Justin Bieber, Joan Didion and the unicorn emoji: the style stars of 2015

Style setters: Justin Bieber, Caitlyn Jenner and Joan Didion. Guardian composite
Style setters: Justin Bieber, Caitlyn Jenner and Joan Didion. Photograph: Guardian composite/Getty Images/Rex

Having style is about using how you look to say something about yourself. Being a style leader, however – that’s more than that. When the way you look not only says something about you, but also engages with or captures something about the world around you: boom. You’re in.

Our style stars of 2015 make for an eclectic list. They range from a coolly highbrow writer (Joan Didion) to a hot-tempered pop puppy (Justin Bieber.) They represent television, music, politics, cooking – and, of course, what’s on our phones. What they don’t represent, this year, is any easily digestible gloss or glamour.

Looking at the people we were obsessed with this year, it becomes clear that straight-shooting good looks, in the sense of symmetry and polish and pin-sharp presentation, has not been what this year was about. This is seen most clearly when we look at 2015 as a reaction to the year before. In 2014, we gorged ourselves on photos of Amal Clooney getting married, and the Duchess of Cambridge on overseas duty. As visions of immaculate polish, blow-dried and coordinated, they were fantasy creatures made flesh and, therefore, compelling for a while. But the look of 2015 is altogether wilder, less easily categorised. This could be simply because we are tired of bland perfection, or could represent something about how incongruous a nattily coordinated pastel wardrobe now looks, when you pan the lens back to include the world around us in the picture.

There are no men slaying the style critics with their tailoring and cufflinks, right now: instead, the men who capture the public imagination, from Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to Ben Whishaw as Danny in London Spy, are defiantly without the conventional trappings of male power.

If fashion does reflect the world we live in, perhaps the way that style has atomised this year says something about the fractured, confusing world picture. It’s an interesting list for anyone who thinks gender fluidity is a key issue of our times only in some abstract, theoretical way. Note that the only name on the list whose image channels traditional, mainstream femininity is that of Caitlyn Jenner. Both the young men we have included – Bieber, 21, and Zayn Malik, 22 – have reinvented themselves by bleaching their hair blond. The platinum move is traditionally a female move, not a male one; the times, they are a’ changing. Meanwhile, both Cookie Lyon and Chanel Oberlin are women who use fashion as warpaint, not ornament. (Our style icons are, unwittingly, testament to the continuing power of television to set the agenda.) And the unicorn? Well, emojis are the visual shorthand of now, to the point where they have, arguably, taken on a life of their own. The dancing lady had her moment, but is now a bit party-season-2014; the crying-with-laughter face was deemed word of the year. A unicorn emoji in a blue speech bubble is the crest of arms of 2015. And if that doesn’t make it an icon, what does? Jess Cartner-Morley

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair
Caitlyn Jenner: cover star of the year. Photograph: Annie Liebovitz/Courtesy of Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair’s “Call me Caitlyn” shoot with Annie Leibovitz made Caitlyn Jennerthe cover girl of the year, by a country mile. The power and reach of one simple portrait, in ivory silk underwear, was a masterclass in the ability of image to define identity. (It showed, also, how bare skin can read as brave, rather than brazen.) That first shoot drew on the iconography of Marilyn Monroe in the pearly gleam of that curvy, old-fashioned underwear on the cover, and in the liquid-gold sequin evening dress Jenner wore in another shot. In public appearances since then, Jenner’s best looks have channelled the woman she acknowledges as her fashion icon, Angelina Jolie. Versace and Moschino gowns with deep V-necklines and long, slim sleeves radiate a poised, confident glamour. JCM

Justin Bieber

Justin Bieber performs at the American Music Awards 2015
The new Bieber look is totally now. Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

“Let me oh let me redeem oh redeem oh myself, tonight,” sings Bieber on Sorry, which is currently No 2 in the singles chart – held off the top position only by Love Yourself, another song from the Purpose album. And redeem himself he most certainly has, fashion-wise, although we have insufficient space here to investigate his current standing re: animal welfare and cultural sensitivity. After a low patch in which he ditched his iconic cutie-pie bowl haircut for nasty baseball caps and mirrored sunglasses, Bieber has come through this autumn with a new Draco Malfoy, bleach-blond, shaved-sided look. He has borrowed from the Kanye camp a wardrobe of oversized, neutral-toned layers that is part Yeezy, part Star Wars, part Marques Almeida – and totally now. We are all Beliebers this Christmas. JCM

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, 1977.
Steinem, pictured in 1977, was a touchstone for fashion this year. Photograph: Everett/Rex

