Is Zendaya a Fashion Icon?

I’ve written about the types of fashion icons (and how to become your own version of each), before… 

True Style
HOW TO BE A FASHION ICON 
The word “iconic” is thrown around a lot online to describe everything from TikTok trends to the careers of pop stars that have released a grand total of two albums. But, while we can all have our own personal ideas of what iconic (and fashion) means, there are some people who are considered inspirations to many across class, generation, race, and any other distinction you can think of. But why? What makes these so-called “icons” special, especially in a landscape full of plenty of people with money and stylists and access to cool clothes? You know I have thoughts…
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…and, by my own, most basic definition, Zendaya actually is a prime example of a Chameleon: that is, a fashion icon that doesn’t have a set “look,” but instead can pull off a full range of aesthetics effortlessly. However, after hearing she’s won the CFDA Fashion Icon Award--the youngest to ever do so--my own reaction to the news surprised me. 

To be absolutely clear, I have no ill-will toward Zendaya. I adore her fashions, and what I’ve seen of her personality. I only wish to examine the people that the mainstream fashion industry lauds as the best representatives of style, and why that may be inaccurate in a world so diverse and full of faces deserving of the same notoriety that people like Zendaya don’t really need help with. I will never deny Z’s beauty, talent, or her knack for turning a look. But, I care about style—true style. And so, I have to ask: 

Is she really a fashion icon? Let’s get into it. 

The Fashion Icon Award

The Council of Fashion Designers of America was founded in 1962 by legendary publicist Eleanor Lambert, the same woman who established New York Fashion Week and the Met Gala. The overall goal of the CFDA is to provide opportunities to American designers through scholarships, funding, and business opportunities, and, every year, they present a variety of awards at what is often referred to as “The Oscars of fashion” to emerging talent, accomplished industry vets, and, with their Fashion Icon Award, to individuals whose style “has made a significant impact on popular culture on an international stage.” 

The list of previous winners of the Fashion Icon Award makes sense, for the most part. Rihanna, of course, another Chameleon who has inspired a number of trends that had a chokehold on millennials since her debut. Naomi Campbell, who was honored not just for her illustrious career as one of the few Black (and dark skinned) supermodels but also for her philanthropic work. Kate Moss, who, for better or worse, invented the entire heroin chic look that dominated runways for a decade. Jennifer Lopez, whose still-iconic—if not a bit tired—Versace jungle print gown literally lead to Google Images being invented. And Beyoncé, obviously for her work with Tina Knowles of House of Deréon. 

When I look at those names above, along with others like Lady Gaga, Iman, and Sarah Jessica Parker, it’s obvious why they’re not just considered fashion icons, but award-worthy fashion icons. Each of them has, indeed, had a significant impact on fashion, and volumes could be written on their careers. 

Can you write volumes on Zendaya’s career? Can you name any specific impact Zendaya has had on the fashion industry or trends?

Style or Stylist?

It’s not fair to call out any one celebrity fashion icon for not dressing themselves on their own: most of them don’t, especially for red carpets. At the end of the day, you can have the best stylist in the world but what ends up on your body is ultimately up to you, the wearer, and a truly great stylist will take the sensibilities and point of view of their client into account above all else. 

That said, the greatness that is Law Roach cannot be understated. The self-proclaimed “image architect” has indeed built celebrities like Celine Dion, Anya Taylor-Joy, and even Kerry Washington into full-on fashion queens. By working with emerging designers, along with the biggest fashion houses, he has shifted an entire industry toward the unconventional. 

It wouldn’t be farfetched to say that many of his most notable and longest-term clients—including Zendaya, who he’s been dressing since she was only 13—are but a canvas for his artform. 

Sometimes, it’s easy to see where a celebrity gets their style, and where a stylist only enhances their preferred aesthetic. Other times, however, the lines are blurred, and you have to ask: is it true style…or is it all in the stylist? With Zendaya, I’m still searching for that thread of authenticity that can be attributed to her and her alone, and not to her work with one of the literal greatest stylists of our time.

The Importance of the Moment

Rihanna and her 55-pound, 9-foot-long yellow Guo Pei robe; Celine Dion and her backwards tuxedo by Galliano; Jennifer Lopez and her aforementioned Versace gown…all fashion moments heard around the world. These are the looks even the average, non-fashion obsessed person can call to mind, the looks that could never and will never be imitated (except J.Lo’s…she attempts to imitate herself all the time). 

But what about the looks that can be imitated, or, rather, the looks that inspire recreation to begin with? Cher’s “nude illusion” dress all the way back in 1974 inspired literal decades of naked dresses to follow, and high slits in gowns became the norm thanks to Angelina Jolie’s show stopping all-black Oscars look in 2012. How many of us shaved half our heads because of Cassie? How many performers started featuring leotards heavily in their shows and videos thanks to Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)? 

