Fashion Icon or Fabulous Clothes Horse?

Zendaya Coleman
Photo: Getty Images

On November 10, Zendaya Coleman will become the 14th and youngest recipient of the CFDA Fashion Icon Award. Zendaya is a triple threat: she sings, dances and acts. She is drop-dead gorgeous, tall, thin, and can wear anything at the age of 25. A glorious clotheshorse for sure, but a Fashion Icon? What exactly is Zendaya’s influence on global or American fashion?

A Fashion Icon, by definition, should be someone who is exalted and held to the highest standards. It should be elitist; this is not a popularity contest. More and more, it seems those who are selected are done so by their instant recognition and their ability to bring a buzz factor to the CFDA Awards Gala.

Diana Vreeland

How can one be an icon at the age of 25, and more importantly, how can you be a Fashion Icon based solely on red carpet images and collaboration with a stylist? That’s not reality. When I ruminate on the term Fashion Icon, I conjure up women like Coco Chanel, Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Diana Vreeland, Gloria Vanderbilt, Lee Radziwill, Jane Birkin, Elsa Peretti, Deeda Blair, Betty Catroux, etc. and the wonderful, inspiring way these women present or presented themselves during the daytime; for their real lives, not just for special occasions.

It got me thinking about this much-overused label. How do you define Fashion Icon? Are there any individuals genuinely worthy of this accolade today? I reached out to three fashion insiders, each of whom could be considered an icon in their own right, and asked them to weigh in on the subject.

Yes, there are icons, and they live quietly without the Cardi B noise that fashion has come to need.

Ralph Rucci
Elsa Peretti and her dog Hilda
Photo Courtesy Tiffany & Company

Ralph Rucci believes the honor should be reserved for those who “lead and have led our culture.” Ralph’s ‘Big 10’: Elsa Peretti, Jane Goodall, Sophia Lauren, Betty Catroux, Jane Fonda, Patti Smith, Princess Caroline of Hanover, Joy Reid, Deeda Blair, Margaret Russell. Agreed Ralph!

There is a variety of criteria that goes into naming a CFDA Fashion Icon, and I do believe Zendaya has made and continues to make great strides in her fashion choices – even if they are selected by Law Roach. Fashion loves her and vice versa. Is she an “Icon” in the more traditional sense? That remains to be seen…but I am looking forward to seeing what she wears.

Fern Mallis

Fern Mallis named her popular conversation series at 92 Street Y “Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis” but agrees it is a term that is subjective and overused. Fern selects fashion, publishing, photography, or business people she believes deserve that title. “They are people who “inspire, have achieved a serious measure of success or have overcome obstacles and challenges in their field, and they excite me and make me want to know more about them and their journey. They are people who ”pay it forward,” says Mallis, “and they use their success to give back, advance others, and leave a mark on society.” Amy Fine Collins, who Fern interviewed is one of these individuals.

Amy Fine Collins

Amy and I went through the list of past CFDA Fashion Icon honorees, examined how the award has evolved since its inception in 2002, looked at the connection between the International Best Dressed List (IBDL) and the Fashion Icon honorees, and suggested individuals who might have made better choices this year. We are on the same page.

The term icon degrades the whole idea of what we’re trying to address. I won’t even use the word “icon” in my writings. Everything and anything is described as iconic these days. When it can be used to describe a handbag or perfume bottle the word becomes meaningless, especially in connection with fashion.

Amy Fine Collins
C.Z. Guest
Photographed by Slim Aarons

C.Z. Guest was the first CFDA Fashion Icon honoree. The American stage actress, author, columnist, horsewoman, fashion designer, and socialite was 82 years old at the time (she passed away one year later). C.Z. was elegant and patrician, the essence of quintessential American style, and an International Best Dressed Hall of Famer. “After that, I thought they would be looking for similar mature women and possibly men who were around for a long time who had a long and varied life and a cumulative impact on culture. But then that switched,” notes Amy.

Nicole Kidman

With the award in 2003, Nicole Kidman, a IBDL Hall of Famer, ushered in the celebrity as a fashion star. She represented the convergence between the idea of eternal style and the dazzle of celebrity, Her look is unquestionably enduring, and her style is consistent.

I asked Amy if one can be considered a Fashion Icon without being on the International Best Dressed List. She noted that ideally, there should be a connection, and yes, there was. Out of the 13 CFDA Fashion Icon honorees thus far, only one never made the list: JLO, who was honored in 2019. JLO is many things. Fashion icon she is not. FYI, Amy believes Zendaya certainly has potential, but she’s not there yet. It’s too soon to tell if or when she will make the list.

Amy and I agreed that the list of honorees was not as off the mark as we might have expected. “Still, says Amy, “we should be honoring our elders as there are so few of them left. And we should be honoring those who have a long term proven influence and a seasoned perspective on self-expression through clothing”. By that definition, Amy assuredly fits the bill.

Daphne Guinness
Photo: Pinterest

Amy says she once penned in Gloria Vanderbilt and would have loved to see the award go to other women who are equally passionate about their self-presentation, like Isabella Blow, Anna Piaggi, and Daphne Guinness. “There was a moment the fashion world had quite an obsession about Guinness, and she gave ideas to people about how you can use fashion as identity,” notes Fine Collins.

Betty Catroux
Photographed by Steven Meisel

The CFDA Board of Trustees selects the honorees. While Fashion Guild members can sometimes write in their suggestions, that was not the case with this year’s voting process. If I could have offered suggestions, Betty Catroux, who has an enduring influence on fashion, would top my list. It’s all about genderless fashion these days and Catroux, muse to Yves Saint Laurent, epitomizes the idea of androgynous beauty. The ageless 76-year-old is the inspiration behind YSL’s most iconic creations: the tuxedo, the safari jacket the trench coat, the pantsuit.

Diane Keaton

That being said, I really believe this year more than any, we should be honoring an American. Diane Keaton may not be the first woman to promote a borrowed from the boy’s approach to dressing, but she sure put it on the map, dreaming up her own costumes for Annie Hall. Diane remains consistently quirky and she completely owns her unique look. Talk about an American original!

Deeda Blair wearing Ralph Rucci
Photo: Pinterest

And what about Deeda Blair, who is consistently and flawlessly put together, accomplished and remarkable in every way? There are so few women of that ilk left. Deeda, named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame, has impeccable taste and is always classic, chic, and elegant in her rigorously understated haute couture. Perhaps most impressive is how serious Deeda is about her philanthropy and the work she quietly does in the world of scientific research (AIDS, mental health, cancer).

The CFDA had an opportunity to make the Fashion Icon award more meaningful this year. The accolade is an honor that should stand for more than just a pretty face, a great body, a diligent stylist, and a huge following. Instead of going for the youngest honoree thus far, why not give the award to the oldest? Iris Apfel! My gosh. The woman just turned 100, and she is still dressing up, working, collaborating, and with over 2.1 million Instagram followers,

Iris Apfel

Iris still inspires. She has her own extraordinarily unique look, and it has never changed. And let’s not forget that Apfel, who founded Old World Weavers in 1950 with Carl, was first and foremost an interior designer who worked with the wives of nine presidents on the White House. Impressive any way you look at it.

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

  1. Yes! Agree agree agree. Zendaya is gorgeous, but hardly an icon. At least, not yet. Great examples in this article ?

  2. You are so right on target. So sad there are so few reporters today who really understand and write about real fashion. Excellent article

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