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Why Fashion Needs Eccentrics
Her flagrant disregard for social diktats that would govern her choice of clothing puts Blow, who sadly passed away in May, in that rare category of women whose fearlessness in dressing transcends trends and notions of good taste in equal measure. When asked a couple of years back by a lunch partner how she planned to eat through the veiled antlers covering her head, she brashly replied, "That is of no concern to me whatsoever."
But Blow, who had a great nose for sniffing out new design talent, was by no means an aberration in eccentricity. Regardless of time or place, there has always been a special group of women who are united in their universal need to buck convention. Misunderstood by their fearful contemporaries (think of Edith Sitwell in the 1920s or Björk today), these women are true fashion arbiters, crucial to the advancement of style. Their early embrace of the odd, the ugly, or the weird often subsequently blooms into a full-blown fashion trend. Both Paul Poiret in the 1910s and the surrealists of the 1920s were considered radical in their time yet are currently being hailed at museums in New York and London respectively. In today's cookie-cutter, keeping-up-with-the-celebrities world, the future of fashion is in the hands of the designers who dare to dream outside the box and the women brave enough to wear their designs as only they see fit.
Nearly 100 years ago, the ultimate pre-Goth poster girl was a Milanese marchesa called Luisa Casati, whom McQueen likens to "the Italian Isabella Blow" and after whom Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig named their hip label, Marchesa. The first thing one noticed about the marchesa — after being bulldozed by her entourage of two large Tunisian men carrying torches and her pet cheetahs — was her cropped head of henna-dyed hair; it contrasted shockingly with her powdered, ghost-white face and startling kohl-rimmed eyes, whose pupils had been enhanced by drops of belladonna extract. Her bizarre transformation was completed by dramatic Poiret or Bakst gowns and long ropes of pearls and emeralds around her neck.
While the marchesa was shocking Venice in the 1920s, America was getting its own taste of rebellion with Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl), who was the first celebrity interior designer in America and who once made the maverick decision to dye her gray hair blue to match an aquamarine tiara from Cartier. Well into her 60s, de Wolfe was running around her Versailles backyard doing gymnastics in a leotard and a turban, predating the inimitable style of Little Edie Beale, Jacqueline Onassis's famousGrey Gardenscousin.
"Good taste is the worst vice ever invented," declared an unorthodox Brit, Dame Edith Sitwell, who in 1905, at age 18, began decorating her towering six-foot frame in hierarchical splendor as an homage to her Plantagenet ancestors. For her poetry readings, Sitwell would doll up in medieval brocade robes, Tudor hats, and enormous rings that stacked up her fingers, decades before Karl Lagerfeld warmed to the trend.
Not surprisingly, famed fashion editor Diana Vreeland declared Sitwell a stylistic genius. But then again, Vreeland herself took to covering her body with calcimine when she was a young deb in the '20s (not fretting about the trail of white powder left on her dancing partners), and later in life she accented her hawkish nose with heavy rouge and a helmet of shiny tarmac-colored hair.
Today, onlookers are amazed by Madonna's swift fashion transformations, which have taken her over the decades from a crucifix-wielding, teased-hair virgin to a glittering roller girl with layered Farrah Fawcett locks and abs of steel. But back in the 1920s and '30s, Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers would have given the Material Girl a run for her money. From her Elsa Schiaparelli concoctions (like the organza dress embroidered with music notes that she would trot around in to the tune from a windup music-box belt) to the Austrian folk costumes she wore with 1830s-style Mainbocher blouses, Rogers treated dressing as an evolving art form and used herself as the decoration.
In a paradoxical twist, dressing that seems truly oddball in its day often plants seeds for future fashion trends. Rogers's unique aesthetic, for example, ushered in the popularity of late-'60s haute bohemianism two decades before its time. The leopard-skin craze of the '50s was first popularized by Nancy Cunard in the 1920s. Even Britney Spears's and Paris Hilton's choice of skinny Chihuahuas as accessories was foreshadowed by Rogers in 1940s Hollywood, where she chased after Clark Gable with a pet monkey around her neck. Mary-Kate Olsen's look is scintillating to designers like Marc Jacobs, almost single-handedly introducing the vagabond layers of recent seasons. "People today are not used to seeing people who make a statement," saysPapermagazine's Mickey Boardman, who applauds the daring celebrity style of Olsen, Björk, and Chloë Sevigny. "Everyone's biggest fear is to end up on the 'What were they thinking?' page of the tabloids. Butthatpage is where all the excitement is."
"The actresses are terrified," says Kelly Wearstler, the L.A.-based interior designer featured on Bravo'sTop Designseries, whose dotty outfits and eccentric hairdos were the surprise hit of the show's first season. Wearstler's penchant for unconventional looks, like the ruffled pink '80s Ungaro ball gown she wore over skinny jeans and a T-shirt ("The dress would've looked too Paris Hilton had I worn it alone," she reasons), has aroused heated debate, even a marriage proposal by one smitten fan on Bravo's Web site.
Wearstler neither looks at tapings of the show nor reads comments by viewers. "I'm sensitive," she says. "If someone said something mean, it would hurt my feelings."
