Man Repeller's Leandra Medine on Personal Style and Originality
There’s a quote attributed to Coco Chanel that often turns up on Facebook profiles: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” I’ve read it so many times that in spite of its underlying message—be original—it’s become, ironically, completely unoriginal.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We’re taught as kids to follow our heart and our gut, not what popular opinion recommends. Only when we’re truly one of a kind, we’re told, will we be destined for greatness.
But is this concept overrated? I’m tempted to think so. To be original, according to the wise oracle Google, is to be an eccentric, unusual person.
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Now, I’m often told that I have a very unconventional style. It’s a compliment, I think, but more than that, I see it as a testament to how well I’m getting to know myself. Style is a monologue, a conversation you have with yourself, and for me, jeans and a T-shirt just don’t cut it.
But here’s the thing: If your personal style happens to be jeans and a T-shirt—unoriginal by Google’s definition—what are you supposed to do? Put on a pink tutu and a huge velvet bow and cry “independence”? That doesn’t make sense. You’d be masking who you are.
Look at street-style photography. We often complain about how downright fake the photos from Fashion Week can feel. But we’ve been conditioned to believe that the craziest, loudest outfit wins. And here’s where we run into a problem: If you’re trying that hard to achieve originality, is it authentic? Isn’t genuine nonconformity effortless, like breathing or blinking?
The thing about originality is that you have to decide what the word means in the context of your own life. Was I acting originally when I married my husband at the tender age of 23? No. That was exactly what my family expected from me. Was it original that as a truly passionate, aspiring acquirer of expensive footwear, I entered the fashion industry? Not at all. As a child, I played dress-up with my dolls and loved trying on my mom’s lipstick. Very average.
When I was 20, I tried to convince myself that I should be a political reporter. For a woman deeply concerned with how she and the people around her dress, that career choice would have been a little more unorthodox and surprising than writing about fashion.
But the heart wants what it wants! So who are we to deprive ourselves of what the trenches of our gut say we need? Our gut is sometimes annoying, and it’s pesky, and we can get it mixed up with weird, negative voices in our heads; but it’s also very rarely wrong. Being in tune with and consistently working to cancel out the noise of what’s happening outside of you is the only way to discover what’s inside—and, I would argue, the path to real originality.
I use clothes to pick up the slack where words fail, to portray an image of the person I am proud to be but also aspiring to improve. I don’t endeavor to look original—and if I did, that would defeat the whole purpose. It would remove honesty from the equation, and I’d be left wearing clothes I probably hate.
And another thing: Sometimes I feel like wearing tight jeans or a very short skirt—not traditionally “man-repelling” garments—so I do that. Often.
Here’s what I recommend: Instead of thinking, “How can I stand out?” ask yourself, “What would make me happiest? What do I need to do to get there?” And then do that. Check in with yourself. Make sure you’re being true to who you really are. If you’re passionate about waist belts, run with it! (I lament my own lack of buckle prowess.)
But don’t forget that originality counts only when it comes from within, not from somewhere or someone else. And so regarding that Chanel quote: The good news is that we’re all irreplaceable. Put that in your Facebook profile.