Money for nothing and your clothes for free

What is a "fashion muse," and how can I become one?

Published July 16, 2001 7:11PM (EDT)

Since I'm always on the lookout for a job that offers fame, flexibility and free stuff in exchange for very little work, the designation of "fashion muse" lately has been catching my eye. The last few years have seen an out-and-out fashion muse explosion. It seems as though every Manhattan worthy, a few of the trendier starlets and a couple of receptionists have laid claim to the title. So I wonder, quite naturally: Why not me?

Fashion magazines love the word "muse" and use it at every possible opportunity. Occasionally it makes an appearance as a non sequitur. Once used to describe the elegant female friend of a well-known designer (Babe Paley, for example, or Slim Keith), it is now extremely trendy, if not threadbare, as words go. This is not surprising since the word "muse," if one ignores its very specific meaning, can cover a lot of bases: Its link to mythology and fine art elicits glamorous thoughts; it lacks the unpleasant ring of words like "socialite" or "dilettante"; and it can be applied to anyone fashionable at the slightest provocation since in most cases, those to whom it is being applied don't actually know what it means.

Vogue is crawling with socialite "muses." Very rich person Amanda Brooks was recently written up for being Tuleh's muse. Women's Wear Daily called ubiquitous socialite Brook de Ocampo Galliano's "muse-in-training." Vanessa Getty, apparently, is muse to Michael Kors.

So what do muses do? It varies, of course, but it's hard to put a hard point on it. They inspire, they suggest, they encourage, they shop. How does one become a muse? It just happens -- if you're very well-connected, elegant, stylish, attractive, rich, aristocratic or, ideally, all of the above.

Cool parents help, too. Zoe Cassavetes and Sofia Coppola, for example, are co-muses to designer Marc Jacobs. Cassavetes is also muse to hotelier Ian Shrager.

"I always wanted to be someone's muse," Cassavetes told Women's Wear Daily last year. "When Ian approached me to be the artistic leader of his empire, I was totally flattered. It sounds glamourous, but it's a lot of hard work."

In her role as artistic leader of Shrager's empire, Cassavetes has "curated" the Hudson hotel's library to resemble an actual library featuring books and leather club chairs.

"It's so romantic and cozy in here," Cassavetes told WWD. "Everything in here is artistically interactive, from the chess tables to the music to the books."

It's not easy to get to the bottom of what a muse is when the job itself is so mercurial. In fact, it's so mercurial that sometimes it's not a job and sometimes it is. After several preliminary phone calls, I come away with this information: Designers have always had muses; muses are usually the stylish female friends who inspire them; muses embody a sort of ideal woman (and/or ideal client) onto which designers can project their ideas; muses remind gay, male designers what women look like. Also, they get their pictures in magazines; they sometimes run errands for their designers; and there appears to be no application process for the hopeful or trade union for the "hired."

Questions keep forming, like tiny bubbles: Are muses paid? Sometimes they are, though monetary compensation of muses seems to be a fairly new trend. Are muses required to be faithful to one designer, or can they flit about Paris and New York, inspiring at random? It's hard to say, though some muse "defections" have been famously acrimonious.

A cursory data search for "fashion muse" yields some information on the question of whether there is any money in being a muse, or if it's generally more of a hobby. It turns out that occasionally there is money involved, though usually only after a long dry spell (if the muse is naturally rich) or after prior gainful employment (if the muse was a stylist or editor.) After Georgina Brandolini, Valentino's unpaid muse of 22 years, left Valentino, she became the well-salaried director of the couture house Balmain. Lady Amanda Harlech was John Galliano's unpaid muse 12 years until he went to Dior. (Her job there, according to Suzy Menkes of the New York Times, sometimes involved changing clothes "four, five, sometimes six times a day" or announcing, "I like red.") Eventually, she left Galliano for Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, where her salary is now in the six figures.

Victoire de Castellane, career muse and accessories designer, made the inverse trip from Chanel to Dior -- nearly sparking a Trojan War-like conflict in the process. Lagerfeld told Women's Wear Daily in response to de Castellane's defection to Dior: "All the people we don't make an effort to keep [at Chanel] seem to go to Dior. It's our poubelle." (That's French for garbage can.) To which a spokesman for Dior promptly replied that the company planned to sue Lagerfeld over his "abusive comments."

Still feeling slightly confused and no closer to figuring out my new goal of becoming a professional fashion muse and trendsetter, I call Charla Carter, a freelance fashion stylist and journalist who has lived in Paris for 20 years. She was kind enough to speak to me from a hair salon where she was getting her highlights done.

I ask Carter if she could explain exactly what a muse is, what she does and how one becomes one.

"A muse is a woman who is generally quite chic and cultivated," says Carter. "She tends to be an inspiration for a fashion designer. A lot of designers live in a bell jar, and they tend to surround themselves with people from the street. I put that in quotes, by the way: 'the street.'"

(She put that in quotes because calling the place where most muses come from "the street" is sort of like calling a late-model Mercedes "the donkey cart.")

John Galliano's current muse, Carter says, is the half-French, half-American, all-stylish Vanessa Bellanger, a "stunning, tall slim blond" who worked for a while as a receptionist in the same building as the designer. How did she transition from phone jockey to muse? "She was very young and John saw her, and because she's quite stunning and had a great sense of personal style, John said, 'Hey, you should come work for me.'"

Then I ask Carter what she thinks of actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow (who has been called a muse to Calvin Klein and Armani) being called muses.

"Gwyneth Paltrow posed in an ad with a Dior handbag two years ago -- she's not a muse," replies Carter. "She was a paid ambassador for Christian Dior. I mean, she's not Carine Roitfeld."

