Twenty years ago, Céline Dion gamely wore a louche white tuxedo backwards to the Academy Awards. The outfit from Dior by John Galliano, topped off with a cocked fedora and diamond-studded Ray-Ban sunglasses, landed Dion on worst-dressed lists. But fashion is fickle. That look is now considered one of the great red-carpet moments of the Oscars. It helps that Dion has emerged on the world stage as a chameleon of daring and inventive fashion.
Dionaissance, Celinaissance – there are varying portmanteaus for the attention lavished on the singer since 2016 when, in the wake of husband René Angélil’s death, Dion began attending Paris haute couture shows in person. The short distance from her hotel’s front door to her car became a catwalk, and the world sat up and paid attention as her every street-style look made headlines and she was featured in Vogue. This September, Dion was named to Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list for the first time.
Now 51, the mother of three has recently graced the cover of Harper’s Bazaar Icons issue, Elle Canada and CR Fashion Book, former Paris Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld’s coveted magazine. Her now-famous legs dominated CR’s September issue, with a low-angle photograph that peers up from below the singer’s Saint Laurent tutu. In the accompanying interview, Dion admits what we already know: She’s crazy about clothes.
After more than 200 million albums sold, 16 years in Las Vegas and countless costume changes, the Canadian superstar is hitting the road with Courage, her forthcoming album and her first large-scale world tour in more than a decade. Between rehearsals in Montreal on the eve of the tour kickoff, she sat down with The Globe and Mail to talk about her fashion evolution.
A dedicated follower of style
“Fashion is playing a big role in my life – always did. But at the beginning of my career, we kind of kept it pretty minimaliste,” Dion recalls, gesturing to her Burberry silk blouse, decorated with dancing unicorns, as though it were the high Victorian neckline of her early homemade dresses. “Like up to here," she shows, "not taking so many chances.” She started performing professionally at the age of 12. ”I have 13 siblings, and I was the last. I wore all their clothes,” Dion once told Vanity Fair. ”My mom didn’t have money to buy it, so she made the clothes.”
“Bien dans ma peau,” – comfortable in my skin – that’s the refrain from her 1987 hit Incognito. That album and its TV special were watershed moments that first revealed Dion’s style prowess to the world. Overnight, fashion helped change her image from young teen prodigy in modest ruffles to poised, full-fledged pop singer. The new Dion strutted around Europe in a custom wardrobe by Montreal designer Michel Robidas. “We were choosing fabric, and I was telling him what I was seeing myself in and was helping him to draw, and we did it together,” she says. “I think that was courageous,” Dion recalls of her 18-year-old self’s confident taste.
Few fashion regrets
Dion says she’ll be browsing the internet and even when she’s not looking for it, a style tidbit from her past will pop up. “So sometimes I’m like ‘What is that?’ I press on it and I’m like ‘Oh my god!’ And that was like a TV special, Incognito, when I was in pointy patent leather, fishnets, heels, with dancers like James Bond in the back,” she laughs. For the record, that long-ago zip-front, black-patent, cone-bra bodysuit would fit right in with her current wardrobe of sculpted maillots. “And I’m like, ‘Oh girl you go!’ Because if at 51 I have legs, well at 22, I had legs.”
She keeps everything
Marie Kondo, who? Her fashion archive (think: warehouse) dates back to her early career – from those first singing-contest outfits to the recent edgy looks, and the years of stylish red carpet and performance costumes in between. “If I wore it once, I might not wear it again, or I’ll let time pass before I wear it again,” Dion says. She still has, for example, the ivory tuxedo dress with embroidered lace miniskirt from her 1988 Eurovision win. The vast archive includes both everyday clothing and special pieces. “Pretty much all designers. I do have pieces by people who have passed away” – Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld, Azzedine Alaïa – “that I cherish a lot.”
She loves a total makeover
“I love dressing up and I love characters,” Dion says, “and I didn’t have big self-esteem." She speaks fondly of the late makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, who famously portrayed her as Maria Callas in his 1997 book Making Faces. “I didn’t really like myself so, when he was transforming me, I loved that, and I was encouraging him to change me as much as he wanted to. I never had to look in the mirror because that was how much I trusted him and how much I wanted to be surprised.”
She doesn’t care what you think
Whether it’s a Neoprene graffiti leotard and an oversized blazer by Off-White or a dress by conceptual designer Iris van Herpen that looks like an optical illusion of undulating soundwaves, Dion’s street style has been polarizing. The same is to be expected for her tour wardrobe. “It’s going to be amazing; it’s going to be fierce; it’s going to be strong,” Dion says of the Courage tour looks. Expect more outré choices than even the stylish haute couture stage costumes of her Las Vegas years. “It’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, we’re not going to take a chance; well, that’s not a crowd pleaser.’ I’m not going there. First of all, I’ve heard that a lot. ‘Well, this is definitely not a crowd pleaser.’ Um, I don’t care.”
Fashion is performance
The thrill of attending Paris couture is still a novelty. “I’ve looked at fashions through computers but to attend fashion shows, it’s like it’s breathtaking!” For one thing, at a runway show, Dion gets to be a spectator for a change. “And as well, it strikes you much more powerfully. The power that it does, like the characters that [models] play by walking. I feel that, because I’m an artist and when I’m on stage and when I sing a song, what I wear helps me to deliver the song a certain way or another.”
