07.25.11

Amy Winehouse’s Broken Beauty

There was something weirdly defiant, admiring, and perhaps even envious in the way the fashion industry went agog over the retro singer. Robin Givhan on how Winehouse embodied fashion’s love for destruction.

There was always something disconcerting about the fashion industry’s fascination with singer Amy Winehouse. The troubled, drug-addicted singer, who was found dead in her London apartment over the weekend, had a soulful voice and distinctive style that captivated designers. When her Back to Black was released in 2006, her sad, anti-intervention anthem “Rehab” regularly served as the aural backdrop for runway shows. The models were often as spindly—and as disconnected—as Winehouse herself would eventually become.

The public in general recognized the familiar road Winehouse was barreling down and awaited that inevitable, final moment of self-destruction with both dread and prurient curiosity. Just how bad would it be?

But fashion’s relationship to her was especially complex.

The industry has some experience with addiction and 12-step programs; that it would be empathetic of Winehouse and drawn to her music is no surprise. Designers, models, and other players within the business have faced down the kind of enormous personal demons that have done in many a young musician or actor. Some have struggled privately with an unnerving tendency to overindulge at parties, believing that the only way to navigate fashion’s turbulent social waters was with the help of one too many glasses of Champagne. Some have relied on vodka tonics or other bracing cocktails to cope with the stresses of corporate demands while also living up to a self-created glamorous persona that was as much narcissism as it was a marketing strategy. And others, from Donatella Versace to Marc Jacobs to John Galliano, have had full-on public meltdowns requiring the intervention of friends and colleagues, followed by the intense personal work that can only be conducted in rehab.

Yet there was something weirdly defiant, admiring, and perhaps even envious in the way the fashion industry went agog over Winehouse. It may have been that her emphatic, tortured, out-of-control life was a familiar and irresistible creative motif.

Winehouse was widely celebrated for a voice that could ache with emotion, but it was her style that had the fashion industry smitten. She dressed in the fitted skirts and dresses of 1960s girl groups and wore a magnificent black beehive streaked with white. Thick eyeliner gave her face a dramatic, catlike allure. But if she had simply been mimicking a retro style, she would not have made such an impact. A good number of singers reach back to the past—to the ’60s and ’70s—to find inspiration for their stage personas. Women such as Esperanza Spalding, Erykah Badu, and Adele all owe a debt to styles from bygone eras.

What made Winehouse intoxicating was that she blended vintage style with the fashion industry’s love for destruction, for fetishizing imperfections, and for elevating broken-down beauty.

Fashion, after all, is the business that, in the 1990s, popularized heroin chic, a kind of sweaty, haggard aesthetic in which models were made to look hollow-eyed, vulnerable, and high. The industry published no small number of photographs of models posed as though they had just spent the evening zonked out on smack only to awaken on the floor of some dismal public space, their designer cocktail dress twisted around their hips, one of their $600 shoes gone missing.

The allure was in the contradiction between the rarefied clothes and the seedy locations, the danger implied in the scurrilous disarray and the thrill of recklessness. Those fashion editorials played off the romantic patina our culture still associates with drug-addled creative types. They also evoked the mad risk-taking of youth.

Designers and photographers never really lost their affection for the emaciated, sleazy look of rock-bottom addiction.

For all the social reprimanding the fashion industry received for popularizing heroin chic—from no less a bully pulpit than Washington—designers and photographers never really lost their affection for the emaciated, sleazy look of rock-bottom addiction.

The folks at Christian Dior Parfum perturbed stakeholders in recovery programs in 2002 with its Dior Addict line of cosmetics and fragrances. The marketing included an Internet film showing a sweaty and anxious model jittery for a fix… of lipstick. And on the wholly mainstream reality show America’s Next Top Model, contestant coach Jay Manuel regularly encourages the young women, many of them fresh off the farm, to give him a “broken-down doll” look for the cameras. (Of course, those young women know exactly what the shorthand means.) Parse that phrase however you might like, but it essentially boils down to a demand for body language that implies a loss of self-awareness, control, and inhibitions.

The sensibility isn’t as extreme as heroin chic, but it puts a flattering gloss on physical collapse.

The designer Alexander Wang has built a multimillion-dollar business through his savvy exploitation of an urban, debauched look. His louche take on style calls to mind the aftermath of a night spent clubbing or a pre-dawn, hung-over, walk of shame. One of Wang’s earliest shows featured models in slouchy shirts, shredded fishnets, and gnarled hair and makeup that made them look in dire need of a shower. It was a collection that evoked the stink of stale beer and cigarettes. It was a critical hit.

In fashion, there’s nothing more old-fashioned than treating high designs, expensive clothes, or rare jewels as something precious. Modern style dictates the need for imperfection. Take a luxury garment and wreck it in some way. Pair a fancy evening gown with bed head. Being too polished, too perfect, reads as fake.

Authentic beauty comes when something precious is treated with nonchalance—even disrespect, perhaps even a bit of abuse. The idea is to show how little you care.

In her last public appearances, Winehouse was stick thin and gaunt. She was terribly and obviously shattered. She was booed on stage when she was clearly in distress. Her decline was Internet fodder.

The fashion industry has done well in helping folks see beauty in imperfections. But you can’t help wondering whether fashion also has made it more difficult for the public to distinguish between broken-down dolls and broken-down people.