits catalogue of Blondie classics in what was a successful tribute to her Parallel Lines (1978) -era look. That same season, Coach put on a show based on downtown legend Jean-Michel Basquiat, a contemporary Debbie Harry once had as a cameo appearance in her 1981 “Rapture” music video. Harry made a surprise performance for those in attendance, dressed in garments inspired by the same scene that she was instrumental in creating.

“So much of what has been written about me has been about how I look,” Debbie Harry lamented in her 2019 memoir Face It. “It’s sometimes made me wonder if I’ve ever accomplished anything beyond my image.” Of course, this is a misnomer; anyone with a pen game strong enough to rhyme “attack” with “sacroiliac,” that can pair the lyrical imagery of a “heart of glass” with the blasé scrutiny of a “pain in the ass,” or divine the yearning of the Instagram Age on “Picture This” is evidently more than just a pretty face. At the same time, the importance of iconography, even if merely aesthetic, should not go underappreciated. Andy Warhol, who photographed Debbie Harry in the same fashion as the immortalized Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, understood her value as a cultural tastemaker, the kind of artist whose style could radiate outward into the greater culture. After all, what is style, if not an image that may appear surface-level to some but is full of profound depth to those who know better? “All I want,” as she once crooned, “is a vision of you.”

Categories
2021 May 2021

FAST FOOD, HIGH FASHION

Last month, Liberian-American designer Telfar Clemens announced his latest collaboration with a surprising partner—a fast-food chain. Telfar, whose trendy vegan leather It bags have taken the world by storm, teamed up with none other than White Castle—the original hamburger chain—to design new “100th-anniversary” uniforms for the restaurant’s 10,000 employees. “New,” however, isn’t entirely accurate; this is Telfar’s third partnership with White Castle since 2017, following a small capsule collection that dropped just last year. The brand partnership is an enduring one, born when Clemens hosted a 2015 afterparty at the White Castle Times Square location. This year’s collaboration does not include just the typical employee visors and shirts, but durags as well, a direct request from surveyed employees. Telfar’s bridging of high fashion and the so-called “low culture” of fast food is a promising development in the industry, but it’s not without context. Upon closer inspection, fashion and fast food have always been remarkably intertwined. 

Campaign image for Telfar X White Castle

On a surface level, there are some instant connections. Food and fashion are both described as “fast” when the people who make them get paid less than a living wage; when they’re made by people who get paid decently, there are fancy French words you can use instead, like haute couture and cuisine. They are both industries centrally based on the principle of consumption—both literal or figurative. Pick your poison: for every fashion house under the LVMH conglomerate umbrella (Louis Vuitton, Dior, Marc Jacobs, Celine, Fendi), there’s a wine or spirit brand to go along with it—Dom Pérignon, Hennessy, Veuve Clicquot. These wires get crossed constantly in fashion for the simple fact of brand recognition for a primarily American consumer base. The recent “Vetements Burger” campaign—a publicity stunt that juxtaposed the luxury logo with junk food fare—is a perfect example of this and a foil to Telfar’s White Castle collaboration. While Telfar elevates the wage worker through practical clothing, Vetements—maybe inadvertently—mocks, condescends: Look at fast food, trying to be fashion.

Campaign image for the Vetements X KM20 meal

The long-running open secret of modeling as an apparatus of eating disorder valorization lends a decidedly ironic element to food motifs in fashion. In an industry where “heroin chic” could just as easily, and just as controversially, have referenced anorexia over drug abuse, food, and fashion really do go hand in hand—until they don’t. Missouri-born designer Jeremy Scott lives in this sarcastic gray area and has brought his mission of camp and caricature to the Italian house of Moschino. Scott, whose celebrity collaborations (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Madonna) read like every Spotify Pride playlist, has been bringing outrageous looks to Moschino since becoming its creative director in 2013. His first show at the legendary fashion house, Fall/Winter 2014, featured an ironic twist on another legacy brand: McDonald’s. The iconic American fast-food chain, an image associated with “low culture” on account of its vast accessibility, was elevated to the runway. Nine female Ronald McDonalds opened the show, clad in Chanel two-piece silhouettes that screamed in the recognizable red and yellow. Golden arches became a Moschino heart. One model, dressed in employee digs, carried a maxi bag on a plastic food court tray.