The cover of Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, My Life on the Road, features the author in her most iconic 70s era: centre-parted hair, high-waisted jeans, soulful half-smile. And by serendipity, the first-wave-feminist chic she personified – a dark turtleneck, a pair of slightly awkward trousers – was a touchstone for fashion this year. (See: the Chanel spring/summer 2015 fashion show, staged as a faux-feminist protest.) At 81, key elements of Steinem’s image remain constant, notably the pale streaks of hair that frame her face. She borrowed this detail, she has said, from Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “the first Hollywood film in which a woman was allowed to be sexual and not to be punished”. The details of Steinem’s wardrobe have altered – she has swapped the high necklines for a softer scoop neck on the book tour – but she remains a highly identifiable icon.JCM

Chanel’s faux feminist protest, s/s 2015, Paris fashion week.
Chanel’s faux feminist protest, s/s 2015, Paris fashion week. Photograph: Rex

Yanis Varoufakis

Greek finance minister Varoufakis:
Muscle Ts: Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Photograph: Nikos Pilos for the Observer

It is so rare that male politicians give style commentators anything other than a new hairdo to deconstruct. What joy then when Varoufakis, the then Greek finance minister, rocked up outside No 10 wearing a leather jacket he’d apparently borrowed from Shaun Ryder’s “It’s great when you’re straight … yeah” years. The bad boy of anti-capitalism has form when it comes to dressing against convention, indeed his peers have made fond reference to his loud shirts and muscle Ts in parliament. To quote the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras: “You can blame him as much as you want for his political plan, for his statements, for his taste in shirts … but you cannot accuse him of stealing the money of Greek people.” Tantalisingly, although he has cited Monty Python as an important political influence, Varoufakis declined to admit who has influenced his sartorial swagger. But whether it was indeed Ryder or Grant Mitchell, the economist undoubtedly knows how to let his clothes have their say in the workplace. Respect. Imogen Fox

Chanel Oberlin

Scream Queens’ evil queen bee Chanel Oberlin.
Standout ensemble: Scream Queens’ evil queen bee Chanel Oberlin. Photograph: Steve Dietl/FOX/Steve Dietl/FOX.

Forget working out who the serial killer is. The real drama in dark sorority comedy Scream Queens takes place in evil queen bee Chanel Oberlin’s glossy white wardrobe. The cavernous space brims with ambition and entitlement – it looks a lot like Coco Chanel’s apartment on Rue Cambon – and its staircase and central department-store-style countertop are the perfect podiums from which to terrify minions. It is also bursting with gob-smacking clothes. In fact, it would be easy to write a PhD on Oberlin’s style, but instead here’s the digested read: note the fluff, the pastels, the withering stares, the foot stamping, and follow accordingly. Oberlin’s obnoxious approach to life is reflected in her obnoxious approach to fashion – she destroys her clothes rather than giving them to charity, for example, because “there is something so depressing about a poor person walking around in couture.” Her standout ensemble – dressed up as Jackie Kennedy in that fake Chanel pink suit for Chanel-oween (yes, this is her own version of Halloween) – will provide ample inspiration for October 2016. Lauren Cochrane

Ben Whishaw

Ben  Whishaw as Danny in London Spy.
Excellent work with hair: Whishaw as Danny in London Spy. Photograph: BBC/WTTV Limited

Take away the chem sex and espionage and London Spy is all about the jeans, really, isn’t it? Ben Whishaw, as lead character Danny, gets involved in all sorts in the BBC drama but his jeans remain the constant, a beacon of hope. Just slouchy enough, just worn enough, just the right length to sit on his white trainers, and just the colour to contrast with a smart navy pea coat. All that and I haven’t even started on the ribbed mustard jumper, the flip phone and Whishaw’s excellent work with hair. This, basically, is a lesson in how all men should dress now. It’s also deceptively simple, on the surface, although – like the unsettling glass of peel-top wine that confirms all is not what it seems when Danny visits Alex’s parents – every look is imbued with meaning. As Whishaw is warned by his only ally, Scottie, the forces he is up against “look at the cut of your suit before they listen to what you say. It’s not about wealth; it’s about a set of signals. They require a lifetime of study which is precisely the point.” LC

Joan Didion

Joan Didion for Céline.
Joan Didion for Céline. Photograph: Céline

When Joan Didion was unveiled as a Céline model in January 2015, a few fashion insiders might have had to Google her name. They would have found the cult of Joan dedicated to her laidback Californian look that mostly invoked ribbed T-shirts, loose hair and smoking – an aesthetic and attitude that pinpoints everything fashion aspires to right now, as famously illustrated by her sparse packing list. Céline’s Phoebe Philo putting the grown-up 81-year-old Didion in her campaign, in pictures taken by Juergen Teller, was inspired. Didion’s “I’ve seen it all” interior eyeroll plus black poloneck, statement necklace and floral sofa were appropriately concise, a Miranda Priestley-esque “that’s all” to fashion. Possibly this backfired. To Didion’s exasperation, it only left us wanting more. LC

