Agyness Deyn: The face of a generation
Tomboys aren't meant to become global style icons – especially if they hail from Lancashire. But Agyness Deyn has claimed Kate Moss's crown as the the most glamorous face in fashion. Deborah Orr gets under her skin
Wednesday 05 March 2008
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She is a Time magazine cover girl, and has already been on the cover of pretty much everything else, and on Thursday she will be named as Tatler's most stylish woman of the year. She is the face of this, the body of that, and the spirit of the other. Already, the rails of Topshop are flogging copies of what for months has been fetishised on the fashion pages as her signature style. Already Zara has ordered mannequins based on her. No glamorous event is complete without her, as her ubiquity for ages now in those funny little galleries of party people attests. She is the hottest new model on the planet, and she is adorable, unstoppable and every inch her own fresh, maverick woman. She has achieved all this, in shocking defiance of the rules of female beauty, with Short Hair. It is a fashion miracle.
For those innocents among us who are not A-star students of fashion- media hype, Agyness Deyn is not quite yet a silly name they have learnt through osmosis to pronounce and spell. Actually, the former is no problem, as you just ignore the tortured spelling and say Agnes Dean. The latter, if you are interested in spurious etymology as well as tortured spelling, can even be gilded with a footnote. It explains that young Laura Hollins chose Agnes Dean as her going-to-be-famous name, while her mother, Lorraine, somehow conjured the look of the name – its styling, if you will– by applying some of the wisdom she has gained through being a master of reiki healing. Or after reading an article about numerology in a magazine. Depending on what you prefer to believe. Anyway, it is not whimsical, this name, it is serious and somehow spiritual. And edgy. Or something.
Sadly, the whys and wherefores of this process of name transformation are presently inaccessible, as Lorraine has told the media: "I'm very proud of her but I have been advised by someone acting on her behalf not to speak about her, and I'm not even prepared to say who." This is just as well, for already the truth has proved irksome to the fragile myth of Agyness Deyn.
The business of fashion myth is greedy, and even though Deyn is only 24 now, it is alleged that her model card claims that she is 21, and that in an interview she said she was 18, provoking a gaggle of schoolfriends to point out that she used to be the same age as them. Maybe it was thought that, the younger Deyn could be, the better, as far as filling those Topshop rails was concerned. It seems a bit of a shame when 24 is considered not a desirably young enough age for international stardom, but nobody ever said that fashion wasn't youth-oriented.
The hype world, also, prefers the idea that she was talent-spotted while working in a chip shop in Stubbins, Lancashire, to the rather more believable alternative, which is that she was spotted by a subject-hungry photographer in the rather less unlikely venue of a hip vintage store in London's Kentish Town, dressed in all the finery that a style-conscious young beauty on the lookout for opportunity could be expected to muster.
Deyn did work in a chip shop, but while she was at grammar school doing A-levels in drama and music, and already modelling locally with some success. She was already interested in fashion, already the winner of a local modelling prize, and already planning to storm the London scene with her friend the fashion designer, Henry Holland. He is described as a childhood friend, but again the truth is slightly less primal: he ran into her when she was in her mid-teens at the venerated chip shop, and they both recognised a kindred spirit when they saw one.
Now the two of them are projected as wide-eyed little ragamuffins, stumbling innocently towards London in the manner of Dick Whittington and his cat, and brave enough to say goodbye to the chip shop and face outrageous fortune because they had each other. Again, it's a nice romantic story, but the truth, as we know, is that the Manchester area is extremely far from being a youth-cultural desert. Somehow, in the rush to mythologise Deyn, it is more convenient to pretend that it is. It's a bit tragic that the very mention of the North inspires people to believe that a young woman could not possibly have imagined that life could ever offer more than a lifetime at the fryer, unless a fairy-godperson happened to fancy a saveloy. But there we are. No one is possibly more in thrall to the idea of provincialism than a London-based journalist.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Agyness Deyn was ever some sort of empty vessel, waiting to be filled. But sophisticated and ambitious teenagers, hungry by amazing coincidence for the very things they have managed to achieve, never did feature in fairy tales.
