It’s a universally acknowledged truth that the French are the chicest people on the planet.
Their style has almost become a cliche in itself—I’m thinking of Target’s Jean Paul Gaultier collection: striped tops, capri pants and ballet flats.
The French understand the power of the signature look. Instead of trying to do all things well (hair, make-up and wardrobe like their American counterparts) choose one thing and nail it. And in doing so have inadvertently chosen the most environmentally friendly approach to fashion there is.
Two words that don’t come to mind when we think “French style” are “eco fashion.” And yet instead of buying a whole new disposable wardrobe every season of clothes so cheap they could only be manufactured in Bangladeshi sweat shops, they buy a few high quality items and wear them 600 ways to Sunday.
In America, the look is more about the package—gloss, gloss and more gloss. But there’s something much more attractive about still being able to see the real person behind all the put-togetherness of the perfectly done hair and make-up and co-ordinated wardrobe.
Finding a signature look (as Matilda Kahl, the New York art director so famously did) will not only save you money (even factoring in a few investment pieces) and time, but it will cut down demand for products from the second largest polluter in the world.
For the famous, signature looks are an important part of branding. For signature make-up, think Adele’s cat’s eye and Reese Witherspoon’s country-gal glow. For hair, think Elle’s beach hair and Zooey Deschanel’s fringe. Even Liz Hurley’s white jeans and va-voom necklines were all the bogan-chic rage for a while there.
(Even Paris Hilton understood the power of a signature look in branding – while you or I might think a Chihuahua tacky as a signature, only a wealthy heiress could afford to have a small dog crap in their Birkin bag and not give a stuff.)
The former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld is the perfect example. The bags under Roitfeld’s eyes could carry their own label, while her skin belies a pack-a-day smoking habit. But she so completely owns the smoky-eye / bed-hair look that she’s always the chicest woman in the room.
But for the rest of us? Finding a signature look we can do bleary-eyed in semi-darkness at the crack of dawn, that still enables us to express ourselves stylistically, while cutting down on decision fatigue is an attractive prospect.
So, how to find it?
It must evolve from within.
While a signature look may sound uniform, but the key to making it work is to let it evolve from our own raw DNA. How boring if we all looked the same. By all means, get inspiration from others—but ask yourself if the world really needs one more Audrey clone?
It’s not about creating a persona to hide behind, but about embracing your personal style—which may just be buried under what you think you “should” wear.
My friend’s signature look is bleached hair, black roots, “put it on in the dark” eyeliner, Target leggings and a biker jacket. It shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does. If I, however, tried to copy this look, I’d look like I was trying out for a role in Eastenders.
We all have stuff that speaks to us, even if might seem odd to others. Maybe your look is androgynous. Maybe it’s waistcoats and bow ties. Maybe it’s 80s hair in a world that prizes beachy waves. Find one thing you love and don’t fight it. Work it and work it often—the more familiar you are, the more confident you will be.
Choose one thing to build your look around.
It’s too hard to get it together on all fronts. And why should we? Just choose one.
Hair could be something as simple bedraggled 70s rock chick hair, a la Patti Smith, schoolgirl “bangs” (Don’t google that phrase). You could even choose a whole aesthetic: park your style cart at “1950s housewife” and never look back.
Keep make-up simple. Assume that, for most of us, we naturally gravitate to authenticity and are hard-wired to find obvious artifice slightly disturbing. Try limiting yourself to one signature feature (eg. bold lips, smoky eyes, spidery lashes, dewy skin) rather than the whole shebang.
Make your “flaws” a key part of your look. Jessica Hart resisted pressure to ‘fix’ her teeth, likewise Cindy Crawford’s mole. Nicole Kidman may have straightened and bleached her red curls beyond recognition, but Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington and British journalist Rebekah Brooks made their flaming frizzy manes part of their branding.
Be realistic about maintenance.
Famous people are paid for looking amazing, so for them it’s an investment to spend all day touching up red lipstick (Taylor Swift) and platinum roots (Gwen Stefani). (Though even Lady Gaga burnt out trying to maintain a signature look that revolved a game of “animal, vegetable or mineral.”)
If you’re not earning a living directly from having your off-duty photo taken, the major benefit of a signature look is that it saves time.
Choose carefully: Red lips are high maintenance. It’s hard to get the line exactly right, and even if you do, they often bleed throughout the day. (Or, like Courtney Love, you could make “bleeding red lipstick” your thing.)
Fortunately, you can get used to pulling the most glamourous look together in five minutes if you do it often enough. My grandmother’s signature Grace Kelly chignon takes me thirty minutes of swearing to achieve. I’ve seen her do it with one hand and a bobby pin, stopped at a traffic light.
When to kill the signature.
As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But maybe review your signature look every decade or so.
It’s not that J-Lo’s big gold hoop earrings and slicked back Chav ponytail are so naughties—it’s that they’re so 90s. Having said that, if you feel like you’re really nailing it with a Rachel haircut and a Juicy Couture tracksuit, then rock on with your bad self!
Ultimately, a signature look comes down to confidence. Trial and error, plus years of experience means you know you look hot, even if the trend driven mean girls in your mind tell you otherwise. And you get the smug glow of one whose unique hotness is alleviating social and environmental pressures, one same-same day at a time.
Author: Alice Williams
Editor: Renée Picard