Zendaya’s certainly got plenty of outright amazing style moments: from her recent draped leather Balmain dress for the Dune press tour to her fantastic Joan of Arc inspired chainmail armor gown for the 2015 Met Gala. But what about after the moment? Furthermore, how many of her moments can you actually recall? Is it enough for people to remember you look good if most of your looks aren’t particularly memorable? Let alone impactful? 

Skinny Fashion

It simply has to be said: it’s not hard to pull looks right off the runway when you’re the same height and build as the models it was made for.

Even in 2021, in the middle of an era where we are slowly starting to realize the importance of celebrating all bodies, it can be a bit disheartening to see us move backwards towards the uplifting of fashions where skinny bodies are the focus more than the actual clothes. Anya Taylor-Joy—who will be receiving The CFDA Face of the Year Award—almost seems to feature her uncomfortably pronounced vertebrae as an accessory to whatever she’s wearing; and Zendaya’s often body-skimming looks tend to emphasize her long, skinny limbs and remarkably flat stomach. 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being thin, nor is there anything wrong with wearing clothes that complement your body in whatever way you see fit. But, again, my problem is with a world that still rewards skinniness above all. My problem is with other, curvier women in Hollywood not even being offered the same opportunities to turn similar (or better) looks as Z or Anya because designers still outright refuse to dress anyone bigger than a size 4. With such an uneven playing field, is it enough to simply possess a body type that admittedly looks good in anything to earn icon status in the world of fashion? 

Is Zendaya a Fashion Icon?

In a word: not yet. She is, after all, only 25. While she does indeed rock the hell out of everything she puts on, when I think award-winning fashion icon, I’m looking for their tangible impact on fashion; I want to see looks that have stood the test of time; I want a clear point of view that travels with them from stylist to stylist and even as they dress themselves. But, most of all, I don’t want someone who’s so obvious. I’m not here to insult Zendaya, but, I think in 2021, it’s time for our fashion institutions to think a bit outside of the box, or risk losing credibility. With celebrity culture slowly dying, and more people than ever waking up to the realities of what it takes to “make it” in a culture that prizes thinness, light skin, and youth over everything, maybe it’s time we focus on the unconventional, and uplift new faces (and bodies) that don’t necessarily fit into any neat little boxes. 

That said, any fashion-related award, to me, is an absolute honor, especially coming from The Council of Fashion Designers (of America). Congratulations to Zendaya. And to the CFDA, and everyone else in power in the fashion industry: let’s shake it up a little bit. 

How to Dress Like a Girlfriend

Girlfriends shaped me more than Sex and the City ever could've.

Before I decided to write this article, I sat at my MacBook for days trying to figure out where to begin on a similar one: How to Dress Like Sex (and the City). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved SATC since the first time I watched a heavily censored rerun of it on TBS. But, I’m a Black girl. As much as I adore Samantha, and still look to Carrie as a style inspiration (also, Miranda and Charlotte are there), they just weren’t who I looked up to during my formative years. Plus, I didn’t have TBS in my room, which meant I had to sneak and watch the New York girls cut up on the rare occasions my mom left me at home alone. You know what I did have in my room, though? UPN. Which meant unfettered access to the true style icons of my youth: Joan Clayton, Toni Childs, Lynn Searcy and, Maya Wilkes, aka, the Girlfriends. 

I can pinpoint exactly where each of the real fabulous four influenced my style, even throughout my many phases as a teenager and to this day as an almost 30 year old woman. While most of their outfits were definitely a product of the time in which they were worn (that is, the very early 2000s), the individual elements and overall vibes could absolutely be adopted for the Roaring 2020s. And yes, I will tell you how.

JOAN CLAYTON

If I were to draw parallels between the Girlfriends and their Sex and the City counterparts, the obvious and most fitting first comparison would be Joan and Carrie Bradshaw. While they are both wildly flawed protagonists, they also have the most eclectic wardrobes of their respective casts, with a rich mix of both high end brands and unique vintage pieces. Outside of the more traditional office attire we frequently saw her in, Joan’s style off the clock was chic but still relaxed, with a particular affinity for rich greens, backless tops and dresses, and crop tops. 

Over the show, especially once she opened The J-Spot, Joan’s style grew more feminine, with A-line dresses, bright pinks and stiletto heels becoming sort of her uniform. For more of the OG Joan look—which, according to Tracee Ellis Ross, was mainly made up of clothing from her own personal wardrobe as the initial budget for Girlfriends was so small—I would focus on adding muted and earth tones to my closet, with plenty of soft, drape-y jerseys and rich knits, paired with pants (especially denim and cargo pants) and go comb some thrift stores for vintage golden and wooden jewelry like bangle bracelets and arm cuffs. If you can’t do the backless + plunging neckline combo like Tracee Ellis Ross can (this is for my busty gals), I would instead opt for more sleek crop tops with cowl necks and tie details, but, don’t shy away from a visible black bra, especially under a ruffled chiffon/see through top—something our girl Joan has in common with Miss Bradshaw. Think simple but sexy, classic silhouettes, smooth textures and laidback luxury. Brands like Staud and Cult Gaia would definitely be in the 2021 version of 2000 Joan’s closet. 

