There you are: laying in bed scrolling through your Instagram feed, wondering when you last saw a post that wasn’t either selling you something or FaceTuned beyond recognition, and you see it: another celebrity face smiling out at you. Maybe that face has some luxury lip tint it’s trying to sell you. Or maybe there’s a watch nearby that face, a wrist straining at the most unnatural angle possible to get that watch in the frame. Whatever the shameless plug is, that face is probably more recognizable than the product: the latest movie star or a chart-topping musician. Lately, there seems to be a surge of these celebrity endorsements and aside for being generally exasperating, they might also seem more out of place than not. Whether they seem legitimate or fake, there they are. The reality is that fashion and beauty depend on celebrity to push product and celebrity thrive off of this business. A symbiotic, yet necessary evil.
Before we had cell phones or Yoncé, fashion and celebrity were separate entities. Fashion houses catered to the elite and were featured in magazines with stone-faced models as their bearers. As the gatekeepers of fashion, these magazines told us what was hot and was wasn’t. Celebrities wore luxury brands, but designers didn’t depend on this exposure to promote their brands. Celebrities stayed in their respective lanes making movies or music. Designers had muses that were celebrities, but they also had no-name muses as well. It was celebrity in the age of fashion. Everyone colored inside of the lines, and it was a grand old time.
Then Anna Wintour rose to power at Vogue in the 1980’s and everything was turned upside down. Wintour saw the opportunity to capitalize on celebrity (probably her largest and longest running accomplishment) and cashed in on America’s fixation with the concept. Celebrities graced the covers of the magazine where models once reigned. During this time even models themselves rose in popularity, became household names, and became celebrities in their own right. Suddenly, the old rules didn’t apply. Fashion couldn't stand on its on any longer. Brands began relying on celebrities to push their products, whether they be perfumes, lipsticks, or bags. Red carpet events were televised and Joan Rivers asked, “Who are you wearing?” Rivers became a household name by making designers household names. People ate it up. Suddenly you could be inspired by your favorite celebrity’s closet. If Renée Zellweger was wearing a Versace dress you loved, maybe you’d be inclined to buy a Versace bag? If Renée was wearing the brand, it must be fashionable.
When teeny-bopper celebrities (Godney and Justin!) took off in the 90’s, it was all over. Fashion and celebrity had a shotgun wedding where everyone wore denim and no one signed a pre-nup. Celebrities were on the cover of every magazine, red carpets were a staple before award ceremonies, and makeup brands were signing multi-million dollar contracts with their celebrity endorsers. It was a perfect system. The supermodels of the 80’s and 90’s taught young women to want to wear clothes and be fashionable (ie. be models), and these young women grew into celebrities who appreciated being fashion-forward as a staple of their public image. The timing of it all was impeccable. It was fashion in the age of celebrity.
At the advent of the internet, fashion brands relied on celebrities to push individual products like watches, bags, and makeup. But the age of social media gave the industry a chance to reset itself and make new rules. The largest shift came for the gatekeepers of both fashion and celebrity: magazines. From US and People to Vogue and Elle, suddenly consumers need not get their latest celebrity gossip or runway trend from a newsstand, for it was readily available online. This sudden vacuum of power allowed celebrities to grab ahold of their own images and write their own narratives. Everyday individuals were given inside looks into the personalities, lives, and habits of their favorite celebrities (at the celebrity’s discretion, of course, we only get to see what they want seen). Celebrities could paint a picture of themselves outside of their publicist's or agent’s control, bringing them closer to the public and allowing them to “brand” themselves however they wished. In addition to the rise of trends like “influencers” and streetfashion, it also gave the fashion industry much of the same power to shape their own stories.
Giving celebrities power over their “brands” led to the kind of celebrity endorsement we see today. Before, celebrity endorsement meant something along the lines of: oh, I know her face because she was in that one thing, I think, and she has good skin, maybe I should buy that foundation! Now, however, celebrities not only lend their face and recognition, they also lend their perception in the public eye to the fashion brand. Enter the age of fashion and celebrity.
Take Ariana Grande’s endorsement of Givenchy and Jackson Wang’s capsule collection at Fendi. Ariana Grande’s current look is that of a cool singer (who’s no longer coming for Mariah’s gig and not really white?) who encourages other young women to own their sexuality and love themselves (I want to say she wants women to be kind to each other as well, but she also has that one song about taking someone’s boyfriend so I don’t really get her gig). This, I guess, kind of, if I try really hard to make parallels, fits with Givenchy’s brand right now. Givenchy currently has its first female head designer and it is within the currency of cool to support women in fashion (refer to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s work at Dior). If this seems as much of a stretch to you as it does to me, that’s because it is. Ariana Grande has nothing to do with the legacy of Givenchy. She holds none of the sentiment that Givenchy’s muse Audrey Hepburn did in her day, besides the fact that they are both famous. What Ariana is bringing to Givenchy is not selling a particular product, nor is it a proclivity toward reflecting the tomes of the house (visual or philosophical) in any way. She is lending her coolness. That’s what she’s bringing to the table. Givenchy has a thriving atelier that show couture twice a year. That hardly fits with the trap houses and clubs that Ariana is often found portrayed in music videos. This is not a match made in reality, it’s just a borrowing of social currency.
Making a lateral move to another high fashion house, Fendi, we see Jackson Wang, a wildly popular Korean idol of Hong Kong descent, with his own capsule collection at the house. Nothing about Jackson Wang screams Fendi, a house known traditionally for its luxury furs and unapologetically Italian (and Lagerfeldian) aesthetic. BUT Wang has a groundbreaking, earth-shattering amount of influence in Asian (and slowly Western) culture at the moment. That handsome face can sell a USD$800 Fendi face mask (believe me we need them over here) because he’s super-duper, unbelievably talented, handsome, and cool. When he signs with Fendi to have them design a line for him to slap his name on the tag or somewhere else equally conspicuous, he’s attached his power and influence to the brand and the brand in turn validates him as a fashionable, affluent trendsetter. Everyone wins.
We have come a long way since Joan Rivers first started asking celebrities who they were wearing on the red carpet. Since then, celebrity influence has only quadrupled, from the billion dollar business of KKW Beauty to Fenty becoming a legitimate luxury house. Celebrities have the power to influence our fashion decisions and fashion brands will never ever let us forget it. As shamelessly as deesigners tack on celebrities to their brands, we as consumers shamelessly tweet, gossip, and ultimately buy product because we know or support or love to hate [enter celebrity here]. Fashion and celebrity have created a symbiotic relationship that we only continue to encourage. So the next time you’re scrolling through Instagram and see a celebrity tagged in a fashion post, remember that this trend is like FaceTune: once we let it out, there’s no turning back.