Most-discussed model this year: writer Joan Didion, 80

Joan Didion appeared in an advertisement for Celine and churned up a flurry of discussion in the fashion press.
Joan Didion appeared in an advertisement for Celine and churned up a flurry of discussion in the fashion press.PHOTO: CELINE

NEW YORK • The most-discussed fashion model this year did not, like some of her colleagues, earn US$44 million (S$62 million) or shave her head. She did not even leave her apartment.

There she was, in her New York home, hidden as usual behind a pair of sunglasses: writer Joan Didion, on the Upper East Side, in an advertisement by Juergen Teller for the much watched and even more copied French label, Celine.

Though Ms Phoebe Philo, Celine's designer, had said nothing about the choice, then or since, she was more or less the only one. The fashion press and social media churned with goggle-eyed appreciation, think pieces, takes and tributes, and a few reality checks and reconsiderations.

Didion, firm in her froideur, professed not to notice.

"I don't have any clue," she told The New York Times of the cacophony that ensued. "I have no idea."

The choice was, in a way, prophetic. This year , fashion's gaze returned again and again to older women. Didion had just turned 80 when the advertisement appeared. Days after the Celine images arrived, a Saint Laurent campaign including singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell followed. The following month, Barneys New York released a whole catalogue's worth of photos of Pat Cleveland, Christie Brinkley and Bethann Hardison, among others, frolicking with gentlemen some decades their junior.

But the Celine campaign resonated beyond the boundaries of the fashion community.

The London Review Of Books is not in the habit of commenting on fashion campaigns, as it did on Didion's. It was a high-water mark in what was to be a long year of Didion fixation and fascination.

In October last year, a proposed documentary on Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live, began soliciting donations on Kickstarter. Directed by the writer's nephew, Griffin Dunne, and Susanne Rostock, with the participation of Didion, it billed itself as "the first and only documentary about Joan Didion".

The goal was to raise US$80,000. It raised US$221,135 and was the third-highest-funded documentary on Kickstarter last year.

That wild success speaks to the enduring appeal of the writer, whose carefully crafted image and work have become canonical. Though her work has long been appreciated and revered, the Didion whose star rose this year is as much icon as author.

Appreciation of her work has often dovetailed with appreciation of her style, both on and off the page, which may explain the particular affection (and the surprising synergy) between her and the fashion industry.

Several industry insiders worked to promote her efforts to fund the documentary, including journalist Laura Brown of Harper's Bazaar and stylist Christopher Niquet.

"Her controlled first person helps imbue the writer's habits with the lambent glamour of a lifestyle- magazine spread," Nathan Heller wrote in an essay titled Why Joan Didion Matters More Than Ever. It appeared on the website of Vogue, itself an organ of lambent glamour.

"She has been an object of aspirational longing," Meghan Daum wrote in The Atlantic's September issue, one of many Didion considerations to come out this year.

The potential downside of this fetish for Didion's aesthetic is that it may eclipse the fetish for her writing. "She's now idolised so much for being in the Celine ad, by girls who maybe don't even know she's a writer," said Joana Avillez, an illustrator who sketched Didion for a T-shirt given as a thank you to Kickstarter supporters who contributed US$50 or more. "Reading her work is not necessarily part of the fascination with her. It's like, 'Look at her huge sunglasses'."

Two pairs of Didion's own sunglasses were offered as Kickstarter gifts to those who gave US$2,500 or more; both were snapped up.

Still, this year has brought more fans to the fold.

"I'm a recent convert to Joan Didion, whom I've been meaning to read for years and finally got around to," Ms Kim Gordon, herself a style icon, told The Times Book Review in February.

"How cool is it that Celine chose her for its new ad campaign? I want those sunglasses," she said.

Didion has not only become fashionable, but she has also become fashion: painted onto the back of a limited-edition leather jacket and used as the namesake and guiding spirit for an expanding line of slouchy womenswear.

For an icon of both the publishing and the style worlds, it was probably a foregone conclusion that she would find her way onto a tote bag too. And so she has, on an "it" bag even harder to come by than one of Celine's.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2015, with the headline 'Most-discussed model this year: writer Joan Didion, 80'. Print Edition | Subscribe