Moschino FW14 (Look 8)

Within the early work of Jeremy Scott’s own eponymous line, the same mix of humor and irony is apparent. For Fall 2006, graphic tees were paired with gigantic bauble-style food jewelry—donut bangles that could moonlight as pool floaties, necklaces made of life-sized cookies, peppermint stripe pumps. The accessories suggested inspiration from Judith Leiber, a Hungarian-Jewish handbag maker known for her gaudy products, often cuisine-themed. You’ve probably seen the shot of Kim Kardashian dangling one of Leiber’s french fry purses that circulated a few years ago—one of Leiber’s many pieces that show, like Scott, a tongue in chic approach to foodie fashion. 

But perhaps, the biggest blunders come when fashion attempts to criticize the fast-food industry for the same ills it participates equally in perpetuating. Vetements is guilty yet again. Drawing inspiration from the same source as Moschino, then-creative director Demna Gvasalia staged his Spring/Summer 2020 show at a French McDonald’s location. The vibe was vaguely dystopic, in a mundane sort of way; models stomped out in the garb of some middle-distance future police state, generically bureaucratic-looking ensembles, and plenty of hyper-branded graphic prints. Vogue called it Gvasalia’s attempt at “critiquing the crumbling social decay of late-stage capitalism” by using fast food as a symbol for permeating socioeconomic hopelessness. The “fashion is art” part of me applauds him, but the “that Vetements coat costs five thousand dollars” part of me knows the call-out is coming from inside the house. Every societal death rattle brought on by the fast-food industry—environmental destruction, elite wealth hoarding, you name it—is louder still from the fashion industry. Through the good, bad, and ugly, fashion and food, while different in so many regards, have the same practical function. A scapegoat is impossible. 

Vetements SS20 (Look 2)

This is why Telfar’s White Castle collaboration rings so true in this moment. It’s beautiful because it’s not attempting to hide complicity with critique, nor does it mock its recipients with some perceived absurdity of their deserving luxury items. There is nothing ironic nor anything self-serious, and thereby nothing contradictory, in Telfar’s revamped fast-food uniforms. They are simply well-made garments for hard-working people.

Categories
2021 April 2021

BACK TO BASICS

It’s 2014. Frappuccino jokes are the height of comedy. You feel a pang of self-loathing every time you stare down at your rose gold iPhone 6S. Your chevron-printed Urban Outfitters phone case is mocked almost as much as the camel-colored UGG boots you’ve banished to your closet, slouching in the shadow of your black North Face windbreaker. The monster under your bed has crawled into plain sight: you’re basic, and everyone knows it. 

A “Starter Pack” meme from 2015 meant to capture (or mock) the “basic” style

Though “basic” in the pejorative sense has been in use since the 1970s, its unofficial coinage and subsequent increase in popularity came on the brink of the 2010s. Since then, the parameters of what qualifies as basic have evolved over time, though certain touchstones remain intact. Low-top converse, high-top UGGs, mid-rise jeans. Tote bags, infinity scarves, yoga pants. PSLs, barrel curls, fedoras. Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, The Chainsmokers, Friends. Starbucks, Lululemon, Instagram, Coachella. Virtually unavoidable and loosely defined, being perceived as basic was, for a period, an actual source of anxiety. The black leggings in your bureau were the skeletons in your closet; if your music taste flirted with the Top 40, you kept your Spotify close to your Anthropologie-clad chest. A label foisted upon those tragically moored in the mainstream of culture, there naturally are corresponding criteria of basicness for men—the Marvel movie industrial complex, basketball shorts, anything with a color best described as salmon. But in its popular usage, basic almost always refers to a woman, usually a white woman, and usually a white woman of an economic status middle class or higher.

“A Basic Bitch,” according to a 2014 Time article, “is a conventional girl who conforms to what all the other girls are doing but doesn’t know she’s doing it. To be called ‘Basic’ implies that you have made a gross miscalculation of your own specialness [and] your boringness is obvious to everyone.” In the 2010s, so-called “Basic Bitches” were the foot soldiers of the monoculture, with clothing and interests that fell safely within the bounds of mainstream regard to the point of “boringness” for those who sought distance from such conformity. Yet being basic does also require a certain self-awareness—less a “miscalculation” and more a conscious repackaging of perceived relatability.

