Falling Into the K-Hole
Designers once refused to dress the Kardashians. Now they ARE fashion. And it's metaphor for all Hollywood interlopers
It’s been 15 years since the release of the Kim Kardashian, Superstar sex tape that jump-started the career trajectory of the former personal stylist to Paris Hilton and Brandy Norwood. Ultimately, it put the entire Kardashian brood on the road to fame, which until then had only been fame-adjacent as the family of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorney Robert Kardashian. He wasn’t even the star, just tabloid fodder for his role in the serially televised coverage of the former football star and actor’s 1995 murder trial.
From that dubious place on the far shores of the TMZ (the term “thirty-mile zone” adopted by maybe no one but TMZ, the media outlet, in reference to LA), the Kardashian family (minus brother Rob Jr., burned by some kind of convoluted plot line around Blac Chyna and has since said “no thanks” to further exposure), the Kardashian-Jenner sisters — Kourtney, Khloé, Kendall and Kylie — mother Kris and their avatar, Kim, always leader of the pack, have moved from Calabasas to the very apex of fashion, media and popular culture.
Kim had only been seen glancingly on TV in a few episodes of Hilton’s show The Simple Life from 2003 to 2006, but the release of her sex tape with actor-singer Ray J, recorded during her 22nd birthday vacation five years before in a luxury resort in Mexico, made her a hot commodity in her own right. Vivid Entertainment, which released the film, said they purchased the tape from a “third party” for $1 million. Writer Ian Halperin fingered mama Kris as the secret dealmaker in his 2016 book Kardashian Dynasty, a charge the family denied, but the possibility lingered in the public imagination as an example of how hell-bent one mother was to help her daughter achieve some kind of notoriety
Fast forward to today.
“Famous for being famous,” their critics have scoffed since the beginning without really getting the point. Famous is what it’s all about in an online-driven world and the Kardashians have used the power of the internet to supersede Andy Warhol’s old maxim that, in the future, everyone would be “famous for 15 minutes.” The Kardashian celebrity machine has already far exceeded that puny estimate and shows no signs of letup. What Netflix did to film, TikTok to Facebook, and influencers to aging A-listers… so have the Kardashians to fashion (the celebrity part is a given). In other words, the interlopers stormed the gates right under the noses of the old guard.
Let’s marvel for a bit at the extended wedding festivities of eldest daughter, Kourtney, and musician Travis Barker that culminated in Portofino, Italy, last weekend — the third in a trio of ceremonies. In what many would regard as a fashion coup, the entire wedding party was dressed for the long, strange trip of events by the much-beleaguered Italian fashion house of Dolce & Gabbana. Though Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have proved to be equal-opportunity offenders over the years, primed for cancellation several times for racist imagery, anti-gay sentiments and general boorishness, Hollywood has turned a blind eye — the brand’s last great triumph was dressing Will Smith as he slapped Chris Rock — and the Kardashians are no different. In fact, the extended wedding fashion embrace papered over everything, a get-out-of-jail-free card if there ever was one.
In a picture beamed around the globe, Kourtney’s wedding minidress was a ’60s-lingerie-inspired sheer white lace number with a corset underneath, paired with a flowing lace veil featuring the Virgin Mary as the centerpiece (chosen, it was said, to match the tattoo on Travis’s shaved head). The bridal ensemble was the perfect expression of the trash-couture-meets-old-world-religious-iconography aesthetic the designers have been peddling for the last 30 years.
The get-ups for the rest of the wedding party were simply a replay of Dolce & Gabbana’s greatest hits. Kim, garbed in full-length black lace with long sleeves, gloves and a cross necklace, epitomized the “Sicilian widow” look that has been a mainstay of the designer duo’s collections since 1987. Khloé also chose black lace, but the off-the-shoulder style that harkened more to ’60s film stars than Taormina mama, head-scratchingly accessorized with a flashy chain-handle bag and a gold crown.
