"what's cool?" from Vogue (July 1996)

From designers to
destinations to extreme sports,
Vogue singles out the 275
people, places, and pleasures sure
to make a splash this summer.
And Betsy Berne looks at the
shift in attitude from "hot" to cool.

i found myself consoling a friend about his breakup the other night at the
Odeon, lower Manhattan's longtime hangout, where my lovelorn friend's
recovery process did not preclude a little girl-watching.  He pointed to
one glamour girl: "Now, she looks cool," he said, cheering up.  "Because
she's not trying to look cool—at least she doesn't look like she's trying."
In fact, she looked rather blasé—very little makeup; straight, bordering-on-stringy
hair; not wearing black but a plain slinky shift of dullish gray-blue.
"Speaking of cool," I said, "how come this restaurant has stayed
cool for so long?"  My friend replied, "This place never changes. It's always
been no-big-deal casual—it's not trendy, and the waiters and waitresses
aren't too thin or snotty. They're normal"
    I was always under the impression that "cool" changed every five seconds.
Trendy was supposed to be cool, and nerdy wasn't. I thought cool
meant being hot, on the cutting edge, in the know.  I've never really cottoned
to the term, particularly after a brief tenure at a boarding
school where the "coolest" kids were actually called "coolies" out loud. That experience
guaranteed I'd always be acutely aware of the term.
    Now its meaning seems to be making an abrupt about-face. There's a different cool in
the air. This cool is about indifference, or at least acting indifferent. It's much cooler to be
home with a machine answering the phone than it is to be "on the scene" clutching the cellular
(or, God forbid, a beeper). Allowing those message beeps to rack up on the machine
will not only impress your caller but emphasize your "I could care less" attitude.  It's much
cooler not to be seen.  You may want to turn up on occasion, but don't rush—arrive late.  It
is not cool to appear too eager. When you're sipping that martini at the one Event you do
attend—in case you haven't noticed, martinis are cool—don't forget to mention that you
haven't been out in months. (Drinking anything is cool again, but eating still isn't. None
of the cool new restaurants serve heaping entrées. Instead they offer plates of exotic bite-size
appetizers. Witness the crowds at Manhattan's Prada-oops, I mean Pravda, the latest
purveyor of all kinds of martinis and all kinds of appetizers.)
Supermodels were once the ultimate "in" crowd, but not anymore. Cool is the anonymous
girls skulking down the runways nowadays approximating nerds, weirdos, wraiths—
albeit gorgeous ones, but still. The new cool embraces outsiders.  Take Helmut Lang.  Or Daryl
K: She's been designing her classic low riders
for years—and now that everyone's caught on,
she's pushing it further with her quirkier pedal
pushers.  Donna Karan revamped her cool
image with a casual, just-between-us-girls spring
show held in her showroom.
    It makes sense: Not really trying to be "with
it" and outsider status generally go together.
Outsiders are what they are.  They're eccentrics,
originals, oddballs—and because 
they're one of a kind, they make a lasting impression. 
Who were some of the most vivid 
and innovative cultural icons of the century? 
All outsiders.  Rough-hewn editor Harold
Ross came from nowhere—well, Salt Lake 
City—to found The New Yorker. Dawn Powell
was so out of it she couldn't even crack the 
Round Table's inner sanctum. Instead she 
"borrowed" them to use in her satirical novels, 
which remain uncannily relevant in today's 
literary/arts scene in New York. Truman 
Capote didn't hide his homosexuality in 
a cloistered literary world brimming with macho 
writers. His subject? Social outcasts, of 
course. And Jack Kerouac's style was so outside 
the mainstream, even Capote dismissed 
it, saying, "It's not writing; it's only typing." 
Diane Arbus's most provocative photographs 
focused on patients at a mental hospital. 
    Initially, they were all outside looking in. 
It's hard to recall that even Warhol was once 
an outsider—until he committed the fatal error 
of becoming famous. Face it: Fame and 
cool are incompatible. Bill Gates was pretty 
cool there for a while, a nerdy guy who rules 
the computer world. How ironic (ironic is 
cool).  But the richer and more high-profile he 
gets, the less cool he becomes. David Letterman's 
nerd's-eye view made him a star.  But 
there are rumblings that he's losing it—he's trying
too hard.  Right on his potentially uncool 
heels come two geekier geek late-night talk-show 
hosts, Bill Maher of Politically Incorrect 
and the grandfather of geeks, Tom Snyder 
    The way to avoid the fatal collision of fame 
and cool is to disappear. At her pinnacle, 
singer and poet Patti Smith fled to Detroit. 
Now she's cooler than ever.  John Travolta 
vanished into thin air.  No doubt, it wasn't by 
choice, but it worked. Now he's so cool that 
he may want to consider checking out again—
before it's too late. George Clinton, the grand
funkster of all time, was rapping with band 
members in diaper costumes while today's 
rappers were still in their diapers. Since the 
sixties, Clinton's been toiling away as a cult 
figure—but he stuck with his way-out-there 
thing. Now he's back, cool beyond cool.  Voluntary 
or involuntary exile, it doesn't matter.
None of these guys are trying too hard. 
    Or if they are, it doesn't show. And that's 
what counts. Hair and makeup is all about subtlety. 
Who even bothers to part their barely-a-hairstyle 
hair? Beauty products now are packaged 
in austere containers covered in tiny 
type—Stila, FACE Stockholm, Philosophy—
as though they're potions that have just been 
mixed by the neighborhood chemist. Their 
precursor, Kiehl's, has remained proudly behind-the-scenes 
cool for some time. You're 
probably aware that it's no longer cool to be
tan. But it is cool to have dark skin—if it's real, 
not out of a bottle or from sitting on the beach. 
Ethnicity is undeniably cool.  Asian Americans, 
blacks, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans 
are the quintessential outsiders, in the 
highest echelon of the World of Cool.  And 
where are intrepidly cool travelers flocking? 
Not to Paris or Tuscany, but Vietnam, Russia, 
Eastern Europe, or Cuba. 
    What is one of the coolest 
shows on TV? Third Rock from 
the Sun, about aliens from outer 
space—now, that's as outsider 
as you can get, isn't it? Look at 
ER. Who's really mooning over 
George Clooney? No one — 
they're all drooling over balding 
geek Anthony Edwards. Reruns 
of anything are always cool—
new episodes are, well, usually... trying too 
hard.  The buzz over Friends is winding down; 
its fans are reverting back to Seinfeld, a show 
that got so uncool that it's cool again. 
    Meanwhile the film industry is strewn with 
unpredictable hits from anywhere but insider 
Hollywood. The once inauspicious Sundance 
film festival has been transformed into the festival 
where little films become giants. The beauty 
secret of young French-Iranian cinematographer 
Darius Khondji, who shot Seven
and Stealing Beauty, Bertolucci's 
timely switch from gargantuan epic to 
intimate investigation, is to conceal, not 
reveal. It's that understated thing again. 
    Ultimately, cool is about personal 
style, not fashion. Cool's not about "attitude," 
it's about your attitude.  Basics 
are the consummate of cool—especially 
basics that are affordable. The French 
design company A.P.C. couldn't get any 
cooler with its spare, low-key style, and 
now it has a thriving mail-order-catalog 
business—who needs to try it on?  The 
French have a saying, je m'en fouts, that 
describes the state of not giving a 
damn—but with flair. That's the new 
American cool.