Giambattista Valli takes on the “Basic Bitch” uniform with Nike leggings for Fall 2017

But is relatability becoming démodé? Trends closing the last decade seem to suggest as much—it seems that a retreat from basicness ensued not long ago. A 2017 post from fashion blog Camille Styles encouraged readers to “un-basic your wardrobe” by shopping “Etsy, your local vintage store, or even Goodwill.” The message was a popular one. Just four years later, a culture of secondhand reselling and co-opted thrift aesthetics in mid-price brands and retailers (Urban Outfitters, UNIF) permeates. Platforms like Depop are catalogs of increasingly inflated prices on increasingly degraded wares, where adolescent sellers can earn an extra buck on a stained baby tee by tagging it “Y2K.” Vintage shops, thrift stores—“even Goodwill”—are picked over at best and soullessly gentrified at worst, at least in the coastal United States. (I, for one, blame iGirl—if you know you know.)

Marni revives basic-ness with Converse-inspired heels and a cartoonishly large tote for Fall 2021

Yet just as Basic Bitches fled in droves from their basicness, the fashion world embraced a distorted version of it. It’s hard to tell if this move was an ironic smirk to those who “knew better” or a genuine pandering to those who did not, but the effect was the same. Parisian label Y/Project was not the first to elevate—or parody—the basic style, but it was the most memorable. Their fungal-looking UGG boots, ruched and folded to look as if they were swallowing the wearer whole, seemed part runway gimmick and part genius when debuted for Fall 2018. New York indie label Eckhaus Latta followed suit with their own UGG-partnered collection for Fall 2019, adding a highlighter-toned colorway. A year later, Y/Project went back to basic again, hawking tumorous Canada Goose collaboration parkas that bulged like au courant Michelin men. For Fall 2017, Giambattista Valli trotted out models in Rodarte-level Romantic blouses paired incongruently with black Nike leggings. Even now, Dior Men’s Kim Jones is partnering with Converse to release his rubber-and-canvas take on the Chuck 70 sneaker. UGGs, puffer jackets, high tops, black leggings—is the Basic Bitch, once reviled for these same fashion faux pas, now a couture inspiration?

Y/Project brings back “basic” with UGG and Canada Goose collaborations

Somewhere along the line, culture took a turn—the ugliness of a homogenized world began to seem comforting in retrospect. There could be some grand explanation for all of this; Trump was made POTUS in 2016, and mass individuation of politics, social mores, and cultural references followed. Fringe political groups like QAnon and hyper-specialized internet communities started to form, fragment, recoup. Confirmation bias and conspiracy became the de facto realities of a digitized world, and anything that slipped through the cracks of your curated feed was the doing of a Russian bot, or the CIA, or both. In an era of increasingly isolated interests, of indiscernible micro-niche subcultures, maybe the fashion world’s embrace of a bygone basicness was ahead of the trend. We missed the simplicity of the dynamic between a recognizable mainstream and recognizable subcultures, and so we began a return to it. Maybe, we thought, the most comfortable, the safest, the unique thing to be is just like everyone else.  

Social media facilitated this cultural shift with an effect that cannot be underestimated. In 2018, Instagram, once considered the Basic Bitch platform of choice, changed its algorithm—now, instead of having photos on your Feed and Explore Page sorted by popularity and chronology, images are organized based on your predicted interest level. Somewhere in cyberspace, the sinister hands of the algorithm are sorting through a cache of your previously liked posts, the accounts you follow, the hashtags you’ve used, and calculating what you might most like to see next.

TikTok, which was made popular with American users sometime between 2018 and 2019, is an accelerated outgrowth of this same concept. Users often facetiously comment that they feel “called out” by the content that appears on their For You Pages, given its almost prescient knack for knowing exactly who you are, where you live, what music you like, your sexuality, your gender, your race, who you like and who you want to see viciously mocked. TikTok has also given rise to new fashion subcultures. “Alt” kids often crowd my FYP, dressed in some watered-down mashup of punk, emo, academic, and ’70s vintage, while other users see what was last year dubbed the “VSCO girl” style (think old school Basic Bitch, but environmentally conscious). E-girls and -boys, donned in copious chains, blushy makeup, drop earrings, and (poorly) home-dyed hair float in and out of algorithmic popularity but have recently become an influential fashion reference. Because we are all only seeing exactly what is selected for us, virality no longer refers to universality, as in the era of “Charlie Bit My Finger” or “Leave Britney Alone.” Now, “going viral” means creating content that resonates with a certain sect of people, content that may get thousands of views from one internet community while remaining entirely undiscovered by and entirely incomprehensible to another. 

