What Will the Fashion World Do With Kim Kardashian?

Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine

When Kim Kardashian asks, “Are you excited for the zoo?,” you can’t just take it at face value. We’re in a photo studio above the Hudson River, and Kim has padded over in a robe to introduce herself. She’s sweet and focused, taking a moment’s break from the magazine cover shoot she needs to finish before we head off for an afternoon of zoological diversion.

It’s a pot-stirring choice. This is a woman who, because of her taste for fox coats, crocodile bags, and python boots, was named a “celebrity grinch” last year by PETA and was flour-bombed in March by an activist shouting, “Fur hag!” In PETA parlance, zoos are “animal prisons.”

But in the Kardashian world, everything is cross-branded and co-promoted—tweets may be sponsored, products placed—so this could be a sly way of shilling for a recent issue of British lad mag Zoo, on the cover of which she is posed in lingerie. Or else for an episode of her reality-TV show Keeping Up With the Kardashians featuring the trip the family made in June to the San Diego Zoo.

Then again, Kimberly Noel Kardashian, 31, is arguably a savant of media, social and otherwise, so maybe she’s playing for the cameras, teeing up a Metaphor. She’s a zoo animal, like Rilke’s caged panther: “It seems to him there are a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.” Hmmm, maybe not.

But this is the Fashion Issue, and a zoo would make natural fodder for a conversation on the beastliness of the beau monde, with its clotheshorses and peacocks and popinjays. The rag trade is as red in tooth and claw as any jungle, and Kim has experienced the savagery firsthand: In May, designer Ralph Rucci publicly sneered at the idea of dressing her, saying it would be “bastardizing yourself.”

Or … maybe she just wants to go to the zoo. The Kardashian sisters do seem like nice enough people, after all. I’m starting to silently chide myself for my cynicism—perhaps a zoo is just a zoo—when Kim adds, with a warm smile, “Sometimes, our house is like a zoo,” then turns and heads back to the makeup chair.

People do get worked up about those Kardashians. “Weird Al” Yankovic has defined 72 days—the time between Kim getting married to and filing for divorce from Kris Humphries—as a unit of time called the “Kardash,” and Ethan Zuckerman, an MIT professor, coined the “Kardashian” as a unit of unmerited fame—the global media attention paid to Kim Kardashian in a single day, as measured by Google searches. The brilliant Twitter account @KimKierkegaardashian mashes up bubbly enthusiasm for “fro yo” and getting “back on my grind” with Danish existential dread, resulting in tweets like: “Good morning Miami! Here everything lies naked and visible before God, and consciousness has nowhere to hide.” Salman Rushdie composed a limerick saying her marriage was “krushed like a kar in a krashian” and that “kardashian fell klean outa fashian.” Both Jon Hamm and Daniel Craig have recently called the family “fucking idiots.”

The louche roots of the Kardashian phenomenon explain much of the distaste. To begin with, the family perfected a sort of corner-of-the-frame fame, more than once borrowing notoriety by being the sidekick of a high-profile, much-photographed best friend. First came dad Robert, always sitting next to O.J. during his murder trial (as both an old buddy and a member of his defense team); then came Kim, ever on Paris Hilton’s wing on the red carpet in the mid-aughts. Next up, in a dubious move toward the center of the frame: Kim’s sex tape, in which she chews gum much of the time. Finally, launching the whole brood into national consciousness, E!’s runaway-hit reality show featuring hapless ex-Olympian stepdad Bruce Jenner flying toy helicopters while, in one instance, his wife wets herself on-camera and then secures an endorsement deal for urinary-incontinence panty liners.

The felony count in the indictment, though, seems to be the family’s utter dis­regard for the boundaries that give the rest of us a sense of order in the cosmos. It unsettles our ideas about how things work, or how they should work, to see the Kardashians thrive by blithely trampling over the customary lines between self and other, private and public, soul and body, work and play, real and fake. Is Kim’s Twitter praise for those slingbacks purely heartfelt, or is she receiving $10,000 for it? Is she holding that green cocktail because she likes it, or because of an endorsement contract? Has she lately been dating men whose names start with K (Kris, and now Kanye West) out of mere koincidence, or because she’s following the example of her mother, Kris Jenner, who seems to have chosen her daughters’ names—Kourtney, Kim, Khloé, Kendall, Kylie—out of a branding manual rather than a baby book. (Is there still a difference? Khloe has become one of the fastest-rising baby names in the last five years.) There’s a sense that everything is for sale, and nothing should go un-monetized.

