The Big 2-5. With its September print issue, InStyle magazine celebrates its 25th anniversary. The magazine launched just as fashion was in the early throes of its passionate love affair with celebrities of the Hollywood sort, and well into the transition from supermodel to celebrity covers that would ultimately rule unchallenged until social media provided the classic model genre a platform for self-reinvention. InStyle’s maiden raison d’être was to cover and celebrate celebrity culture, and in homage to that heritage, celebrity is a key element of the anniversary tome. This print issue hits newsstands on Aug. 16, with stories posting throughout August.
Now, at a fractured time in the culture and fashion, the issue, via its two major fashion features, provides a delightful reminder of fashion’s purpose at its most basic level — to bring joy while helping women realize their most beautiful selves. And if along the way glam celebrities offer some inspiration, all the better. The cover story features the divine Julianne Moore in a smart interview with Helena Christensen. Moore wears fashion from the decade of InStyle’s birth, the Nineties, in a shoot by Phil Poynter styled by Karla Welch. The other major piece, written by Eric Wilson, features a 32-page portfolio photographed by Sebastian Faena and styled by Julia Von Boehm focused on — what else? — dazzling red-carpet regalia, a selection of some of the most memorable looks of the past 25 years as determined by the magazine’s editors. The fashion for both stories was overseen by market and accessories director Sam Broekema.
With one exception, the Marc Jacobs Redux Grunge look that opens the Nineties story, all of the clothes are original to the period, which meant an odyssey of acquisition. Having worked on a piece with a similar concept for the 30th anniversary issue of W Magazine in 2002, when that title was still sister publication to WWD, I know what such a quest entails. For that finite, stressful window (fashion stressful, not real-life stressful) between “great idea” and shoot date, the process owns the lives of those involved in it. At least it did ours.
As InStyle commenced its hunt, the editors found that in many cases, the stars own the dresses, and getting someone in their camps to pay attention wasn’t always easy. “People are very busy, people are trying to live in the now. So to just get them to look back, it could get crazy,” Broekema says. Conversely, some celebrities take meticulous care of items they know to be special. He describes Nicole Kidman as incredibly organized, with a savvy approach to fashion preservation. The glorious Dior couture gown by John Galliano that she wore to the 1997 Oscars arrived “in immaculate condition with the cute little cedar blocks and a picture of Nicole in the dress,” he says. In some cases, no one knew exactly where the dress was. “That was the main issue,” Broekema notes.
Once located, there was another hurdle. Any journalist who does multisource stories is familiar with the often-posed, irritating question, “Who else is participating?” Here, Charlize Theron was a major help, quickly committing her orange Vera Wang and embroidered Gucci from the 2000 and 2004 Oscars, respectively. Once she signed on, her name provided leverage with other actresses.
At its inception, Broekema’s red-carpet anniversary idea focused on an exhibit of major dresses to coincide with the InStyle Awards in Los Angeles in October, and planning continues for that event. From there, it was a short leap to the addition of a major fashion shoot. In determining which dresses to include, InStyle’s research team was called into action. “They went through exhaustive research of every dress that we have covered in the last 25 years and we realized that was just way too much information,” Wilson says. “So we all just thought about what dresses we would pick if we were in a dream world.”
Dreams and reality sometimes overlap but seldom align perfectly. Editor in chief Laura Brown is both decisive and “a little impatient,” according to Wilson. “To the point, Laura wanted the 25 selected the next day.” Among those on the original list: Kidman’s aforementioned Dior, Gwyneth’s Paltrow’s pink princess Ralph Lauren, Theron’s Vera Wang, Cate Blanchett’s backless Gaultier, Lupita Nyong’o’s “Nairobi blue” Prada, Elizabeth Hurley’s Versace safety pin dress, Angelina Jolie’s white Marc Bouwer. All of those would ultimately be secured. Among looks that remained elusive: J.Lo’s famous slashed-to-there green Versace and Celine Dion’s backward Dior tuxedo, neither of which could be located; Bjork’s swan dress, currently otherwise engaged, in the Met’s “Camp” exhibit, and Uma Thurman’s lilac Prada, which was auctioned off years ago as part of a Barneys New York AIDS Benefit.
No matter. The featured dresses reimagined with exquisite impact by Amber Valletta, Joan Smalls and Karen Elson, are pretty fantastic, as are Wilson’s behind-the-scenes stories. For example, his piece explains how Hurley came to don the Versace dress that instantly elevated her from girlfriend of a celebrity (Hugh Grant) to pop-culture siren. There were no back-and-forth sketches or conceptual conversations with a stylist. Instead, Donatella Versace welcomed the young actress to the showroom the day before the London premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. The punk-glam gown, worn by Helena Christensen on the runway, happened to be hanging on a rack. Hurley tried it, loved it, and it fit. Done. For anyone who has wondered why Gwyneth’s Ralph dress looked a little loose in the bosom, she explained to Wilson, “I didn’t have a stylist, and I was really young, so I didn’t fully grasp how much time and thought usually goes into choosing an Oscars dress. I was so stressed and nervous the week before the Oscars, and I’d lost a ton of weight. When I went to put the dress on, my boobs had basically disappeared, and I thought, ‘Oh no, I can’t fill this out, but I have no other option.’ It was all very accidental.” And sometimes, dresses hold secrets. For the 2014 Oscars, Prada sewed a crystal frog, into Nyong’o’s dress in honor of her great-great-grandfather, who hailed from a wetland area with lots of frogs.
