Karen Elson is the star of a whole new kind of high fashion ad in "Lightning Strikes: The Moschino Musical." The beloved redhead is not only a staple of the fashion world, having been a top model for decades now, but she also is a singer/songwriter with a home in Nashville. Elson has a cabaret past as a member of the Citizens Band, and she put out her debut record, The Ghost Who Walks, while married to Jack White on his Third Man Records label in 2010, and followed it up with 2017's Double Roses (her music is actually quite haunting and mesmerizing) —so she's a perfect choice to helm such a project. With its fiery star, a major fashion label putting out a musical as an ad campaign is new and nuanced, but it also bucks the traditional norms of the high fashion industry that many sigh about.
The ad is pretty straightforward in the musical sense. There is wild Grease and A Chorus Line-style choreography. Elson sings the soundtrack, a medley of Disco bangers, with a finale featuring the original title track, "Lightning Strikes," which Elson helped pen. The whole storyline rests on Elson as a diner waitress with big dreams in the vein of In The Heights and West Side Story. The costuming is all a 1950s meets 1970s fever dream of the new technicolor Moschino line —designed by lead designer Jeremy Scott, the undeniable King of Camp. Recently Scott has also released a Sesame Street collaboration with country queen turned crossover pop darling Kacey Musgraves (who Scott also dressed as Barbie for the 2019 Met Gala) as its spokesmodel, hinting at a trend of Scott looking to more than just a pretty face for his campaigns.
This is an exciting jump for high fashion advertising. It totally eschews all of the things we hate about the industry’s releases — the snobbery of Fashion Week, the showcase of privilege, the parading of incredibly young and often emaciated women—and instead gives us all access to a real damn show (the musical even delightfully makes you wait for almost three minutes for the "show to start" as if you were in a real theater).
While the ad still features young high fashion heroines like Dilone and Stella Maxwell, its a forward-thinking choice to put Elson, at 42, at the musical's center. It shouldn't be so revolutionary, but in one of the most ageist industries, it speaks volumes to not letting women think they have any kind of expiration date — and Elson adds her own undeniable panache that can make any woman say, "fuck aging."
Jeremy Scott told Elle, “Even when I’m doing a runway, I always think about my shows as films. The woman is a character, and where would that character go? What would she do and what would she never do? And maybe there’s no dialogue, but fashion is a language, and it speaks to so many people!” It seems as if he knew how powerful of a choice he was making in not just putting out a musical, but choosing Elson as its lead.
Elson has historically spoken out many times against the fashion industry, voicing grievances with the rampant sexual misconduct, forced nudity, the disposability of models by high powered men, and the intense body scrutiny that leaves many with disordered eating. Her autobiography The Red Flame, which came out in October of last year, was a scathing tell all on her wild ride as one of fashion's most sought after faces, who became so much more than just her image.
In many circumstances, being so forthright about incredibly cagey issues in the fashion industry would blacklist a model, or see her cast as a bitter has-been. But Elson's gift seems to have always been timing. She knows that her star has evolved so far beyond just fashion, and she has the unyielding power to speak the truth, and then follow it up by being the center of glamorous, splashy major label releases. The same way she perfectly timed starting a music career — which could have sparked eye rolls — she timed this second act take down and take over.
I know applauding Moschino for making a move that's just unexpected at its most simple, and perhaps game changing at its most influential, is a bit trite. We don't need to bow down to the high powered hands that feed. But ultimately, high fashion isn't going anywhere — we will always love to consume it and be consumed by it. It says, "Hey, buy this dress, fugly," and we respond, "Yes sir, now please tell me I'm fat."
I know personally I'm sick of seeing the overtly ubiquitous and nepotist Hadid sisters as the face of fucking everything. While Elson's face is arguably just as everywhere, there is substance behind the model beyond smoking cigarettes at Cannes. I think this new trend of lending high fashion campaigns personality outside of "it's expensive and edgy darling, go buy it" is a welcome change in an industry that celebrates and looks down on change at the same time.