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What Makes Someone a Fashion Legend?
10.18.16
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Arguably one of the most paradoxical phrases in the fashion lexicon tags “legend” to the anterior “fashion.” It is contradictory because fashion is ephemeral; it comes, it goes, its job is to change. But when you’re a legend you hold your ground. You stick, with resolute conviction, to the principles you develop or adopt as your own — they are unflinching, and so are you. Your values become like furniture in a room that doesn’t change. You don’t care what popular culture tells you to do, or say, or think because the beat of your drum cancels out that noise. Put simply, a legend doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Plain and simple. You are what the legacy you’ve built says you are. Forever.

So how is it, then, that the term fashion legend is thrown around not freely, but fairly liberally? Diana Vreeland, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Patrick Demarchelier, Isabella Blow — the list of legends, both living and not, is vast.

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Yesterday, The New York Times commemorated one of its own fashion legends in a tender memorial at Carnegie Hall. It was for Bill Cunningham, the famous street photographer who reported for The Times (famously submitting sometimes more than 2,000 photos a week) for nearly 40 years and passed away last June. Such important New York figures as Anna Wintour and Michael Bloomberg spoke on Cunningham’s behalf. I listened to Bloomberg share that Cunningham was part of the fabric of New York and then I remembered something Anna Wintour had said — that “we all dress for Bill.”

What a statement from a fellow legend!

I thought to myself that certainly Cunningham meets the criteria to be called a fashion legend, but casting aside the hypocrisy of the term, what makes someone legendary in fashion? Is it simply resilience? That is, the ability to hold court, to not drop out of the industry after the frills and perks have stopped working on you? Is it a title you develop only posthumously? (In my opinion, this is impossible in the era of Instagram canonization.) What must one do, really, to become a Patrick, a Diana, an Yves or a Bill?

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When you look at the contribution of some of the above names, their status as legend makes sense. Diana Vreeland turned on its head the standard operating arrangement of fashion, calling such no-name, youthful creatives to the cover of her Vogue. Patrick Demarchelier developed a photography style all his own that has been often imitated, but never sufficiently replicated. Yves Saint Laurent is perhaps the first designer to have pulled such distinct reference from a culture not his own (he was extremely inspired by Morocco in the ’60s and ’70s) and Bill? Bill was the first photographer to plant himself at an intersection in New York City and to find style in the plebeians who walked to and from work every morning with no ulterior motives. The original street style photographer! Though he wouldn’t call himself that, which might be part of it — not knowing that you’re doing something revolutionary.

Legends are known for doing what they do extremely well, but there are plenty of people who are great at what they do. There are plenty of people who are great at doing lots of things. So what determines whether you will be deified? Does asking this question effectively inoculate you from joining the ranks of the greats?

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Photo credits (top to bottom) Mike Coppola, Horst P. Horst, PL Gould and Vivian Fernandez via Getty Images.

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  • Urbanity Blog

    I think to truly be a legend you have to really give back to the industry, leave your mark on it in a way that is uniquely, undoubtedly yours. A difficult task, especially as i do think people are remembered as more ‘legendary’ after their death.

  • I don’t necessarily think that Fashion’s “indictment” of legends is at all contradictory to the craft. If we consider fashion, in its faults and its triumphs, to reflect or convey something about our zeitgeist — not unlike music or literature or art — then I think we can make people fashion legends in the same way as “they” do in other disciplines. For example, look at William Shakespeare. He is a literary legend and largely, gone are the days of religious use of iambic pentameter, the sonnet as overarching trend in poetics, etc. Prose poetry, to name just one example, is an overarching trend in the contemporary plane, but this does not at all negate Shakespeare’s legendary status. The same can be said for music,too. More or less, gone are the days wherein politicized folk music (Joan Baez, Neil Young, John Lennon) reigns the charts, but they still remain legends.

    So, to the point about fashion legends, I think they, like all others, are such that a contemporary audience can use them as a conduit to reach back into a movement/trend/time/climate that may not reflect our current one entirely, but that nevertheless gets at universals that have transcended theme or style. Longevity and the simple fact of being around for a long time seems to have a lot (or most) to do with it, too. That’s why we’ve got so many living legends.

    And as to who will become legends out of the pool of fashion people today? Time will tell, as mentioned. And it will happen, no doubt. But perhaps a little less straightforward due to the pace and sheer abundance of platforms of our times. Perhaps they’ll have to striate legend-status by content, form of media, or craft, and so on.

  • K

    Is it for aesthetic reasons you chose not to have the registered symbol after Repeller? Totally unrelated to the article, sorry.

  • Ericka

    A palpable authenticity that inspires others to be brave in claiming their art.

    If I’m correct, then Leandra you’re def a legend.

  • Starvenchy

    2000 photos in one week wow… I can barely get a photo up on Instagram once a month!