exploring the most iconic model muses of fashion history

We look at the models who came to embody an ideal, and the creatives who love them.

by Jack Sunnucks
05 April 2017, 1:35pm

Photography Nick Knight, Styling Edward Enninful. Body Dolce & Gabbana. Harness Fleet Llya. Stocking Atsuko Kudo. Shoes Azzedine Alaïa. [The 30th Birthday Issue, no. 308, Pre-Fall 2010]

It's become somewhat tired to call someone a 'muse,' but there really hasn't been a better word invented for what these women do. Of course, it's modeling, but anyone can be a model, as long as you're ridiculously tall, photogenic, slender, and willing to work all the time. The muse is something different — it's about attitude and personality, both of which are hard to maintain when working all the time and staying, well, unbelievably slender. The women who've attained this status have the secret sauce (no, not wine, like an intangible thing). They're more than a blank canvas to project ideas upon; they are the idea itself. From Naomi and Azzedine to Daria and Phoebe, here are some of the greatest models and the men and women they've inspired.

Read: The top 10 most iconic model cameos in music videos

Naomi Campbell and Azzedine Alaïa
Perhaps the most famous model-designer relationship is that between the iconic Naomi Campbell and Azzedine Alaïa, which is so close that Campbell calls him 'Papa'. Alaïa met Campbell when she was only 16, on her first day working in Paris, after having had all of her money and passport stolen. A friend took her to Alaïa's house, where she found the designer cooking dinner for his staff, as he likes to do. Despite not speaking a word of French, the two of them hit it off. Every time she was in town she'd stay with the designer, and he took her to New York to find an agent. Of course, being a teenager away from home, she was desperate to go clubbing, which both the designer and Campbell's mother were not keen on. To prevent her from sneaking out in the dead of night, as she was want to do, Alaïa's would have Naomi sleep in the room above his so she'd have to go through his room on her way out. Over an almost thirty year working relationship, Campbell has come to epitomize the Alaïa's aesthetic — that of the statuesque goddess in form-fitting wool skirts and towering heels.

Lisa Fonssagrives and Irving Penn
Before the Supermodels — long before, in fact — there was Lisa Fonssagrives, the beautiful Swedish model born in 1911. You might not know the name, but the face is unforgettable — artistocratic, with an exquisitely arched eyebrow, she models a Balenciaga coat or a harlequin dress, or hangs off the Eiffel Tower, in just about every Vogue of the 50s. Fonssagrives was a dancer in Europe before becoming a model and moving to New York in the 40s, at which point she met the photographer Irving Penn, who she later married. Many of Penn's most memorable photographs feature his wife, who always had an air of expert poise and refinement, even when wearing a hat made of chicken's plumes. Fonssagrives most suited the austere creations of Cristobal Balenciaga however; somehow the couturier's severe work suited her vaguely patrician demeanor. She was also the first model to appear on the cover of TIME, under the incredible caption "Do illusions sell refrigerators." Having conquered fashion and fridges, she later did the sensible thing and retired from modeling to devote her time to sculpture.

Peggy Moffitt and Rudi Gernreich
Moffitt's signature look was really quite something, and really all the more incredible when you think that she was doing it in the 60s. Her black hair cut into Vidal Sassoon's five point bob framed heavy fake black eyelashes and feline eyeliner in black and white. She looked sort of like a very chic mime. Moffitt wasn't well known until she met designer Rudi Gernreich, who for whatever reason was convinced that post-bikini, the new frontier was about going topless. The 'Monokini' — which in the era of butt selfies now seems rather quaint — was adored by Diana Vreeland and put both the model and designer on the map. In The Rudi Gernreich book (a must read for everyone interested in 60s utopian design ideas), Moffitt opines, "without me, he would have been an avant-garde designer of genius. We made each other better." Less fabulous was the fact that Moffitt has had to spend the last fifty years talking about the Monokini, literally quite a small thing to have to spend eternity pondering.

Daria Werbowy and Phoebe Philo
Perhaps no woman captures the appeal of Céline quite like Daria, in no small part due to her uncanny resemblance to the label's creative director Phoebe Philo. Werbowy's appeared in an incredible seven of the brand's ad campaigns — a rare feat for any model — starting with the very first in 2011. Under photographer Juergen Teller's gaze, she lounges in the bath, or smokes in a turban, with her razor sharp cheekbones and bobbed hair spookily reminiscent of the designer. Werbowy and Philo have more in common than just appearance — both are interview shy and fiercely private, and have become emblematic of a sort of louche, elegant style that draws its glamour from ease rather than being trussed up in a frock. Philo often speaks to her design process being very closely tethered to what she herself would like to wear — it makes sense that she'd want her creations worn by a fantasy version of herself.

Linda Evangelista and Steven Meisel
Meisel's love of models is well documented — for almost three decades, being shot by the photographer for Vogue Italia has been a right of passage that launches careers into the stratosphere. Karen Elson, Stella Tennant, Jessica Stam, Liya Kedebe… the list essentially includes every model worth noting. One, however, has been shot by Meisel more than any other — Linda Evangelista, the Canadian supermodel who wouldn't get out of bed for less than ten grand, and who has seemingly had a thousand hairstyles, from peroxide to bright red to brunette. She's embodied a range of characters, from Upper East Sider undergoing plastic surgery, to Sofia Loren bombshell, to full on boxing gear. Meisel himself is something of an enigma, appearing always in a hat and dark glasses, face framed by long dark hair, doing the odd interview every decade or so. Evangelista is like the light to his dark, perennially laughing in photos. In fact, she's said in interviews about him (chic to have Linda as a spokesperson) that their favorite thing to do together is gossip on the phone. Tellingly, Evangelista once told The New York Times that she feels "Like Steven's Barbie doll," an apt description of a relationship where he's dressed her up more times than can be counted. 

Read: Are we really on the path to model diversity?


Text Jack Sunnucks

Think Pieces
Irving Penn
steven meisel
Azzedine Alaia
linda evangelista
supermodel week
lisa fonssagrives
peggy moffitt
rudi gernreich