“My weakness is chicness…”—Ira Gershwin, “Alessandro the Wise,” 1945
(Style.com)The majority of Carine Roitfeld’s 2010 interview in Russian Vogue was all but unintelligible to the Western world—at least to the large swaths of it not versed in Cyrillic. Alongside a characteristically moody Hedi Slimane portrait ran a Q&A with Roitfeld, then the editor in chief of Paris Vogue. It found its way into the Roitfeld-worshipping corners of the blogosphere, where eventually a helpful fan provided a complete translation. But for the last question, she needn’t have bothered. Though there is a Russian word for the single term she chose thrice over when pressed to describe herself in three words—шик, or “shikarnyi” in everyday speech—her final answer was printed in Latin case: Chic, chic, chic.
The French have a way with indefinable qualities. They have a long-established phrase for it: je ne sais quoi. So does the fashion world. It’s chic. Chic is when something is stylish, when something is cool, when something is proper, when something is ineffably, indescribably, great.
And often, in our bubbling, malaprop-strewn lexicon, also when it isn’t.
Open a fashion magazine, load a fashion Web site (including this one), attend a fashion show, or eavesdrop at a fashion party, and it is a given that you will read or hear one particular word: chic. (It hardly matters on what continent you’re looking or listening; as we’ll see, chic is chic is chic, in America and abroad.) It is used so often that it can shade into Zoolander realms of parody—the sucked-in cheeks, the widened eyes: “Chic!”—but has also managed to come out the other side, returning to the terra firma of reality. “Chic!” I have heard a fashion editor gasp approvingly to another in breathless admiration. There is usually only one response. “Very chic,” comes the reply. (“Superchic,” if you’re in Paris.)
“Chic” is one of the fashion world’s signifiers of choice. It dominates magazines. Online outlets like Chictopia have cropped up around (some version of) the idea. Beauty, too, has glommed on. When Emily Weiss, the beauty blogger behind Into the Gloss, relaunched her site a few weeks ago, she announced her intentions with a raison-d’être: She started her blog, she wrote, “because I couldn’t find anything…for lack of a better word…chic online that presented the subject in a kind of roundabout way.” For help presenting that subject, she might turn to one of the innumerable products drawing on the concept. CoverGirl, MAC, Chantecaille, Chanel, NYX, and Estée Lauder all put out lipsticks or glosses called “Chic” or a compound variant thereof; Bare Escentuals, Maybelline, and Dior offer eye shadows by the same name; and from the disparate ends of the ether, Celine Dion and Carolina Herrera each offer a Chic fragrance. You can literally paint with all the colors of the chic.
Outside the traditional world of style, chic abounds too, often getting appended to everything from film production companies to porn mags. It lends, even in the oddest juxtapositions, a hint of fashion. Chic has run races. (The Thoroughbred filly Chic won the Hungerford Stakes in 2004.) It’s taken to the roads as a car, too, albeit in small numbers. (A Chic, originally produced in the twenties, is currently enjoying its long retirement at Australia’s National Motor Museum.) Chic has been a Nile Rodgers-fronted disco group, which coined the immortal assertion, “Le freak, c’est chic.” (They were nominated for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame seven times.)
In the seventies, Chic was even a men’s magazine published by Larry Flynt (whose more famous title is Hustler). Flynt’s Chic found itself the defendant in a lawsuit when Jeannie Braun, an animal trainer at the Aquarena Springs entertainment center in San Marcos, Texas, claimed a photo of her in a swimsuit with Ralph, Aquarena’s diving pig, was published under false pretenses. According to Caroline Kennedy and Ellen Alderman’s The Right to Privacy, Braun averred that the magazine’s editor told her Chic was “a fashion and travel magazine with the same readership as Redbook or McCall’s.” The highbrow title, no doubt, helped sell the idea, though the double-entendre with “cheek” is likely intentional as well. More recently, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock picked up and inverted this little joke when one of its characters founds a clothing line and appears in a new logo T-shirt, with rhinestones spelling out C-H-E-E-K. “It’s pronounced chic,” she says imperiously. “It’s French.” (See Fig. 1, next page, for a by-no-means-comprehensive chart of the many products and services labeled Chic.)
But despite its dalliances in other spheres, it’s in fashion where the word has enjoyed the most constant usage. “The word does get linked to pretty much everything at the moment and it does get thrown around pretty easily,” complains Peter Copping, creative director at Nina Ricci, whose fluttery Parisian ready-to-wear may have a better stake on the term than most. Marco Zanini, creative director at Rochas agrees. “It is so overused, it really lost its meaning, from my point of view,” he says—so much so that a few seasons ago, he dedicated his entire collection to exploring what the word actually means. When he began searching on Google and Google Images, he “realized that basically on the Internet it doesn’t have any meaning at all. If you Google ‘chic’ you’ll be amazed by the cheesy stuff that will pop up.”