Kim’s job, in particular, is to be herself, or that version of herself that the people demand, and she works nonstop. She’ll delegate the day’s choice of lip gloss to the hive mind, and crowd-source suggestions from her “loyal blog dolls” for the first dance song at her wedding. She asked her Twitter followers to say what they wanted from her first perfume, which ended up including honeysuckle and tonka beans. She explained her decision to televise her wedding by saying that otherwise her “fans” who’d “gone on this journey with me” would “feel cheated.” Kim may be the world’s first human avatar in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

This, though, is exactly why she’s the ninth most-followed person on Twitter, with 15.7 million followers; why, according to one branding expert, she was recently tied with Snooki at the pinnacle of the celebrity-loyalty index; and why she was the second highest-earning TV actress in the year ending this past May. What some people deem crass materialism, others view as the American Dream. What some see as oversharing, others find relatable. And whatever you may think of the Kardashians, or their various television shows, it’s impossible to watch them—fighting and lying and whining, but also supporting and communicating and loving—and not come away thinking that in their own odd way they’re kind of a model of wholesome family togetherness.

Recently, Kim has been making inroads in the fashion world. She comes by her fashion interest honestly, having started out as a wardrobe stylist, and she and her sisters own a popular chain of clothing boutiques called Dash and a one-off “lifestyle boutique,” in Las Vegas, called Kardashian Khaos. They have clothing lines at Sears (Kardashian Kollection) and QVC (K-Dash), as well as nail polish (Kardashian Kolors) and makeup (Khroma Beauty, launching this winter). ShoeDazzle, an e-tailer Kim co-founded in 2009, has raised more than $60 million in venture capital. As a model, Kim has appeared on the covers of W and Harper’s Bazaar and l’Uomo Vogue. Elizabeth Taylor was her glamour icon, and Kim spent $65,000 on jewelry at Taylor’s estate sale last year. “I love designing,” Kim tells me. “All morning I was talking to my sisters about different designs.”

But while she has made People’s Best Dressed list, when it comes to high fashion she has been met with a cool shoulder. More than any other reality star, she is monitored not just for what she does and says but for what she wears. Everywhere she goes, the fashion police are watching. That cream turtleneck dress with thigh-high snakeskin boots? “Princess Leia gone wrong” (the Daily Mail). A few hours after our zoo outing, Kim will be photographed with Kanye West at Fela!, the Broadway show, wearing a sleeveless green Givenchy dress and olive Giuseppe Zanotti for Balmain boots; Fashion Bomb Daily will give her its “Hot! or Hmm” treatment, sniping that the boots are “a few seasons old.” The Daily Mail, for its part, will call the dress “incredibly unflattering,” while declaring Kanye’s outfit, which includes pleather harem pants tucked into socks, “an epic fashion faux pas” and “ridiculous.” (In fairness, Kanye’s outfit does look ridiculous.)

Kanye’s relationship with high fashion is also complicated. He has his own clothing line and almost sweetly craves acceptance by the runway mandarins. Unlike celebrities just dabbling in fashion, over the last several years he has attended so many fashion shows that he could almost be mistaken for a junior market editor. He has blogged about style—in May, he went off in a Twitter rant on all the “detest”-able looks he saw in just five blocks driving through New York (e.g., “I hate khaki cargo shorts”)—and spoken of wanting to intern with a major designer. He managed to draw Anna Wintour and Carine Roitfeld and Olivier Theyskens to his first runway show, when he debuted his women’s collection in Paris last fall. But his post-show mantra of “I’m so scared, I’m so nervous,” and earnest pleas for people to “please be easy, please give me a chance to grow” were justified: Critics panned the leather-and-fur-intensive clothes and the show itself as derivative, tacky, ill-fitting, “stupendously vacuous,” and like “an hourlong MRI scan—but not as much fun.” When he debuted his second full collection in March, it got only slightly kinder reviews.

