So Joan Didion is the face of the French brand Céline this season. That’s big fashion news, isn’t it?
Anonymous, via email
It is indeed. The question is, is it good news? Ostensibly yes, it’s great. Hurrah! Fashion celebrating intelligence and heralding one of the finest writers of the past half-century as a role model as opposed to some random skinny 19-year-old with an Instagram account. What could be better than that?
Céline is a label currently blessed with an almost untouchably cool image and vague air of cerebralism. This is thanks partly to its clothes (not too sexy, not too boring, not too weird) and mainly to its designer, Phoebe Philo, who is elegant, intelligent and always seemingly aloof from it all (when Philo said that “the chicest thing” is not to have any internet footprint, this dazzled the fashion and celebrity community, a demographic that measures out its life, not in coffee spoons, but social media followers). And Philo, while generally eschewing publicity, is perfectly aware that her own personal appeal is a central part of the brand’s success – no one, really, gave half a hoot about Céline when the amusingly OTT Michael Kors was the creative director. Philo knows, as well as Karl Lagerfeld does, that, when it comes to selling clothes, image matters.
Which brings us back to Didion. Now, as a fashion label, I like Céline. Aside from its untouchably high prices, it’s far too understated for the likes of me (I have the fashion taste of a four-year-old girl; I don’t own a single pair of black trousers but I do own four pairs of shoes covered in glitter, and that is no exaggeration). But I admire any high-fashion label that does not think the only customers that matter are 25-year-olds with trust funds. Any label that makes a furry Birkenstock an It shoe, as Céline did in spring/summer 2013, as opposed to six-inch stilettos, is one that can take a pew by me.
Also, of course, I worship even the lint on Didion’s black polo necks. In any features section on any newspaper or magazine in the western world, at least 86% of the women and 72% of the men went into journalism because they were inspired by Didion, and that is a scientific fact. (Also, 67% of all statistics are made up on the spot. See? Numbers are fun!)
Encouraged by my then local and much-loved bookshop a few years ago (shout out to Three Lives & Company on West 10th street in New York!), I went on an intense Didion reading binge that lasted so long I actually began to dream in Didion’s voice, which was slightly odd but extremely soothing. Play It As It Lays, The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Miami: I have a theory that there is a Didion book for every mood, every stage of your life. The woman is a marvel, and her writing routine, detailed in a 1968 interview in the Paris Review, pleases me enormously: “I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps.”
And yet the combination of Didion and Céline sticks in my craw, and it took me a few days to figure out why. Put simply, it’s depressing to see your idols used to sell expensive clothes. I’m going to be honest here: I hate advertising. No matter how hard Mad Men tries to pretend otherwise, advertising is not an art – it’s the act of trying to make people buy things they heretofore neither wanted nor needed. Unlike apparently everyone else in the fashion media, I don’t find anything exciting about fashion advertising, mainly because it all looks the same for the simple reason that it’s all photographed these days by the bafflingly overrated Juergen Teller, who took the photo of Didion. And while Didion is, as I said, a personal idol, on the subject of advertising I’m afraid I can’t help but think of the words of another icon – the late, great Bill Hicks: “Do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call, every word you say is suspect, you’re a corporate whore and eh, end of story.”
Now, clearly, it would take more than a stupid fashion advert to make anyone take Didion off any artistic roll call, but it still makes me depressed to see a fashion label exploit Didion’s reputation and artistic credibility to sell overpriced sunglasses. Sure, they’re celebrating her – but for the purpose of selling accessories, so in this instance the line between celebration and exploitation is a fine one.
I should be used to seeing admirable non-model women in fashion adverts. For heaven’s sake, Doreen Lawrence was used in a Marks & Spencer campaign last year, along with Emma Thompson and Baroness Warsi. But I’m not. After all, I’m still in therapy for Gorbachev’s appearance in a Louis Vuitton campaign in 2007. I fully admit that my stance is possibly more emotional than logical – after all, isn’t it better to see the glorious Emma Thompson cited as a beauty icon than some blank-faced model? Hot damn, yes. But these women are so much more than mere vessels with which to flog clothes that no one needs. I would never blame any of these ladies for appearing in the adverts – they are perfectly free to do as they wish – but I cock my snoot at the fashion industry for reducing these brilliant human beings to mere statements about an aspirational lifestyle. No one reduces Joan Didion on my watch, y’hear?
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