What does it really mean to call someone a fashion icon? In a day and age when teenage actresses toss around Chanel couture like Gap T-shirts, then get lauded for their style as if they were budding Babe Paleys and Audrey Hepburns, shouldn't it take more than a red carpet and a borrowed dress? A true fashion icon, after all, is not simply re-created and styled to death. Becoming one takes imagination, bearing, a love or art, a passion for design and-most important-a well-developed knowledge of oneself, inside and out.
Given those criteria, Nicole Kidman may be the only modern actress to have achieved real fashion-icon status, enabling the 37-year-old Aussie, who admittedly adores clothes ("I love to see the artistry and commitment of true designers, the fantasy of putting on beautiful things. It's an aesthetic appreciation"), to make even the simplest of outfits look chic.
Today, when I arrive at her rented home in the Hollywood Hills, she has just gotten out of the pool; packed her kids, Isabella, 11, and Connor, 9, off on a jaunt; and slipped lithely into jeans and a white tee, some Philip B. oil slicking back her hair, making it look as shiny and sinewy as seaweed. On Nicole, even this casual look has a simple elegance. Barefoot, she offers up jasmine tea. "It reminds me of Morocco," she sighs about a country that she finds inspiring, romantic and peaceful.
Despite the fact that Nicole has spent the past 10 days rehearsing for Nora Ephron's film version of the '60s TV hit Bewitched, the previous six weeks at a beach cottage outside Sydney with her family ("I swam with dolphins and never picked up a phone or used e-mail") have given her a reservoir of calm. "I'm feeling very relaxed," she says with a smile, appreciatively, taking extra time to relish her surroundings. "In L.A., you can always smell flowers-night-blooming jasmine, roses, gardenias and a little lavender. Good smells. I love flowers! They're the most perfect gift. Particularly if they're handpicked." She giggles, getting a little shy, which she always does when referring to anything romantic. "A man who understands flowers-that's a big, big plus. A bunch of flowers left on your doorstep-I would respond to that."
This is an unusually candid statement for Nicole to make about her personal world. "I have a really strong inner life," she says softly, "but I start to get wriggly talking about myself too much. I get to express myself through my films at the moment."
So what do Moulin Rouge, The Hours, Cold Mountain and her latest film, Birth, out this month, have in common? "Yeah, the films are all very romantic," she smiles, perhaps anticipating questions about her ex-husband, Tom Cruise, or even Lenny Kravitz, to whom she was seriously linked until last winter. "I'm a romantic. And no, I'm not dating anyone right now. There it is. I have a lot of friends, but mostly I'm quiet and private. I'm incredibly careful, and I have to be. When it's the right time for a relationship, it's the right time. But if anybody wants to know more, look at my films. It's not that conscious, but there has to be a reason I'm drawn to what I am."
Birth, then, is her way of saying a lot-and rather abstractly. Particularly about love. It's a story of Anna, a New York publishing executive who loses her beloved husband, Sean, to a sudden heart attack. Stricken with grief until years later, she is convinced by a persistent suitor (played by Danny Huston) to remarry. Suddenly, she meets a little boy of 10 who insists he's the reincarnation of her late husband, bringing up giant questions of grief, love, yearning-all of which Nicole has admittedly grappled with herself. "I love that this film is the antithesis of The Stepford Wives," Nicole says with a laugh. "Jonathan Glazer [Birth's director and cowriter] and I put ourselves out there and were very skinless. We asked, 'What is love?'-the question we've all been asking for thousands of years-but … there are no answers!"
Spearheaded by Glazer, the young British auteur who made Sexy Beast, Birth seems like yet another risky choice for an actress who's becoming increasingly known for her daring roles. "I'd rather walk a tightrope than have my feet on the ground," Nicole says. "If I were in a circus, I'd be the tightrope walker. There's no big master plan. It's all spontaneous and crazy and could crash and burn…. There's no way in hell you're always going to make the right choice. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. In everything. Succumb to that, and find your way."
The look of Anna in Birth is an interesting stop along this journey and reveals a Nicole Kidman we've never seen before. Stripped of her luscious golden hair and whimsical fashion sense, she sports a Mia Farrow pixie crop, Carolina Herrera pencil skirts and heathery sweaters and the requisite career-woman-crisp, knee-length black coat. "She's stark," reflects Nicole. "She's not really about clothes or the way she presents herself."
Luckily for us, Nicole Kidman is. Of her changing style over the years, she says, "I suppose it's slightly sleeker." The way it breaks down for her is more masculine dressing for day, full-on glamour at night. "I love Dior pantsuits-yummy! For day: lace-up shoes, shirts, baggy pants, sweaters-it [my look] is far more boy; I have a male friend who says we could share clothes. Then girly-girly at night. And more flat shoes recently; there are such beautiful ones now."
Her favorite designers turn out to be her friends as well as artists she truly admires. Among them, obviously, [Karl] Lagerfeld and [John] Galliano. But I'll never be solely committed to one person," she says coyly. "You want to express yourself differently. I also love Gaultier. Jean Paul is very, very talented. At times he's extreme, but that's important. Fashion is very much a feeling-how you move in the clothes." About losing one of her fashion favorites, Tom Ford, to other artistic disciplines, she says only, "I hope he still makes clothes, but he's a friend of mine, and he has other things he wants to do. You move on to other interests in life."
When it comes to shopping, Nicole is partial to smaller stores like vintage boutique Virginia (especially for ankle-length floral dresses) in London, Belinda in Sydney and Colette in Paris. "But it's gotten harder for me to go shopping. I have to organize the kids," she explains. "I tend to shop with my sister, Antonia. I would never go by myself. You need feedback in the dressing room, the whole ritual of 'Does that look cute?' My 6-year-old niece is obsessed with clothes-she wears fairy dresses to the beach-and I was like that as a little girl. Even as a teenager, I'd fantasize, If I had the perfect thing [to wear], everything would be right with the world. My mother was always very aesthetic; she was a feminist who looked great and smelled great. Very proper. I like proper. I went to a school where you wore uniforms and your shoes had to be shined. I still love the look of school uniforms."
In fact, the only look that Nicole would never go for is full-on bombshell. "I'm not big on very, very revealing clothes," she says. "If I show a bit of skin in one place, I'll cover the rest. I'm not big on a lot of cleavage-not that I have a lot of cleavage! It's not my thing."
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