The Icon Con

Are we a bit too fast and loose with the term ‘style icon’?

Words: Modupe Oloruntoba | Illustrations: Jade Williams

In the 80s, it was people like Bowie, Prince, Madonna and Grace Jones. In the 90s, we got names like Will Smith (as the freshest of fresh princes), Kate Moss and even the fictional Cher Horowitz. The 00s added the likes of Gwen Stefani, David Beckham and – forgive me, but it is the sad truth – Paris Hilton.

So who do we have now?

I’ve seen the term ‘style icon’ next to young Hollywood names like Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Taylor Swift and Rihanna and I’ve found myself questioning their merit.

"How dare you!" the Riri Navy protests.

Hear me out first.

A handful of appearances on best-dressed lists does not an icon make. With enough fame and a decent stylist, celebrities can turn it out on the red carpet all day, every day. That’s why when the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame opened an exhibit on Beyonce’s stage costumes – despite the fact that she isn’t actually in their hall of fame – New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman felt it necessary to say that while Mrs. Carter is definitely a pop culture icon, she doesn’t have that kind of influence over style. (Horrified as they were, it seems the Beygency have decided to let her live.)

However you feel about Beyonce, Vanessa makes a good point: fame is not influence and neither is talent, beauty or skill. Influence is a capacity for creating real, visible, measurable change. When someone with a distinctive personal approach to style has significant influence over the real-time, everyday style choices of widespread masses, then we can start talking icon status. It doesn’t have to be loud or extreme and it doesn’t have to come from Hollywood (thank heavens), but it does have to change the way a whole lot of people get dressed every morning.

If that’s the case, then the Duchess of Cambridge is a style icon, right? All she has to do is step outside in, well, anything, and it sells out – that’s influence with a measurable response. But what’s so personal about her personal style? If she wasn’t royalty would she stand out at all? There’s more to it than that, there has to be. This is getting longer than one of those Facebook essays, so I’ll just make my point: for influence in fashion to matter, it has to be widespread. It has to be unique, and most importantly it has to last. No endurance, no icon status. Simple.

That’s why the way conventional media hands it out confuses me. Exactly what criteria are we using? I’m not saying we should all become petty, subjective snobs, using irrelevant personal checklists to pick and choose whomever we deem worthy, but let’s not call everyone and their aunty a universal style icon like the title is some trivial participation trophy either.

Sound biased? It is. I’m all for the democratization of fashion and influence, but not when it leads to lauding the well-liked but mediocre as brilliant. This is probably the point where I should turn and run, but I’ll stay and admit that the assignment of both mediocrity and brilliance in fashion is, to a degree, subjective. I know who I would call universal style icons, and if I looked at someone else’s list, I’m confident they would be largely similar, because the influence of some names is no longer debatable – history has the proof and time is their honest witness.

With the passing of time though, comes a certain distance from an era’s reality. The past can be romanticised, and it is, all the time. The present is hardly ever as rosy as we’d like – i.e. the sad, stark contrast between my life and my pinterest boards – and it’s easy to remember things as better than they were. If we indulge in nostalgic throwbacks often enough, anything can sound like the greatest story ever told or the greatest outfit ever worn. To name a style icon today, we have to ask whose personality and sartorial chutzpah we will be praising universally and without bias 20, even 50 years from now, and why. Whose self-expression will be powerful enough to cut across subcultures and style tribes to influence the world?

My guess is that it will be the ones who break rules in a time when there supposedly aren’t any, those who show us something memorable in the age of click-and-forget. Maybe Kanye West, after Yeezy 20 has hit the runway and he finally fulfils his life-long dream of becoming Creative Director of Hermes. Perhaps even Stefani ‘Lady Gaga’ Germanotta will be up there, not because we all went out and bought meat dresses at her command, but because she’s helped so many find the courage to express themselves liberally through dress. She’s at least distinctive in a Josephine Baker kind of way, so maybe one day I’ll even concede on Rihanna. As for the rest? Let’s let them earn it.