This week, thoughtful columns in the likes of ‘intelligent’ publications such as The Guardian and The Daily Beast have been awash with comment over just released images of Joan Didion as the ‘new face’ of French luxury house, Céline. Opinion is a mixed bag; while some celebrate the use of a “writer and thinker” to front a campaign, others question its authenticity, lamenting their “idols [being] used to sell expensive clothes”.
We have to admit: first glance at this campaign had us rejoicing. Finally, here’s a brand that is doing even more to posit style and beauty as substance over aesthetic! The high-end, ‘high art’ version of Ashton Kutcher telling a rapt (and probably rather hormonal) Teen Choice Awards audience that intelligence is sexy, perhaps. It is, of course, designed to appeal to women who would rather be seen to be reading Blue Nights than best dressed lists. Who aspire to a deeper cultural and intellectual lifestyle than others around them. For that, Didion is a good choice. She is an icon yes, but an obscure one. And her searing intellect leads well ahead of her appearance. So far, so branding, and fairly good branding at that. At least it’s attempting to be something other than the perfect face, body and a great leather handbag, appealing to those who value the same (or at least aspire to) in the process.
But this is a commercial, capitalist world. Further, this is the fashion world. Something’s gotta give. And it does.
Look closer, and you’ll see that in trying to contribute to the conversation, even to move it on, all Céline have done is reframe Didion within the same, homogeneous parameters of the world it is trying to introduce a different opinion to.
They take her out of her natural habitat and into theirs, removing all signifiers of her own identity to replace them with theirs. They reduce her to a sitting dummy, no different from countless nameless and nubile waifs that adorn countless other high-end and high-street campaigns. All that’s different is their age, and we know that this is more multifaceted than just age.
Ridiculously large Nicole Ritchie-esque sunglasses perch on her face, sparrow-like, and the complexities of her unique character – i.e. the very things Céline are apparently trying to hero – are obscured from view. We can’t see her, and perhaps that doesn’t even matter. Even the fact that she is wearing sunglasses inside contributes to the contradiction. Of course, it could be interpreted as an act of rebellion, of standing apart – a signifier to support Céline’s presentation of style as substance. But the codes of celebrity are too ingrained; the visuals of celebrity faces drowned in blacked out shades as they glide through check-in or shop in boutiques are too entrenched in the modern visual vernacular for that to be the case.
Rather, in trying to position themselves as a brand that values substance over style (or at least equates the two), Céline merely asserts themselves as a brand that has none. The question it raises is this: Are we unable to celebrate female intellect outside the constraints of conventional definitions of fashion, style and beauty? Do we still have to frame them within the same parameters to make intellect, humour, and achievement impressive or, dare we say it, ‘cool’?
We hope not. In the age of authenticity, brands need to find a way to move beyond one dimensional association so that when they try to move the conversation on, it’s positioned as true belief as opposed to mere marketing tactics. Perhaps if Céline had moved into Didion’s world and observed her just as she is rather than dragging her into theirs in order to make her value really shine, theirs would have too.