This time, though, Kim was with him in Paris, though not publicly his girlfriend. Kimye, as the tabloids call them, could be poised to become a fashion power couple. And yet Kanye, for all the criticism, has still been greeted with considerably more enthusiasm by fashion’s gatekeepers. Marc Jacobs is known to be a Kim fan, but his is a decidedly outlying opinion. In May, it was reported that Wintour “hates Kim” and had banned her from the Met Costume Institute Gala (which Kanye did attend); Kardashian’s rep denied this was the case. Soon after, Wintour’s muse André Leon Talley told a crowd that “not even Kim Kardashian could take away from fashion.”

While the attacks may derive partly from a good-faith aesthetic response to some of the clothing she wears, at least as much of it seems to stem from an aversion to non-eating-disorder body types and a broader snobbery and classism. Fashion likes to celebrate and appropriate street culture and even trash culture, except when it doesn’t. Neiman Marcus did the previously unthinkable when it recently announced a collaboration with Target for the holidays. “To go from luxury to mass, or high to low, has become acceptable and even desirable,” says Ed Filipowski, a prominent fashion publicist. “But when you start mass, either as a product or personality, the doors to luxury don’t open easily; the keys to the kingdom are held tightly. That’s what makes it luxury.”

Kim and Kanye brightly stand on opposite sides of the line between fashion’s dos and don’ts. With Kim, says a fashion executive, “I think she sees fashion as another means for making money. I don’t think she’s ever going to want to go to a fashion show for her love of clothes. She’s going to want to get paid for going to that show.”

The boundaryless ambit of the Kardashians is the precise obverse of the fashion world, with its exclusionary fences and rigid caste distinctions. Fashion is androgynous, anorexic, self-punishing, full of security-blanket snobberies. It wants to be transcendent, above mass commerce. It hates sex, even as it sells it (coldly). It hates flesh. Kim Kardashian—a sexpot with curves and a prodigious behind, a sybarite as well as a full-on capitalist—is an affront to everything it holds dear. It’s hard to imagine a model who converted her looks into a business empire being perceived as anything other than impressive—an entrepreneur—but for this world Kim may be the wrong kind of model.

The Olsen twins have been supported by the industry, says the fashion executive, because “they are very hardworking and hands-on; they’re there working in their studio; they don’t do anything else.” The industry rewards dedication, in other words, and frowns on dilettantes. The last celebutante who tried unsuccessfully to storm fashion’s gates was Kim’s old friend Paris Hilton, who would show up uninvited in the front row at fashion shows. What would Kim need to do to gain acceptance? “Quit all your other jobs,” the executive says.

In west Chelsea, Kim wheels her Louis Vuitton suitcase out of the photo studio, buys some snacks in the building’s convenience store, then climbs into the Escalade that will take us to the Central Park Zoo. She’s wearing Balenciaga leather leggings, a drapy back-revealing black T-shirt, and the pair of Air Yeezys given to her by Yeezy himself, a.k.a. Kanye, whom she has known for a decade but only began officially dating in April, around the time his song “Theraflu” dropped, with the lyric, “I’ll admit I fell in love with Kim …” Her hair is up, makeup on: wet, feathery lashes, glossy lips. In the car, she applies moisturizer to her hands, followed by Purell. “I have a new theory,” she says after digging into a Chipwich. “If I just eat a couple bites of something and don’t finish it, it makes me feel better. I’m going to go on a major cleanse when I get home.”

Kim is only in town for a few days. She’s already taken in The Book of Mormon with Kanye and eaten at Cipriani in Soho. “I love it here,” she says, while acknowledging that she’s previously blamed the stress of the city for the psoriasis breakout—“all over my body”—that she experienced filming Kourtney & Kim Take New York.