Hedi Slimane’s take on TikTok’s “anti-basic” e-boy for Celine Homme Fall 2021

Individuality being the reigning sensibility of our new decade, a reactionary basicness has been born from the ashes. Former Basic Bitches went from wanting something everyone had to wanting something no one else did, and the old pursuit of conformity has germinated a novel pathology based on personal distinction. No one and everyone is “basic,” because a well-defined monoculture can’t be established when our news, entertainment, and media consumption is curated to our preconceived tastes. As fashion and entertainment continue to look backward, caricaturing an attempted resurrection of old models of mainstream versus alternative counter-culture, the complexity of our real situation becomes more apparent. Uniformity has all but been replaced by wide variety, which becomes its own kind of homogeneity; nobody wants to be basic, so everyone is.

Categories
2021 April 2021

UNISEX APPEAL: LUDOVIC DE SAINT SERNIN

Parisian menswear label Ludovic de Saint Sernin was born out of a mistake. A former embellishment expert at Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain, Ludovic established his namesake label in 2017 with every intention of designing womenswear. That’s what he’d studied, he explained to AnOther Man, not to mention his fit mannequin at the time was suited with female dimensions. An unforeseen epiphany, spawned by Ludovic’s personal reflection on his sexuality, was revealed only after the design process had already begun: his designs looked even better on male models. “I had never designed menswear before,” Ludovic told Document Journal for the launch of the resulting first collection, “so I began scouting for guys that looked a bit like me [and] shooting them.” Four years, seven collections, and several brushes with virality later, many of Ludovic’s high profile supporters are now women—Miley Cyrus, Doja Cat, Dua Lipa, and Kendall Jenner all among the ranks. In this sense, LdSS has come full circle to de facto womenswear, a development the designer has embraced in stride. Still, an inherently gay, stylishly androgynous sensibility remains inextricable from the brand’s identity. 

Doja Cat in LdSS for “Best Friend” music video shoot
LdSS SS21 Look 20

For many menswears designers, androgyny is established through simultaneous emasculation and feminization of the male form. Ludovic’s Spring/Summer “Debut Collection” provided an alternative approach to “unisex” style, something more balanced rather than the replacement of one pole of the gender paradigm for its opposite. The first LdSS collection successfully introduced recognizable design motifs still central to the label’s image—leather briefs, lace-up flies, grommet detailing, a neutral color palette. It was an aesthetic better realized only a year later, with SS19’s “Summertime Sadness” collection. Trademark briefs were reconstructed as bralettes; trench coats became cropped bolero jackets; laced-fly pants became low-waisted, denim, and leather. Ludovic spoke ad nauseam about his early design inspirations, explaining that his eyelets and laces were lifted from Christina Aguilera’s Stripped album cover while his leatherwear evoked the highbrow homosexuality of ’80s photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In the Ludovic de Saint Sernin extended universe, contemporary “low culture” references are married with a reverence for an elevated past, deftly synthesizing generations of gay culture.

LdSS SS18 Look 1
LdSS SS19 Look 15

Navel-gazing noughties silhouettes segued further back in time with the FW19 “Supermodel Collection.” Taking inspiration from the ’90s glamazons, Ludovic approached colder weather with the same skimpy flair—“because a hoe,” in the eternal words of Cardi B, “never gets cold.” On the runway, conservative higher waistlines were paired with ceramic breastplates over bare chests. Cropped jackets were lined with fur, only to be styled with knitwear skivvies. LdSS muse and Boston native Teddy Quinlivan stole the show in a halter shift made entirely of ribboned Swarovski crystals—a reminiscent, Balmain-esque gaudiness that once worked as the label’s deliberate antithesis. Seasonal impracticality aside, the collection was a formative step forward for Ludovic de Saint Sernin.

LdSS FW19 Look 1
LdSS FW19 Look 23

Winter thawed, but Ludovic kept the ice. With his SS20 “Wet’n’Wild” collection, the previous season’s rhinestones now took on the appearance of water droplets. David Hockney’s pop-art paintings no doubt influenced the poolside runway show, with mise-en-scène derivative of his iconic “A Bigger Splash” and “Portrait of an Artist.” Models were paraded along the scenic rooftop pool of the Centre Pompidou, gradations of sheer wool and skin-tight organza providing the optical illusion of clingy wetness. “You don’t know if they’ve come out of the water,” the designer commented to Highsnobiety, “or if they’re sweating.” But Ludovic’s eye for sensuality met his sense of humor when he sent one model down in nothing but a knitted merino towel and sandals—a look poised for its inevitable viral attention, which brought fresh eyes to a brand that begs to be gawked at. Ludovic cited photographer Bob Mizer, whose mid-20th century gay photography earned him jailtime for breaking American obscenity laws, as inspiration for the memorable moment. A fitting reference, considering the LdSS Instagram account’s history of violating the tech platform’s censorship guidelines. 

