why we're celebrating supermodels this week
From catwalk comebacks and 90s nostalgia to the cult of celebrity and shape-shifting attitudes to diversity, join us on a tour of modelling’s past, present and future.
Photography Steven Klein, Styling Edward Enninful, The US Issue No. 131 August 1994
To mark the milestone of his catwalk centenary, Dries Van Noten stripped away fashion's fanfare and celebrated the essence of his show experience. This was personified by the casting. The autumn/winter 17 show was an epic reunion of 54 models who have walked for him from 1993 onwards. "I wanted to go back to the essence of the fashion show, which is people sitting on a chair in a simple room looking at beautiful women walking by in a nice outfit. They are all women who stand for what we want to say," he declared to us post-show. Kristina de Coninck, who opened his first women's show in 1992, opened this one too. Nadja Auermann, Cecilia Chancellor, Emma Balfour, Guinevere van Seenus, Kirsten Owen, Trish Goff, Élise Crombez, Erika Wall, Esther de Jong, Alek Wek, Michele Hicks, Carolyn Murphy, Liya Kebede and more soon followed. Whilst serving up nostalgia for the nineties and noughties, reminding us of cherished covers, esteemed editorials, admired ads and of course, canonised collections, their supreme struts and familiar faces showcased the longevity of their individual influence and importance. Not only has Dries Van Noten grown up with this cast, most of the industry have too.
In an instant we were invited on a trip down memory lane and reminded of our first introductions to the industry. I was transported back to my first encounters of i-D, The Face and Dazed on the shelves of my local newsagents. Aged ten, as Van Noten continued to excite in Paris, I spotted Kate and Naomi arm-in-arm on the cover of i-D's The US Issue. I was intrigued by the world depicted by Steven Meisel's lens because it was so far removed from my own sleepy, seaside surroundings on the Kent coast. I remember buying my first copy, four years later with Alek Wek on the cover of The World Class Issue. Like so many, these faces are what first enticed me inside the industry. Their editorials were an escape from the everyday. The supers were the goddesses of my youth and I became increasingly interested, the more I researched and the more I fell for them.
"We have this expression, Christy and I: we don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day," Linda Evangelista famously proclaimed to Jonathan Van Meter in a 1990 Vogue feature. Although often misquoted, the chameleon's words are i-Conic. As an impressionable youth, who wouldn't dream of this life? Naomi, Cindy, Linda, Claudia, Christy and Stephanie influenced the shape of the industry like never before. The Big Six had it all. Then, when a fourteen-year-old Kate Moss was spotted at JFK by Storm founder Sarah Doukas, 6 became 7. From fashion to hair and make-up, they dominated so much of the late 80s and 90s.
"There's a reason why the world is still is obsessed with 90s supermodels," Cristina Aranda-Garzon explained in a recent interview supporting the release of the latest The Fan collection. "Brains, beauty and personality, they were so sassy and ahead of their time. Muses to artists, musicians and photographers, you can't deny they played a significant part in cementing that strong 90s aesthetic." Alongside the dictionary definition of the nineties, there should be Kate Moss's Obsession ad, or her Calvin Klein Jeans campaign with Marky Mark.
"For me the supermodels still represent the unadulterated, high-octane energy of fashion. They will always be iconic," explains i-D's Junior Fashion Editor Bojana Kozarevic. There is something so incredibly powerful about a woman adding her own personality and joie de vivre to the clothes she's wearing. That's what a LOOK is all about. So for me, Naomi, Christy, Kate, Guinevere, Alek et al -- they brought their own magic to the runway. And it's similar to how we should think about fashion in our lives -- you decide what to wear and how to wear it." Far more than being a bevy of beauties, the supers spread their magic and message far and wide.
"There are models of today who purport this kind of magic today too, and that's important," Bojana adds.
Countless faces and bodies have certainly captured the collective imagination since this moment, but we've not seen a movement quite like the supers. Until, Instagirls. This new generation of models are Internet-savvy and use their platforms to create and cultivate their own brands. Whereas in the past, supers were scouted in everyday reality, discovered everywhere from airports (Kate Moss) to shopping trips (Naomi Campbell), McDonald's (Gisele) to horse riding (Christy Turlington), park fairs (Alek Wek) to clubbing (Claudia Schiffer), the supers of today and tomorrow will be found in digital daydreams thanks to a click, swipe or scroll. Like the supers of the 90s, they are identifiable by their first names: Kendall, Gigi, Karlie and Cara. It hasn't gone unnoticed and as the media clamoured, comparisons were inevitable. Modelling's past and present duly collided on the new battleground, social media.
"No one is trying to steal Stephanie Seymour's thing, or trying to be her, I actually looked up to her," Kendall said in a blog responding to Seymour's "bitches of the moment" comment. "If people want to call Gigi and I supermodels now, it doesn't take anything away from the supermodels of the past. Obviously, I have so much respect for those women, but right now, we're the models of this time." Of course, she's right. Kendall and co are the models of this time. That doesn't deter us from occasional bouts of nineties nostalgia though. "Having been in the business over 20 years I know how hard these women work," Seymour added in an apology that followed the social fury. Like so many arguments played out on social media, it was overblown but it did hint at the latest and largest shift in the modelling landscape.
As the past, present and future of this industry continues to excite and enthral, we are dedicating a week of features to delve deep into the who, what and why. From opinion pieces that examine the cult of celebrity dominating catwalks and covers, the rise of so-called plus size models, shape-shifting attitudes to diversity and the politics involved, to the evolving model-designer relationships and the power exchanges between them, this week of content will demonstrate that a smile and a wink can get your further than you think.
Text Steve Salter