At the zoo, people start to notice her almost immediately. There are ripples of recognition, eddies of excitement. The phone cameras come out. The video recorders turn in her direction. People nudge their friends with their elbows. They call Kim’s name. A few ask her to pose with them. (You don’t ask a reality-TV star for a signature; you get your picture taken with her.) Kim politely declines—“I’m so sorry”—explaining that she’s doing an interview. She asks a body guard accompanying us to stop some people from videotaping her.

We wander aimlessly through the zoo, dead-ending and retracing our steps a few times, passing turtles and red pandas. “Very cool,” Kim says, snapping an iPhone picture of a vainly mugging snow leopard. This is Zen Kim, the Kim who has learned from the follies of her youth, who moved back into her mother’s house for four months after her marriage ended, who “didn’t date for six months,” who took a two-month no-makeup vow (she lasted nearly six weeks), who doesn’t care what people think. Zen Kim no longer sends out her assistant every Wednesday to the lone newsstand in Calabasas that gets all the tabloids at once; even when she’s traveling, she’s stopped buying them. Zen Kim canceled her Google Alerts, and she changed her e-mail address six months ago. Zen Kim, who never used to drink—in high school, she was everyone’s favorite designated driver—started drinking a bit after she turned 30, partly because she “needed to loosen up,” she says (and partly because her mother brought her a liquor endorsement deal). Zen Kim laughs at the “ridiculous” recent report in OK! that claimed she was about to break up with Kanye because he wasn’t high-profile enough and searches for her on Google had declined since they started dating. “I used to be so involved with what’s going on around, what’s up with this person,” she says. “I just really truly feel so much more calm now, and I just don’t care.”

Fashion has been a connector for the couple. “If I have a design meeting, or he has one, we come back and talk about how our meetings went,” Kim says as we stroll past a pool containing unseen sea lions. “It’s cool, ’cause you can definitely get more in-depth with someone who actually knows what you’re talking about … So that’s been a fun similarity we have. I think it’s essential to have similarities. When this whole life is done, and it’s just the two of us sitting somewhere when we’re 80, you want to have things to talk about that you have in common. I think that’s something maybe I didn’t value as highly as a quality I cared about in someone.” A few days from now, RadarOnline.com will report that Kim and Kanye have met with François-Henri Pinault about collaborating on a line of shoes.

In the Tropic Zone, as we pass a white-faced saki monkey, Kim observes, “I wonder why all the males are so much more attractive in animals, like the lions and peacocks.” A few minutes later, on a wooden walkway, we encounter two peacocks standing in front of us.

“Oh my gosh, look,” Kim says. “Hey, guys.” She crouches to get the shot. You can’t stand behind a crouching Kim Kardashian and not at least glance at her world-famous butt. It’s the butt which, for the male viewers of Kim Kardashian, Superstar, has facilitated innumerable lonely orgasms. It’s the butt Paris Hilton (no longer a friend) cattily called “cottage cheese inside a big trash bag.” It’s the butt that Kim’s own mother called “junk in the trunk” in KUWTK’s first episode, and which Kim had X-rayed on camera in the third episode of season six, in order to disprove tabloid claims that its globular buoyancy was explained by implants.

It is also a butt that, being neither petite nor attached to the glamorous frame of a Hollywood star, is hard to imagine ever appearing on the cover of Vogue. Would that be Kim’s dream? “I don’t really have goals as far as, I want to be on a cover or something like that,” Kim says. “I think my goals are more just expanding my line, and having my line be really successful. That’s the ultimate goal, I think, for me. I don’t say, ‘Oh, I want to be on this magazine or I want to do this.’ It’s all fun. And I love, definitely, turning into a different character. I think each shoot has a different personality.”

Kim doesn’t like bugs—in the car, earlier, she had rolled the window down in a panic at the sight of a butterfly—and her pace quickens as we pass terraria crawling with snakes and Madagascar hissing roaches. Later, she’ll post Instagram photos of the peacocks and the snow leopard, and one Jack Sheehan (@jAckSheehan02) will tweet, “Just fucking saw Kim Kardashian in central park zoo rockin air yeezys. Holy shit. Omg.”

