Lady Gaga Defines a New Role: Fashion Enabler

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What is going on with Lady Gaga?

I’ve been wondering this ever since fashion’s erstwhile most outrageous influencer, the woman who accepted her CFDA Fashion Icon award in a spiked Thierry Mugler bustier, thong and sheer bodysuit (with a train so heavy it led to a peekaboo wardrobe malfunction), decided to celebrate her 30th birthday in a gold Saint Laurent minidress pretty much straight off the runway of the label’s most recent is-it-couture-or-is-it-not Paris collection. (Those of us who were there never quite figured it out.) And not just the dress, but the entire look, from the red lipstick to the upswept hair.

It shouldn’t have been entirely surprising: Lady Gaga, whose real name is Stefani Germanotta, has been dressing straight from the pages of Vogue for a while now, from her Balenciaga at the Met Ball to her black velvet Versace bombshell gown at the Golden Globes, her red sequined Gucci pantsuit at the Super Bowl and her royal blue Marc Jacobs embroidered David Bowie “tribute” at the Grammys.

But placed in context, over the trajectory of her career, the Saint Laurent look was nevertheless a shock. It is about as far from the meat dress of the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards as one celebrity can get. (You remember: the frock made of raw beef, complete with matching boots, by the designer Franc Fernandez that was chosen as Time’s fashion statement of the year.)

Think of this way: from flank steak to Saint Laurent in six years. That’s quite a trajectory.

Though it seems to have provoked a flood of nostalgic slide shows along the lines of “Lady Gaga’s Most Outrageous Outfits,” as if in acknowledgment that what we once saw we may no longer see again — that perhaps, on entering her fourth decade, she is all grown up now, or at least all dressed up — instead of thinking her voice has been silenced by fashion, perhaps it is worth listening a little harder to what it is saying. After all, she is a woman who built her career in part on understanding how image can bolster and reflect the power of her music and her message. There’s no reason to think that has changed.

All pop stars — all stars, for that matter — need to transform their images, or at least need to try (otherwise they risk, like Madonna, becoming a parody of themselves), but Lady Gaga’s journey from adolescent rebel in armadillo shoes and latex, forcing viewers and fans to wrestle with their own ideas about beauty and received ideas, to designer doppelgänger has been one of the more striking transformations.

She still has her moments of wardrobe extremis, it is true, last year sporting a see-through net dress on a trip to London, and wearing a bra and panties over ripped tights to the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction and awards last year, but the critical mass of her recent public appearances and even the pictures on her Instagram feed have been awfully polished and apropos.

Though peers like Rihanna, Beyoncé and Adele have all worked with various designers at different points (Adele, for example, is being dressed by Burberry for her “25” world tour), I can’t think of another who has gone from outré to establishment with quite the same level of commitment — and without using her appearance as a vehicle to introduce her own fashion brand, or at least a collaboration with a fashion brand, but rather as an instrument for other fashion brands.

On the one hand, you could see this as simply assuming a new costume for a new career stage, playing another role, especially since it can be traced to the rollout of her fourth album, “Cheek to Cheek,” a compilation of jazz standards made in collaboration with Tony Bennett, or even as yet another example of the way fashion co-opts its own theoretic antitheses, be they ripped jeans or down jackets, and adapts them into its own version of the same. But I think something more subversive is going on. Rather than suddenly becoming conventional, Lady Gaga is, in fact, turning a certain convention on its head.

Because in hewing so closely to the industry line, she is actually doing something kind of radical — potentially even more radical than the early-career look-at-me stuff of hatching from an egg in yolk-colored latex at the 2011 Grammys, or playing the piano in a coat made of plastic bubbles. She is challenging a dearly held convention of celebrity that says that whatever you wear, you must be the dominant brand in the relationship: Your look must trump anyone else’s look.

It is not insignificant that despite all the hoo-ha about her appearance on Marc Jacobs’s runway during New York Fashion Week in February and the expectation that something major was about to happen, all that did occur was that she walked the room like every other model in the show. If she hadn’t been so much shorter than the rest of the cast, it would have been impossible to pick her out of the lineup. (As it was, most of the guests were left scratching their heads and whispering to one another, “Was that her?” She wasn’t saying.)

The point was pretty clear: that designers are legitimate artists with their own specific aesthetic, and it would be disrespectful to try to do what they do, or to alter it. It is in a sense a continuation of her campaign to elevate the outcast — believe it or not. For while fashion may be famous for its elitism, it has long been seen, and often sees itself, as the stepchild of the art world; the less worthy creative form. We all have our complexes.

Whatever you think of that, Lady Gaga, it seems, would beg to differ. She has cast herself not in the role of “muse,” a cliché these days if there ever was one, but rather as an enabler of fashion. Both for already existing designers, and those who would be, like Lady Gaga’s former stylist Nicola Formichetti, founder of his own label, Nicopanda, and artistic director of Diesel, and her current collaborator, Brandon Maxwell, who introduced a namesake label in 2015, is currently a finalist for the LVMH young designers prize, and whose ivory jumpsuit/gown she wore to the Oscars in February.

She’s playing their tune. Crazy.

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