This excerpt is from an essay by Bret Easton Ellis that appears in the July 2019 issue of Vogue Italia.
While I was writing my epic models-as-terrorists novel Glamorama throughout the 1990s, which I began in December 1989 and finished in December 1997, I immersed myself in the fashion worlds of Manhattan, London, Paris and briefly Milan. This was the research I embarked on since almost the entire cast of the book is made up of models — male and female — including its narrator Victor Ward.
Ward finds himself in a vast political conspiracy that is played out against an international fashion world he thinks he knows intimately but the conspiracy swallows Ward up in the end. Since he’s the narrator speaking to us in a fast-moving first-person present-tense style, the reader finds out along with Ward, too late, that he is the target of the conspiracy, and that he has been targeted by the conspirators because of his unwavering belief in surfaces — and therefore he’s blind to anything else.
Ward has been seduced his entire life by a world of surfaces, an aggressively fake — even theatrical — world; and because of this it can be a deceptive place — a place where one could perhaps stage the nefarious plot the conspirators of Glamorama ultimately get away with. They use clueless Ward to help carry their plot forward since he can’t see anything beyond the surface beauty of the world — he’s dumb; an innocent.
What would Glamorama look like today in a culture seemingly obsessed with inclusivity and the idea of groupthink?
And the killers get away with it because they know Ward really wouldn’t be looking for the deeper meaning of what was happening: disappearances; an overdose; a murder made to look like a suicide; bombings; the counter-intelligence officers overseeing the action — all folded into the swirling fashion scene which is being used as a false front by the bad guys. Ward sees what he sees without questioning anything — it is what it is and nothing else. For me, Ward was a metaphor, a symbol, of where we were in America in that moment when it seemed a culture was only finding meaning in sliding down the surface of things as U2 sang in their 1991 song “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” For me, Victor Ward was something literary: a warning.
Few people in the mid 90s, when Glamorama is set, had access to the glamorous and enigmatic world of fashion. Except for the designers themselves and their models, fashion editors and certain celebrities, it was a closed-off world only glimpsed in magazines and the occasional video. We were at the end of the analogue era, with the digital era becoming clearer in the distance perhaps, and we were still a decade away from the iPhone — such as a scene early on in Glamorama where two characters are reunited and play out a long conversation while they roam through a record store.
The inaccessibility and exclusivity of the fashion world was what made it so attractive and so alluring, not only to Victor Ward and the cast of the novel, as well as to the shadow-faction that uses it for their own deadly purposes, but also for anybody else out in the public who craved contact with it. This world was so exclusive it bordered on the secretive.
If everyone is beautiful then nobody is beautiful. But the groupthink of Millennials doesn’t realise this yet.
It stressed the superior individuality of the designer and also of the individuality of the models who wore the clothes. The Supermodel: impossibly beautiful women and men who were the dazzling faces that dominated and defined the industry in the 1990s; goddesses and gods, not unlike the models that roam Glamorama. Their beauty made them incredibly exclusive — they didn’t look like anyone else and this was what made them so special — and their world was exclusive as well, which is what made it so unbearably alluring. This world does not exist today.
What would Glamorama look like today in a culture seemingly obsessed with inclusivity and the idea of groupthink over the individual and valuing ideology over aesthetics? Where a sizeable faction thinks everyone should be equal with one another? And yet, this is also a world where girls and boys in their twenties get plastic surgery, turning their natural features into squinty-eyed rictuses.
This is a world where the body positivity movement says all bodies are beautiful and if you don’t find a heavy-set woman or a plus-sized model attractive, you are in fact body-shaming her and need to be cancelled. If everyone is beautiful then nobody is beautiful. But the groupthink of Millennials doesn’t realise this yet. Or maybe they do and they’re not as earnest as we think — perhaps they’re just trolling.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.