The Fabulous Ones: How to be a Fashion Muse
A tribute to the women who inspire, and make fashion magic.
Kate Moss. Alexa Chung. Daphne Guinness: modern ones. Coco Chanel and and Patti Boyd: past ones. Fashion Muses.Much like being knighted by the Queen, being a muse is something appointed to you. You are chosen buy someone, someone who sees it in you.You must be chosen. Its a lovely and unfair, rarefied circle that flouts the everyday democracy: If you dream it, intern at it, marry it, study or sue it, you can obtain it. Not so being a muse. There are only a few slots. A muse inspires art, music, fashion, literature, general ardour simply by existing. They do ordinary things, yet they're ordinary actions are looked upon as utterly celestial. which is enviable and totally ridiculous.
And herein lies the strange complication of the Modern Muse.
Lying like Betty Draper on her fainting couches, waiting to be someone elses source of inspiration. That’s just not a modern sentiment. Its passive. That’s pretty much the opposite of modern. As Coco Chanel once said, “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” (And clever Coco always was her own muse. No drama there.)
What does it feel like to a be a muse? Lets ask some! Celia Birtwell was both fashion muse to husband Ossie Clark, art muse to David Hockney, and a designer herself. Judith Watt wrote: “Celia collaborated with Ossie. This was a joint effort—people say she was his muse, which indeed she was, but their work went absolutely hand-in-hand. It was her designs that he used to create his.”
“We were very lucky to have each other," Birtwell told me over the phone. "He was strict and I was soft. Those two points of view just looked more exciting together. He always trusted me and let me do what I wanted which was so wonderful. And thank god I found him. Left on my own who knows where I would have ended up.”
Like Moss, Boyd and the rest of the gang, fashion muses tend to inspire in other areas as well. A portrait of Birtwell helped perpetuate her ethereal, not-of-this-earth reputation. “David Hockney gave quite a glamorous illusion of “me” when he drew me in colored pencils in Paris in the 70s wearing lingerie. I don’t know who I thought I was.” “I didn’t really meet David, until 1969, we met through, the relationship is very organic, went to Paris there was a mystery about it, I’m so proud he found me attractive, I’m not a model—it was he did some…. I’m really proud of that. I mean, being called a muse… its something you don’t really quite expect. If you’re a model, you expect it, but when someone else sees you like that, it’s just an amazing.”
The Uber-Muse: Amanda Harlech
“Amanda Harlech is a great example of someone who has successfully played this role at both Galliano and Chanel,” says Oriole Cullen, Curator of Fashion and Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Amanda Harlech is ne plus ultra of muses. So naturally she does not like to be called a muse. “'Muses' tend to be strong stylish opinionated women, so I think nowadays they are aware of their worth to a designer and don't wish to be seen as someone who just waltzes in and out, but to be respected for their contribution to the overall design process, as such they expect a paid position and a significant title. Where people wish not to be identified it is often because they would prefer to be acknowledged as a working creatives in their own right rather than to be seen as wholly dependant on each other.”
Why It's A Win-Win Situation
From a designers perspective, the benefits are obvious. “So much of my inspiration relies on my friends, I suppose you would say muses, and how they put clothes together,” says fashion designer Chris Benz. “Its such a helpful barometer for me as a designer,” o have the ability to look to those around me for the spirit of the collection, if something feels a bit fussy or buttoned up, leave it to one of my girls to drop into the studio and figure out an easier way to wear it or a small change in length to bring it back to our sensibility.” Benz’s muse is friend and actress Eva Amurri: "Eva is all about personality and comfort, no matter the situation. Her sense of humor and confidence shine through just as her ease and grace in always being perfectly comfortable and elegant. We became friends through mutual friends and spend hours sitting on my stoop in the west village drinking iced coffees and laughing.” Fabulous!
But lets not forget about the dark side of all this: the designer-muse breakup
Here's the thing: where there’s a living, breathing muse (aka human), there’s always the chance for the whole thing to get fraught with emotion. Take that Amanda Harlech for example. She did a number on her men. “Karl Lagerfeld is comparable to Picasso with his many mistresses/muses, he keeps collecting them.” It makes sense: “For a fashion designer novelty is of the essence, and to focus solely on one woman kind of won’t cut it nowadays. Everything is much faster.”
Indeed, Lagerfeld is something of a Clooney in the fashion world. Yes, he’s a man who wears high necked blouses carries his own Spanish lace fan, but he’s also a stud: Diane Kruger, Blake Lively, Vanessa Paradis, hell even Lily Allen have all gotten the magic wand waved over them. It’s like he’s stuffing his coffers full of healthy bodies just because he can. Or perhaps after the Harlech drama, he is trying to keep a healthy distance between himself and the ladies in case they decide to stride right out of the arena. (Again, very Clooney...)
Muses are scotch and nightclubs, they’re royal and offbeat, and want nothing to do with fitting in. What’s fabulous about muses is that they are fabulous in every single way. They are fabulous wearing the exact same outfit every day (see: Diana Vreeland) they are fabulous when they are drunkenly falling down in a fountain (see: Zelda Fitzgerald) they are fabulous when they are in the middle of public airing of dirty laundry (see: Stephanie Seymour), they are fabulous when they are just taking their pets for a walk—pet cheetahs, that is! (See: Josephine Baker.)
Modern super-muse, Alexa Chung. Photo: Getty Images
Alexa Chung: The People's Muse vs. Daphne Guinness, The Designers Muse
“To many designers, Daphne is very inspiring—she treats fashion as a kind of art form,” says Valerie Steele. “She is really interested in high fashion –it really validates the designers, and the whole concept of fashion. It shows that fashion can be a high art.”
