The Rise of the Celebrity Designer

Gigi Hadid appears on the cover of Vogue Arabia in a jewelled veil.
What comes first - fame or artistry?
Celebrities play a huge part of the current fashion world, but before the late 1980s, they were never seen on the cover of a magazine, and rarely made appearances during related events. But this perception has changed drastically. Today, it is as if it were mandatory for a celebrity to engage in fashion and attend the most important runway shows. And influential insiders have embraced them as well, now to the point where even celebrities can be fashion designers, create a label of their own, or carry out collaborations with colossal retailers. Collabs like Fenty x Puma, Gigi x Tommy, and even established labels like Kanye West’s Yeezy manage to draw a major amount of traffic and sales from the celebs’ large existing fanbases.


Celebrities, like everyone else, have the right to express themselves through fashion – that is the beauty of the whole concept. However, considering their huge fanbase, social media prominence, the potential amount of sales they can draw, and their lack of in-the-field experience, can we really categorize them as fashion designers?


Whether people like it or not, celebrities have taken over the fashion industry – I am not fond of the idea, personally. Almost every megabrand and magazine considers celebs for their designs, content, and advertising. Celebrity culture has certainly become overwhelming, but it wasn’t always actresses or Instagirls the ones who dominated fashion. Back in the day, supermodels owned everyone’s attention. The most renowned group of supermodels in the 1980s and 90s, commonly known as “The Big Five,” became the faces of every perfume, cosmetics contract, and an endless number of magazine covers, which were all highly paid. Think of huge names like Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Claudia Schiffer walking in colorful Chanel jackets and skirts with their quintessential 90s hairscuts; these women were the real deal. Evangelista’s famous words, "I don't get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day" will give you the picture of how solicited they were.


However, celebrities slowly started to gain presence in the industry. Vogue’s first celebrity cover in 1989, featuring Madonna, marked the beginning of a new era. The change was not radical, as The Big Five were still at their height of their careers. But soon, celebrities became embraced to the point where they have now reshaped the way the fashion industry performs. 


There are several celebrity labels that have been out there for years, like The Row, founded by the Olsen twins, and Victoria Beckham. What these women have in common is that they have been completely devoted to their brands, rather than the brand being just another extension of their personal profile. And although they did not initially pursue a fashion career, to begin with, their concept and voice is well established. Famous singer and businesswoman Jessica Simpson has also had a successful fashion career, with her own line now making $1 billion in sales each year. 


Yet today, the fashion world seems to be infiltrated by more and more so-called celebrity designers, mainly through collaborations or labels of their own. BeyoncĂ© x Topshop, Kanye x Adidas Originals, Gigi x Tommy, and Rihanna x Blahnik are a few examples of recent high profile collaborations where, with celebrities being the partial authors behind the limited edition products, household fashion brands are able to attract hoards of new shoppers from a celebrity's fanbase.  The reverse effect is possible as well - Kanye West’s Yeezy shows  have endorsement from crucial fashion figures, creating new Ye fans in the likes of Anna Wintour, Carine Roitfeld, Riccardo Tisci, and Olivier Rousteing. 


Despite the hype, it's not all a bed of roses; new brands such as Yeezy have also received harsh criticism, most famously from fashion critic Cathy Horyn. For Yeezy Season 2 she titled her (scathing) fashion review as “Kanye West Is Fooling the Fashion World.” She constantly mocked the looks, saying they looked “a lot like Spanx.” Then she went for the biggest criticism of all, writing: "This second round of drab, broken-down basics proved he can't be taken seriously as a designer." Regardless of what you think of Kanye's aesthetic, Horyn's argument has a point. Fashion is incredibly competitive and new designers struggle due to their lack of resources and support. In The TeenVogue Handbook, an anthology of advice for young people interested in fashion, Anna Wintour herself advises "[not to] go too fast. Because of reality television and all these celebrities thinking they can be designers, everyone imagines that they can just become a designer, photographer, or model, but that's not the way things work. People have to go to school, learn their craft, and build a brand—that's the right, healthy way to do things.” This is true for the most part, however status and means affords celebrity designers the opportunity to bypass many of these rights of passage that others spend years working towards.


Furthermore, nowadays designers rely on dressing celebrities in order for their businesses to expand.  Celebrities guarantee a engaged consumer-base because of their huge influence and the same is true when they themselves design a collection.  When Rihanna did a limited edition collection for Manolo Blahnik last spring, their website crashed several times due to the high volume of traffic. The amalgamation of Yeezy with Adidas has also increased the sportswear brand's share of the co-branded market by 3000%, reported Forbes


There is enough evidence of celebrity designers being marketing strategies for the fashion industry, especially seeing today’s fast-paced social media fueled world, where fans can connect directly with their idols. And here goes the biggest question of all: does this hurt the work of professional designers? I think this concept certainly diverts the public’s attention towards the work of celebrities, and the emerging talent from newcomers could be at risk next to massive celebrity labels which never struggle through a 'start-up' phase. In her book Hijacking the Runway, How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers, fashion writer Teri Agin takes a hardline against celebrities infiltrating the world of fashion. She also wrote an open editorial for BoF, where she states the following, “most celebrities are more obsessed with becoming — as opposed to creating — a fashion label. They like a licensing play that allows them to monetize their fame and keeps their names in lights, while they fiercely compete to stay on stage and screen”. 


To me, a true fashion designer enjoys the pure essence of fashion, and creates powerful statements based in art, history, and our current social context. They are not in fashion design just because they’re interested in selling, but because of their passion for fashion. Designers dictate and influence our perception of clothes; they are the genius authors behind our favourite trends which fuse art and commerce in ways that celebrity brands may struggle to do. 

Main Image c/o PUMA

Read more: What are the politics behind Gigi Hadid's hijab-clad photoshoot?   Then catch up on our favourite March fashion issues.




~ ABOUT THE AUTHOR ~
Ian Cavazos is a Senior Fashion Features Contributor for Couturesque magazine.  You can read more of his work at this link.
 

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