The fashion world’s renewed appreciation for Grace Jones comes just in time for the icon’s 70th birthday this May 19.
If you look at photos of the model, singer, and actress from throughout her career, the similarities to today’s fashion will astound you. The buzzcut trend? Check. Matrix glasses (long before the Matrix franchise gave them their name) — check, again. Futuristic sci-fi garb? Yep, she was way ahead of us on that one, too. All of these elements are very much alive on the runways and the streets of fashion capitals around the world right now.
Grace was born in Jamaica and raised there under the iron rule of her grandparents. In interviews she has frequently connected her upbringing with her work ethic, her motivations, and more. “[I]n my own way, I am very militant and disciplined,” she said in 2015. “Even if sometimes that means being militantly naughty and disciplined in the arts of subversion.”
At 13, Grace moved to New York to live with her parents, who had established themselves in Syracuse. Within five years, she was signed with Wilhelmina Modeling Agency. Her striking appearance soon made her a favorite of Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo, and even Azzedine Alaia. Set up in Paris, she became a muse for Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, and more designers while landing on the covers of ELLE and Vogue.
There’s a strong parallel between Grace and her contemporary David Bowie in the sense that they were both unafraid to experiment with androgyny and the avant-garde. They also liked to play up the alien side of their appearances. Visually, both were impressive in an almost otherworldly way, at the same time that they gave off an aura of hyper-intelligence.
Even moreso than Bowie (and that’s really saying something) Grace was a chameleon — able to change not just her appearance but her voice, her accent, her body language, everything. Her total control over every aspect of herself is evident in the notorious television interviews from early on in her career, in which she repeatedly endures blatant sexism and racism. Even in those chauvinistic interviews, which seem determined to put her down even as they supposedly celebrate her, Grace is commanding and consistently out-cools her opposers with a mixture of idealistic disbelief and sheer audacity.
It’s no wonder that Grace is a heroine for today’s fashion scene. Just one explicit tip of the hat came this past Fashion Week at the Marc Jacobs show. With headscarves and strong shoulders, models were clearly channeling Grace in this extremely well-received collection, which is being credited with setting the label back on the right track after a rocky period.
The ’80s are at the forefront of contemporary fashion in more ways than one: the go-go decade was far and away the top recurring theme of Fall 2018 Fashion Month. Structured power suits are back, back, back along with more ’80s trends and a certain Demand-Progress-Now mentality. Bold, dramatic, and truly the master of her own destiny, Grace epitomizes all these things and more.
Not content with merely being one of the most distinguished and remarkable models of all time, Grace also excelled in music with multiple hit singles like “Slave to the Rhythm.” And as if that wasn’t enough, she also “made it in the movies” as the old saying goes. Her breakthrough role was playing Zula in the fantasy action flick Conan the Destroyer alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the public probably knows her best from A View to a Kill, where she played Bond villain May Day with panache and admirable forbearance with regard to the limitations and prejudices of her time.
It’s this more than anything that makes Grace an especially relevant icon right now. Even as she smashed through stereotypes, her personal philosophy zipped even farther ahead — way past her own era, not to mention ours. Excerpts from a joint interview she did with Andy Warhol and Andre Leon Talley in 1984 speak volumes:
ANDRE: Don’t you think it’s passé the way society puts all these sort of stigmas and labels, ‘boy’, ‘girl’?
GRACE: Very passé. The future is no sex.
ANDRE: Do you see yourself as a role model for black women?
GRACE: No, I don’t think in color … I see myself as no color. I can play the role of a man. I can paint my face white if I want to and play the role of white. I can play a green, I can be a purple … If you think in color, then everyone around you is going to think in color and that puts limits on the way you think. I don’t think like that.
Grace’s sentiments are very much in line with the progressive idealism of the ’60s. The ’80s were the point when, two decades on from Martin Luther King, Jr., society was seriously reflecting on how much Civil Rights progress had been made, and how much more needed to be done. Sound familiar? It’s almost a mirror image of what we’re going through all over again almost 40 years later.
It’s hard not to read Grace’s 1984 interview now without thinking, “If only!” And that goes for “if only” in the ’60s and ’80s as much as 2018. A quick glance at the world around us reveals the imposing distances we still have to go. However, it’s hopefully not overly optimistic to say that pop culture, at least, is in many ways on the same path set by Grace and her fellow radical thinkers and individualists. As provocative as it is stunning, Grace’s career charts the course that we are still following today. — jas