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