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Immaterial Girl?

Madonna has long satisfied our appetite for the very vogue. But her recent incarnation reveals she may be losing relevance as a trend setter.

April 09, 1998|TAMARA IKENBERG | THE BALTIMORE SUN

A mystical creature. The embodiment of female angst.

This is how Madonna describes her look in the new video "Frozen," from her recently released album "Ray of Light."

In "Frozen," her hair is decidedly raven, she's clad in black from fingernail to foot, and her hands are decorated with trendy mehndi temporary tattoos.

But this look isn't as vogue as we expect Madonna to be, observers say. It may even mark the end of her days as pop's No. 1 fashion icon.

The newest Madonna incarnation has a name: "Veronica Electronica," a spiritual alter ego whose style is suspiciously similar to the Goth look, a black, brooding, club-kid fashion staple that's been around for well more than a decade.

"Don't say Goth," Madonna said on a recent MTV special. "The director won't like that at all."

But Leon Hall, co-host of E! Entertainment Television's "Fashion Reviews," knows a Goth when he sees one. Madonna may disguise it under the moniker "Veronica Electronica," but Hall prefers to recognize the Morticia Addams-ish attire for what it is.

"Goth is tired, and why would Madonna pick up on a tired trend?" says Hall, who also is host of E!'s "Fashion Emergency." "You expect her to be an originator, not a follower."

It's simply out of chameleonic character for Madonna to take anyone else's lead. It's her fashions that have been faithfully copied since she bounced onto the pop scene in 1983 with a crucifix and a dream.

The music on her new album may be hailed as progressive, but the look of "Frozen" is regressive.

It's her first video since giving birth to baby Lourdes, and Madonna watchers looked for signs that her latest role as mother had impaired her trend-setting powers.

But despite Hall's negative reaction to "Frozen," he and other critics concede it will cause a temporary resurgence in mehndi tattoos and the Goth look.

"Madonna has influence, be it good or be it bad," Hall says.

At 39, Madonna's not the same person who simulated sex on the stage 14 years ago at MTV's Video Music Awards when she debuted "Like a Virgin" in a thrift-store wedding dress.

You won't see that innocently trashy aesthetic so obviously at work anymore, now that she's heavily reliant on high-end haute couture designers such as Versace, Gaultier, Dolce & Gabbana and Galliano.

Duplicating her style has become increasingly difficult. Once it was as easy as plucking a Madonna-inspired rubber bracelet or a PG-13 bustier off the rack of your local Contempo Casuals. But when her looks began to change from video to video, a concrete image became harder to pin down, says David Wild, senior editor for Rolling Stone, who has chronicled Madonna's influence through the years.

Today, Madonna's look is more indefinable and reflects her many symbiotic relationships with fashion designers.

Although she's gone from thrift store to Dior, as Hall says, Madonna can still peripherally influence a purchase and lend momentum to a fad, depending on what she's seen wearing. The fur-collared Dolce & Gabbana coat she wore on magazine covers and talk shows in the early '90s spawned hundreds of knockoffs around the world. And not long after the release of her "Human Nature" video--an S&M sendup--black vinyl adorned the racks of even the most mainstream retailers.

While she still has power in the fashion world, some of Madonna's core audience wishes she'd never abandoned her sincerely slatternly fashion statements.

GiGi Guerra, associate editor of the fashion magazine Jane, targeted to women ages 18 to 34, was part of the fan base that Madonna inspired to lip-sync to "Like a Virgin" in the living room, wearing their mom's old bras.

"She doesn't appeal to me like she used to," Guerra says. "She was my idol for so many years. She and [Duran Duran's] Simon LeBon. That's all I thought about. She almost annoys me now. She keeps chugging along, doing it over and over."

Fans such as Guerra, who idolized Madonna in her first phases, are far past the stage of mimicking rock stars.

"It's pretty embarrassing to have kids of your own and still try to be her. She's not that kind of icon anymore," Wild says. "The remarkable thing is, she's still in the game. It's a testament to her ingenuity."

Madonna has held the world's attention for 15 years and weathered many fashions in the time between "Material Girl" and mehndi makeup. She has shifted looks more times than Susan Lucci has lost at the Emmys.

Rolling Stone's Wild would like nothing more than to see Madonna return to the vampy virgin look for a video or two. Guerra also sees Madonna returning to fun and flirtation.

But "Fashion Emergency's" Hall, who regards the Goth look of "Frozen" as a low point, will only be satisfied "if she did something uniquely her that still had that edge, within the parameters of being a 40-year-old mother."

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From Video to Video, the Many Looks of Madonna

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