Arts + Culture

Joni Mitchell, Joan Didion, and Justin Bieber: Fashion’s New Superstars

There were many plaudits when Joni Mitchell and Joan Didion were announced as the new faces of two major houses. It's welcome to feature older models, for sure, but are the campaigns really that radical?

01.14.15 10:50 AM ET

Why do you buy clothes? Need? Panic? Pleasure? When do you buy them? A pinched, free hour on a Saturday, or a whole afternoon with cocktail breaks? Do the advertisements in glossy magazines, or fashion spreads featuring expensive threads and famous people, seduce you so totally that you will shell out hundreds, thousands of dollars to look as glamorous or hot as they do?

Fashion labels must have done this basic research and sunnily concluded, “You betcha,” because in just a week three celebrities have featured in three very different clothing company advertisements.

There were many cheers—silent, audible, and articulate cheers—when first the writer Joan Didion was announced the face of Céline, whose creative director is Phoebe Philo. Then the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was announced as the face of Saint Laurent.

There is a cuckoo in the nest: Around the same time, Justin Bieber appeared with his tight, taut body packed into a pair of Calvin Klein underpants. This advertisement definitely didn’t work for this reader: It immediately made me want to wear baggy, unattractive boxer shorts forever, because who would want to ape or emulate that spoiled, rude, entitled brat?

Of course, as everything surrounding Bieber tends to do, even this seemingly basic exhibition of his chiseled torso devolved into an unseemly spat and possible lawsuit around accusations that his abs were Photoshopped.

At the classier end of the spectrum, some have hailed Didion and Mitchell’s inclusion in the Céline and Saint Laurent campaigns as refreshing correctives to the norm of most fashion advertising that excludes older people. Praise also has been lavished on the labels for celebrating women known for their intelligent, profound words. These women’s minds and lyrical expressiveness are prized above their bodies.

In the Céline ad, Didion—photographed by Juergen Teller—is pictured in black, with a big pair of fuck-off sunglasses, looking like a cool Mafioso in the glare of her own greatness. She has a masterful look of disdain on her face, as if the photographer is interrupting her.

Alexandra Jacobs captured Didion’s tone perfectly in The New York Times after the news broke: “They got in touch with me,” Jacobs quoted Didion as saying in a tone “as crisp as one of Phoebe Philo’s cotton tunics.”

Mitchell, wearing a YSL fedora, an embroidered tunic made from Saint Laurent's Folk collection, and a barely visible cape that Saint Laurent’s creative director Hedi Slimane made for her, looks luminescent, softer than the hard-edged framing of Didion but just as commanding. Slimane himself shot Mitchell at her Bel Air home.

“It’s depressing to see your idols used to sell expensive clothes,” said Hadley Freeman in The Guardian.

She’s right: However cool the clothing labels deem both women, however brilliant their contributions to culture, however great that their age is celebrated in these photographs, they’re now also part of the fashion world—that gigantic consumerist maw that creates trends, crazes, and moments, just to make us spend stupid amounts of money to look like each other. Or to convince us to spend even larger amounts of money to look special.

The depressing thing about seeing the faces of Didion and Mitchell on these campaigns is that their artistry has hitherto transcended all the madness of trends and “fashion.”

These women did their own thing, whatever fashion trend happened to be passing outside.

Now they have been co-opted by the industry, and their images used on advertisements that propose we spend our money on overpriced clothes and perfumes and handbags.

The two women’s images—women whose professional worth and social standing floats above the perfect dress and right lipstick—are now part of the inflated consumerism that fashion embodies.

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But of course, Didion has a publisher, and Mitchell a record company, both of which encourage us to buy their books and albums. They’re no strangers to the importance of marketing and selling themselves. But their art, the pleasure they give, is rooted in the reader and listener’s imagination, not on the sale rack.

This, of course, is what Céline and Saint Laurent are buying into and trading off: They are selling the cultural importance of the two women. Two companies that place looks above all else are using the perceived intellectual and artistic importance of their latest models above their looks to generate profit for their clothes.

Didion and Mitchell’s signings show Planet Fashion apparently uncomfortable with selling its wares nakedly, and commercially. Quite besides the women’s ages and the lack of lithe bodies on display, there isn’t even much overt clothes-selling going on in the images—Céline and Saint Laurent hope to be enhanced in association with these two cultural powerhouses.

This is fashion advertising, de-fashioned. Its cool is rooted in perception and association. It’s clever because it also targets older customers with money and younger customers who don’t want to be sold fashion blatantly, who’d rather say they listened to Joni Mitchell or read Joan Didion than cared about investing in a Céline blouse or Saint Laurent folk tunic.

All that makes the Bieber ad refreshingly direct and also brave on Calvin Klein’s part. Bieber’s star has been so tarnished in the public’s mind, you might wonder at the wisdom of anyone using his face and body to sell anything. But the Klein logic seems to be “better to be talked about than not.” It doesn’t matter what is being said about Bieber, just that so much is being said, so why not partake in the gyre?

A few months ago, I noted that the singer, buffeted by bad press, was using his smooth, hard boy-man body to sell himself, even while the audience booed him as he did so. But that behavior racked up Internet clicks (oh, quelle coincidence—Calvin Klein briefs!), as have these new, controversy-laced Klein advertisements.

What connects Bieber to Mitchell and Didion, however they are clad and whatever their age and pursuits, is the simple maxim “celebrity sells,” and to fine, ivory-towered or lefty-hippie minds as much as those marinated in pop culture. What would have been really radical would have been to have Didion and Mitchell shot swaggering in their underwear, and Bieber, fully clothed, reading The Brothers Karamazov.