Roitfeld is the current editor of French Vogue, who previously worked as a stylist with fashion photographer Mario Testino and collaborated with Tom Ford for seven years.

"She helped him choose the models for his shows," Carter says. "She helped him decide on the silhouettes. She put together some of the collections with him. She was almost an unofficial designer. That to me is a muse. Not Gwyneth Paltrow."

The subject has evidently touched a nerve, but it is easy to see why. The definition of muse is broad enough, it seems, to cover the unsung worker bees of the fashion world and the attention-loving couture client. Actresses and models are credited with being "muses," when often they simply wear the clothes in public -- sometimes for a fee.

"For example, Emmanuelle Ungaro dresses the French actress Sophie Marceau for all her public appearances," Carter says. "But in my book, she's not a muse. I don't think she inspires Ungaro. I think there's a difference between a muse and what the French would call an ambassadrice. I think a muse has to inspire and encourage and reflect a facet of that particular designer's creativity for her to be considered a muse."

Next, I call Simon Doonan, creative director at Barney's New York, who has some similar -- and some dissimilar -- opinions on the mercurial job of fashion muse. Since Doonan writes funny fashion columns for the New York Observer, I imagine, as I dial, that the two of us will soon be sharing a throaty laugh together.

"I thought you were my car downstairs," he says, "to take me to the airport."

Still, I am able to get in my question, which is: "What is a fashion muse, what does she do and are there different types of muses?"

"Well, I love to make fun of the silliness of the fashion world," he says. "But I do think that muses are very important because most designers are men. They can't create from thin air. Certain women are very inspiring to the designers they work with."

Unlike Carter, Doonan feels it is a "democratization of the muse" that is needed so that designers would start designing for a wider variety of people. Fashion insider-type muses and wildly esoteric muses should be replaced by more popular figures that people can identify with, he says.

"Like Gwyneth Paltrow?" I ask.

"Or Missy Elliott," he replies.

"The big fashion muses tend to be fashion insiders now," Doonan continues. "People like Lisa Eisner and Carine Roitfeld. Formerly, I think, they were more popular figures that women could identify with."

(It's possible he was referring to people like Audrey Hepburn was to Givenchy or Jackie Kennedy was to Oleg Cassini. There was not time to ask.)

"Do most muses get paid?" I query as I imagine him hanging up, suitcase in hand.

"No," he says. "I think it's a collaborative relationship. Certain women are very inspiring to designers. They chat, they hang out, they work together, they exchange ideas. I don't think those relationships are characterized by formal contracts and salaries. I think they are characterized by bonhomie and camaraderie."

Doonan, still trying valiantly to catch his plane, suggests I call Lisa Eisner, famous one-time muse to both Isaac Mizrahi and Tom Ford. I send Lisa an e-mail and she replies enthusiastically: "I can't wait to see what all these muses have to say for themselves."

It turns out that Eisner met Mizrahi while both were working at Perry Ellis and Mizrahi was not yet famous. They became very good friends. So what made her come to be known as Mizrahi's muse? What did she do?

"I would send him stuff. I would see something and say, 'This is so Isaac.'"

A few years later, Eisner's picture was on a Gucci billboard on Sunset Boulevard. Eisner is not a model, but a former fashion editor turned photographer. Nevertheless, she was Tom Ford's muse, so there she was.

How, in the name of all that is sweet and good, does one become Tom Ford's muse?

"I was working for Vogue in Paris, and Tom's boyfriend was living there, too, and we got to be really good friends."

But how do you go from friend to muse?

"You hang out, maybe you wear something," she says. I am frustrated. I am no closer to finding the path to my new chosen career than I was when I started. Then, suddenly Eisner perks up.

"I don't have that many gifts of talent," she says, "but one of the things I'm sort of 'gifted' in -- I don't know where the hell it takes you -- is that I can sort of pull something together really quickly. You know how people can throw a meal together in ten minutes? Well, I can sort of do that [with clothes]. Thank God! I wish you could get paid a lot of money for doing that.

"I love vintage, I'm a hunter for that. I find great things that don't look so vintage-y, that seem new. I put a lot of work into it. So, they were inspired by the fact that I was wearing vintage that seemed right. Not always, because I promise you there are some major clunkers in there that I wear, too. But that's what designers are looking for: What's the next thing, what feels good, what's right now.

"For a while," Eisner continues, "the vintage thing was like my schooling. I learned more than I did in fashion school. I don't even see it as shopping. Shopping -- that word creeps me out. I'm a hunter. Oh well, I'm sure it's the same thing. I'm a shopper. But, I'll tell you, it's very time-consuming, this thing. I mean, it's practically like a full-time job. I mean, I don't do it anymore just because I actually have other interests now."

(Eisner quit working in fashion to become a photographer and start her own press with her partner.)

"But those girls that shop and are in magazines a lot -- that's like a full-time job," she continues. "I semirespect them, because they do spend a lot of time looking good. I mean, that is a lot of work. Going to a Vanity Fair party? It takes, like, two weeks of your life. At some point it's like -- oh my God, do I want to spend the rest of my life doing this? And then you say yes or no. No! I've got things to do!"

Finally, I ask Eisner what she dreamed of becoming while she was growing up. Was it always her ambition to become a muse? Does she have any advice for girls who dream of growing up and becoming a muse?

"I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo.," Eisner says. "It was like living in Russia. But when you live in a small town you have these dreams, and because you're not exposed to anything, you dream through magazines. I guess young girls are dreaming about all these socialites and muses now. It's funny to think that someone somewhere is saying, 'One day, I'm going to grow up and be a muse!' I have no idea how you would go about doing that."

Alas, nor do I.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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