where did all the wild fashion eccentrics go?

In a pre-recession, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world, outrageous fabulosity was lols and intriguing. Now, in a world where "The Handmaid's Tale" feels a little too close to home, is the time for fashion eccentrics over?

by Philippa Snow
10 July 2017, 1:48pm

Still from 'ready to wear' (1994)

This article was originally published by i-D UK. 

Looking crazy is, in my experience, fairly cheap. Being an eccentric seems to be, by contrast, very time-consuming and expensive. Reading a recent LitHub piece about the book collections of the rich and very famous, like Chanel and Fendi mastermind Karl Lagerfeld, who owns 300,000 books and has $200 million in the bank, I recalled the recent coverage of the man crushed to death by his six ton collection of porn. One is a brilliant eccentric, the other just crazy.

If six tons of high-end porn fell on the private grounds of someone with a title, would it make the same noise? If an art collector was killed by a Jeff Koons cast of the artist fucking Cicciolina, would it seem less like a tragic bummer, and more like a poetic twist of fate? Eccentricity means being rich enough and chic enough to get away with being crazy. It can also mean not really understanding how the rest of us might live, and why.

Lagerfeld has long made being talented, judgmental, and over the top into a bona fide art form no less highbrow or refined than the luxury womenswear he designs, or the fashion illustration he does. I've adored his cartoon look and super-villain bitchiness for long enough that I own — on some high-placed, un-dusted shelf — a well-worn copy of his diet book. It's hard not to love a man who steals his younger model boyfriend's cat, then makes the cat into a cottage industry complete with a dedicated Insta following.

Still, with quotes like "some ugly people are great. What I hate is nasty, ugly people... the worst is ugly, short men. Women can be short, but for men it is impossible. It is something that they will not forgive in life... they are mean and they want to kill you," it must be admitted that Karl may be out-of-step with certain aspects of modern life. But how can you not help but love, in some small private way, all those who build their own worlds. There are greater crimes than living in one's own head. Making your personal quasi-kinked desires into something all encompassing and concrete, until all else cannot help but fade from view, is something like the dream for a creative thinker.

A large part of fashion's joy is its unreal-ness, its uncompromising way of making life seem less-than by compare.

All artists are a little childlike in their tantrum throwing and their monomania. But we live, thank God, in times where inequality and political incorrectness are at least noted — if not, I admit, extinct — which makes the classic high-class, haute-cruel fashion world doyenne or doyen something of a dying breed. They are our buffalo, albeit slimmer and with more lustrous pelts. To say that women who object to models being far too thin are all "fat mummies sitting with their bags of [chips] in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly" is a little ugly, too. It also feels old-fashioned. Two things I remember being told to eat by The Lagerfeld Diet are horse meat and cactus soup. A large part of fashion's joy is its unreal-ness, its uncompromising way of making life seem less-than by compare. Like all good art forms, it's escapist. It's designed to be impractical and abstract. It should not, at any point, be treated as prescriptive or applicable to tough, civilian life. This makes it difficult when fashion types make proclamations in the press.

"They took a picture? "I cannot wear it anymore. And so you need new clothes." Anna Dello Russo, the Editor-at-Large of Vogue Japan, once told an interviewer at New York magazine while trying to explain the wildness of her wardrobe. ("If you have to travel," she said elsewhere — as if it were an obvious, practical statement — "store all your accessories in a turquoise trolley decorated by gold baroque frames." Sound advice, if not a little specific.) In 2010 when she was interviewed, this may have seemed a little more adorable than it does now, post-Trump, mid-Brexit, and consumed by thoughts of inequality and class-war. Likewise, fashion icons' takes on real war have not aged well, and are liable to stoke the ire of Twitter. Cosmopolitan Editor Joanna Coles revealed last year that on the way to speak with Valentino Garavani in 2007, she was asked to help maintain his proto-filter bubble. "I was told, 'Joanna, please do not mention the war in Iraq,'" she told The New York Times. Asked why, his people said: "He doesn't know about it. Mr. Valentino does not read the newspapers, only good news. Mr. Valentino is a man of beauty and must remain in a world of beauty.'" Much as I would like to do the same, I cannot help but note that ugliness is still an epidemic. Violence, terrorism, poverty, and all life's inequalities are not negated by not looking at them, though it would be nice if this were so. Accountability does not pair well with fantasy or self-indulgence, which is why perhaps all those who live, toil, and make their livings in and out of fantasy are better banned from public speaking in the current era.

A ban would be more easily observed, of course, if people like this weren't so damned seductive. Personally, I have always loved to read about the Marchesa Di Casati, who is beloved by the fashion industry for being — as I might say with more ease if I were not in my very late twenties — "extra:" and for having, per AnOther magazine, "a gift for malice and a penchant for exhibitionism."

Accountability does not pair well with fantasy or self-indulgence, which is why perhaps all those who make their livings in and out of fantasy are better banned from public speaking in the current era.

"In her heyday," says the same article, "she wandered Venice in nothing but a fur coat, accompanied by her pet cheetahs on diamond leashes… When her jewelry box held nothing suitable, she'd don her boa constrictor, or have white peacocks become an accessory for her elaborate costume…Her skin was bleached white, and made to look even paler by the doses of belladonna, a plant-based supplement which often proved poisonous, that she took to keep her pupils dark and dilated."

She was buried with a stuffed Pekingese, wearing a set of false lashes. Tom Ford described her as "the first European dandy of the early 20th century," which seems like enough of a reason to like her. What is far less often discussed is the fact that she was twenty-five million dollars in debt as the great Depression hit, and that her lifestyle then began to be seen as excessive, tasteless, and out-of-date — another stylish, singular eccentric in a time of economic strife, she did not quite succeed in living only in a world of beauty. Real life had and has a way of creeping in. Looking her up, I discovered a piece about her in an archive issue of The New Yorker from 2003. My subscription being expired, I could only read the summary of the essay, but I can't say that it wasn't helpful.

Whittled down, it summarized a life lived madly, sensually, and then quite badly. It's a fashionable eccentric's cautionary tale, and helps to illustrate why worlds of beauty and real economics don't mix well and cannot hold together. At the end of the Marchesa's life, it claims: "she tried so hard to be unique that she inevitably became a type… She was an ephemeral spectacle, neglecting thought and feeling… she never ceased dressing [in order] to produce a sensational effect." The illustrations for the piece are, of course, by Karl Lagerfeld: as if there is a bloodline for the chic eccentric, and as if he were a last descendent. Being so well read, I'm sure he did not fail to see the irony, the cosmic joke. "I'm very much down to earth," Vogue quoted him as having said once — funny, self-aware, albeit slightly nuts. "Just not this earth." 

Read: How Kylie Jenner became a modern beauty phenomenon


Text Philippa Snow
Still from Ready to Wear (1994)

Karl Lagerfeld
fashion eccentrics