But as it is for all nonconformists, being a maverick spawns the risk of ridicule. Boardman pals around New York with Lynn Yaeger, a fellow journalist who works a vintage-doll look, complete with a fluffy tutu and a baggy men's sweater, a copper-colored bob, mime lips, and two rouge dots on her cheeks. "I've been with her when people lose their minds on the street," says Boardman, who has himself been known to pair a sparkly top and sparkly flats from Forever 21 with a tuxedo.
Rather than be laughed at, women like Yaeger should be applauded for their originality in pulling together looks that are neither lifted from the runway nor crafted by a stylist. As fashion reaches global homogeneity, we could all take a fashion lesson from an eccentric.
"I'm not using magazines as a reference point," explains British heiress and movie producer Daphne Guinness, whose exceptional personal style first caught the attention of McQueen 10 years ago, when he spotted her striding across Leicester Square in his Givenchy orange-and-purple dragon robe in the middle of a freezing winter. "I thought, I have to meet that woman," he recalls. Guinness became not only a close friend and client of the designer's but also a stylistic muse.
The importance of trailblazing originality to cutting-edge fashion designers like McQueen, John Galliano, and Lagerfeld cannot be underestimated. Back in the '70s and '80s, a vintage-Fortuny-clad Anna Piaggi was inspiration for 15 years of Lagerfeld's sketches. Today, the dark beauty Amanda Harlech has pushed all the right muse buttons, first for Galliano and now for Lagerfeld. "Whenever I start a collection, these women are always in my mind," says McQueen. "As a man designing for women, you have one vision, but when a woman takes the piece and makes it her own, accessorizes it to the max, it helps you move ahead."
For kookily couture-clad Guinness and many of her individualist contemporaries, dressing is "a visual thing" that is put into motion by mood, feeling, and what she's reading (a book on Lord Nelson resulted in an obsession with military uniforms), not by what everyone else is doing.
"When I see a billboard, I don't go, 'Christ, I want that,'" says Guinness. "Once it's on a billboard, that's someone else's look."
Wearstler draws inspiration from the furniture and interior spaces she's designing. "It's like, 'Oh, my God, that would be a great outfit!'" she says of her swatches and sketches.
Halfway across the globe in Milan, photographer Manuela Pavesi (Miuccia Prada's best friend) trots around in bobby socks, wickedly high heels, and hairy handbags. "I have never gotten dressed to please someone else," she states matter-of-factly. "I am fascinated by chic trash. I like ugliness; I don't like simple, straight, beautiful things."
Dressing to be strictly "pretty" is hardly ever a top priority for these women. Rather, they're after a striking accent. As such, headgear is practically a requirement for a true original.
Piaggi, who hasn't left her house without a hat since the early '80s, is a model example. Though she smacks the madcap creations of Stephen Jones onto her forehead like a pancake, a subtle cloche will do the job nicely this fall.
A surefire backup to hats is hair, which, like Piaggi's baby-blue curls (the result of a serendipitous dye job in 1989), is an instant barometer of quirky individuality. It's amazing to see the effect that Guinness's skunklike black-and-white-striped hair has on her Chanel tweeds: instant edginess. Wearstler uses her hair as a "sassy" accessory to her clothing, blowing it out to a permlike frizz and waxing it back down to Veronica Lake waves accordingly.
Dress codes, after all, were meant to be broken. Before Blow's death, McQueen marveled that she "is the only woman I know who will mount a horse in couture." "I've worn a gown to the supermarket," admits Guinness, "but if something is strictly black tie, I try to follow those sorts of rules."
Having a personal fashion point of view inevitably involves editing even seeming essentials. Issy Blow was known not to own any jeans (or flat shoes). Yaeger has never in the course of history been seen in a pair of pants. In Los Angeles, where Juicys rule, Wearstler owns no sweatpants and will lounge around the house in a child's Winnie the Pooh robe that shows off her curves. Björk won't wear jeans or T-shirts on the grounds that they symbolize "American imperialism."
Accessorizing with an animal, however, is the ultimate badge of a woman's eccentric arrival. Björk's swan dress at the Oscars created massive hysteria, but that was nothing compared with the blood-drenched, beheaded chicken Casati once wore to the opera as a boa or the two dead pigeons Piaggi hung around her neck at Lagerfeld's Venetian Ball in 1978.
Certainly, with this much creativity comes inevitable risk. Back in her day, the daring Casati tried to re-create the tortured Saint Sebastian with lit-up arrows poking out of her ensemble for a grand ball but ended up with a "lights-out" electric shock when her outfit was plugged in. At Paloma Picasso's wedding reception in Paris in 1978, Piaggi's bird-of-paradise feathers protruding from her metal helmet caught fire when her head brushed past a lit candelabra. More recently, Sevigny made headlines in her five-inch platform boots by Balenciaga, only to later trip and fall on her face, incurring four broken teeth.
It's a tough job, but there are glorious results from dressing to your own drumbeat — not the least of which is bravely standing out in a sea of sameness and knowing that you, too, have a hand in propelling fashion forward to the next frontier.
"Fashion needs eccentrics, of course," concludes McQueen, "but so does the world.
Video: Eccentric, historical and pollution chic: Paris, Hong Kong & Berlin Fashion Weeks - le mag
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