It was bound to happen: her DNA demanded it. Frances Bean Cobain, who turned 19 on Aug. 18, has traversed the path of other rock star progeny to become a bona fide muse to the fashion world. The scion of 90s music icons Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain, she already is one of music history's most famous heirs apparent, and is both the literal and symbolic daughter of grunge. As Cobain turns 19, and the music, fashion, and lifestyle era she was born of turns 20 next month, a new wave of interest surrounds both these personal and musical milestones.
Be it coincidence or fate, Cobain has formally arrived as major part of the cultural dialogue. As confirmation, two of the most admired photographers in fashion ostensibly presaged (and ratified) the occasion this month: both Hedi Slimane and Rocky Schenck have released private (yet instantly publicized) shoots of the girl as she comes of age, leading the image-making industry to happily declare her its latest sensation. But what does fashion really want from Miss Cobain — and what does she want from fashion, if anything?
It's crucial to remember that Cobain is not your typical Generation Y navel gazer. Though Courtney Love runs a Tumblr that curates her daily wardrobe escapades and initiates Twitter flame wars, her daughter chooses to maintain a low profile, living life largely off the digital grid. She eschews the spotlight, rarely accepting interviews, and only occasionally crosses the media's radar with a well-timed appearance or personal creative project. Last year, she curated an art installation called "Scumf--k" that was a clandestine affair but succeeded on its own terms. Resultantly, a flicker of interest flared in the darker corners of the fashion blogosphere. But a breakout moment was yet to be made.
The big bang arrived roughly two weeks ago, when Slimane, whose aggressively sultry and stark fashion portraits are firmly upheld as some of the industry's most iconic, revealed shots from a private session with Cobain. In the photos, Bean appears alternately contemplative, moody, and restless, but always alluring. She naturally emanates the devil-may-care insouciance that fashion editorialists chase down by spending thousands on clothes, styling, makeup, hair, and smoke and mirror context enhancers. The whole visual event seemed almost too serendipitous: synchronized with a summer high on 90s revivalism, it was hard to believe this was an expressive high fashion moment free of a luxury brand's imposing influence, but here it was. Here she was. Totally unfettered.
Predicably, the fashion community erupted in a fury of intrigue and wonder usually reserved for particular Paris Fashion Week shows.
"I think everyone's jaws dropped," Amina Akhtar, fashion director of FashionEtc.com tells Rolling Stone. "There's no denying how absolutely stunning she is. We all remember her growing up, and now she's come out into her own as this sexy, beautiful woman. But what really struck me was that she came across as strong, confident, and really herself. That's why she's having this moment."
British fashion designer Hannah Marshall, whose dark and disciplined womenswear has been worn by Janet Jackson, Grace Jones, Alison Mosshart, and Alison Goldfrapp, was similarly captivated by Slimane's portraiture. "I didn't actually realize it was her," she says. "I was just absolutely mesmerized by this raven-haired, pale skinned girl, and these eyes that hold a story untold."
Yes, it's easy to mythologize Bean as a proverbial poetess, to project inherited ideals upon her, as fashion is already wont to do. As Akhtar points out: “There's certainly a bit of nostalgia when it comes to Frances Bean. I mean, who doesn't remember the early nineties and where they were when they found out about Kurt?”
Indeed, our nostalgia is accompanied by a pang of wistfulness: despite Bean's inherited fame, we can't help but recall the tragedies that contextualize it. Her childhood was unfair (her father killed himself, her mother was a drug addict): there are few worthier pugilists in the making. To see her rise to the pedestal on which we placed her entails a certain vicarious joy.
Or maybe some like what her story represents in a less charitable, more sensationalist sense. After all, as Elle fashion editor Britt Aboutaleb puts it: "Fashion loves a good shock."
She admits that Bean's famous lineage has always piqued the style community's interest. "It’s hard to overstate the industry’s love of Bean’s parents and the influence their styles had on everyone from couture designers to regular kids who don’t even realize they’re paying attention to fashion.” She adds: "To see their progeny all grown up and covered with tattoos is a big moment."
Though Kurt and Courtney's status as the patron saints of grunge can be regarded as a primarily American obsession, Bean's personal appeal transcends the geography of her roots. DANSK features editor Susanne Madsen, who is based in London and Copenhagen, agrees: "This is the daughter of the man who pretty much invented grunge, and the woman who was — and still is — synonymous with a mash-up of grunge, kinderwhore and riot grrrl. Frances Bean is the living morph of the two of them – as far as fashion and music royalty goes, it doesn’t get much bigger than her."
Bean's appeal may be more universal than her parents' – in fact a new, freshly publicized set of portraits by Rocky Schenck showcasing Frances Bean as a silver screen-worthy goddess are distinctly un-grungy in their styling. Yet, the context still haunts; Schenck was a favorite photographer of Cobain's father. The general timing of the girl's de facto fashion debut is impossible to ignore. Fond memories of "grunge," and the 90s as a whole, are on everyone's minds again, especially as Nirvana's Nevermind turns 20 next month, and as flannel, Doc Martens, ripped clothing, plaid skirts, and other gritty 120 Minutes era-specific totems populate the front windows of retailers once more. As Aboutaleb quips, "I suppose if anyone needed more proof of the 90s revival, this’ll do the trick."
But in order to be relevant, Cobain's appeal must also speak specifically to and of her own era. To fashion in 2011, the muse-in-the-making holds the unrivaled ability to represent the perfect distillation of past, present, and future. "Now, when grunge is having a major revival, Frances has adopted a dark grunge look that not only embodies her parents’ fashion legacy, but also the fashion zeitgeist." explains Madsen.
It's this imperative synthesis of traits — her freedom to publicly reinvoke a stormy past while living fully in her own present — that allows her to symbolize something more poignant than a conventional transient "It Girl." That said, her inimitability would surely make her a hot commodity to any luxury brand. But will she capitalize upon the opportunities her recent press will clearly invite?
“I think it would take a really smart brand to snatch her up. The fit would have to be beyond perfect." Akhtar opines. "Right now, Frances can do anything she wants — all eyes are on her. " It isn't hard to imagine her embodying the essence of a rock-friendly label like Rick Owens or Alexander Wang, or, of course, Marc Jacobs, whose personal narrative in grunge's visual legacy would make for a compelling union.
But, perhaps, instead of becoming any brand's formal ambassador, she'll come to represent an ideal. Lyz Olko, co-founder of New York City based grunge-tinged label Obesity + Speed, sees her as the embodiment of a generational shift in aesthetics. "I think Frances could be a force in the fashion world because of her individuality — or at least I hope so." she says. "The fascinating thing about this generation of kids is how you can see they are not wearing something directly off the runway even though they have the resources to. They refuse to wear designer pieces in the obvious way without adding their own personal twist."
For Bean, those "twists" are split between personal style statements and genetics: her scrawl of tattoos, foreboding eyebrows, and inky eye makeup are her own aesthetic declarations. Her haunted, icy stare? Her unmistakeable biology, no more, no less.
As The Fashion Informer's Lauren David Peden aptly concludes: "It's her lineage that attracts your gaze and her self-possession that holds it."
Inevitably, fashion will attempt to mine that sacred equation for inspiration for years to come, dissecting, mimicking, and eventually rendering what remains purely inimitable into something procurable.