Kris kicked off the wedding weekend in a properly matronly chiffon caftan in D&G’s signature leopard, and Khloé echoed the look at one point in a spotted satin ’90s archival gown with a Madonna-like (the singer, not the Virgin) exposed black bra (really, no new ground broken here). And the Jenner girls showed up for the day-before events in iterations of the clinging satin sheaths strewn with gaudy flowers that the designers have been putting starlets in since the ‘aughts.
But in some ways, it doesn’t really matter what the Kardashians wore for the wedding weekend and that the nuptial run-up were the designers’ most obvious and tired retreads. That’s because the K-factor has flipped the fashion-celebrity script.
Previously, I would argue, even speaking of the most famous stars uniting with clothing brands, that the designer’s place in the firmament was sacrosanct. Even if the union was a business relationship at the core as most are these days — with stars paid to wear a gown on the red carpet or in a more extensive relationship with a fashion house as an “ambassador” — there was the fiction that the talent chose a certain designer to align with based on the brand’s own importance, from the mostly unknown designer looking for a break to the high-style summit of illustrious names like Armani, Valentino and Chanel.
Whatever the case, the celeb was looking for the fashion-world fairy dust — a sense of taste, an attention-getting look, a style-world imprimatur that one indeed was fabulous — to rub off on them, to elevate their stature even as they lent their own fame to the designer house in return.
But with the all-encompassing Kardashian glare, any mere designer doesn’t stand a chance. The Dolce & Gabbana duds only reinforced the family’s own penchant for barely there and skintight silhouettes that show off their presumably surgically enhanced figures. There is no more equanimity between designer and “muse”; fashion is just fodder to be chewed up and regurgitated by the various Kardashians. In the end, the family holds all the cards. And for most of the week, that was all anyone was talking about.
It’s not just the world of fashion. The juggernaut of Hollywood also crumbles under the Kardashian assault. That’s what Kim proved when she trounced everyone at the recent Met Gala by wearing the Jean Louis gown on the ball’s red carpet that had originally been designed for Marilyn Monroe to wear while she sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy onstage at Madison Square Garden in 1962.
Despite a crash diet that reaped Twitter scorn, Kim prevailed — even though the real gown didn’t even fit her, and she couldn’t get the valuable original zipped up for a brief appearance on the museum steps (Kim wore a stole to hide how it was crudely tied together before she donned a duplicate for the rest of the evening). Conservators later wailed about the damage of even exposing the delicate nude soufflé fabric to oxygen in the night air on Fifth Avenue.
Kim obviously didn’t care, given the lengths she went to get her hands on the dress. She certainly wasn’t making any kind of statement about sustainability by choosing to wear a priceless historical artifact. To atone, she reportedly made unspecified charitable donations to Orlando charities chosen by the current owner of the dress, the city’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, which paid around $5 million for the dress in 2016 at Los Angeles’ Julien’s Auctions, which was kind of beside the point.
In the end, there was something terribly off-key about Kim endangering an irreplaceable piece of cultural history as grist for her publicity machine at an event ostensibly built around the need for preserving relics of fashion history and supporting the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. And I’m presuming neither she nor her family has ever been big donors to the Met. Or at least, their Instagram posts have never told me as such.
But more galling to me is that to Kardashian’s millions of fans, it just becomes “the dress that Kim wore” — an act of popular culture appropriation which blankets over the heartbreaking reality of Monroe’s own achievement despite her tragic life and her struggle to be taken seriously in Hollywood.
Because everything in the Kardashian world is “content,” I’m sure the dress will be the centerpiece of an upcoming episode of the family’s new series on Hulu, which Variety pegged as a nine-figure payday for the family, whose worth is already estimated at $5 billion. Simply titled The Kardashians, it bowed in April as a replacement for the more down-market Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which ran for 20 seasons on E! after launching in 2007. With their rich new deal, apparently there’s not even the illusion of keeping up with the family these days.
Checking in on this week’s episode, a couple of things stood out. The production is beyond lavish, and the ladies are richly attired for whatever they happen to be doing, not to mention glossed to perfection in the on-camera commentary. That’s a given.
