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Then and now: from muse to influencer to trailblazer

By Jackie Mallon

May 7, 2018


New York - Fashion muses of the twentieth century were the epitome of the beauty standards of the era, often socialites, aristocrats or elite bohemians who became part of a designer’s clique, socializing and vacationing together, attired in the designer’s latest collection, embodying his vision of modernity. Behind every great man is a great woman, might have been coined for these asexual “romances” that have historically blossomed across all creative fields, not only fashion. Think of Edie Sedgewick mugging for polaroids in chandelier earrings at the centre of Andy Warhol’s factory. Or Jane Avril with her cancan frills and marmalade-colored hair who inspired Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouges paintings. Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic eye couldn’t get its fill of Grace Kelly. But in fashion the bond between creative and muse has arguably been tightest of all, often lasting a lifetime. From the original pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy to Isabella Blow who from the neck down was swathed in Alexander McQueen while her head was a pedestal for Philip Treacy’s hats, the fashion muse could transform a designer’s folly into le dernier cri of elegance. Scents and accessories were conjured up bearing her name. After sitting next to actress Jane Birkin on a 1985 flight Hermès chief executive Jean-Louis Dumas named a leather bag after her, which, over thirty years later, is still a status symbol with wait lists.

From brand loyalty to bankruptcy

Muses often inspired creativity because of their appearance of strength and independence, yet became lured into relying on the designer for everything. “Brand loyalty,” to use a modern term, was a one-way affair. A new book "Lou and Yves, The untold story of Loulou de La Falaise and the House of Saint Laurent" by Christopher Petkanas details the powerful relationship between Yves Saint Laurent and Loulou de La Falaise. At a discussion panel last month at the Fashion Institute of Technology the author made an interesting observation on how figures like de La Falaise could feel an indebtedness to the designer that eventually becomes a cage. “Nowadays with lawyers these women would be zillionaires,” said Petkanas, “but there was no provisions then. Loulou’s apartment was paid for by the house but she should have been earning more throughout, and her own fashion house in later life, self-funded, went bankrupt. Pierre Bergé knew of her shaky finances but didn’t step in, and a year before her death she was unable to pay the rent.”

Muse as business model

Nowadays the transactional nature between social media influencers and companies draws criticism, but it does pay the rent. Sponsored content is a common sight as we scroll through our Instagram feed. Eminent blogger Susie Bubble has defended the practice on Twitter: “Bloggers who wear paid-for outfits or borrowed clothes are merely doing the more overt equivalent of that editorial-credit system.” With the immediacy of Instagram, and the clickable links leading directly to purchase options, some brands are happy to pay up to six figures for the right opportunity, depending on the level of influencer. WWD examined the power of influencer referrals in September 2017 and found that, “24 percent of Nordstrom’s mobile web traffic for the month of August came from referrals, with influencer network RewardStyle accounting for 79 percent of them.” Brand affiliation is a lucrative business strategy for young trendsetters who know how to carry off clashing prints and an oversize ruffle.

Changemakers of tomorrow

The value of influencers is set to go beyond the monetary, leaving the “top down” elite model of old firmly in the past, and pushing the democratization of the blogger era into new uncharted territory. Visibility is currency for previously underserved markets spilling forth an army of motivated changemakers who aren’t waiting to be whisked off on glamorous vacations but who aim to inspire all the same. Sinéad Burke, a 3ft 5in tall activist for disabled people, is featured on the cover of the Business of Fashion’s latest print publication, “The Age of Influence”. Co-founder of the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective (IFDC), she challenges the fashion industry to first *see* her, then dress her. In an interview with the Irish Examiner, she says, “Aesthetics are so important, but if you look at products specifically designed for the disabled community, they’re quite ugly.” An example of a brand expanding its vision beyond taste to incorporate needs is Burberry, who have created custom clothing for Burke.

Trickle up effect

Diversity is essential to any modern brand’s image but not if it’s seen to be an inauthentic marketing device or tokenism. Brands such as Madewell and Sephora have placed their own employees in their ad campaigns demonstrating that they practice what they preach. For spring Macy’s have gone a step farther and developed a program entitled Macy’s Style Crew which aims to turn its own employees into influencers, posting content on social media and videos on its website. In January model Nina Agdal posted a lengthy post to her millions of followers calling out an unnamed publication for canceling her photoshoot because the images, she writes, "deviated from my portfolio and that I did not fit into the (sample size) samples." Offers poured in as a result and now Agdal sets her own rules on the brands that she will work with. “Moving forward, everything I do has to speak to me,” she told Glamour magazine. Modern-day muses are calling the shots, making magic happen from the ground up.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Images: Baldassarre Peruzzi - Apollo and the Muses - WGA17365; Wikimedia Commons; Photo of Grace Kelly from the cover of Modern Screen in 1955. Dell Publications, Wikimedia Commons; Photo of Sinéad Burke from Bryan Bedder / Getty Images North America / AFP