It is very strange, this desire to believe that Agyness Deyn is the terribly young and utterly naive creation of the fickle finger of fate, because what has been clear from the first stirrings of fashion-media interest is that she is a confident young woman with a highly developed sense of her own likes and dislikes. Deyn's style, anyway, is "idiosyncratic" in a way that has been familiar to followers of street fashion since the Seventies. Jaunty trilbys, stripy socks, braces and rock-gig T-shirts are hardly items of clothing invented by her.
Deyn's idiosyncrasy lies only in the way she continues to prefer to dress like a style-conscious girl on a budget, instead of going belly-up before the blandishments of the designers who would very much like to dress her for absolutely nothing. (Not that she turns her nose up at a nice dress for the red carpet.) Her look is, in that respect, shrewd because it marks her out as "normal" in a business that is more comfortable with abnormal. That's what got her spotted, and that's what got her work and attention.
Are these minor confabulations important, even though they are far from new? I'm inclined to think that they are. There's something rather pathetic about the widespread desire to believe that Deyn is the passive recipient of her success, rather than the active architect of her career. The idea that nice girls don't want to have huge careers, but instead have them thrust upon them, really ought to have been consigned to history by now.
Deyn is reported by all who know her to be down-to-earth and straightforward, fun and decent. There's something of an implication, in the attitudes shown towards her "back story", that an acknowledged desire for success would run counter to these attributes, in just the same way as going to private school or having an uncle in the business is considered to be the sine qua non of cheating corruption, however talented you may be.
Certainly, Deyn herself is in no hurry to challenge the way she has been packaged. The little she says in interviews is very much in the traditional vein of self-deprecation. She claims not to varnish her toenails, because: "I've got really bad feet – they're so bad they're good." She also likes to go along with the idea that she "is not sexy", as if the divide between glamour models and fashion models never existed before she came along, and as if the triumph of a tall and willowy blonde with perfect skin somehow rewrites the story of 21st-century female pulchritude. Anyway, the vulgar T-shirts of her chum Holland, saying "Flick yer bean for Agyness Deyn", appear to find buyers, even though no one is supposed to find her remotely fanciable.
Deyn is aware that her championship of street style is a part of her image that brings in lavish contracts with luxury firms, and is not above whispering such lines from the PR handbook as: "I love Burberry and it's special to work for a British label." She flogs the British angle like mad, posting a photograph of her heroine, the Queen, on her website, and flying a little Union flag off the back of her bicycle. All this adoration of England, must, of course, go down a storm in her adopted home of New York, where, being as English as fish and chips, and even having served them, is even more of a novelty than it is in England.
There can be absolutely no doubt that Deyn is now poised to become extremely famous and extremely rich. There can be little doubt, either, that Deyn is perfectly happy at the prospect of such an outcome. I'm inclined to think that her keen desire to go along with the idea that all this is just something that was thrust upon her, is itself evidence of just how well she understands how popular culture works, and how much the luxury market relies on its association with youthful street styles in order to make its élitist pile. Deyn would never be crass enough to say that she wants to be massively wealthy. But she's laying the foundations of empire.
I'd be surprised if Deyn turned out to be the doomed kind of It-girl, rather than the savvy kind. Part of her compliance in going along with the media game appears to come from the understanding that, if you play your cards right, you can live in front of the cameras and still keep your private life private, as long as you follow the rules. Deyn turns up at the parties fashion throws, but she is never seen staggering out of them. She is always working, except when she is behind closed doors, and she shows every sign of being able to keep it that way. There will be no profile-reviving reality shows for her, and no florid brushes with tabloid scandal.
The real story of Agyness Deyn is that she understands just what she wants and just what is required of her if she wants to get it. So far, all her dreams and plans are coming together nicely. There is no reason to imagine that she will ever stop rising without trace, or ever regret her very deliberate choices.
Cream of the crop
The trademark blond crop here appears suitably unkempt, and those all-important dark roots are proudly on display – a must for anyone working a street-inspired look that at least pays lip-service to Madonna circa True Blue, but is rather more "real" – as the parlance goes – than that. Also impressive is the distinct lack of make-up, revealing I've-been-up-all-night dark rings beneath the eyes. Finally, there are Ms Deyn's big, black eyebrows, rivalling even Keira Knightley's in loveliness.
