Dionne Warwick Is the Original Queen of Couture

Dionne Warwick

Despite being one of the most celebrated recording artists of the past century and selling more than 100 million records, famed vocalist Dionne Warwick admits that her iconic sense of style didn’t just happen by accident. Rather, it was a case of legends teaching legends. “Marlene Dietrich threw out all of my clothes!” says Warwick, laughing on the phone from her home in New Jersey while recalling an incident in which Dietrich visited her backstage at the Olympia in Paris and literally tossed her stagewear out the door. “She just decided, ‘You’re going to learn how to truly dress. If you’re going to walk out on this stage, this is how you do it. This is what you should look like.’ She introduced me to couture, as she loved to say. Much to the chagrin of my accountants, I became very, very accustomed to couture.”

Warwick’s sartorial past plays a big role in the new documentary House of Cardin, P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’s deep dive into the life and work of the French designer Pierre Cardin. In addition to getting schooled by Dietrich, Warwick details the beginnings of her friendship with Cardin, who made waves in the ’60s by featuring women of color as both models and muses for his work at a time when few other designers dared do so. “I met him during my first time in Paris,” recalls Warwick. “It was his birthday, and he requested that I sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. I went to his apartment, which was a magnificent loft, and there was a big party being held. He became like a godfather. And, of course, it goes without saying, his designs were absolutely divine. One of my album covers [1964’s Make Way for Dionne Warwick] happens to be the first gown of his that I bought.”

Warwick would go on to forge friendships with some of the biggest fashion designers in the world, including Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, and Yves Saint Laurent, but throughout her storied career she has taken great pleasure in always styling herself. (Even some of the most outré ’80s looks from her time as a host and performer on Solid Gold were pulled directly from her own closet.) Looking her best and giving her fans what they want is still something that Warwick, 79, takes very seriously. “I feel compelled to be presented in a way that people expect me to be,” says the star, who, prior to the pandemic, was still touring regularly. “They followed me throughout my career. They’ve watched what I wear and how I wear it. It’s important to honor that.”

For someone of such renown, Warwick maintains a remarkably unfussy beauty regimen. “It’s very easy,” she says. “I grew up just using Ivory soap, so basic cleanliness is truly the answer. I learned that a long time ago. Sleeping in makeup and wearing it all the time when it’s not necessary is no good. I let my skin breathe. I am bare-faced most of the time, at least until I have to make appearances on TV or do my shows. But immediately after all that, once I get back to my abode, it all comes off.”

Having survived nearly six decades in the entertainment business — and all the attendant pressures that female artists of color had to weather in order to succeed — Warwick is generous in celebrating those who paved the way for her. “I am standing on the shoulders of some of the most iconic people who have ever graced our industry,” she says, citing Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. as mentors. As someone who has outlived some of her peers and mourned the loss of many close to her, including her sister, Dee Dee, and cousin Whitney Houston, Warwick is happiest when working and performing. Though she will occasionally side-eye “children in the industry” who make outrageous demands and “can’t do more than six songs or an hour onstage,” she is also quick to point out a new generation of artists who are blazing a path similar to hers. One in particular.

“I met Beyoncé when she was 16 years old,” she says when the topic of the pop icon’s visual album Black Is King comes up. “Her accomplishments are phenomenal. I love that she is now looking with grown-up eyes and feels obliged to extend herself to youngsters. I think it’s magnificent what she and Jay-Z have begun to create.”

For a workaholic like Warwick, seeing the entire entertainment industry grind to a halt due to the global pandemic has been jarring. With her ongoing show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas currently on hiatus, Warwick, a longtime AIDS activist and human-rights advocate, is getting a well-deserved break. “I’ve never taken a time period like this for myself,” she admits of quarantine, though she hasn’t been totally idle. She is continuing to learn Portuguese, which will be essential when she one day realizes her longterm goal of retiring to Brazil. (“I find singing in the language very easy to do,” she says. “But I still have to sit with my friends to find out, ‘OK, what am I saying?’”)

As for the current political tumult in America, Warwick feels that, sadly, it was inevitable. “I think what it has really done more than anything else is given us all time to reflect and look inside ourselves for a minute,” she says. “It’s opening up a lot of areas we’ve ignored for too many years. It’s a lesson we’re all learning.” Overall, though, she is optimistic about what happens next, adding, “Once we get over this, I’ll just get back to doing what I do best.”

House of Cardin is now available on demand.

For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 18.

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