LdSS SS20 Look 6
LdSS SS20 Look 7

Rather appropriately, the designer’s Instagram community is at the center of his most recent work. A creative feedback loop, the SS21 and FW21 twin “E-Boy” collections reflect the styles of LdSS fans from TikTok and Instagram, internet users who have externalized their fashion sense onto social media during COVID. For Spring, Ludovic plays the hits first—leather pants, earth tones, grommets—before proceeding to deliver the most colorful and pattern-heavy pieces of his career thus far. Sparkly, striped halter tops and dresses, pastel silk pajama sets, rainbow tube and tank tops; inspired by teenaged e-boys (and e-girls), the tone hits the mark with a carefree youthfulness. At times, many looks are even cheekily collegiate, uniforms of some queered alternate universe where scrimmage vests and football jerseys are cropped and bedazzled with multichromatic Swarovski crystals. Ludovic stayed in school for the subsequent Fall/Winter collection, touting tartan miniskirts, neckties, and academic trench coats, but nodded toward Gen Z’s post-vaccine clubbing aspirations with flirty necklines, sheer fabrics, and exposed abdomens. Designed by observing trends popular with fashion-forward social media influencers, these clothes, maybe paradoxically, are for people who are ready to log off. 

LdSS SS21 Look 27
LdSS FW21 Look 7

More than just a regurgitation of the FYP, Ludovic de Saint Sernin represents something singular for menswear, and not just for its androgyny, tasteful minimalism, or unique male glamour. It is a label of deep introspection. Ludovic’s are not clothes without significance—there are meanings, histories, communities behind each garment, as fascinating and as intricate as the designs themselves. Ludovic de Saint Sernin is changing preconceptions of menswear, of masculinity, of “unisex” clothing, of queerness; and, in doing so, connecting his community with its own aesthetic tradition. All just one rhinestone at a time. 

LdSS SS20 Campaign by Willy Vanderperre
Categories
2021 March 2021

LANA DEL REY: AMERICAN DREAMING

No one does Americana quite like Lana. Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey first performed as an amateur dive bar musician by the name Lizzy Grant, at one point living in a New Jersey trailer park after attending New York’s Fordham University. Though talented, she faced virtual obscurity until her rebrand and the surprise viral success of her 2011 homemade “Video Games” music video, which introduced the origins of her now-recognizable sound and image. With its collaged supercuts of Disney cartoons, vintage shots of the Chateau Marmont, a stumbling Paz de la Huerta, and Lana herself crooning through Juvéderm-puffy lips on her laptop webcam, the video resonated with a certain indie music sect (read: Tumblr hipsters) and launched Del Rey into enduring internet fame. Next came her official debut album with Interscope/Polydor, 2012’s Born to Die, and the follow-up Paradise, which was released the same year—two cinematic trip-hop records notorious for their nostalgic overtures to American pop culture. Throughout the past eight years, between interspersed personal dramas and well-documented public controversies, Del Rey has expanded upon her distinct perspective of Americana through music, visuals, and fashion, putting out four more well-received albums with an ever-progressing aesthetic agenda. In anticipation of her upcoming release expected next week, Chemtrails Over the Country Club, we examine Lana Del Rey’s iconic and iconoclastic image, how it came to be, and what it represents in a time when blind patriotism seems woefully out of style.

