These are the people I look to when I’m feeling discouraged by all the dross in this industry I’ve started to tentatively call home. They’re the people I’ve lectured my family about over picnic lunches, the people who bring out my teen-girl-at-a-Bieber-concert excitement, the people who remind me that it is, indeed, possible to be involved in fashion without losing depth and integrity and brains and compassion.
They’re very human, and some have more obvious failings than others, but these are my fashion heroes.
Occupation: Fashion historian, curator, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)
Best known for: Being the “brainiest woman in fashion”
Why she’s a hero: Steele is an intellectual who gets away with studying, writing and speaking about nothing but fashion. While there have been few, if any, established pathways to take fashion seriously in academia, Steele has consistently forged her own and has thus been instrumental in creating and legitimizing the blossoming field of fashion studies. After sneaking fashion into her history-based Yale Ph.D dissertation, Steele later went on to become founding editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture. I love her for proving that no one is “too smart” for fashion.
Fun fact: Steele used to live in a feminist commune
Occupation: New York Times fashion photographer
Best known for: Essentially inventing street style photography
Why he’s a hero: Bill Cunningham is rightly called the “grandfather of street style photography,” a genre which at its best functions like a true fashion democracy in which celebrity and money take a backseat to the artistry of dress, regardless of who practices it. But Cunningham has gone above and beyond merely pioneering a now-ubiquitous genre. The octogenarian has gone about his business for decades with such dedication and excellence that he has earned the respect of fashion’s most important people—all this while sporting a simple blue windbreaker that hasn’t changed despite years of trend-tracking by its wearer. I love Cunningham because he’s gained respect in a sometimes-questionable industry without compromising his personal integrity or his disarming humility.
Fun fact: Cunningham lived for years in an apartment above Carnegie Hall that contained only a cot and filing cabinets full of his photographs
Occupation: Fashion/makeup blogger, writer
Best known for: Her unapologetic and intelligent blog Fashion Pirate
Why she’s a hero: As if Sicardi’s sharp, informed fashion musings and off-beat taste as exemplified on her blog weren’t enough to set her apart from the pack, she can also boast about being a 21-year-old who has already been profiled in the New York Times and regularly freelances for the likes of Teen Vogue and Refinery29. I love Sicardi for her theory-rich approach to fashion, her ferocity in defending the underdog, and her unabashed embrace of her own body.
Fun fact: In the years I’ve been following her, Sicardi’s hair has been grass-green, unicorn purple/pink, turquoise blue and crayon orange-red
Best known for: His record-breaking posthumous exhibition Savage Beauty at the Met
Why he’s a hero: A high school dropout raised by a London cab driver, McQueen wouldn’t seem the likeliest candidate to contend for a place of honor in the international fashion community. Though he maintained a devil-may-care attitude that defied the industry’s social norms throughout his career, McQueen’s darkly romantic vision and exquisitely crafted clothing won him acclaim within the very circles he never worked to impress. His ability to find beauty in things or people others considered ugly, along with his elaborately staged runway shows, set him apart from his peers. I love McQueen for being the kind of designer whose highly conceptual, technically excellent work makes me believe that fashion really can be art, regardless of what some detractors say.
Fun fact: While working for a Savile Row tailor, McQueen is said to have scrawled obscenities in the lining of a jacket before it was sent to the Prince of Wales
Learn more: I recently read the Savage Beauty exhibition book from cover to cover, and you should too
Best known for: Her TED talk “Looks aren’t everything… Believe me, I’m a model”
Why she’s a hero: With a decade-long modeling career that’s taken her everywhere from the Victoria’s Secret catwalk to the cover of Vogue, it would be easy for Russell to thank her lucky stars and leave it at that. But Cameron Russell has chosen instead to use her visibility as a platform to make a difference, encouraging her admirers to work towards big goals like being “the president of the United States or the inventor of the next internet,” noting that her career has been more of a reward for winning a “genetic lottery” than anything else. Towards this end, Russell helped launch Interrupt Magazine, a webzine that seeks to give a voice to those the media tends to ignore, among other creative side projects. I love Russell because she’s working to leave a meaningful legacy instead of settling into the cushy life offered her.
Fun fact: Russell studied economics and political science at Columbia University
Other fashion influencers I have been known to rave about: Deborah Turbeville, the fashion photographer who helped make dark, imperfect images part of the collective fashion consciousness, Tavi Gevinson, the teen wunderkind whose unique style earned her Fashion Week invites by age 12, and Annie Leibovitz, the fashion and portrait photographer whose unique sittings helped re-define portraiture.