What it takes to be fashion icon

Sunday January 24 2016

Orie Rogo in her trademark flamboyant looks. Fashion icons are very good at one of two things: following rules really well or breaking them spectacularly. PHOTO | FILE

Orie Rogo in her trademark flamboyant looks. Fashion icons are very good at one of two things: following rules really well or breaking them spectacularly. PHOTO | FILE 

More by this Author

Never has there been a time so many have been declared fashion icons. Award season makes fashion people mad. Hyper with insights, observations, analysis, researched to their eyebrows on trivia, lining up celebrities like thoroughbreds.

We are in on it too. Fashion forms a chunk of our national conversation. Someone tweeted me “What makes red carpets so relevant? Aren’t there more important things to discuss?” The answer is a little complicated.

Fashion icons are very good at one of two things: following rules really well or breaking them spectacularly. They are a creation of multitudes of stylists, hair and makeup artists, fashion designers, aestheticians, manicurists and media. 

Status tends to be achieved when one is on the cusp of blowing up. Fashion is the final shove. This attracts decision makers, new fans, opportunities and media. It seems everyone is rooting for this person. That period bridging fashion personality on the way to icon happens as the world is slightly infatuated with you, heightening emotion whether good or bad. The success story of just about every star similarly plays out. Akin to being a gladiator, if you have the crowd, you win.


We all personally know a powerful case: Lupita Nyong’o. Becoming a style star has elevated her status, raised her visibility and that of her Glam Squad, kept her on the radar and earns her a good living.

The trouble with Kenya is fashion does not afford similar opportunities for recognition and growth. Coverage of key fashion events, and I’m not even sure what makes that list anymore, misses the focus, celebrities are timid and uncertain, image and management teams supposed to guide them have no results to show for it, fashion is considered frivolous by potential fans and the hands that sign the cheques don’t recognise potential and value. 

Icons start on the red carpet. Then paparazzi move in once status is identified. Bits add up. A personality, real, imagined or projected, is discerned. Creative, vibrant and eccentric people get more mileage, fascination with their identity grows as the public becomes curious.

It can create legends, people whose story can never be told without invoking fashion such as David Bowie, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Josephine Baker. Performers use fashion as art, an extension, prop or definition of their image. Sex bombs, curvy women, beautiful, typecast for their feminine wiles, nudity in their work, mentions on sexiest lists and dress to highlight their curves. Designers love them too.

Classic beauties are about minimalism with classic silhouettes. Some become icons by defying convention. Intellectual, mysterious and unusual, fashion is a meaningful, thoughtful experience that is less about sex appeal. Designers love their complex personas ideal for haute couture and the covers of alternative fashion magazines.


Fashion icons celebrate health. They work hard on their bodies and it shows. Glossy skin, radiance and vitality make them a dream for fashion studios. Designers like them because they showcase movement, fluidity and strength.

Media love analysing and deconstructing their bodies into ‘sleek legs,’ ‘taut abs,’ ‘toned butts’ and ‘toned arms.’

The wild cards are unpredictable, off the charts with a look all their own like gender-bending Katherine Hepburn, or purely vintage. Quirky icons, also known as ‘adorkable,’ are unconventional beauties with zany energy and sense of humour. Their style is all about personality. Notice how individual and inimitable style is?

Here at home, the story is different. We only have wannabe sex bomb or classics. Even then, it falls on the safest, most mundane part of the spectrum.

Red carpets can be an economic prediction and fashion icons investments. Now, it is hardly wise to decide your ambition in life is to become a fashion icon. It never works like that. Icons live authentic lives with fashion as the icing.

Some celebrities have found themselves unemployable because decision makers, brands or even the celebrity could not figure out where they fit.

The beauty of becoming a fashion icon is this, mistakes and great choices both add up to taking risks. And that is the whole point. It is a long game. Fashion bestows that prerogative.