Kim Kardashian West at 40: Looking back at a style evolution

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Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN

Scrolling through images of outfits worn over the years by Kim Kardashian West, who turns 40 today, one thing remains consistent throughout: how confident she looks in even the most questionable of them.

Almost every look oozes over-the-top drama and sex appeal, from her early days as Paris Hilton’s stylist and assistant, to her most recent red carpet appearances before Covid-19 struck (just look at the vintage Alexander McQueen oyster gown she wore to Vanity Fair’s Oscars afterparty earlier this year). Then there’s the hair — poker straight, always slick, often long — and the predilection for tight silhouettes, one figure-hugging dress at a time.
Despite these recurring traits, however, Kardashian West’s style has undergone a transformation in the past two decades. Since her first appearances on reality TV in the early 2000s, she has graduated from socialite to sartorial tastemaker, with her fashion sense evolving from a “more is more” approach to the polished aesthetic that made her an icon beyond the “Keeping up with the Kardashians” universe.

The Paris Hilton phase

Long before Kardashian West was a household name, it was her friendship with Paris Hilton that kickstarted her fashion career. The soon-to-be reality TV star (“KUWTK” first aired in 2007) was hired by the hotel heiress as personal stylist and assistant, picking out looks for “The Simple Life” and even making a few appearances on the show.

Her style was unapologetically 2000s: IT bags and body-hugging ensembles, Juicy Couture pants and triangle-top dresses. There were big waist belts and tiny halter tops, giant golden hoop earrings and skinny jeans worn with knee-high boots. Some of it was admittedly “tragic,” as Kardashian West herself recalled to Vogue last year.
Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian in 2006.

Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian in 2006. Credit: Christopher Polk/FilmMagic/Getty Images

But it proved that the budding influencer knew how to own — and hone — trends. And now she’s proving she can bring them back again: The latest collection from her shapewear brand Skims is made from that most 2000s of fabrics, velour.

The range, which drops today in time for the star’s birthday, features hoodies, wide-leg pants, joggers, bandeau tops and crew neck tanks. It’s both a throwback and, potentially, a very smart business move, given our new work-from-home lifestyles.

Kardashian West even reunited with Hilton to launch the range, offering a touch of nostalgia while making the noughties feel almost aspirational again.

Made for TV

As “KUWTK” arrived on our screens and turned the female-led clan into America’s most marketable family, Kardashian West established herself as the show’s star and best-known member. Her style adapted accordingly.

Dressing to create memorable TV moments rather than fashion-worthy ones, she embraced eye-catching accessories — cheetah print shoes, big belts, outsized sunglasses — while using her screen time to plug wildly patterned outfits from Dash, the (now defunct) apparel chain the Kardashian sisters launched in 2006.

Kardashian West attends the Badgley Mischka swimwear fashion show at Miami Beach.

Kardashian West attends the Badgley Mischka swimwear fashion show at Miami Beach. Credit: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

This was also the period that saw Kardashian West emerge as the queen of the bandage dress. First popularized in the mid-to-late 90s by French label Hervé Léger, the form-fitting, ultra-tight silhouette became a firm favorite — as did its designer. She even had her wax figure at Madame Tussauds don a Hervé Léger number, which she of course matched at its unveiling in New York in 2010.

Transition to high fashion

If one were to pinpoint the year Kardashian West began transitioning towards a sleeker style, it’d be 2012. And if one were to ask why, the answer would be: Kanye West.

From the moment she began dating the musician, it appeared he was set on transforming her wardrobe. Take, for example, an episode of “KUWTK” from the early days of their relationship, when West brought his personal stylist to the star’s house to clean out her closet.
Kardashian West pictured with Kanye at the 2014 Met Gala.

Kardashian West pictured with Kanye at the 2014 Met Gala. Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

“I really think that my relationship with my husband Kanye really changed everything,” she told CNN Style in 2015. “I mean, back in the day I thought I had the best style. I look back at outfits and I’m, like, mortified.”

West’s drastic intervention seemingly challenged Kardashian West to approach fashion in an entirely new way. In the span of just a few seasons, excessive layering, ski-high heels and bold prints made way for a muted palette of beige, black and white.

Designer pieces helped attract invites to fashion week front rows, where she appeared in curve-hugging, waist-pinching looks that earned her recurrent mentions on fashion magazines’ best-dressed lists.

Couture fanatic

Following her Kanye makeover, she threw herself into haute fashion. She formed close friendships with some of the industry’s biggest names, including Olivier Rousteing, Riccardo Tisci and Valentino Garavani, and started appearing in creations by Givenchy, Thierry Mugler, Tom Ford and Versace on and off the red carpet (in a recent Instagram post, she showed off a sporty-glam outfit sent to her by Balmain with the caption “Balmain Barbie”).
Kardashian West attends Balmain's show at Paris Fashion Week in 2016.

Kardashian West attends Balmain’s show at Paris Fashion Week in 2016. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

While staying true to her sexpot aesthetic, Kardashian West’s choices became either increasingly minimal and toned down, or edgier and couture, with asymmetric cutouts, glammed-up silhouettes, elaborate lace and beading — think of the white Balmain mini dress she wore to her 2014 bachelorette party in Paris, or the dazzling Jean-Paul Gaultier gown from the 2015 Grammys. There’s been lots of strategically placed sheer fabric, too, and Kardashian West has taken sheerness to the extreme by flaunting looks that came to be known as her “naked dresses.”

Not all of her sartorial choices worked — the Givenchy floral dress worn to the 2013 Met Gala is still remembered today as “the couch dress.” But the megastar has continued to prove that she is unafraid of pushing the envelope. And while her husband continues to weigh in on her wardrobe choices, going as far as emailing her with fashion edicts like “You cannot wear big glasses anymore,” she may well be ignoring them by now.

Elevated athleisure

Being married to the man behind Yeezy, Kardashian West has had a polarizing effect on athleisure, having elevated the genre as both an influencer and businesswoman.

In 2017, she was the only model featured in the Yeezy Season 6 lookbook, which consisted of staged paparazzi-style images of her out and about in LA — a branding move that had a ripple effect across style and celebrity culture.
Kim Kardashian West and her daughter North at a Yeezy showcase for New York Fashion Week in 2015.

Kim Kardashian West and her daughter North at a Yeezy showcase for New York Fashion Week in 2015. Credit: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Around the same time, she brought back spandex bike shorts, also as part of the Yeezy collection, and made them a thing before anyone else. “I got roasted on (bike shorts) … And of course, everyone was wearing (them) two years later,” she told Vogue.

In 2019, she started her own line of lounge and shapewear, Skims, which caters to a diverse range of body types and skin tones. She applies the same minimalist aesthetic that she’s embraced in her everyday wardrobe to the entire range, which spans bodysuits, high-rise shorts, underwear and more.

Kardashian West may have just burst out of a giant cake in a bikini top and translucent pants in the build-up to her 40th birthday celebrations, but she has, in her own way, come of age.

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