do you need a signature look to make it in fashion?

Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Emmanuelle Alt - the most powerful people in fashion have their everyday look down to a science, but what comes first, the success or the signature style?

by Courtney Iseman
Jul 25 2014, 5:40pm

Norbert Schoerner

All you have to see is that bob and those sunglasses and you know: Anna Wintour. Karl Lagerfeld's look is so exact that it's become a Halloween costume. Emmanuelle Alt can be spotted a mile away in her Balmain jackets, Topshop jeans, and black booties. The most powerful people in fashion have their everyday looks down to an exact science, to the point where they would be caricaturing themselves if only they weren't so chic. Signature style seems to go hand-in-hand with success, but is it one of the reasons or one of the results - or both? And as we start looking to the next wave of greats, the rising Annas and Karls, is this idea of defined dressing still a key component to making it?

When we think of the first fashion industry celebrity, where the idea of being widely well-known for what's technically behind-the-scenes work began, we usually think of Diana Vreeland. The editor of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue was a powerhouse whose larger-than-life personality and strong vision made her as famous as the work she did. Vreeland had her own signature look and, while she encouraged embracing fashion with a certain joie de vivre, she believed certain styles were best for certain types. For example, according to her granddaughter by marriage and filmmaker behind the documentary The Eye Has to Travel, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the editor thought "blue jeans are the most beautiful thing in the world…but only if you look well and have long limbs." Her own look, beauty-wise, was kabuki-inspired, with a rather theatrical application of blush and half of her hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was known for her love of red and was often seen in crisp shirts and exotic statement necklaces. Vreeland set the standard for fashion editors and VIPs to come, creating the expectation that they be inspired in their visions, and determined and unapologetic in their goals. With the next generation of Vreeland-esque hopefuls looking to her as a model for success, it's no wonder they follow her lead and develop a signature look, something that says "here I am, this is my vision, don't forget it."

Not only is it important for a signature look to say "I don't have time to ponder over what to wear," but it solves that actual problem for fashion's head honchos, too. 

But which comes first: the success or the signature style? Do editors have a signature look because they have such a selection available to them that they can really define and refine how they present themselves? And is it a sort of necessity for a busy editor, designer or writer to narrow his or her wardrobe down to a uniform for the sake of efficiency? Or, does the look come first as a tool for making one's mark? Suzy Menkes has said that it's imperative for an ambitious editor to have a signature look - and if you're going to take someone's word on recognisable, personalised style, take Menkes'. She's one of the world's most well-known, well-respected fashion journalists, and her pompadour-inspired hairdo makes her appearance as recognizable as her words.

A signature look reads power. It says that this editor (or designer, or PR exec) knows exactly who he or she is, what he or she wants, what he or she likes. There is no flip-flopping back and forth between bohemian and biker, the identity is set. The uniform expresses his or her aesthetic approach and ability to edit, streamline and decide. It shows he or she is too busy to stand before a closet each morning deciding who to be, and is too sure who they are to do so anyway. It exudes authority and confidence. Think of Tonne Goodman, the epitome of uncomplicated, no-nonsense chic in her black turtlenecks and white jeans. Mario Testino has said of the Vogue editor "If anyone defines the phrase 'less is more,' it's her." A master of vision and style, she steers clear of trends in favor of the classics, and the aesthetic she knows works for her. Her uniform of crisp shirts and trousers allows focus to fall on her work, its efficiency helping make all the more room for her demanding days. She's set the bar for finding fashion fulfillment in your uniform.

Not only is it important for a signature look to say "I don't have time to ponder over what to wear," but it solves that actual problem for fashion's head honchos, too. When you've pared your look down to a formula, you're only left with the decision of what version of each staple to put on. Vera Wang wrote an ode to uniform dressing on her own website, citing Jackie O as an icon (for her t-shirt and trousers looks, interestingly, and not her suits) and explaining that she sees the opportunity for self-expression in the controlled dose of a statement jacket or accessory over the basics. She mentions that most designers have a uniform - the focus of designers and editors is to create a world for consumers and readers, so their own looks come second to what they produce. Their looks must show a consciousness of fashion but a sense of efficiency that allows focus to remain on the clothing they're working with instead of the clothing they're wearing.

Leandra Medine, aka Man Repeller, launched into blogger stardom by documenting her over-the-top outfits, but as she's settled into a career that's more writing books and designing capsule collections than diarising her closet, she now proudly favors the idea of a uniform. In a piece on her website, The Uniform, she writes how Tim Gunn's "ten items every woman needs" inspired her to tailor her wardrobe to versions of the essentials she loved to wear and felt comfortable in. You get the idea that Medine, as most experienced fashion folk, associates this transition of chameleon to signature-look-powerhouse as a way of maturing, of figuring out who you are and dressing accordingly.

This leaves the question, though, of whether such illustrious industry professionals are living up to their full potential of being beacons of style if they're sticking to such a set formula. Anna Wintour's repetitive ensembles have been criticised by the likes of Daily Mail and Telegraph, with detractors unable to understand why she clings to such similar looks when she has access to more fashion than anyone. You do want to see awareness of exciting designers and a love of clothes in these editors. They may not have signed up for it, but being famous in this industry means they will be looked at as style icons, and people want to by inspired by the fact that their style seems inspired.

While it seems clear that having a signature look can be both one of the causes and one of the effects of success in this business, the art of uniform might be best tempered with a hint of adventure. A formulaic approach to getting dressed is undeniably convenient and makes an authoritative statement, but when you work in an industry that is built on clothing and accessories, you want to be able to embrace a trend you love or a designer you're thrilled to have just discovered. The always avant garde Daphne Guinness is living proof that a signature look never has to be boring: you can be instantly recognizable yet adventurous, reinventing yourself while remaining true to your identity. Walking that line is the most impressive feat, an accomplishment that seems perfectly suited for a powerful fashion VIP. Their style is set and you'll know their look anywhere, but they know how to weave in elements of the industry they've conquered.


Text Courtney Iseman 
Photography Norbert Schoerner 

Anna Wintour
Karl Lagerfeld
courtney iseman
emmanuelle alt