The muse in modern times
Leonardo da Vinci had his Mona Lisa, Shakespeare his dark lady and Andy Warhol the beautiful Edie Sedgwick. Artists have relied on muses for centuries, but never quite to the extent of today’s fashion designers, whose muses are not simply sources of inspiration but brand ambassadors, who can emphasise, enhance or even redefine a label’s image.
“The muse is the core of any collection. It is where designers find their innovation and creativity – the starting point from which spring all the colours, ideas, shapes and ultimately the designs they produce. We don’t just have one muse – most designers will take their inspiration from a range of sources, whether they be people, nature or any other aspect of life,” says Emirati fashion designer and owner of Nabrman boutique, Hend Al Mutawa.
The concept of the muse originated in ancient Greece, where they were described as goddesses who inspired the creation of literature and the arts. They appear frequently throughout literature, often invoked by authors at the start of a poem as an aid to their artistic endeavour. Over time, writers, painters, musicians and other artists stopped turning to the goddesses of Greek mythology and looked instead to contemporary women who could provide direct inspiration.
Today, a bewildering array of celebrity muses have taken up the mantle, and keeping up with who is credited with providing inspiration to which designer provides gossip columns with as much material as celebrity break-ups and marriages. In fashion, the role of the muse has been merged with.
that of the model, as designers confer the title on famous faces, often more with a view to promoting their brand than gaining inspiration.
In many ways, the term has lost its meaning; it’s no longer reserved for those select few who provide real inspiration, says Dubai-based designer Fadwa Baruni. “I think many designers use their muses for publicity more than anything else. These muses tend to be famous models, actresses and singers who are in the public eye,” she adds.
According to Dubai designer Aiisha Ramadan, the tendency for designers to cite the celebrity of the moment as their current muse is deceptive. “Unless there is a personal relationship between a designer and a celebrity muse, the chances are that it is just a publicity stunt and she has been chosen for her image, not her powers of inspiration. A real muse is not someone you can just choose; a relationship has to form naturally and then the inspiration happens. As a designer you begin to notice who or what is occupying your attention the most and that is how the muse is determined,” she says.One of the first women to lay claim to the title was Marie Vernet, who was hired by Charles Frederick Worth, the designer who dominated Parisian fashion in the second half of the nineteenth century. Vernet performed the role that many celebrities have taken on today, wearing the designer’s creations to public functions and modelling them for potential buyers.
Other muses, however, have done much more than promote. Such was the influence of 'sixties and 'seventies style icon Loulou de la Falaise on Yves Saint Laurent that, in the designer’s later, more fragile years, employees nicknamed the line Yves Saint Loulou. She, like many muses after her, was a society girl, well documented in the press and known for her wild ways and eccentric style. It was this that attracted Saint Laurent, who modelled his brash, flirty 1971 collection on the fun-loving Loulou.
It was shortly after this that Saint Laurent invited her to work for him in Paris, job description unspecified. “Her presence at my side is a dream,” Saint Laurent once said of the woman who was both muse and collaborator, friend and colleague. Although she never much liked the title, de la Falaise fulfilled the role of muse in a much larger sense than many celebrities who bear the accolade today. “I didn’t see it (being a muse) as someone who worked as hard as I did. But now that Saint Laurent is part of history, it makes me part of history, so, yes, finally it’s not such a bad thing to have been a muse,” said de la Falaise, who died late last year at the age of 63.
The muse, as Ramadan sees it, doesn’t have a specific role. “It’s not her job to be something to the designer, it’s up to us to perfect the image she inspires and create from that.
My muses are usually women I look up to. They are real people that inspire me and whom I would like my clients to learn from, not celebrities on the red carpet or the screen,” she explains.
Hollywood is overflowing with muses, many of whom switch allegiance every season or represent more than one brand at a time. To many of these celebrity muses, the title is a job and it does come with specific roles, namely to look good and reflect a positive image for the brand they are associated with. In this sense, the appeal of a modern fashion muse lies less in her power to inspire the designer than in her ability to attract the audience towards which the clothes are targeted.
Matthew Williamson is among those designers who move from muse to muse, selecting the face of the moment to keep his brand image fresh. Among the celebrity lovelies who have, at various times, filled the position are Kate Moss, Jade Jagger, Bay Garnett, Kelis, Sienna Miller and Astrid Munoz. Some designers take it a step further and confer the role on writers and editors, no doubt with the intention of inspiring positive coverage. The most famous muse-ship between designer and editor is that of Tom Ford with Carine Roitfeld, the editor of French Vogue.
Although many of the women chosen to be muses are beautiful, good looks take second place to style when it comes to the more enduring muse-designer relationships. “There are plenty of muses out there who are, to be honest, quite ugly, but they have an innate sense of style that allows them to inspire without even trying,” says Dubai designer Amanda Bow.
Fashion icon Isabella Blow was far from beautiful by anyone’s standards but her status as a style icon is rarely disputed. The eccentric fashion editor was well known for her extrovert dress sense, particularly her extraordinary hats. It was she who not only inspired, but also discovered, Philip Treacy in the late 80s, then an unknown student and now milliner to the stars.She is also credited with the discovery of another fashion legend. Alexander McQueen was a student at Central Saint Martins in London when Blow first met him. She famously bought his entire graduate collection for £5,000 and lent her support to the young designer as he built his empire. Despite this, McQueen failed to employ Blow in any official capacity after he became famous, an oversight she noted with some bitterness. Following her death in 2007, Blow’s sisters arranged an auction of her clothes at Christie’s, which included over 90 McQueen dresses, 50 Treacy hats and portraits of Blow by Mario Testino and Karl Lagerfeld. The auction was later cancelled when Blow’s friend and another muse to McQueen, Daphne Guinness, bought the entire collection.
Guinness is another socialite who earned her status as a muse with her quirky sense of style and fashion savvy. She too disregards the title, preferring instead to be regarded as an artist, a reputation she recently reinforced with a display of her vast and eclectic wardrobe at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. According to Tom Ford, one of the numerous designers Guinness has inspired, “Daphne is one of – if not the – most stylish women living.”
According to Syrian-born designer Rami Al Ali it is a person’s style and character that make them muse material. “They don’t have to do anything in particular other than be themselves, have a great sense of style and, most of all, have a unique identity that we designers want to embody in our work.” Like Blow and Harlech, Guinness’ character is expressed through her quirky, charismatic fashion choices. As Vanity Fair journalist A. A. Gill pointed out, she “has never had a look, never once, never remotely, that was anyone’s but her very own.” It is this that makes her and her fellow style icons an inspiration, not just to designers but to all people with an eye for exploring the creativity and art in fashion. These women do not wear fashion, they create, inspire and influence it with their eccentric styles, flamboyant personalities and natural flair for combining clothes in a way that looks beyond the trends of the day.