In addition to Theron and Kidman, whose 2007 red Balenciaga is also featured, Gwyneth makes two appearances on the list, her fashion choices showing a dramatic evolution from demure pink princess in 1999 to glam goddess in white, caped Tom Ford in 2012. Blanchett’s dresses appear four times — Armani Privé twice, for the 2016 Oscars and 2018 Venice International Film Festival, and Giles Deacon Couture once, for 2015’s Cannes Film Festival, in addition to the Gaultier for the 2000 Oscars.
The arresting feature closes with thumbnails of the actresses as they wore the dresses on the red carpet. The takeaway is of fashion diversity but also classicism; every dress save one could be worn on the red carpet today without looking particularly retro. That said, Wilson sees in the lineup an evolution in red-carpet dressing that has been impacted by Times Up and #MeToo. “When I got [to InStyle] the big trend on red carpets was cutouts,” he says, noting the gold Michael Kors Collection dress that Emily Blunt wore to the Golden Globes in 2013. Eventually, event dressing “became more and more naked…so extreme that it reflected the pressure on women in Hollywood to be sex symbols…to the point where it was becoming obvious that there was actually something wrong happening at the same time. It hit a boiling point and you could sense that there was going to be a pushback coming, and a pushback hard, not just about appearances but about the way women are treated.”
Wilson points to Elle Fanning’s voluminous Valentino at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival as indicative of a shift in the overall approach to red-carpet dressing. True to a extent. Certainly, it’s a whole lot more diverse and therefore, more interesting than it was, say, 15 years ago. Yet while some women dare to go big with silhouette, a constant that continues to dominate the carpet is the desire shared by most of the women to look, if not overtly sexy, then at least thin. More than half of the dresses included in InStyle’s historical Top 25 are overtly body-con. Among the voluminous exceptions: Fanning and Rihanna, who wore a giant ruffly pyramid to the Grammys in 2015. But those two are recent exceptions. (Another is Gemma Chan, who dazzled the last Oscars in her pink Valentino trapeze.) Each of those women has a reputation as a major fashion devotee willing to take a chance.
As for the exception that wouldn’t fly today: Kidman’s glorious Dior, and not because of its bold hue, at the time decried by Joan Rivers as “the ugliest green you’ll ever see.” Rather, the dress features chinoiserie-inspired embroidery and trim most major actresses would consider unthinkable today — mink. At least the in-person dress features mink trim. Under Brown, InStyle has become staunchly anti-fur and, according to Broekema, has signed a commitment to PETA not to photograph fur. Here, the dress was photographed from a bit of a distance, and the mink that descends down the side slits, digitally removed.
Asked whether he and Brown had any journalistic qualms about the significant manipulation that seems to favor wokeness over accuracy, Wilson acknowledges that the topic merited considerable conversation. “Personally, I did not agree with the decision to digitally remove the fur, given the historic nature of the dress, and would have preferred that the image remain unaltered,” he says. “However, I recognize that many people’s views on fur have changed substantially in recent years. The editorial decision that was made [is] in accordance with the magazine’s policy on fur. I also respect the ultimate decision resides with Laura.”
Brown addressed the matter in an e-mail. “The dress is important, but fur is not,” she wrote.
For the Nineties shoot on Moore, Broekema’s choices distill the decade into six looks, the significance of which anyone working in fashion at the time would endorse. Prada’s audaciously caustic brown-and-green geometric print, here in a sharply defined coat, inaugurated Geek Chic and a million knockoffs, including under-$35 versions that appeared in the window of Express next to the old Fairchild offices on 34th Street. There are Calvin Klein’s barely there slipdress, the essence of minimalism, and Donna Karan’s iconic Cold Shoulder. (When I reviewed that collection, I didn’t love the look that would prove a huge and enduring hit. Donna has never let me forget it.) From Gucci, there’s Ford’s Amber-in-the-spotlight shirt and pants, which, Broekema reminds, had its own red-carpet moment via Madonna, and, also Ford’s infamous white jersey gown with side cutouts.
Each of those looks holds a powerful, singular place in fashion history. Including Jacobs’ Redux Grunge, the six offer a smart snapshot of the heady, prolonged fashion moment that was the Nineties. At the same time, as with any distillation of an era, the final edit allows for argument over what didn’t make the cut. Here, no Chanel (too hard to procure); no Dior/Galliano bias wonder. “We couldn’t figure out who to talk to,” Broekema says. “We were able to get the Nicole Kidman [Dior, for the red-carpet story]. And I think it’s the one.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, there’s nothing from Helmut Lang, whose low-frills, high-attitude aesthetic defined so much of the Nineties and remains extremely influential, a precursor to the more polished iterations of today’s street sensibility. “I have to admit that it didn’t come up too much in conversation,” Broekema offers. “I think we were thinking of the people that are still such a part of the conversation on the runway.”
But no matter the missing, what’s included is terrific, a beautifully and buoyantly presented two-story celebration of the kind of fashion to which most women relate — the kind that helps us feel and look our absolute best.
Happy birthday, InStyle!
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