WHAT exactly is the alchemy of cool? A difficult if not almost impossible question to answer. Genuine cool is beyond age, gender, race or religion – those lucky enough to possess it don’t even necessarily seem to be aware they exude it, don’t even seem to try too hard to cultivate it, which is perhaps the secret to its enduring appeal.
Everyone wants to possess it, but just what is the essence of the egnima known as cool? Individuals who have oozed it have included Charlotte Rampling, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Alexa Chung, Anita Pallenberg, Kate Moss, Emmanuel Alt and Keith Richards.
All are different, but each has the confidence, sex appeal and dash of eccentricity or individuality that marks them out as “cool”. Advertisers try to endow their products with it, branding agencies know it is the holy grail of desirable attributes and yet it is one of the hardest associations to create and perpuate successfully because if it isn’t authentic – it isn’t cool.
In an era of stylists and manufactured imagery, how many contemporary celebrities create their own style? Few it seems, if you watch what they wear on and off the red carpet.
The whole explosion of the red carpet as a marketing and product placement phenomenon in the last decade has largely seen personal style replaced by professionally and stragically manipulated celebrity endorsement.
So the face of a major fragance, e.g. Natalie Portman for Dior, will wear their couture to all awards, likewise, Keira Knightley wears Chanel for her wedding and to all her premieres and now that Madonna is the face of Versace again, she will be visibly wearing the brand in her private and public life.
As Malcom McLaren observed in the years before his death, “Christian Dior said ‘Fashion is an act of faith’ but today there is little faith in fashion because it has become mere product.”
In a commoditised world where fashion is ruled by corporate rather than personal identity, cool is in danger of losing its edge and of becoming another spurious marketing tool.
Looking to the past and artists with a unique personal style such as Bowie, Elvis, Debbie Harry and Bryan Ferry, who all drove how they looked autonomously, the current crop seem depressingly homogenous yet self aware.
Trend forecasting agencies search the globe for emerging lifestyle and fashion trends that have cool associations, But cool is not quite the same as trendy, its brasher more fickle relation.
Trendy is faddy, will be slavishly copied, peak and then be discarded by a jaded populace. Cool is more enduring – it emerges rather than being created and those who are lucky enough to possess it are born with it rather than cultivating it - Keith Richards is still cool at 70 – it’s in his DNA. Cool is authentic, effortless and beyond precise definition.
It is naturally stylish, nonchalant, chic without breaking a sweat. It is original, rebellious, brave and mischevious if not outright bold. It is more of the democratic street than the designer shop, so while the wealthy can approximate it with expensive labels, real cool is intrinsic and not acquired.
This is because real cool is an authentic expression of an individual’s creativity, intelligence and personality. Almost all those who are genuinely cool (Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Greta Garbo) are defiantly and definitely themselves – this ability to define who you are on your own terms takes courage, confidence and self-conviction.
Mavericks are cool, it’s just that they don’t really care that they are – nonchalance is one of cool’s defining attributes. When did cool become cool?
What drove the emergence of this concept and placed it at the centre of the Zeitgeist? Some anthropologists and academics trace the idea of coolness back to a mystic African idea called Itutu, one pillar of a religious philosophy created in the 15th century by the Yoruba and Igbo civilizations of West Africa.
In their culture the term contained associations with gentleness of character, generosity and grace, the ability to defuse disputes and also physical beauty.
The Gola people of Liberia defined coolness as the ability to be mentally calm or detached in an almost otherworldly fashion. In these traditional African cultures there was a spirituality attached to the concept of coolness which is absent from modern Western interpretations.
In America, the concept of cool was introduced into the general conciousness via the Africans brought to the West as slaves - the term first emerged in a modern context in the Beat era and had its origins in jazz, when cool was used as an adjective to describe music marked by restrained emotion and the frequent use of counterpoint.
Cool in this era had a defining role to play in rejecting racial discrimination against African Americans – it was a means to convey a self dignified expression of masculinity when many other mainstream opportunites were closed to black men.
Post World War II and the explosion of consumer culture, disgruntled elements began to question the staus quo of society.
Radical subcultures emerged, first the Beatniks or Beats whose ideas were to prove widely influential and included a rejection of society’s standards, innovations in style, the use of illegal drugs, alternative sexualities, an interest in religion, and a rejection of materialism.
This paved the way for the sexual revolution of the ’60s and Hippe counter culture, which deviated further from standards of middle class conformity. The Hippies were cool – their hand-crafted and (originally) very individual nature of dress was a protest against mass produced fashion and bland consumerism.
They were cool because they didn’t conform – however once the masses wanted to adopt hippie style it lost its cachet. However the hippies eventually entered the corporate landscape primarily via the fashion, entertainment and media businesses bringing with them their allegiance to the concept of coolness.
Since then, cool’s rebellious origins have frequently been co-opted into consumerism – exploited as a cynical idea imposed on popular culture via a top down process with accelerated cycles of “coolness” and “uncoolness”.
As authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter observed in their 2004 book, The Rebel Sell: Why Counterculture Became Consuner Culture, “Cool has become the central ideology of consumer capitalism.”
They belive competitive consumerism has been driven by an attempt to gain status and distinction through what we buy – this purchasing “arms race” fuelled by the non-conformists always in search of alternative and exclusive prizes that place them apart from and above mass tastes.
The masses eventually adopt their innovations, the non-conformists move on and the cycle starts again.
If people and brands become cool by understanding what is considered normal, obeying the rules considered necessary, and then diverging from the rules considered redundant, as Warren and Campbell concluded last year in their article, ‘What Makes Things Cool? How Autonomy Influence Coolness’ in the Journal of Consumer Research, being cool is inextricably linked to choice.
They stated,“Collectively, our studies find coolness is a subjective, positive trait perceived in people, brands, products, and trends that are autonomous in an appropriate way” .
The Guardian recently identified looking interesting as one of this season’s key fashion influences, describing the trend as favouring “relentless cool rather than classic beauty”.
Certainly two of the season’s muses are unusual if “cool” choices - Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent and Joan Didion for Céline. If the substance of cool is a self-possessed sense of self-assurance, then both embody it perfectly.
Coolness implies that a person is autonomous – not constrained by the behavioural norms, expectations, beliefs or rules of others.
Echoing this sentiment Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of French Vogue, has stated that, “Character is much more fascinating than pure good looks.” Genuine coolness is always derived from character – in this image-obsessed age it would be refreshing to think that we could begin to appreciate that once more.
Style derived from substance is what distinguishes cool from fickle trends. Faddy fashions peak and then die while genuine cool is consistent and enduring.
If you aren’t born with it you simply can’t buy it – and in this age when everything is supposed to be for sale, this elusiveness makes it all the more desirable.