In Celine Dion’s latest video, the Canadian performer stealthily breaks into a maternity ward. After she changes the signage, newborn blankets and clothing, she’s tackled by police. The short film isn’t promoting a new single, but rather, the launch of Célinununu, a gender-neutral clothing and lifestyle line for “little humans” (in 70 styles from newborn to 14 years old) created by Dion in collaboration with Israeli brand Nununu.
Style icon? Celine Dion? Oui. Although her reputation may conjure up the tinsel excesses and garish splendour of Las Vegas, the truth is that the singer has always been a pied piper of fashion. Her new line of clothing merely signals that she’s ready to push further into the fashion conversation.
In North America, everything from kids clothing to toys is still largely gendered – marketed to either boys or girls, not both. In response to this, Dion partnered with the brand to encourage dialogue about equality and possibility, and to challenge the binary in North America. The new collaboration purports to be as neutral as Switzerland, down to the signature white Swiss cross. In the promo video, symbols in the newborn ward denoting boys or girls are transformed, once Celine has cast her spell, into plus signs representing equality. Mostly, though, Célinununu seems to be about neutralizing colour. The clothes are primarily white, black and grey and printed with letters, stars and skulls.
The Célinununu brand site is peppered with quotes from Margaret Mead (“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think”) and contemporary artist Jenny Holzer. It encourages parents not to define children through their clothing.
The marketing of gender-neutral kids' clothes isn’t groundbreaking – Abercrombie & Fitch Kids and Target have both tackled the category – but the high-profile launch and ensuing discussion comes at a time when gender identity is a hot-button topic. In Ontario and British Columbia, controversy has erupted around how gender is taught in schools' sex-ed classes, while, in the United States, transgender protections and rights are under attack.
The company’s statement declares, “The brand breaks stereotypes and inspires children to be free and find their own individuality through clothes.” Fashion’s expressive power is something the diva knows well.
In the couple of years that Dion, 50, has been working with talented stylist Law Roach, press from Vogue and Vanity Fair to Dazed and Harper’s Bazaar have been penning paeans to Dion as a new style icon. Last summer, The Times of London hailed her an “unlikely queen” of haute couture, as she turned her short jaunts in Paris during fashion week, from hotel room to waiting car, into turns on the catwalk.
But as Dion herself might say – adding a few finger-snap flourishes for emphasis – honey, she always was. Those who think the chanteuse has only just started to be an audacious, imaginative and energetic presence on the fashion stage simply haven’t been paying attention. Dion’s wardrobe hasn’t changed. What is different is that she openly embraces her role as a trend-setter with increased visibility. Some have called it overperformative, but, people: Performing is what she does.
Her road to fashion fame admittedly had a bumpy start in the 1980s with blue eyeshadow, acid-washed jeans and headbands (Stars! They’re just like us!), but by the 1990s she was donning Marlene Dietrich pantsuits and fashion-forward gowns. A provocative strappy cutout Versace dress in 1993 was a year before Elizabeth Hurley’s notorious safety pin version. Working with former long-time stylist Annie Horth, Dion wore Givenchy by Alexander McQueen, pieces by avant-garde Belgian Ann Demeulemeester and she collaborated extensively with Balmain before the Kardashians did.
Appearing as herself two decades ago on The Nanny, Dion begs off after a concert to go indulge her passion for shopping. Even in her 1998 Sesame Street appearance performing Happy to Meet You with Elmo and Big Bird, the blush pink riding jacket she pairs with blue jeans has the Savile Row tailoring flourish of a flapped ticket pocket.
Her custom Schiaparelli stage outfits on the recent Celine Dion Live 2018 tour included gold brocade suits, silk chiffon in the house’s signature shocking pink and a spiky fringed minidress like a warrior suit of armour. Offstage, that chest-thumping intensity translates to pink sequinned tracksuits and thigh-high reptile boots and she theatrically gives her all in Simone Rocha, Valentin Yudashkin, Antonio Berardi, Dice Kayek, Stéphane Rolland. There are no sweatpanted Starbucks runs for our Celine. A tongue-in-cheek Vêtements sweatshirt emblazoned with Titanic’s Kate and Leo is as low as she goes.
Anyone who’s listened to her albums or seen her in concert can attest that Dion always delivers a little more than we’re expecting, more than we can handle. That goes for fashion, it’s all with a fun-loving and sharply honed taste that goes for the jugular – even if her audience isn’t always ready for it. The backwards white Dior tuxedo and diamond-encrusted Ray-Ban sunglasses she wore to the Academy Awards in 1999, for example, went down in infamy. We weren’t ready for it, but it was visionary. In recent years, when asked about that Oscar look, she’s doubled down, paraphrasing Édith Piaf: “Je ne regrette rien.”
This latest fashion foray – designing for children – isn’t ahead of the curve, but it’s loud and comes just at the right time in the cultural conversation.