Is Hawking Brilliance Better Than Selling Beauty?

Aging icons Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion may seem more real than models. But using them in fashion campaigns may be less of a feminist statement than you think.

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We sell ourselves stories in order to live. And if we don’t, haute couture will do it for us. In the new ad for Celine, boxcar-size sunglasses obscure the model’s face but everyone knows who it is. Those sunglasses could have been perched on Joan Didion’s brain and manic pixie Rookie readers—they would have read it in their own conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before. “Céline Unveils Its Latest Poster Girl: Joan Didion,” the announcement read in Vogue last week, because Didion is not an 80-year-old woman anymore, she is a time capsule. Behind those sunglasses is the young beauty who published The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the prototype for the modern-girl memoirist. Price tag not included. 

Two days later Yves Saint Laurent put its own poster girl on sale: Joni Mitchell. Looking more like a sagely old tribal chief, the 71-year-old folk musician, whose songs could be superficially deemed the musical equivalent of Didion’s essays, was photographed in black and white mid-strum by creative director Hedi Slimane. The ad was unveiled by the fashion house on Twitter last Thursday with the caption, “JONI MITCHELL / SAINT LAURENT MUSIC PROJECT / JANUARY 2015.” Subsequent tweets read like a throwback to the cheesy model intros you used to hear on low-rent runways. “JONI WAS PHOTOGRAPHED AT HER HOUSE IN BEL AIR, CALIFORNIA.” “JONI WAS WEARING HER YSL FOLK TUNIC, A LEATHER CAPE HEDI MADE FOR HER AND THE YSL CLASSIC FEDORA.” All of it can be yours, except the house of course.

Both YSL and Celine were commended for replacing anorexi-chic adolescents (and the occasional buxom Kardashian) with older women who made their names with their minds, not their bodies. But are these new models any more attainable than their predecessors? Is being sold the creative ideal any less vexing than being sold the beauty ideal?

“And now let’s talk about Céline’s just-debuted ad campaign featuring French dancer Marie-Agnes Gillot, model Freya Lawrence, and none other than immortal intellectual-and-otherwise dream girl Joan Didion,” Vogue advised. Because, yes, though she may no longer be young (though she remains model-ready thin—painfully so) Didion is selling something as unattainable as Lawrence’s looks and Gillot’s gams. And rather than her aged appearance detracting from the imagery, it is part of the package—she is selling wisdom, the kind that takes time. Vogue riffs on this, noting in reference to Celine designer Phoebe Philo, “who better to represent Philo’s ideals—a certain ease of wear, simplicity of line, clothes that are assured, structured yet fluid, decidedly for the woman on the move—than Didion, the original chronicler of heartfelt experience, both her own and others’?” The fashion bible also linked to the author’s viral packing list, though, before that Didion’s mot juste alone made her particularly easy to meme.

Vogue in all its effusiveness ultimately turned Didion into a commodity continuous with the clothing she models. “Consider that Joan Didion might be the ultimate Céline woman: brilliant, creative, vaguely recalcitrant,” it read, stating, “We’ll be buying whatever Joan’s wearing.” And that’s the point. She is what’s being sold. It’s her brand, not Celine’s that is being touted. Unable to put Didion herself on their shelves, Celine offers everything around her instead.

In perfectly timed fashion, last month The Atlantic published a piece by William Deresiewicz on the commodification of the artist, now the creative entrepreneur, and the democratization of creativity. He argued that creative lifestyles—like those belonging to Didion and Mitchell—are now as in demand as that which is created by those lifestyles.

“It is often said today that the most-successful businesses are those that create experiences rather than products, or create experiences (environments, relationships) around their products. So we might also say that under producerism, in the age of creative entrepreneurship, producing becomes an experience, even the experience. It becomes a lifestyle, something that is packaged as an experience—and an experience, what’s more, after the contemporary fashion: networked, curated, publicized, fetishized, tweeted, catered, and anything but solitary, anything but private,” he wrote, adding that what has been turned into a commodity is “not only the work, not only the creator (which is interesting enough as a cultural fact), but also the creator’s life or lifestyle or process. The customer is being sold, or at least sold on or sold through, a vicarious experience of production.”

Though it may appear that fashion has progressed beyond beauty as the ultimate object of attainment, it has moved somewhat laterally, commodifying what for most of us is equally unattainable: the life of a famous artist. Though it is less about actual creation and more about how it looks. We see Didion and Mitchell in their homes, perhaps in the clothes they wear when they compose but we don’t actually see them working. It all seems so easy. All you need is that pendant, those sunglasses, that hat, the guitar and you’re on your way – a Pulitzer is just around the corner, a Grammy is but a drag of a cigarette away. 

From out of the smoke came Didion delightfully on brand in her response to the furor surrounding her ad, honoring her reputation for spawning trends rather than following them. “I didn’t have any clue,” she told The New York Times of the hysteria, adding, “I have no idea.” Of course the Times underscored her brand further by noting that she was reached at her Upper East Side residence where so-flash-it-hurts photographer Juergen Teller had shot her and that her tone was “as crisp as one of Phoebe Philo’s cotton tunics.” No doubt Didion is still sitting right now in those dark glasses and that heavy amulet shaking her head at the silliness of it all. Thank goodness she declined to specify which Celine pieces she owned as they would have threatened to eclipse the new collection she is actually promoting. She did however mention her previous modelling gig for the Gap. Perhaps realizing that 1989 shoot (with Didion’s late daughter, Quintana Roo) wasn’t quite so chic, the Times tacked it on to the end of their interview despite the fact that Didion made a point of bringing it up. No, that wouldn’t do. How could someone as poetic as this represent a brand as prosaic as the Gap?

Mitchell seemed more concerned about what she was representing for YSL than Celine’s new model. “You aren’t going to call me a folksinger, are you?” she asked V magazine in the interview promoting her campaign. “You aren’t going to say that I’m like the female Bob Dylan—or worse—a singer-songwriter, are you?” No, that would take too long. Instead YSL just took a picture and let the image speak a thousand words Mitchell didn’t want it to; because even with an author and a musician as models, fashion is true to itself first—it’s not about how it is, but how it looks that makes the cut.

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