On the flipside of power-babe Guinness lies Alexa Chung, the appealingly fresh-faced, model-turned-TV-presenter-turned-fashion-superstar, who’s frayed minis, mish-mash of tailored with sloppy, is as artfully random as it is totally stylish. Her getups might be, as she once said, chosen solely by what’s closest to her bed and smells cleanest. Whatever, that might be true, who knows, but, put all together into an outfit, the effect serves solely to show how freakishly stunning she is, the way her long, lanky limbs swing as she walks, how clear and tan her skin is, how bright blue her eyes are.
The Difference Between Being Cool and Being Perfect
“A fashion muse is different from being a fashion icon,” points out Steele. “A fashion icon is someone like Jacqueline Kennedy or Babe Paley, whose style has a broader appeal.” Take for example, the queen of the new muses, Daphne Guinness. She looks like the goddess Athena that Lady Gaga sprung from. She wears only the most expensive couture, not to mention the zaniest. Even Joe Schmo can appreciate how Guinness is all so marvelous and perfectly thought out. How could someone conceive of dressing in such a way, not get distracted by the latest craze or a gauzy purple scarf. She knows just what she should look like, and why, the way Alfred Hitchcock knew the way his blondes should look. How marvelous that someone knows how to do that with oneself. Shock value and straight up insanity is the bread and butter here, and why DG is totally queen muse. She’s like a modern Margherita Casati, mad Italian countess and seriously cool looking dresser. Another one with pet Cheetahs. She has that much originality that she has earned her own upcoming exhibition at FIT museum—an honor previously bestowed upon to the late haute-conceptual fashion muse Tina Chow.
Alexander McQueens Secret Muse
Designer Alexander McQueen chose 26-year old conceptual artist and painter Phillipa Horan (and Daphne Guinness) to model alongside him for a Harpers Bazaar spread, one of the final editorials he did. They met when she was a teenaged art student some ten plus years ago, remaining both inspirational figure and close friend to the designer right up until his death. “I never fell out with Lee, he had quite a few fall-outs with people in his life. I suppose because when someone is extreme they often don’t or can’t comprise, and that’s hard to deal with for many people. I suppose it helps too that we didn’t work in the same industry.“
Horan was picked up by McQueen as an art student, but did little more in the way of working with McQueen than make some accessories one year. “He collected some of my work in exchange for some of his work, but really, it was a friendship. Unpaid, you know? I really loved him and he really loved me.”
The attraction, Horan supposes, was McQueen’s own love for art. “He always really loved art, that’s what really made him – I make paintings and sculptures, I work on a quite a big scale, the bigness of them appealed to him, He was very extreme, liked extreme things, and extreme people, and I guess you’d say think I’m very extreme too.”
One of Horan’s huge paintings hung dauntingly behind him in his office, while Horan’s closet houses gifts that might one day be artifacts in a museum. “I have this pair of HR Geiger shoes that he carved out of a single piece of plastic—I guess they’re very rare, people are always trying to get them from me, despite the fact that it’s impossible to walk in them. I tried once and almost broke my neck.” “He didn’t make them to walk in—he did it more for a laugh. It’s about making an impact, being extreme, and creating something strange for the sake of it. To him, fashion wasn’t about trends, it’s about making an impact being…extreme.”
What all these women have in common is that they are very distinct, a signature thing about them: a very clever and wonderful way to brand oneself. All the great film stars from the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s had personal trademarks. Jean Harlow spent with her white hair and beaded dresses. Gloria Swanson with her turbans; Natalie Wood with her gold slave bracelet. Stars nowadays don’t really go for that sort of thing which is a shame. What's thepoint of even being a star if you haven't gotfew horcrux-like objects that house part of your soul (See: Harry Potter, book 5)? Why act like any old person off the street when you have full permission to get freaky?
So for all the budding Celia/Alexa/Daphne’s out there, good luck. You will need it! And here are a few rules for being a modern muse:
1. Must generate her own productivity, outside of musedom—i.e. she must have some other source of career or personal gratification. Sorry models. Musedom is an honor, not a job.
2. Cool quotient must be off the charts—very cool, constantly. Must, people!
3. Personal style: Violent reactions to her outfits, both negative and positive, are a sure sign tht a woman has a bright Muse future. Love it or hate it, you must feel it.
4. Never acknowledge musedom. Annoying, but true. Be blasé, change topic whenever it comes up to annoyingly child like topics likepet cheetahs, or the perfect four leaf clover you found one summer.
The Class of 2017: Attractive, connected, inspiration for the future
Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned. The second wife Qatar. “Have you seen this woman," Birtwell asks. (I have, I wrote about her, this stunning woman — more Birkin Bag than human here.) "She is so stylish. I saw this picture of her meeting the queen of England and she had on these snow-white shoes that resembled a pair of baby seals.”
Dree Hemingway: Angular granddaughter of Papa, niece of lush, doomed 70s icon Margeaux, daughter of Personal Best, and now muse to everyone from Tory Burch to Ferregamo.
Alice Dellal: Noble of birth, like a Lannister—and damn edgy.
Georgia Jagger: Born Chanel muse — both because she is who she is, plus she’s a dead ringer for Brigitte Bardot. Never have the jagger genes spawned so perfectly than on this one.
Hall of Fame Muses:
Paul Poiret: Denise Poiret
Marisa Berenson: Pierre Cardin
Lou Lou de la Falaise & Betty Catroux: Yves Saint Laurent
Peggy Moffitt: Rudi Genrich
Bianca Jagger: Halston