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Justine Harman Headshot

Celebrity as Avatar

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The film Avatar has had a profound effect on pop culture. The mere idea of possessing an avatar, and being able to operate strictly behind scenes, has people everywhere fantasizing about what their projection would look like. For the past four years, I have devoted my professional life to fashion -- one of the most visible and image-conscious industries in the world. The professionals who make up this tight-knit community earn their living by pushing their visions and desires on others. And as an industry, we were long ago presented with our own avatars: celebrities.

A designer and his muse is one of the oldest legacies in our industry. Audrey Hepburn famously inspired designer Hubert de Givenchy and the image of Hepburn in a little black dress is forever burned into our collective memories. But as celebrity exposure has become increasingly integral to a designer's commercial success, the role of the celebrity in fashion has changed. It is common for a single sample to be shipped between continents if there is even the slightest chance a famous actress will wear it. Designers spend thousands of dollars each season gifting celebrities and willingly alter one-of-a-kind couture because a celebrity stylist says so. And as a result of having to spend the bulk of our professional lives catering to these elusive, and often finicky characters, fashion professionals have reduced celebrities to nothing more than communication entities; brainless vehicles to our various agendas.

It all became clear to me when I overheard a conversation at work one day. My colleagues were casually discussing well-known celebrities and the intricacies of their personal lives. While many industry professionals are exposed to talent on a regular basis, the bulk of industry insiders are only acquaintances with the stars, nothing more. Yet, the constant proximity lends to the commonly accepted practice of talking about public figures with not only reckless abandonment, but entitlement. The two women were matter-of-factly discussing that a young actress looked like she had gained weight and that she was considered a "loser" among her co-stars. The snickers barely died down before several dresses were sent to her stylist for consideration.

In the industry, we talk about celebrities we don't know with a hostility that is only reserved for the defenseless. But given the opportunity to air their grievances to that young actress' face, it is more likely that my colleagues would opt to proffer adulation over pity. It is this bipolarity that characterizes our industry. Overzealous fan sites like "Olsens Anonymous" or "I Want to Be a Roitfeld" exemplify the sometimes-disturbing foil to snide gossip sites like "The Fug Girls" and "Perez Hilton."

As celebrities become an increasingly inextricable component of the fashion industry, the creative legitimacy of our designers suffers. A celebrity wearing a dress at an event now represents little more than email blasts, on-page credits and designer bragging rights. The New York Times' Cathy Horyn critiqued last Sunday's Golden Globes fashions as "paper-doll variation[s] on styles of the past few years" pointing the finger at " mediocre design." She continued to hypothesize that "maybe the best designers now prefer to stay away from the awards shows, and the actresses, worried about bad publicity, don't know the difference anymore." What started out as a symbiotic relationship between two parties has devolved into an ugly political struggle devoid of any creative input.

Is this the image we want representing us as an industry? Personally, I always thought my avatar would be a little better looking.