The Oscars of fashion
Her recent style has stolen the show at the Met Gala – twice. First in 2017, in an avant-garde Atelier Versace dress (“There are no dos or don’ts,” she said at the time) and again at this year’s camp-themed gala. Her headpiece and glimmering Oscar de la Renta bodysuit, inspired by Judy Garland’s fringed showgirl outfit in Ziegfeld Girl, won the red carpet, hands down.
Dion says she’s always loved fashion but now, working with stylists Pepe Munoz and Sydney Lopez, she wants to use it more. “When you wear an haute couture gown or a bomber jacket or jeans or flat shoes or heels … if it is something very sexy or something very elegant, I will walk differently; my demeanour will be different. I will sing differently as well,” Dion says.
It takes a village
Dion is quick to lavish praise on Munoz and Lopez. “I have to pay credit a lot to my stylists that are educating me as well,” she says. They’re introducing her to new and interesting emerging talents – stay tuned for a red Latex gown by Dead Lotus – and in some instances, knowing when less is more. “I want to buy everything from everybody,” is what Dion admits is her first instinct. “But they are trying to calm me down!”
The plan behind her tour fashions
In any given concert, Céline Dion provides an Oscar ceremony’s worth of red carpet looks all on her own. With the intense fashion following the superstar has amassed as a style icon, expectations are at an all-time high for her new Courage world tour, which takes her stage fashion to another level.
“People that come to Celine’s show, they expect drama and beautiful costumes, and we need to give them at least five looks,” says Pepe Munoz, who with Sydney Lopez makes up the fashion styling duo on Team Céline. “And there’s many, many styles of songs. There’s uptempo, there’s ballads, and sometimes we find that in the show they’re next to each other, so we have to find something versatile enough to match those different styles.”
In addition to suiting the mood of the music and making a fashion statement, there are also the practical considerations around Dion’s energetic performance style. They include, but are not limited to, standing legs akimbo, perching on the edge of the stage, prancing, lunging, fist pumping, chest thumping and air guitar. Little wonder the superstar and her team began planning the Courage stage costumes in earnest last January, at Paris couture. Lopez and Munoz take us behind the scenes of the process.
Dion created a stir in her recent Harper’s Bazaar shoot by donning a short black wig of Vidal Sassoon’s iconic 1960s haircut. Her own glamorous ‘dos range from topknots and chignons to long, loose waves. Shortly before the Courage tour’s opening night in Quebec City, however, Dion and hairstylist Dee Amore Marti decided to chop her golden waves into a sleek bob for real – surprising even her fashion stylists.
Make an Entrance
The striking red gowns by Kuwaiti-born Yousef Aljasmi, such as the one on the Courage album cover, open the show and are emblematic. “When the light and the cameras hit the screens, it makes a statement,” Lopez says of the power colour. “We were looking for something that really represented what this whole album is for and this whole season of what Celine is doing right now,” she explains, “and that’s taking charge of everything. She’s the boss.”
Double the Fun
High-waisted cigarette pants pair with a soft blouse by Alexandre Vauthier. Dion has the original mini dress version, too. “When that look walked out [on the runway], Celine was obsessed,” Munoz recalls. “'Oh my God, the sleeves, the sleeves!’” Understandably: The blouse has huge, romantic, billowing sleeves that, onstage, emphasize even the most delicate of the singer’s gestures. And when the tempo shifts, there’s a twist. “We came up with the idea that if we remove the sleeves, you have two looks in one that suddenly become more of the rock ’n’ roll,” Munoz says.
“On this tour we have a little bit more time,” Lopez says of the approximately 90 seconds Dion gets offstage between song sections to do a complete costume change. While she puts on the next outfit, giant screens offer another fashion show – new conceptual video content of the superstar. Montreal designer Yso, for example, whipped up the diaphanous white dress that Dion wears in a haunting underwater video that bridges the last segment of the show.
“Obviously, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury,” Lopez says with a laugh of the inspiration for the bell-bottomed silver jumpsuit by Project Runway alum Michael Costello that Dion wears, accompanied by strobing neon lightning bolts, to sing raucous and funky covers. “They’re so iconic, fashion-wise, these amazing men who did so much for fashion, and we just wanted to give that little nod.” Munoz adds that the choice suits the zeitgeist, “with gender fluidity and them being so androgynous.” The silhouette is arguably also a nod to Elvis Presley in his Las Vegas years – if Elvis had exercised and worn liquid sequins like a sinewy second skin.
“The bigger the better, for Titanic especially,” Munoz says of the outfit for the performance of this legendary song. “She told us, ‘I want something big, kids. I want something dramatic.’” They surprised her with a gown by Zac Posen fresh from his spring 2020 presentation. Lopez pulled some strings to get it in time for opening night. “We had it delivered on a truck that came just with that dress for us from New York.” On stage, as drones flit and twinkle like fireflies above her in a simulated night sky, the corseted gown’s tiers of pale lavender tulle hold their own against her signature blockbuster ballad. Worth it.
Despite all the planning, the Courage fashion parade is only getting started. “We’re already on the hunt for new things,” Munoz teases. “She’s so connected with fashion. She always has been, but now it’s so public that we cannot keep her in the same outfits for an entire year!”