WHAT IF the peak of airport style was not the 1950s or ’60s but…this decade? Although mid-century celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross are rightly held up as beacons of glamorous travel, some of the most stylish stars of today rivaled them before the pandemic grounded much travel. In late February 2020, the members of the K-pop boy band BTS took off from Incheon Airport in South Korea wearing a vibrant mishmash of contemporary fashion: a pert navy Thom Browne peacoat; some Celine superprep; and at least one louche Rick Owens look. Their fashion choices suggested the same optimistic sense of freedom as a trip to New York did back then. And the looks—distinctive, intentional, luxurious—were characteristic of a generation of stars who treat the airport as a runway, including the musicians Lisa from Blackpink and Justin Bieber, and the models Kendall Jenner, Kaia Gerber, and Gigi and Bella Hadid.
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That is, until they couldn’t. The pandemic, which curtailed air travel and sequestered even celebrities to their homes, interrupted a heyday of airport style that has kept paparazzi and gossip websites buzzing for years. Ulrike Ben Mansour, the content executive for the photo agency the Mega Agency, has been dealing in celebrity airport photos since 2000. Over the last year, she said, that pipeline dried up: “I find that with the pandemic, with all the flights having been cancelled, less celebrities travel, so less pictures.” And when pictures do come in, celebrities are masked, so less identifiable.
For creative director Jodi Peckman, it was an odd but ultimately fortuitous time to be working on her book, “Come Fly with Me,” recently published by Rizzoli. “I was surprised the book was going to be published, only because of the subject matter—nobody was traveling anymore,” she said, “so it was a book about something that wasn’t happening at the moment.”
But the timing gives the book the luster of escapism. Ms. Peckman pored over decades of photos of celebrities in transit, from a 1960s Muhammad Ali in a white suit and briefcase to Lady Gaga in a stewardess-cosplay minidress in 2015. Each picture captures the glamour of travel and celebrity, but without the trappings of photoshoots (lights, retouching, sets) that normally put stars on a pedestal.
“I find them compelling to look at, because the photos are taken in a public space, but somehow they seem really intimate and private,” said Ms. Peckman, who came across thousands of airport photos during her 30 years as a photo editor and creative director at Rolling Stone. As to the public’s constant fascination with these images, she said, “People like to see how celebrities walk around in real life, what they look like when they’re not in character, and not in films or TV shows or, if it’s a pop star, on stage. People just like to see what everybody’s personal style is.” For some stars, that personal style is “just like us”; for others, like Lady Gaga, it’s over-the-top.
Thus, the rampant appetite for such photos on paparazzi and gossip websites like TMZ; newspapers like the Daily Mail; in magazines like Us Weekly and People; and even within more blue-chip publications such as Vogue, which made airport style a key part of its online coverage with the rise of models like the Hadid sisters and Kendall Jenner.
Certain queens of modern airport style emerged after 2010. Unlike the low-key, black-clad celebrities of the previous generation—think Winona Ryder, Cindy Crawford and Angelina Jolie—these millennial and Gen Z women pulled out their most attention-grabbing looks for forays to Charles de Gaulle and LAX. (The quieter stars now use Los Angeles International Airport’s Private Suite, a VIP experience that allows them to bypass the paps.)
Rihanna, for example, pulls off improbable pieces like crystal-studded Bottega Veneta high heels and a houndstooth and logo Dior anorak on her travels. She was also one of the first to treat a transparent-plastic Off-White X Rimowa suitcase as an accessory, flashing her belongings to the public as she wheeled across shiny airport floors. Lisa, the cherubic member of K-pop group Blackpink, would often sport fresh-off-the-runway looks, like a Prada dress on her way to the brand’s show in winter 2020. Gigi Hadid, an airport-fashion trendsetter, wore a head-to-toe clashing-print Vivienne Westwood runway look to JFK airport in March 2020, just before airlines began reducing the frequency of their flights.
This posturing has trickled down to mere mortals. Instagram and
are jammed with photos of everyday folks and aspiring influencers, tagging airport looks from sweatsuits to more fashion-forward styles. During the pandemic, that kind of posting slowed, although it’s trickled back onto social media as flights return. Monochromatic sweatsuits, such as a crop-top cobalt version worn by content creator Meleena Cruz, appear to be trending. Emily Ann Gemma, 33, a Tulsa, Okla., blogger, began posting her strategically casual airport looks—skinny jeans, long cardigans, statement hats—to social media and her blog around 2013, and found that they instantly eclipsed her other content. She explained, “Those photos just always outperformed every other photo in terms of likes and engagement…I made that part of every trip—an airport-style photo.” Even during the pandemic, a modest photo of her wearing jogger pants and sneakers at an airport enroute to visit relatives was a “top-performing photo” on her social media for 2020. “I think everyone’s just dreaming of traveling and excited and looking forward to being able to travel again,” she explained.
Ms. Peckman, the “Come Fly with Me” author, is looking forward to the return of airport style. She said, “It might be [people’s] first reason and their first excuse to go back in their closet and pull out all the things they love and start wearing them again.” As for her own recent flight from Los Angeles to New York, she dressed down in comfortable clothing. “I dress the complete opposite of someone like Lady Gaga,” she admitted.
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