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Via The New York Times Fashion & Style Section, Dec. 18th 2015 By MATTHEW SCHNEIER

 

The most discussed fashion model of 2015 did not, like some of her colleagues, earn $44 million or shave her head. She did not even leave her apartment.

There she was, in her New York home, hidden as usual behind a pair of sunglasses: the writer Joan Didion, on the Upper East Side, in an ad by Juergen Teller for the much watched and even more copied French label Céline.

Though Phoebe Philo, Céline’s designer, said nothing about the choice, then or since, she was more or less the only one. The fashion press and social media churned with goggle-eyed appreciations, think pieces, takes and tributes, as well as a few reality checks and reconsiderations.

Ms. Didion, firm in her froideur, professed not to notice. “I don’t have any clue,” she told The New York Times of the cacophony that ensued. “I have no idea.”

The choice was, in a way, prophetic: In 2015, fashion’s gaze returned again and again to older women. (Ms. Didion had just turned 80 when the ad appeared.) Days after the Céline images arrived, a Saint Laurent campaign including Joni Mitchell followed; the next month, Barneys New York released a whole catalog’s worth of photos of Pat Cleveland, Christie Brinkley and Bethann Hardison, among others, frolicking with gentlemen some decades their junior.

But the Céline campaign resonated beyond the boundaries of the fashion community. (The London Review of Books is not in the habit of commenting on fashion campaigns, as it did on Ms. Didion’s.) It was a high-water mark in what was to be a long year of Didion fixation and fascination.

In October 2014, a proposed documentary on Ms. Didion, “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” began soliciting donations on Kickstarter. Directed by Ms. Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, and Susanne Rostock, with the participation of Ms. Didion, it billed itself as “the first and only documentary about Joan Didion.”

The goal was to raise $80,000. It raised $221,135 — more than double its goal — and it was the third-highest-funded documentary on Kickstarter in 2014.

“By a number of measures,” said Justin Kazmark, a spokesman for Kickstarter, “it would be one of the biggest successes of 2014.”

The wild success of the Kickstarter project speaks to the enduring appeal of Ms. Didion, whose carefully crafted image, as well as her work, has become canonical. Though her work has long been appreciated and revered, the Didion whose star rose this year is as much icon as author.

“In the year since they did the Kickstarter, there’s been so much” conversation about her, said Joana Avillez, an illustrator who has contributed to Vanity Fair and who sketched Ms. Didion for a T-shirt given as a thank-you to Kickstarter supporters who contributed $50 or more. (All 250 shirts were claimed.)

Appreciation of Ms. Didion’s work has often dovetailed with appreciation of her style, both on and off the page, which may explain the particular affection (and the surprising synergy) between her and the fashion industry. Several industry insiders worked to promote Mr. Dunne’s efforts to fund the documentary, including Laura Brown of Harper’s Bazaar and the stylist Christopher Niquet.

“Her controlled first person helps imbue the writer’s habits with the lambent glamour of a lifestyle-magazine spread,” Nathan Heller wrote in an essay titled “Why Joan Didion Matters More Than Ever.” It appeared on the website of Vogue, itself an organ of lambent glamour. “She has been an object of aspirational longing,” Meghan Daum wrote in The Atlantic’s September issue, one of many Didion considerations to come out this year.

The occasion for Ms. Daum’s article was the publication, in August, of the first major biography of Ms. Didion, “The Last Love Song” by Tracy Daugherty. It makes a counterpart and inverse to “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live”: unauthorized where the documentary is sanctioned, told around Ms. Didion (some of whose confidants declined to participate, apparently at her request) rather than by or with her. (“We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” whose title comes from one of Ms. Didion’s most famous essays, is in production, with plans for a release at the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017.)

“I think she early on saw the importance of style — not just in writing, but in fashion and in music and in art and in politics, even,” Mr. Daugherty said in an interview. “I think she very early on carefully crafted an image for herself and understood that personal style was all part of the package of being a writer.”

The potential downside of this fetish for Ms. Didion’s aesthetic is that it may eclipse the fetish for her writing.

“Nowadays, everyone knows the name, even if they haven’t read her,” Mr. Daugherty said.
The design for a T-shirt that was given as a thank-you to those who supported a Kickstarter campaign for a proposed documentary on Ms. Didion. Credit Joana Avillez . What’s more, Ms. Avillez pointed out, latter-day Didionites may come to her through the image first.

“She’s now idolized so much for being in the Céline ad, by girls who maybe don’t even know she’s a writer,” she said. “Reading her work is not necessarily part of the fascination with her. It’s like, ‘Look at her huge sunglasses.’” Two pairs of Ms. Didion’s own sunglasses were offered as Kickstarter gifts to those who gave $2,500 or more; both were snapped up.

But there is reason to believe that the rise in profile has brought with it a rise in readership.

According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks sales of print books, sales of her work in 2015 to date are up nearly 55 percent over the comparable period the previous year. For the same period in 2014 over 2013, they had been down 2 percent.

This uptick is despite the fact that Ms. Didion has not published a book since “Blue Nights,” her memoir of her daughter’s death, in 2011. Her previous memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), about her husband’s death, has sold more than a million copies, was adapted for the stage and brought her wide acclaim and a new audience. Still, this year brought even more fans to the fold.

“I’m a recent convert to Joan Didion, whom I’ve been meaning to read for years and finally got around to,” Kim Gordon, herself a style icon, told The Times Book Review in February. “How cool is it that Céline chose her for their new ad campaign? I want those sunglasses.”

Ms. Didion has not only become fashionable, she has also become fashion: painted onto the back of a limited-edition leather jacket, and used as the namesake and guiding spirit for an expanding line of slouchy women’s wear.

For an icon of both the publishing and the style worlds, it was probably a foregone conclusion that she would find her way onto a tote bag, too. And so she has, on an “it” bag even harder to come by than one of Céline’s.

When the website Literary Hub, created by Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature, and whose partners include nearly all of the major publishing houses, started in April, it printed up totes to gift to friends and supporters. One of Julian Wasser’s famous images of Ms. Didion was selected to adorn the bags, with her blessing — provided they were not sold.

“We’ve had people get in touch via Facebook and Twitter, offering to pay exorbitant amounts of money for them, honestly,” said Jonny Diamond, the editor of Literary Hub. “People love them. If we don’t work as a website, we can always become a tote bag company.”

Mr. Diamond added that since Literary Hub went live, he has fielded “probably a disproportionate number of Didion-related pitches” from would-be critics.

“Someone said that we’ve reached peak Didion,” he said. “I think it can go even further.”

 

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