I believe that the term “style icon” is ludicrously overused. British Vogue editor Alexandra Schulman’s 2006 essay for the Irish Independent — titled “There is only one real icon for me…and it’s Kate” — is something I refer back to again and again. In it, Schulman documents her ban of the word “iconic” in the pages of British Vogue, and why Kate Moss is an exception to the rule. “Whenever she wears something either in a professional capacity – where a designer or fashion editor has decided how she will look – or in her own time, it is imbued with a confident insouciance that is in itself a definition of style,” Schulman wrote.
While Schulman’s words certainly resonated with me, they were not impactful enough to change the course of fashion journalism. The phrase “style icon” is used again and again, referring to celebrities who are anything but iconic. But who am I to say that? Of course, it’s hard to argue against certain women — Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy come to mind — being called iconic. In most cases, the use of the term is entirely subjective.
In fact, it’s more about personal style icons these days. And we all have them. For me, the “only icon” is Sofia Coppola. (I think it’s safe to say that goes for Dhani, too.) A lot of girls are into Alexa Chung. Jane Birkin. Francoise Hardy (another favorite of mine.) And who could forget the Kate Middleton brigade?
The point is, if you’re a woman and you like clothes there is probably a celebrity — dead or alive — whom you reference when you’re getting dressed in the morning. And there’s no doubting that, as Schulman suggested, women’s magazines and websites have capitalized on the “get the celebrity look” idea.
Men, too, have their icons. (You know, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Steve McQueen; those sorts of guys.) But with Men’s Fashion Week upon us, Stephanie brought up a good point. “I never hear guys gushing, ‘OMG Glenn O’Brien is my style hero!’ or, ‘Those shoes are so Paul Newman! Done!’” she said. And it’s true. So do guys worship in the same way we do?
I first asked my husband — a regular guy who is interested in fashion to the extent that he almost exclusively shops at J.Crew — whether he had any so-called style icons. “Well, I guess George Clooney, because he’s always wearing a nice suit and he always looks good in it,” he said with a certain ambivalence. “Brad Pitt is probably a better-looking guy, but he wears ridiculous clothes.”
Jonathan Evans, fashion director at East Dane, Shopbop’s men’s site, was unsurprisingly more opinionated about the matter. “I doubt that guys day to day are thinking about this in any sort of real way,” he said. “Instead, there’s a kind of general vibe from these guys that seeps into the way men think about dressing.” Evans cited Steve McQueen, Michael Cain and Bob Dylan as the type of style icons that men are influenced by and not even be aware that they are. “For guys, I think it’s less about emulating a certain celebrity and more about getting good advice on how to put yourself together.”
Lawrence Schlossman, editor in chief of menswear site Four Pins, agreed. “What I think is interesting about icons in respect to menswear vs. womenswear is that the majority of icons of men’s style aren’t alive anymore,” he said. “It’s the Cary Grants, Steve McQueens and Paul Newmans that keep popping up.” A lot of that is because today’s A-listers aren’t particularly fashionable. “Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio — they’re handsome, talented, and live these lives the average male aspires to, but they aren’t actually fantastic dressers.” One exception might be Johnny Depp. “I personally think [Depp] looks fucking terrible,” Schlossman admitted. “But he’s not cookie cutter like most of today’s actors.”
To be fair, there’s plenty of talk about the monotony of women on the red carpet, too. Although there’s plenty of attention given to it as well. Schlossman thinks that men who are more than “tangentially” interested in fashion are likely to look to an athlete — Dwayne Wade, Lebron James — or a rapper — Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and Tyler the Creator — for style inspiration. “They seem to care more and are more hands on when it comes to putting together outfits,” he said. “For the most part, the guys in Hollywood aren’t doing that.”
And much like fashion girls are now deeming street style stars like Taylor Tomassi Hill and W magazine editor Karla Martinez iconic, the guys really in the thick of it are inspired by male editors. “The most sophisticated consumers of content are probably looking to the Josh Pesquowitz, Eugene Tong and Nick Wooster,” Schlossman said.
But only a fraction of men who are interesting in dressing well are also interested in these niche icons. To relate to their readers, mass publications need to create “icons” out of guys who are more appealing to the masses. The basis of the whole “get the look” idea is rooted in creating a context for readers to better understand why they should be interested in a certain trend. Mass men’s publications might not use this trick as rampantly as women’s do, but it’s certainly part of their strategy.
“I think all men have someone they consider a style icon – whether they realize it or not,” said Matthew Marden, fashion director at Details. “I don’t think it’s so literal for men, but a guy might be drawn to an article of clothing because it reminds him of something. Like, a bomber jacket might remind him of Steve McQueen.” Marden cited Ryan Gosling, Daniel Craig, Pharrell, Jay-Z and Jared Leto as modern style icons that Details finds interesting. “I think the appeal with Gosling [in particular] is that he dresses classically and is confident,” he said. “He’s a cool guy but someone you can relate to. There is an approachability there.”
As for whether guys are going to wearing their hair in buns because Jared Leto made it look cool at the Golden Globes? “No. Men don’t react to other men in that way,” said Marden. “Guys who like his look might see it as cool or stylish, but don’t then go ‘Oh okay, now I need to grow out my hair and put it in a bun.’”
That might be the real point of differentiation between the way men and women worship our style icons. For us, it’s literal. For them, it’s subconscious. Usually. After reading this piece, my husband admitted that, despite his general disdain for Brad Pitt’s sartorial choices, “after Fight Club, I wanted his red leather blazer.” So maybe we’re not so different after all.