For restaurant owner Joan, dresses reign supreme. Floaty skirts, statement sleeves and midi lengths in brighter colors and a surprising amount of florals are more characteristic of seasons 5 and beyond. Look at designers like Zimmerman, Acler, and Diane Von Furstenberg for inspiration. 

TONI CHILDS

Antoinette Marie Childs. If Samantha is the understood “real star” of Sex and the City, Toni is, by far, the true icon of Girlfriends. I won’t get into her problematic and downright toxic ideas and traits here—you’ve watched the show—I’m just here to talk about the fashions. 

Business casual with a dash of sex. That’s how I’d describe Toni’s style. While her wardrobe didn’t necessarily evolve in the same way as Joan’s (there’s a sort of symbolism in there), she does have a lot more moments of “fun” before mellowing out (as much as Toni could “mellow out”) in the end. For the monochrome queen in the earlier seasons, I would lean toward lightweight sheer blouses, unique prints on form fitting tank tops, and sexy, body skimming dresses in bright colors. Many of her looks could easily be thrifted, but, also, Fleur Du Mal and Rat & Boa are great places to start for even higher end versions.

As time passes on the show, however, and Toni grows into not only a business woman, but also a wife and mother (however ill-fated each of those roles may have been), her business casual looks get a bit more business, at least for a moment. Think well-tailored suits in both neutrals and bright colors, turtleneck sweaters, and plenty of wrap-style tops. 

LYNN SEARCY

Growing up watching Girlfriends, I always thought I would end up with a life closest to Lynn’s, or, at least a wardrobe. I was wrong on both counts. However, while Joan’s effortless femininity and Toni’s sexy sophistication certainly both inform my style sensibilities, today, Lynn is still the one closest to my heart.

I didn’t get to see a lot of “alternative” Black girls in my youth—one could argue there still aren’t many--so Lynn was a sort of forbidden fruit. Like Mona from Half & Half (I’ll talk about her at length in a future article), Lynn had this sort of edgy, “weird”, femininity going on, with lots of long skirts, chunky heels, and romantic details like lace and long, fluttery sleeves. Free People doesn’t tend to have a whole lot of black, which is what Lynn typically prefers to wear, but the vibes are similar, though, you know I’m gonna say you can absolutely thrift a lot of her looks. Indie designer Noctex would be a bit out of Lynn’s price range, but definitely captures her style.

Funnily enough, as the show went on and Lynn grew closer to becoming a musician—a dream she only realized after years of floundering from “career” to “career”—she actually started to dress less like the bohemian starving artist she was and more like a rock star. Go for knee high boots, edgy leather jackets, and plenty of accessories piled on top of sleek basics like the ones at The Line by K.

MAYA WILKES

Last, but far from the least, we have Miss Maya Wilkes. Every character description of Maya will describe her as an “around the way” girl whose true talent was making something out of nothing. While the plot may have made it obvious that Maya didn’t have as much as the other girls (even Lynn), her outfits sure didn’t.

I would say Maya’s style was flirty, but still very much ghetto fabulous, in the best way. She loved a short, pleated skirt, but, was also the only one to really rock jumpsuits on the show—especially denim ones. Tall boots with skirts, flirty tank tops with sleeves that still expose the upper arms, and plenty of reds and pinks define Maya’s style.

It’s hard to pinpoint brands for the 2021 version of Maya, as her style was so undeniably “Y2K” yet today’s Y2K offerings are so…wrong. However, Emily Ratajkowski’s line Inamorata has some incredibly sexy printed blouses and matching mini skirts that, paired with a pointy toe boot or lace up sandal, could be perfect, and Hanifa has some gorgeous dresses for a more luxurious version of that laid back fabulousness.

My favorite fashion moments of the entire Girlfriends series are, hands down, the opening credits. Ignoring the terrible season 8 sequence without Toni, the snippets of them walking and posing in a black abyss while Angie Stone sings about how her girls are there through thick and thin are some of the most amazing and succinct examples of how to build character through costume. The girls’ outfits are all extremely similar, much like Destiny’s Child in the days when they were styled by Tina Knowles, but perfectly distinct in ways that are unique to each one’s personality. Above, for this group promo shot, we see Toni in a classic tank and fitted jeans in a true blue, Maya with some flirty ruching on her own top, Joan in a more practical loose jean, and Lynn in a top that is a bit “younger” than the rest, with lace trim and faded baggy pants. The differences are subtle, but speak volumes about the type of woman each girlfriend is. It’s art.

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