Lana Del Rey for GQ by Bella Howard, 2011

Lana’s sensibility, musical and sartorial, is a nonlinear journey through cultural space and time. Artistically, she is pop music’s self-appointed mouthpiece for 20th-century American mythology, and nothing is sacred in her realm of blatant anachronism. In 2012’s “National Anthem” music video, she even aped the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, donning a powder blue dress, an exaggerated bouffant, and (duh) a pillbox hat to play Jackie O—A$AP Rocky, of course, played JFK. This burlesque rendition of America has always been central to Lana Del Rey, and is ceaselessly and subtly transforming. With the arrival of her 2014 psych-rock record Ultraviolence—Del Rey’s dark exploration of, in her words, “the freedom land of the ’70s”—the early-career flower crowns, evening gowns, and gold hoops gave way to leather jackets and distressed denim. This stylistic shift from Born to Die’s campy glamour to Ultraviolence’s grungier look (see the Bruce Weber-inspired video for “West Coast” ) was no doubt a reaction to critics, who found the theatrics of her previous work (tigers in mansions, motorcycles over bonfires, Marilyn Monroe in the Garden of Eden) to be inauthentic and melodramatic. A year later, with feet firmly planted in California, the stripped-back Honeymoon (2015) followed. Del Rey, no longer a Hollywood starlet or “Brooklyn Baby,” now put Manson girls on the moodboard, donning shapeless white dresses and middle-parted hair—a look that would need to evolve only slightly for her Woodstock-inspired fifth album Lust for Life (2017). But whether she’s more Haight-Ashbury or Cielo Drive, Lana Del Rey’s patriotism is pastiche: a selective plucking of cultural events, like a Sparknotes of American history recounted in a failed but fabulous game of telephone.

Lan Del Rey by Neil Krug, 2014

References to fashion in Lana Del Rey’s lyrics toe the line between archetypal and basic. Costume seems at once central to her storytelling yet also an afterthought, something gestured toward impressionistically only to be abandoned for other expositional details. She often mentions her “red dress” (“Summertime Sadness”), not to be confused with her “party dress” (“American”), unless she’s referring to her “little red party dress” (“Cruel World”). Her boyfriend—a “goddamn man-child” who’s “not as cool as me,” among other epithets—is a stock photo in “blue jeans [and a] white shirt,” evoking “James Dean, for sure.” In anyone else’s hands, this kind of celebrity reference would come across as gratingly obvious—always Marilyn Monroe in a sundress or Sylvia Plath in a white gown. But if fashion is art, Del Rey’s lyrics paint with broad strokes while her music videos pick up their slack, carrying to completion the stylized concepts her songwriting can only allude to. In the title track of the soon-to-be-released Chemtrails, for instance, Lana makes no explicit overtures to clothing, but the video uses fashion to animate the woman her lyrics imagine. Dressed in strings of pearls, Hampton whites, and lace gloves, Del Rey’s image of a WASPy country club socialite “contemplating God in the swimming pool” comes into greater focus.

Lan Del Rey for Interview by Chuck Grant, 2020

Early in her career, Lana commented to Electronic Beats:“Initially, the fashion world was more interested in me than the music world.” While the latter may no longer be true, Del Rey has always been a fashion plate—her covers for everything from Dazed to Interview’s latest Septemberissue leave no room for doubt. Evidently, Del Rey’s Americana sensibility has created an almost muse-like quality about her for some of fashion’s biggest names. Such was the case with David LaChapelle’s cover shoot for Flaunt in 2017, which—inspired by Del Rey’s own artistic output—transposed Lana into various feminine archetypes of the American collective consciousness: beauty queen, white trash, bourgeois hippie, disgruntled housewife. This much is also true of Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele, who in 2019 cast Lana Del Rey parallel to Jared Leto (with a cameo by Courtney Love) in his decadent Gucci Guilty fragrance campaign, naming her a brand ambassador. The advert’s theme, naturally, was Hollywood; dressed in a lime green pantsuit, Lana Del Rey was the obvious choice.

Lana Del Rey for Flaunt by David LaChapelle, 2017
Lana Del Rey and Jared Leto for Gucci Guilty, 2019

But when left to her own devices, Del Rey’s personal fashion sense is surprisingly plain. She’d be the first to concede to this, and even has, admitting, “Clothes-wise, I actually didn’t ever really care.” Her carelessness is so evident, in fact, that a threat from Lana’s sister and frequent collaborator Chuck Grant—“I swear to God, if you ever become a fashion icon I’m going to kill myself”—has become an inside joke among fans. Chuck is still very much alive, but she has a point. While Del Rey’s street style and tour outfits have evolved somewhat over the years, trading patterned dresses for daisy dukes, her everyday look has always caught the internet’s attention in its seemingly uncharacteristic simplicity. As she herself once put it, she has the taste of someone who has “never had any fashion sense at all”—and both fans and critics agree, bitterly citing recent paparazzi pictures of Del Rey running errands in camo baseball caps and flannels. Really, how can any deserving “fashion icon” one year attend the Grammys in custom Gucci and the next show up in a dress “from the mall”? How can she sing about endless “money, power, and glory” from the comfort of decidedly unglamorous black leggings? But perhaps in this paradox lies the brilliance of Lana Del Rey, an artist who wears her persona like a diamond that shines its brightest when the cameras are rolling. And perhaps that corresponds to some abstract quality of the American spirit, the contradictive duality of extreme bravado and extreme mundanity: two sides of the same Buffalo nickel. 