The action mostly takes place at the locales of their ultra-modern and luxuriously appointed homes that are also strangely barren and impersonal. Each woman gets a storyline in the episode and Khloé’s this time around was her moving into her new supposedly $17 million quarters with acres of space and a quarry’s worth of marble. But the house wasn’t so much furnished as merchandized like a store. Glimpses into her endless gourmet pantry and museum-worthy closet, remind me of the prevailing Rodeo Drive retail style at fashionable labels like Saint Laurent and Balenciaga.
Beyond these monuments to themselves that pass as domiciles, the series continually alludes to the Kardashians’ status as American royalty of sorts, at least in their own minds. Kris wants to spend time with daughter Kylie, so they hit the road in a mammoth Mercedes Benz G-Wagon to get a car wash and go grocery shopping (at a carefully curated market in Malibu, of course), activities they don’t usually indulge in of because of privacy concerns, or so the storyline goes. Kris is shown hopelessly fumbling with both a credit-card reader and a gas pump, while mother and daughter are both disconcertingly clad in a fortune’s worth of full-length couture black leather as they try to sample how the undefined other half (or 99 percent) lives.
As in many principalities, there is also a great portion of the half-hour given over to perpetuating the royal line. Besides the then-preggers Kylie, we are treated to Kourtney and Travis’s ministrations from an ayurvedic sorceress named Martha to supposedly improve the quality of the bride-to-be’s eggs for conceiving (which dovetails nicely with the real-time wedding events and all the imagery of the Blessed Virgin). Kourtney doesn’t quite qualify on that score — during the procedure the couple makes much of the fact that they must abstain from sex (“even a blow job or a hand…”), as well as alcohol and caffeine while they are on their cleanse regime. In daily visits to Martha’s plush spa, we even follow Kourtney as she sits on a toilet-like contraption to steam her down-there, fluffing out her cloak to contain the vapor. Travis, for his part, has a crown-like shield wrapped around his tattooed head, looking like some kind of mosh-pit pharaoh, to contain the oil being poured over his head, apparently to make him think fertile thoughts.
Lineage also rears its head in a subplot wherein mama Kris harangues Kendall, the only childless one of the sisters at just age 26 (!), to start thinking about having a baby soon or at least freeze her young and supposedly more viable eggs, a notion backed up with a quick call to the kindly family gynecologist who seconds the notion.
Kim’s various storylines all revolve around fashion in one form or another. She’s in search of new fashion inspiration and visits an enormous holding room with rack and racks and boxes holding every piece of clothing and accessory that she has worn over the course of her like, hoping it will spark some new idea.
That thought hanging, another segment reveals she has been chosen to be in the adverts for Balenciaga, the hottest Paris fashion house, and really no surprise since that what she’s pretty much been wearing exclusively since her last fashion phase with Kanye and the subsequent split.
So already being a house ambassador of sorts, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch that she would also appear in the ad campaign, even though she patted herself on the back for being able to negotiate her own contract now that she has studied law and for being a true creative partner since they let her bring her own beauty team to the proceedings.
Similarly, proving she’s the queen of all media, another slice of the show chronicled her cover shoot for the big March edition of Vogue (whatever that means in the post-print age of magazines) and Kim again crowed that this time she was calling all the shots, not merely submitting to what the magazine wanted as happened when she finally made the cover the first time, with Kanye all the way back in 2014, as well as the second time around in 2019.
At this point, the publication has really become just a house organ for the Kardashians and, especially, Kim. Once all-powerful “wizard” editor Anna Wintour is merely a little voice on the cellphone, inquiring if they have tried on “the Versace or the Gucci” yet. Since now we have already seen the actual issue, we know that with the Balenciaga ad inset and the cover story, all the glory goes to Kim. Kim used to need Wintour for her validation; now it is the opposite.
Outside in the real world, the planet is boiling, women’s abortion rights will likely fall soon and, as we saw again this week, the scourge of mass shootings and gun violence senselessly perpetuates itself. As we stare into the void of fashion, they are a multi-generational matriarchy, a shiny distraction whose success is not in wading too heavily into political waters, or even the real world, but creating a metaverse of its own in a firehose of social media.
But that viral emptiness wouldn’t exist without a host. It is the fashion-entertainment world, and all of us.
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