For Iggy Azalea, Dress-Up Is a Grown-Up Game

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — On a recent Saturday, Iggy Azalea was hanging out in her room at the Mondrian in SoHo, barefoot in black sweatpants and a heavily embellished Fausto Puglisi bomber jacket, which she said she loved because “it’s so shiny and sparkly.”

Azalea is a peroxide-blond Australian rapper of 23 who mysteriously popped up front row at New York and Paris Fashion Weeks (notably at the Chloé show last fall, where she was demure in culottes and a buttoned-up blouse), attended the Vanity Fair Oscars party and seems to have captivated Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The magazines both pronounced her a top-10 style star to watch this year, alongside Lupita Nyong’o and Suki Waterhouse. All this before her debut album, “The New Classic,” is even out (it is scheduled for release April 22).

Like Rita Ora and Lil’ Kim before her (yes, the cycle of an It Girl has considerably compressed), Azalea is offering a fresh, incongruous face and an out-of-nowhere story to an industry whose appetite for novelty seems bottomless.

And her ambition is palpable.

“I know how to play the game and get what I want,” she said “Do you think what I wore to the Chloé show would really be something that I would wear? No. I picked the outfit out myself, because I know it’s appropriate and I know how to pander. I know what Chloé looks like, and being that I want to appease Chloé, because I would like some Chloé, I’m going to do my best job to be Chloé.”

Azalea wants designer clothes for her music videos, to “do wacky things to them,” she said. “But I know that if the designers can’t see me in a certain light, that fashion light, I will never get those clothes.”

So she has done her homework, poring over fashion magazines, their editorial spreads and advertisements.

“I want to look like the girls the designers envisioned in their campaigns,” she said.

She has also hired help: Alejandra Hernandez for her music videos — for which she is in cropped tops or pants-less (a reflection of her own taste, she said) — and for about a year and a half the stylist Jason Rembert, who counts Ora and Ciara as clients. Per the playbook of “rapper to red carpet,” he gave her a cleaner, more sophisticated aesthetic.

“Sometimes it’s about going simpler and showing the natural beauty versus covering up with chains and all that extra stuff,” he said.

Part of that strategy included giving her a Fashion Week presence.

“I’m very selective of the brands I introduce her to because sometimes aligning with a premium brand, one that has a really strong look, can hurt your client,” Rembert said. “It becomes not about your client’s style and all about the designer.” Last fall, he scored Azalea the invitation to Chloé, he said, as well as Maison Martin Margiela, because the labels are known more for quality craftsmanship than overbearing signatures.

“We ran into so many roadblocks in the beginning: No one wanted to dress her,” Rembert said — perhaps because of her rap lyrics, which are R-rated. “Pop stars are easier,” he said. And “with actresses, it’s safer for the designer, because you know they’ll wear minimal jewelry. Actresses are not using makeup on their forehead, or some other crazy thing a musician might try.”

But prodded by Rembert, Emilio Pucci dressed Azalea in a black long-sleeved gown for the VH1 Divas event in 2012.

“It is impossible not to take notice and be excited by Iggy’s look,” said Peter Dundas, Pucci’s creative director (and a supporter of Ora). “She is like the fab love child of a Vargas pinup and a gangsta rapper that makes great music.”

Azalea has steadily won over other designers since, like Roberto Cavalli and Elie Saab, whose conservative sleeveless white gown she chose for the Grammys this January.

“That was a major aspiration of mine for a long time, to get an Elie Saab dress,” she said, dreamily describing the brand’s aesthetic as “Grace Kelly, elegant and beautiful.” When talking fashion, you get the sense that Azalea is still playing dress-up, a game she loved as a kid.

Born Amethyst Amelia Kelly in Sydney, Azalea grew up in Mullumbimby, a town of about 3,000 on the north coast of New South Wales. She said she rode her “first wave of fandom” with the Spice Girls. “In my videos and day-to-day life, I feel like I could be Ginger,” she said. But by the time she was a teenager, she had ditched the sugary pop cassettes for Tupac, Outkast and Missy Elliott.

Australian designer Dion Lee, who has gotten to know the rapper during the last couple of years, said, “It’s quite a strange thing for an Australian to try an American version of hip-hop.”

But, Azalea said, “It’s always interested me to do something in a field where there aren’t a lot of females.”

She dropped out of high school and moved to Miami on her own. “I wanted to be around rap music, and when you’re coming from another country, America is the holy grail of that,” she said. A growing following on Myspace in 2010 led her to Los Angeles, where she settled on her stage name (Iggy after her dog and Azalea after the street she grew up on). To pay rent, she sold hair extensions, but not for long. A year later, videos she posted on YouTube went viral, eventually landing her a modeling agent (Wilhelmina), record label (Island Def Jam) and famous boyfriend — another rapper, ASAP Rocky.

Azalea is now dating Los Angeles Laker Nick Young. Together they were featured in a recent GQ spread this month as the “coolest, freakiest young couple in the NBA.”

“It surprised me when I met him how much he knew designers,” she said. On a recent lunch outing, “He’d be like: ‘I really like the flower print on these seats. They look a lot like the Givenchy print that just came out for the ready-to-wear.’”

One bonus: She pilfers his sweats, which she finds more comfortable than the versions for women she finds in stores. In fact, she is perhaps inevitably working with Hernandez on a women’s line: everyday loungewear.

“I’m not trying to make high-fashion clothing,” she said. “I’d never do that.” But she will model it as long as she can, in videos and on the red carpet.

Azalea smiled. “They’re two good games to play,” she said.