Lana Del Rey in Gucci at the Grammy’s, 2018
Lana Del Rey in LA, 2020

In an era of low national morale—an issue not resolved (shockingly) by the election of Joe Biden—nostalgia is a contentious topic. Between Donald Trump’s inescapable “Make American Great Again” proselytizing and Biden’s recent Rebel Without a Cause-inspired GQ photoshoot, liberals and conservatives alike attempt to seek comfort from a past that, aesthetics aside, is deeply troubled. The most prominent misconception of Del Rey’s persona is that it treads this same mistaken path, yearning for a bygone era of American history with all the lamentable trappings of subservient Stepford wives and Civil Rights-era racism. This oversight has spawned frequent criticism for what appears to be an outdated, even tone-deaf nationalism, so much so that Lana has had to repeatedly reaffirm her anti-Trump political stance and even vowed to retire the American flag from her tour visuals in 2017. (The flag later made an appearance on the cover of her 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell!—as did her trademark black leggings.) But upon closer inspection, Lana is no patriot, and her version of America is hardly a nostalgic projection. In reality, her United States is a collaged hauntology of times and places that never truly existed, except in the national imagination—a Disneyland version of America, one where the Hollywood sign and Coney Island converge on the White House lawn. It’s a facade, a kitschy object d’art, all cigarette smoke and mirrors. And when the glamour shots are taken, when the music video is wrapped, Lana Del Rey—Elizabeth Grant—is just another girl in yoga pants, and the country she sings of is just another myth in the Great American Songbook. 

Lana Del Rey by Chuck Grant, 2015
Categories
2021 February 2021

THE FUTURE IN FASHION: DESIGNING DESTINY

The zeitgeist is despondent. International relations, the climate, the economy—all facets of contemporary life appear utterly hopeless, a feeling that is internalized without question and expressed in our music, our cinema, and of course, our clothing. Adam Curtis, in his documentary HyperNormalisation (2016), aptly describes the mood of recent years. “All optimistic visions of the future [have] disappeared,” he narrates with nonchalant fatalism. “And everyone became obsessed by dark forebodings, imagining the very worst of what might happen.” These dark forebodings are traceable in numerous avenues of cultural output, but this vague apocalypticism has had its most potent manifestation in fashion.

Evidently, the fashion industry, just like entertainment and media, is as preoccupied with our bastardized reality as the rest of us. It makes sense—if “fashion is capitalism’s favorite child” (Werner Sombart), then disaster capitalism naturally breeds dystopian couture. Clothing reflective of a bleak present is nothing new—the popularity of camo, for instance, often fluctuates synchronously with actual war—but such trends feel even more prevalent now. Of course, fashion should be an avenue to dissect fraught social, economic, political, and environmental vistas, but the heavy-handed presence of apocalyptic ideation has no doubt had a negative impact on our collective esprit. Having been so inundated with consistently dismal collections, at what point does the fascistic uniformity of Miu Miu become a self-fulfilling prophecy? While in the past four years the pessimism of gas-masked Marine Serre and hazmat-suited CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC may have felt piquant, prescient, even profound, these aesthetics now feel overdramatic at best and demoralizing otherwise.

MARINE SERRE FW19
RICK OWENS SS19
CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC FW18

Checking Vogue Runway for the industry’s most recent output—specifically Fall 2021 Menswear and Ready-to-Wear—was just short of doomscrolling. Guram and Demna Gvasalia, whose (respective) work for Balenciaga and Vetements is generally a respite from fashion’s self-serious pessimism, was utterly fatalistic this season. Morale was especially low at Vetements, which opened with an anarchy symbol, a Pussy Riot style ski mask, and turgidly Orwellian sloganeering (“THINK WHILE IT’S STILL LEGAL”)—less bone-chill, more eye-roll. Meanwhile, Balenciaga fought a holy war in an anachronistic collage of military accoutrements, juxtaposing medieval thigh-highs with both chainmail dresses and (less successfully) NICOPANDA-esque camouflage ensembles. The crusade continued at Kim Jones’s Dior Men, which likewise sported Napoleonic jackets with patriotic star buttons, galoshes as practical for the trenches as they are for snowy sidewalks, an assortment of military berets, and more camo winter suits. In the past, designers have similarly used military references in acknowledgment of broader social commentary; Shayne Oliver’s  Hood by Air Spring 2015 collection, for example, which used army-inspired silhouettes and colors to facilitate a greater rebuke of destructive masculinity. But for Gvasalia and Jones, sending models down the runway in fatigues and combat boots isn’t commentary—it’s complacency.

