Why fashion will always have a place for the mavericks
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Diana Vreeland, former editor-in-chief of American Vogue, used her magazines to convey an unmistakable fashion point of view.
As another style icon passes by, Samantha Murray Greenway reflects on the importance of unique characters in the fashion industry.
The recent death of fashion editor and oracle Andre Leon Talley seems to mark the end of an era.
His autobiography, Muslin trenches, traces the rise of this black man who grew up in the American South under racial segregation and became a titan of the fashion world. He had a master’s degree in French literature and, lately, a fondness for couture capes that obscured his 2-metre (6ft 6in) frame.
I only interviewed him once, but he made a dream subject. With contagious enthusiasm shared in a stream-of-consciousness style, he sprinkled gems of knowledge and relevant asides throughout the conversation that flowed energetically here and there, peppered with superlatives.
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Reading the tributes to Talley, one phrase keeps coming up: “They don’t make them like that anymore.” I wonder if that’s true.
Fashion has a love affair with exuberant personalities. Talley’s mentor was also unique. American vogue Editor Diana Vreeland, coined the term “youthquake” in the 1960s and used her magazines to convey an unequivocal fashion point of view.
Like her protege, she was a visionary in character: blush-slathered earlobes, hair lacquered black, she was famous for her fashion-oriented non-sequiturs such as “Pink is the navy blue of the India”.
Original influencers, their work tends to be global.
Starting out in fashion, one of my most exciting jobs was as an assistant to Isabella Blow, the influential and unconventional fashion editor credited with discovering Alexander McQueen. She was obsessed with spotting and creating the new.
To be near such a lure of the times was sometimes surreal: moving from project to project, she brought together people, ideas and clothes in a whirlwind of inspiration. She lived and breathed fashion. I remember her crystal-embellished sunglasses and gravity-defying hat catching the stares of weary commuters as we drove through Gatwick Airport at dawn.
Inspirational fashion personalities often work in symbiosis. The designer Karl Lagerfeld has produced a book devoted to sketching the outfits worn by the queen of Italian fashion Anna Piaggi. It was the cardboard incarnation of two icons.
The subject: a fashion authority who inspired the 2006 V&A exhibition, Anna Piaggi: Fashion-ology. She epitomized the word “eclectic”: An everyday look might include a museum-quality 1950s haute couture cocktail dress with multiple petticoats, accented with bright striped tights and a Union Jack hat. With her face painted in chalk and wavy blue hair a la Marcel, the little dean of Italian fashion was just as lively in real life as she was on the page.
The Illustrator: A genius workaholic who wielded a fan in his hand and spouted off-the-cuff staccato-style dictates with his breathy/rapid German accent, while furiously designing hugely influential fashion collections.
Lagerfeld died in 2019, and recently I watched Sotheby’s three-part sale of his estate, the last of which is due to take place in Cologne in March.
“I find the joy of collecting, the fun of hunting things, which is exciting,” he once said. WWD. “But once I have [win] that, I don’t care about. Which explains the mind-boggling variety of lots up for auction, ranging from serious things like 1980s Memphis Group pieces and late 18th-century French decorative arts, to bowls adorned with the image of his well-known cat. -loved and from a cartoon by Karl Lagerfeld and The Simpsons.
What’s slightly mind-boggling is how much people are willing to pay for a designer’s personal effects. Five pairs of his mittens, estimated at 1,000 euros ($1,718), went for 22,680 euros. But as a photographer, illustrator, and creative director in touch with everything and everyone who made the moment fashionable, Lagerfeld was more than just a designer.
At the top of their game, fashion mavericks are stories in themselves, just watch documentaries such as Diana Vreeland: the eye must travel, The Gospel According to Andrew Where Confidential Lagerfeld.
They are the inspirations, prompts, recorders and catalysts behind the clothing and pop culture we all participate in. We may have said goodbye to some of the greats, but fashion will always find a place for its inspiring icons.