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Singer’s new Ivy Park label is a fusion of empowerment and enjoyment, just as she is
t is a stone-cold fact about the modern world that where there are emotional buttons to be pressed, there is a lucrative business opportunity. The festive season, for instance, is now officially ushered in by a fight to the death between retailers over who can make the general public cry the most with their Christmas ad.
So it says something about how tightly wound we are about women’s bodies and fitness that even campaigns for running leggings are conceived with that I’ve-got-something-in-my-eye feeling in mind. A commercial for the activewear label Under Armour, entitled I Will What I Want, shows American ballerina Misty Copeland in a dance studio and on stage, soundtracked by the rejection letters she received at the beginning of her career; it has clocked up 10m views on YouTube. The Adidas All In For #mygirls campaign, the Nike Better for It spots and Always’ award-winning #LikeAGirl campaign have all hit the same emotional sweetspot of physical health and female empowerment. Fourth-wave feminism is on a workout high, while still uneasy about how much female self-esteem is bound up with our bodies.
Enter stage left: Beyoncé. Now, when Queen Bey engages with an issue, it becomes a talking point. When she lit up the word “feminist” as the backdrop for her performance at the 2014 MTV awards, she brought the debate about what feminism means – and what it looks like – back into the mainstream. When she dropped her Formation video the night before her half-time performance at this year’s Superbowl, she put the Black Lives Matter movement at the centre of American popular culture. (Gloria Steinem described Formation as “profound, unifying and healing”. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani slammed Beyoncé’s performance as “outrageous” for a slot that is “talking to middle America”. The point is, nobody talked about anything else for three days.)
Beyoncé is launching Ivy Park, a fashion sportswear line produced in partnership with Topshop boss Philip Green. It is a label that capitalises on two opportunities. First, the explosion in athleisure. (This week, Selfridges opened the Body Studio, 37,000 sq ft of lingerie, loungewear, sleepwear and activewear, making it the London store’s largest department.) And second, the power Beyoncé wields over 21st-century womanhood. To grasp the ambitious scope of customers Ivy Park aims to reach, look no further than the eclectic span of UK stockists: Topshop, Selfridges, Net-a-Porter and JD Sports.
The photographs of Beyoncé wearing Ivy Park, seen here for the first time, are strikingly different in tone from the fitness photos that flood Instagram. There are no serene yoga bunnies with their eyes closed: instead, we have Beyoncé on a basketball hoop, held aloft like a queen, gazing out from under a hoodie. Instead of poses designed to flatter ethereal, reed-slender limbs, Beyoncé holds herself horizontal in gymnast’s hoops, in a way that emphasises the strength of her thighs. The air of stillness, of moodiness, is closer to a Rocky boxing gym than the perky, Jane Fonda heritage of women’s fitness.
Beyoncé has made discipline, hard work and a fierce attitude central to what she stands for: in her lyrics, her videos, in her trademark on-stage stance (legs planted apart, microphone clenched in one hand). In a launch video for Ivy Park, she works out with battle ropes, a heavy piece of modish-for-2016 gym equipment that is as exhausting as it sounds. In a voiceover, she talks about early-morning running – about not wanting to get out of bed, but doing it anyway. Where 20th-century schoolboys had the poem Invictus (“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul”), the 21st-century woman has Beyoncé’s Flawless.
There is also a lot of fashion in the Ivy Park message. The hoop portrait is surely a nod to Helmut Newton’s portrait of Daryl Hannah, taken for Vanity Fair in 1984. In that shot, Hannah is suspended from metal rings, with the urban landscape of Los Angeles as her backdrop; it’s a reference to her role as a mermaid in Splash, and as a goddess in Hollywood. She wears a leotard, and her hair hangs in blond, beachy waves – details that are echoed in Beyoncé’s photo.
The link is important because, while much of the new range is straightforward – running leggings, sweatshirts, mesh T-shirts – Ivy Park also aims to deliver high-end fashion at mass-market price. Beyoncé worked on the label with longtime collaborator Karen Langley, a British stylist who has created several video and performance looks for her. As a former Dazed & Confused fashion director, Langley’s moodboard looked beyond generic ponytailed blondes. “This is performance-quality sportswear, but it is important that it looks like fashion,” Langley tells me. Beyoncé, she says, has been involved in every detail of the design, and “is our most dedicated tester. She really cares about whether it works.”
Ivy is Beyoncé’s daughter’s middle name; Park a reference to Parkwood Entertainment, the name of her management company. Of course, it’s also a reference to outdoor space. Where most aspirational ad campaigns are shot in envy-inducing settings – think natural light streaming through high windows on to perfectly aligned bamboo mats – Ivy Park roots itself in an ordinary-looking public park with a gym and a basketball hoop. It is urban and aesthetically pleasing in a classic, gritty kind of way. “Beyoncé operates at several different levels,” Langley explains. “You have the Beyhive – the fans – who feel a very personal connection with her. But you also have an intellectual conversation going on about what she’s doing in our culture. You have a whole lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily identify as fans, but who are interested in her on that level.”
Beyoncé herself, I’m sorry to say, was not available to talk to the Guardian. She rarely talks to journalists, securing the cover of last September’s American Voguewithout giving an interview – an almost unprecedented power move. For the launch of Ivy Park, she has given one interview, which will run in 45 international issues of Elle. However, she did give me one quote: “True beauty is in the health of our minds, hearts and bodies. I know that when I feel physically strong, I am mentally strong, and I wanted to create a brand that made other women feel the same way.” Beyoncé keeps us at arm’s length while talking apparently from the heart.
This element of mystery is essential because, like all great brands, Beyoncé is ultimately selling us what money can’t buy. Like Jimmy Choo or Coca-Cola, she says something about how we want to live, who we want to be – particularly compelling in the athleisure marketplace, where we buy material items (yoga mats, vests) as a substitute for the emotional attributes we really want (inner peace, physical pride). The Beyoncé brand is a fusion of empowerment and enjoyment.
Her power comes from the fact that other women enjoy her beauty unlike that of other women. Her physical shape – with that gravity-defying bottom and tiny waist – may be as unattainable as that of Gisele Bündchen, yet it is less alienating. While most supermodels and movie stars fall into a narrow parameters of beauty and glamour, Beyoncé looks like no one else. And by looking individual, she gives other women permission to do the same.
“Beyoncé’s body is iconic – you can recognise her just from her silhouette,” says Langley (who, for the record, surfs and does yoga, CrossFit and trapeze, the last of which “I do specifically for the challenge – to go out and scare myself”). “She’s amazing to dress because she’s not a clothes horse. She gives clothes life.”
It’s no accident that these images were photographed in black-and-white. “We wanted to establish ourselves as iconic from the get-go; the black-and-white imagery is a nice signifier of that,” Langley says. “It makes it feel like we’re not fresh out of the tin.” It also invites viewers to look for a deeper message – it feels more classic, and less disposable than colour. After all, everything is a metaphor when it comes to images of women working out. Running stands for freedom, sweat for effort, abs for achievement. The “park” Beyoncé discusses in that launch video is both a physical place and an internal one: a place to draw on when you need to dig deep. (“When I had to give birth, I went to my park,” she says.)
When Beyoncé talks about fitness, she barely mentions the way she looks. In images such as these, she shows us her body; what she sells, meanwhile, is that canny, beautiful mind.