VETEMENTS FW21
BALENCIAGA FW21
DIOR MEN FW21

The general takeaway: ambient dystopianism, once a novelty in fashion, is only becoming more popular. But John and Yoko said it best; war is over, or a least it should be. Labels telling us how to look chic during some vague apocalypse is a tired concept—if this really is Armageddon, our priorities will hardly be outsourced from the next SSENSE drop. And while a handful of designers have chosen a reactionary anti-war approach to fashion, they remain largely unsuccessful, too bogged down in nostalgia or navel-gazing to actually change the stubborn apocalyptic mentality. For instance, Etro’s Fall 2021 Menswear takes the search for peace into historical context, channeling the ’60’s in paisley-printed Barrymore collars, tasteful kiltie loafers, and chunky sweater vests. The effect, also shared by this season’s Wales Bonner, serves as a love letter to late 20th century free-thinking collegiate academia. Bringing “free love” a step further, queer menswear brand Lazoschmidl mixes retro ’70s flares and PVC singlets with cartoony food-themed knitwear and cowboy boots for next fall. Childhood motifs abound: infantile butterfly cut-outs and unicorn prints synthesized with a vintage approach to social and sexual freedoms. These distinct collections, among others, seem to unanimously argue that the best way to escape a discordant tomorrow is through nostalgizing a blurry yesterday. But redux and regression are no way to move forward. How can we design a brighter future through fashion if our only understanding of harmony is gleaned from looking back, or inward? 

ETRO FALL 21 MENSWEAR
LAZOSCHMIDL FW21
WALES BONNER FW21

Escapism is not the answer—fashion must instead embrace idealism. This is a challenge, given that many designers rely heavily on either nostalgic references or “dark forebodings” as inspiration for their work. To many, optimistic futurism is too abstract a design concept; the closest they can get is a backlog of endless retrospection, blindly sentimental and too reactionary to be effective. And a dearth of available utopian references—in contrast to the abundance of apocalyptic/disaster cinema and literature—leaves little tangible material for designers to work with. But isn’t the job of any formidable artistic vanguard to push the limits of originality, of ingenuity? What happened to shooting for the moon? 

Perhaps our designers are aiming a little lower. Perhaps we can accept that, as a consolation prize. Truth be told, recent collections haven’t all been doom and gloom; a thread of emergent positivity and experimental utopianism cuts through the noise like a silver lining, whether or not the effect is intentional on the part of the designers. One approach arrives with Daniel Roseberry’s Schiaparelli Spring 2021 Couture, the central concept of which is a sense of overcoming through fortitude. With padded, simulated muscles and toned six-pack corsets, the likes of which were also present at Swedish indie label Gudfreja, Schiaparelli doesn’t just bring us to the gym—it shows us there is peace in strength, and strength in peace. NYC-based label AREA, wittingly or unwittingly, also made an attempt last month; with Genesis P-Orridge bumping in the background of their Spring 2021 Couture video, designers Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Pansczczyk display elevated seapunk garments, every item a sparkly coral reef. Concurrently cheap and expensive, a Swarovski tassel falls off one rhinestone wrap skirt, but model Yasmin Wijnaldum doesn’t flinch, just keeps strutting—she still looks great, she knows it, and that’s all that matters. The same energy propels the Ludovic de Saint Sernin Fall 2021 preview video. In it, a scantily-clad, socially-isolated man daydreams of a house party, of vulgar electronic muzak, glittery shots off the coffee table, group selfies with beautiful people in beautiful clothing, and wakes up to the doorbell ringing: the fashion industry’s optimistic denouement.

 In some subtle way, these three collections pose the essential question: What do you want tomorrow to look like? Where will you go? What will you drink? Who will you kiss? What will you wear? They implore you, crucially, to ditch the dreary and start dressing for the future you aspire to live in, not what you’re scared it will become. Because they know—we know—that war isn’t just over; it’s passé. 

SCHIAPARELLI SS21 COUTURE
AREA SS21 COUTURE