As we leave the zoo, a trembling teenage girl works up the nerve to approach. Kim begs off being photographed but says, “Your eye color is so pretty,” making the girl’s year.

Back in the Escalade, one of the security guys has asked if Kim could tape a message for his daughter’s sweet 16, so Kim’s publicist holds up her iPhone and records Kim sending birthday wishes. Obama’s about to arrive in town for a fund-raiser, and the driver barrels south, hoping to beat the midtown traffic. Kim’s staying at Kanye’s condo in Soho.

As Kim works her way through a roll of Spree, we talk about her childhood in L.A. She was popular in high school, she says, but “kind of was Kourtney’s follower.” She grew up around the entertainment industry. Though her father began his career as a lawyer, he spent most of it in the music business. The Kardashian kids went to lots of concerts, with backstage passes, and there was always R&B playing in the house. In her teens, for several years, she dated TJ Jackson, Tito’s son. After the O.J. trial, Robert Kardashian went to a psychic. “He didn’t believe in psychics, so he didn’t want to tell a lot of people, but the psychic was like, ‘Your last name, Kardashian, is going to be known worldwide. And my dad was like, No it’s not, this woman’s crazy.”

“I was watching an old home movie the other day,” Kim says, “and my dad was video­taping us, and we were all little. And I was like, ‘Dad, I’m going to sing for you, okay? Dad, take a picture. Take a picture of me, Dad. Dad, take a picture.’ And I was always posing … So it’s funny to look back and see that and be like, Okay, that’s kind of similar to my personality. But I don’t think anything prepared me for something like this.”

Filming of season seven has wrapped, and Kim has the next month off, but after so many years of being trailed by cameras for months at a time, she’s used to living as if being watched. “Imagine all of us getting un-miked every time we had to use the bathroom. So we don’t. And they say, once they hear the echo of the bathroom, they turn it off, like they’re not even listening … The editors, I’m sure they’ve heard everything, so they just tune out.”

It does breed a certain paranoia, though. “When we’re done filming, sometimes we’re like, oh my God, like if we’re talking about someone, or a friend we wouldn’t want random people to know about, we just like have to be cautious about that. We’re so used to it that we’re just like”—her voice drops to a whisper—“ ‘Okay, can anyone hear me?’ ”

As the Escalade heads toward Soho, Kim’s BlackBerry rings. It’s Kanye calling. Here it comes, the big moment when two superstars collide, creating a mind-bending supernova of fabulousness. This is going to be good:

Kim: Oh my God, we’re so famous and rich!
Kanye: And beautiful and young!
Kim: My orgasms last three times as long as everyone else’s!
Kanye: My shit smells like butterscotch!
Kim: Let’s have a sleepover with Jay-Z and Beyoncé!

Instead, this is Kim’s side of the conversation:

“Hello? Hey. Just leaving the zoo. I’m finished with my shoot and I’m just finishing up. I’m heading actually to your place right now. Where are you? Okay. So maybe I’ll go in and change and then I’ll eat … What time is that at? Seven? Will you be done? … Okay, so, that’s an hour. So I’ll just wait at the place. Will you come get me? Okay, well, I don’t have a car. Do you want me to just take a cab? Or can your car come get me first? … Where is ‘up here’? Is it far? Okay, well, um, maybe—” etc., etc. Kim signs off: “Okay, bye. Love you, too. Bye.”

Related: Behind-the-Scenes Video From Kim’s Cover Shoot

Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine

Valentino high-neck, long-sleeve dress with beaded embroidery, $12,000 at Bergdorf Goodman, 754 W. 58th St.; 212-753-7300.

Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine

Valentino, available at Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Ave.; 212-753-7300.

Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine

Bill Blass navy low-back gown, $1,800 at Lord & Taylor, 424 Fifth Ave.; 212-391-3344.

Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine

Louis Vuitton, available at Louis Vuitton, 1 E. 57th St.; 866-884-8866.

Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine
Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine
Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine

Styling by Emily Barnes at the Wall Group; hair by Kevin Ryan for RSession Tools; makeup by Rob Scheppy for Tom Ford Beauty.

What Will the Fashion World Do With Kim?