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Op-Ed | For Musicians, Fashion’s Double-Edged Sword

The worlds of music and fashion have long embraced each other to mutual benefit. But emerging musicians should tread carefully when courted by the fashion industry, lest they dilute their authenticity and alienate fans, argues Delphine Roche.
(L) Azealia Banks in '212' music video; (R) An outtake from '1991' album cover | Source: Azealia Banks
  • Delphine Roche

PARIS, France — In both music and fashion, success is dependent, in part, upon cultivating a strong image and an aura of cool. So it seems natural that, over the years, musicians and fashion brands have entered into a wide range of collaborations. Popular musicians usually bring to the table millions of fans, a unique voice and good looks. Fashion labels bring funds, beautiful clothing and the values for which they stand — tradition, avant garde, rebel, et cetera — which have the power to positively shift the image of an artist. Sometimes these collaborations work well. But as musicians become more involved with fashion brands, turning into glamour kings and queens, is the authenticity that attracted fans in the first place at risk of being diluted?

Rappers like Kanye West and A$AP Rocky don't have to worry about losing their legitimacy by embracing fashion, because a love for fashion is an essential and powerful part of their personal brands. After years of 'bling bling,' Kanye shifted the prevailing aesthetic of hip hop artists towards a more fashion-conscious, understated swagger, wearing brands like Givenchy and, thus, paving the way for A$AP Rocky, who has become something of a fashion icon in his own right, embracing labels like Hood By Air and Raf Simons.

But for those who don't have such a strong and natural affinity for fashion, the association can prove a disaster. Azealia Banks seemed fresh and raw when she emerged with her hit "212" in 2011. One year later, when "1991" was released, she had turned into a manufactured fashion plate, losing all of her initial appeal. "When she emerged with '212', she was so fresh and real, she reminded me of Neneh Cherry," said Felipe Oliveira Baptista, who featured the song in the soundtrack for his namesake brand's Autumn/Winter 2013 show. "She was effortlessly echoing the emergence of a new style from New York, a new streetwear attitude. But then she became very slick and fake."

A few months after “212” was released, Angel Haze, another female rap phenomenon from New York, emerged. But as soon as she was noticed, she changed her style in the blink of an eye. After promoting her first hit dressed as the girl next door — no makeup, wooly blue hat, jeans and t-shirts — she turned into another wannabe-fashionista with sleek hair and a ton of make-up, walking for DKNY in February 2014 and posting about her relationship with it-girl Ireland Baldwin, daughter of actors Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin.

This was enough to puzzle and put off many of her early fans. Was this abrupt change due to the fact that Angel, like many music artists today, signed a deal with a modelling agency which now manages her image?

Over the last ten years, Marilyn, Premier, Next and Viva have all created special talent departments, catering to musicians and celebrities. Next, in particular, has embrace this new business with vigour, securing for its clients lucrative deals with DKNY, Gap, L'Oréal, Adidas, Rimmel, Chanel, Mulberry and H&M, and managing stars like A$AP Rocky, Lana Del Rey and Rita Ora.

But Sarah Leon, creative director of Next Talents, disagrees that Angel’s abrupt style shift should be attributed to the agency: “I’d like to make it really clear that [with] all of the artists who we work with, it’s their own image, genuinely their own image. We’re just here to help them harness that within the fashion world. We don’t put that on them at all; we help them when commercial opportunities arise to understand how that could work together.”

Perhaps it’s the artists themselves who are guilty, believing that simply having a personal stylist and wearing luxury brands will strengthen their image. Either way, emerging musicians should consider these image makeovers very carefully and consider whether, post-transformation, they will still resonate with their core fanbase. Among the few who manage to maintain a unique, personal style is M.I.A. “Many musicians today, when they arrive on set for a shoot, want to wear Chanel and Dior,” said Guillaume Boulez, freelance fashion editor and creative director of the independent magazine The Wild. “So I was surprised when M.I.A. told me she didn’t want to wear luxury brands because her fans can’t afford them and can’t relate to them.”

Delphine Roche is features editor in chief of Numéro.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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