Why Pop Stars Are Ditching Stylists and Dressing Just Like Us

Ariana Grande
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Ariana Grande in 2018.

Remember when Rihanna embarked on her first headlining tour? The year was 2006, and floating around the internet, you can see photos of an 18-year-old in a rhinestone-trimmed skirt and matching evening gloves; an artist who hadn’t yet found her pop-star footing deep in the realm of costume. Any remnants of Robyn Fenty from Barbados, though, all but disappeared eight months later with the release of Good Girl Gone Bad and a transformation overseen by Def Jam that included a drastic new bob and dominatrix-inspired costumes.

What Rihanna so clearly had in those early years was room to stumble. And revisiting it makes for a powerful contrast to what we’re seeing in a new generation of pop stars: artists who are arriving as fully realized versions of themselves. Instead of dressing up, they’re strategically pushing costume to a less high-concept place.The accessibility factor of their brands -- and they all have pre-established brands --is what’s radical.

Billie Eilish’s genre-agnostic sound and streetwear-steeped style might best exemplify the future of what touring looks like. When she hits the road in April, there will be only menswear onstage (an echo of the gender conflation happening on the runway) and a highly specific approach to color (mesmerizing on Instagram), and Eilish, 17, won’t wear the same thing twice (why do that when you have access to so much cool stuff?). What you’ll get onstage is what you’ll get offstage, and if you want to buy into it, Eilish created a clothing line, a la Kanye West, named Blohsh, which sells the $55 hoodies and $30 tees she herself wears. The line’s Instagram account has over 356,000 followers.

“Part of why she speaks to her generation is that there’s nothing manufactured. There is no 60-year-old label head that has had their input. It’s all her,” says Samantha Burkhart, who styles Kesha and Sia and works with Eilish. “I shy away from saying, ‘I style her’ -- I prefer to let her take the credit for who
she is.”

Maggie Rogers, 22, who walked into record-label meetings with bound copies of a presentation that laid out her vision for album art, merchandise and potential brand partnerships, also maintains complete control over her image and is touring the world sans stylist, wearing Levi’s and T-shirts. Miley Cyrus, once synonymous with Barbarella shock value, also has reportedly abandoned a stylist for now, undergoing a molting process that finds her becoming more Miley before our eyes. Meanwhile, working with stylist Law Roach, Ariana Grande has been dressing down in oversize sweatshirts -- which you can buy on her site -- and jeans or thigh-high boots.

Lorde found a middle ground on her Melodrama world tour that wrapped last November, opting mostly for ready-to-wear outfits each night. By the end she had debuted hundreds of sophisticated and ethereal looks in a “Life is like a box of chocolates” approach to costuming. The delight was twofold: Audiences never knew what they were going to get, but if they wanted to emulate a version of what they saw onstage, they could, for example, go to Cèline and buy the jumpsuit she wore at Bonnaroo.

Post Malone, who was nominated in the pop and rap categories at the 2019 Grammy Awards, seems to have taken the opposite tack from uniform-shunning stars. For the past 18 months, he has worked directly with costume designer Catherine Hahn to hone what she calls “a Post Malone museum of one-of-a-kind pieces” that speak to the mix of genres in his music. The Nudie-inspired suits and airbrushed streetwear are brazen, sure, but they’re also accessible. Instead of working with high-fashion houses, he and Hahn have built out a network of independent artists discovered on Instagram. For the European leg of his Better Now tour, Hahn provided the blank clothing canvas, and the artists delivered a different look for every single night. “The fans love seeing their country referenced,” says Hahn. They also went bonkers for his collaboration with Crocs, which sold out in 10 minutes.

Pomp in pop is important. In a genre that has been carefully constructing alter-egos and delivering powerful messages through costume ever since Josephine Baker shocked a Paris venue in a rubber banana skirt in 1927, there are cultural, musical and financial implications to what artists choose to wear. And what this current shift boils down to is ownership. The ownership of image is coinciding with artists demanding more control of their music. Rogers owns her masters. Taylor Swift negotiated the same with Universal Music Group in 2018. Artists are questioning who owns what and how to leverage more power over their creative evolution.

One wonders how that will factor into Swift’s next album cycle -- whether she’ll ditch the glitzy bodysuits she has worn since going pop in 2014 and tap into what Lorde’s stylist, Karla Welch, calls “magic and relatablility.” Though with Grande set to tour the world starting March 18 in support of two new albums that are her most diaristic and commercially successful yet, it’s her move first. 

This article originally ran in the March 9 issue of Billboard.


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