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Beyonce, Superstar but not a Fashion Icon

~ by Vanessa Friedman, NY Times

LAST WEEK, music history of a sort was made when Beyoncé became the first subject of an exhibition in the Legends of Rock section of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland not to actually be in the Hall herself.

You can’t be inducted until 25 years after the release of your first record, and given that Destiny’s Child’s first album came out in 1998, Beyoncé hasn’t yet made the cutoff. But she is so famous that I guess the museum wanted to get her in anyway, and if it couldn’t officially have her, it decided to have …her clothes.

Thus seven outfits, including the 2008 “Single Ladies” leotard (designed by Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Knowles), the Thierry Mugler robot outfit from “Sweet Dreams” (2009) and the 2012 Givenchy Met ball dress are on display in Ahmet Ertegun Hall, where they are joining pieces from Michael Jackson and David Bowie, among other artists. They have been lent for two years.

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As to why the museum made the decision, Todd Mesek, the vice president for marketing and communications, wrote of Beyoncé in an email, “She’s taken her natural talent and used it to influence the sound, fashion and business of music.”

True enough. But just the fact of her clothes being in a museum, even if it’s a music museum as opposed to, say, a costume institute, has also had me mulling over the question of Beyoncé and how she has influenced the fashion of … fashion. Or rather, how she hasn’t.

Because despite all the accolades that Beyoncé has garnered — most powerful celebrity in the world, according to Forbes; No. 1 on People’s Most Beautiful list; the artist behind the fastest selling iTunes album ever; a global juggernaut; subject of her own documentary — the one she does not seem to actually merit is “fashion icon.”

I know, I know: blasphemy. One does not criticize the most feted woman on the planet. But think about it.

Beyoncé hasn’t moved, or influenced, the direction of fashion writ large in the way that, say, Rihanna, the winner of this year’s CFDA Fashion Icon award, has. (See, for example, the luxe athletic pieces peppering collections like Pucci, Balmain and Tom Ford.) She doesn’t wear things and spark a million trends, like Madonna once did with her jeweled crosses and lace minis, not to mention her bullet bra corsets. She doesn’t cause items to sell out overnight, like wee Prince George.

She doesn’t worm her way into designers’ imaginations, the way Patti Smith and Courtney Love did. Her stylist has not become a well-known name in his own right, the way Nicola Formichetti has moved from working with Lady Gaga (who also won the CFDA Fashion Icon award in 2011) to becoming the creative director and frontman of Diesel.

Her megafame could not even sustain her own fashion brand, House of Deréon, which appears to have been suspended (the Facebook page links to a website, houseofdereon.com, which the Internet says “cannot be found,” though some jeans and shoes are still sold on third-party sites), unlike, say, that of Jessica Simpson, which has revenues of about $1 billion, according to Forbes. Li & Fung, which owns House of Deréon, did not respond to requests to clarify the situation.

Yet Beyoncé has at least 13.5 million Twitter followers and 14.4 million Instagram followers, all of whom are treated to selfies of her in assorted outfits both on duty and off. In her surprise megahit “visual album” last December, she wore garments from multiple different name brands, from Maxime Simoens to Ulyana Sergeenko and 3.1 Phillip Lim. On her “Mrs. Carter” tour, she modeled looks from Pucci, while on her current “On the Run” tour with her husband, Jay Z, she is wearing costumes by Atelier Versace, Alexander Wang and Diesel.

Her regular appearances in Givenchy at the Met ball (2013 and 2014, as well as the above-mentioned 2012) end up as featured red-carpet moments everywhere, including most recently on the cover of Vogue’s Met ball special — a cover that, granted, she shares with Rihanna, but she has had two other covers of the main mag all to herself. Beyoncé should, by all objective measurements, be a fashion influencer extraordinaire.

So how is it that all ages of women want to be like her, but that does not include, for any of them, what is normally the easiest way into the fantasy: dressing like her? How is it she drives audiences into stadiums but not clients into stores? It looks like a paradox.

If fact, let’s call it the Beyoncé Paradox. And here’s the thing: I think it is actually a construct. One that has been strategically made.

After all, by opting to build her celebrity on a carefully chosen set of proprietary symbols — in this case, smile and hair and body (and voice, of course) — as opposed to a carefully constructed, apparel-related look, Beyoncé & Company have ensured that the only brand that really has any real staying power is brand Beyoncé; that everything she is selling comes back to her. Spreading the wealth, so to speak, among so many designers, which at first looks like an effort to woo the fashion world, actually works to create a situation in which no one name is permanently associated with her other than her own. It’s a question, as it always is, of power and cui bono. And cui bono here is her.

It has become conventional wisdom that fashion is a platform that is increasingly crucial as either a springboard to stardom (see: Kerry Washington and Lupita Nyong’o, both of whom have discussed the red carpet as a key tool in an actress’s arsenal) or a way to sustain a career beyond stardom (see: Kate Hudson and Sharon Stone). But what the Beyoncé Paradox suggests is that this may not, in fact, be entirely true. Because lose the “fashion,” and what do you have left?

Icon. No qualifier necessary.

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