Zayn Malik

Zayn Malik attends the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer 2016 show as part of Paris Fashion Week
New fashion force: Zayn Malik. Photograph: Dominique Charriau/Getty Images

Remember when Robbie Williams left Take That, his dissent expressed through Adidas stripes and blond hair that looked as though it had been dyed in a tour bus sink? This year, Zayn Malik has demonstrated what boy band rebellion looks like now – and it’s a lot more knowing and glossy. This was the year that Malik became a fashion force to be reckoned with, bringing his soulful stare to the front row of all the best menswear shows and treating fans to a masterclass in high-low fashion – from embellished Louis Vuitton bomber jackets to the slubby sweater modelled for Fader magazine. Really, though, it has been his hair’s year, whether Grade 2 and platinum or quiffed and grey. Rarely has a style icon emerged so decisively. Hannah Marriott

Cookie Lyon

Taraji P Henson as Cookie Lyon in Empire
Fashion as punchline: Taraji P Henson as Cookie Lyon in Empire. Photograph: Chuck Hodes/AP

As Joan Collins auctions off her collection of gargantuan shoulder pads, it is fitting to celebrate the only true successor Alexis Carrington has ever had: Cookie Lyon, matriarch of music-industry drama Empire, a woman who dazzles her detractors with diamante and triple leopardprint. When we meet Cookie, she is emerging from prison in fur coat, mini dress and violently scraped-back ponytail, a look that had clearly been conceived when Destiny’s Child were still a four-piece. In those first first few post-incarceration episodes, it’s all Mary J Blige hats and French Connection frocks; obviously she has not yet had time to go shopping. But like all the best fictional heroes, Cookie has a special gift – she is easily the best music producer in town – and her wardrobe flourishes as her power and talent become increasingly apparent.

By season two, it’s head-to-toe Oscar de la Renta, Versace, Maison Margiela and Moschino. Not only does Cookie never wear the same outfit twice, she racks up about seven different looks an episode, and yet she never peaks. Every outfit is more, more, more – an explosion of bodycon, high heels and nail art. All this and Empire is more than spectacular fashion porn – it uses style as a prop and a punchline in a way not seen since Sex and the City. God forbid you wear cheap shoes or a bad weave around Cookie Lyon. Like hip-hop’s answer to Joan Rivers, she will make sure you regret it. HM

Flights of fancy: other unlikely style hits


Battenberg cake.
Let them wear cake. Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

The irony of fashion drawing inspiration from a cake isn’t lost on us, but it is precisely this comic-ness that makes pink and yellow 2015’s funnest trend. Some went separate (things were pink at autumn/winter Marni and Prabal Gurung and sugary yellow at Dries van Noten and Topshop Unique); others paired them up (see Jonathan Saunder’s ombre coat, a hero piece of the season). The year’s multicoloured hair trend, too, has its origins in confection (at Gucci, Linn Arvidsson’s hair faded from blonde to Pepto-Bismol). Plus, unlike most trends, this one rolled over from spring/summer to autumn/winter, like 2015’s answer to monochrome. Why does it work? Paired together, pink and yellow are easy on the eye, a relaxing, whimsical colour combination. See a blonde Gwyneth Paltrow in pink Ralph & Russo Couture at the Oscars and try not to think about cake. The marzipan element? Well, no, it’s not for everyone. Morwenna Ferrier

Unicorn emoji

Unicorn emoji
The most fashion-appropriate of all emojis. Photograph: Screengrab

The unicorn emoji is, perhaps, the most fashion-appropriate of all emojis – and the others have had a good go. Two reasons, really. One, the iridescent pink-and-blue mishmash which preceded Pantone’s colour of 2016; two, its roots are in chaos magic, the trend created by the same forecasters who came up with Normcore. Chaos magic never quite happened (the concept of wearing something because it was “imbued with meaning” is a bit arch), but the idea of magic? Well, that’s a different story. Forever 21 stuck them on sunglasses, Chanel borrowed the palette for its iridescent prints on the spring/summer catwalk and the models at Maison Margiela were painted to look like unicorns. We’d hazard unicorns weren’t actually on makeup artist Pat McGrath’s original moodboard, but the results are uncanny.