The boyfriend jacket with sleeves pushed up over the elbows à la Don Johnson in Miami Vice is an integral part of this particular fashion icon's wardrobe. It's an Eighties stalwart for a start, and Agyness Deyn is very Eighties. It's slouchy, oversized and androgynous to the point of confrontational. And she's carrying a book in her pocket, apparently, which is surely worth more Brownie points than, say, dragging about a hardware-laden branded bag named after her by a superstar designer.
Working men's club
The string vest and lumberjack shirt are staples of the Northern English and American working man's wardrobe respectively. The former, in particular, brings Jack Duckworth over breakfast to mind, and the Corrie star is doubtless one of the model's heroes. (At least, if he's not, he should be.) Part-ironic, part-heartfelt – Ms Deyn's working-class origins are central to any appeal – don't be fooled into thinking there is anything remotely random about this seemingly thrown-together style. It's mannered in the extreme.
The real thing
Skinny jeans are a benchmark of Everywoman status just now. Kate Moss has long been applauded for her "girl next door" good looks that are today, truth to tell, anything but. Agyness Deyn, though, is the real deal. Not only that, she's resisting the usual models' urge to wear them in a "look, you'll only ever be as thin as me in your dreams" kind of way, and for that she must be applauded.
Back in the day-glo
Neon socks, some might argue, tip this particular look just a little too far into Hoxton territory for some people's taste. Looking on the, well, on the bright side, they could be interpreted as more Paul Smith classic-with-a-twist than House of Holland poptastic, the latter today being (only whisper it) overexposed to the point of mainstream. What's more, Deyn's cute woolly hosiery matches her hair, and there's nothing wrong with co-ordinated dressing, as ladies of the 1950s knew only too well.
Made for (cat)walking
The determinedly mannish, dirty great lace-up boots are key to the overall effectiveness of Deyn's look. There's nothing worse than a stiletto heel tucked under a pair of jeans, be they narrow, boot-cut or boyfriend, after all. And for those of us who prefer our icons to look like they may actually be able to walk – as opposed to being chauffeured from pillar to post by some unfortunate soul – these, too, are a definite high point.
(Picture: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
It may seem to have the all the ingredients for the perfect film script: gritty northern lass escapes her grim one-horse town and makes a life for herself in London as a top supermodel parading the catwalks of Milan, New York and Paris. Except that's not exactly the Agyness Deyn story.
Deyn, or Laura Hollins as she was known back in the day, was brought up in the picturesque town of Rawtenstall in the Rossendale Valley, east Lancashire. She attended All Saints' Catholic High School in Rawtenstall and took A-levels at Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School Sixth Form before leaving in 2001. And, like most youngsters her age, she had a part-time job to bring in some extra pocket money – in the chip shop in the neighbouring village of Stubbins serving the locals their chip butties and fishcakes.
Tucked away among a row of terrace houses stands The Village Chippy, Agyness' former boss Irene Kershaw says she knew her former trainee was destined for bigger things.
"You always knew she had something," she explains. "She was a lovely looking girl with short hair and beautiful long legs and I daresay all the boys round here fancied her. I only knew her when she was Laura, she was about 16 or 17 at the time and was just your normal teenage girl. Her friend worked here first and recommended Laura to me. I took her on and she was very good. She served customers and did the dishes, basically anything I asked her to do she would do it."
But even back then her catwalk credentials were starting to show. She was voted the face of Rossendale in a competition organised by her local newspaper and even auditioned, albeit unsuccessfully, for a part on the teen drama Hollyoaks, before she got her big break in London when she was spotted by a photographer as she walked along Kentish Town Road.
Even as her success was confirmed this week, back in her home town, locals tended to their window baskets and walked their dogs as normal, seemingly unaware that one of their own is now one of the world's most wanted models. One man standing on his doorstep on Bolton Road North, the main road running through Stubbins, told me he had heard of Agyness. "She must have served me my chips at some point," he recollected. "I think I do remember her. She was a pretty girl, but I could never have imagined she'd become a supermodel, you don't, do you? I was amazed when I turned on the Jonathan Ross show and heard her talking about Stubbins."
Asked whether he thought it would be worthwhile for fashion moguls in London to send their scouts up to the village to find the next Agyness, he added tentatively: "There are a lot of good-looking girls here, but I'm not sure how many are supermodel material."
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