from supers to instagirls to supers again, why our catwalk icons are cyclical

Personality, transparency, and connectivity have changed the way we see our generation of larger-than-life supermodels. Today, they’re empowered image-makers, democratic, and relatable. But how inherently different are they to the faces they’ve...

by Kinza Shenn
07 April 2017, 3:15pm

dries van noten autumn/winter 17

Supermodels reflect the realities and desires of their passing zeitgeist. New season, new reality. Try to keep up. Yes, that's the tagline from Keeping Up with the Kardashians season 11, and I'm okay with that. Our supermodel girl gang today is primarily made up of reality TV stars, heiresses, and celebrity daughters. They may be seen on the homepage of Vogue, "making a case" for sartorial banalities like a strappy shoe in hot weather, or pajamas at home. Lounging on white sheets in their silk-satin peignoirs, they are truly beautiful, and we interface with them from screens with a quiet blend of FOMO, nausea, and existential nausea.

Kendall, Gigi, Bella, Lily-Rose, Cara, Hailey, Emily. They're the personal role models for millions (Kendall has 77.6m followers to be precise). Last year, 90s supermodel Stephanie Seymour referred to them as the "bitches of the moment." But Instagirls seem far from over. Enabled by technology, their sphere of influence quantifiably dwarfs that of the iconic 90s supermodels. If only Carrie Bradshaw had access to Instagram when she was broke and buying Vogue instead of food. Our wants and needs from celebrities have since been transformed. And so, I couldn't help but wonder: how has the supermodel evolved since the 90s, and what does mainstream fascination with Instagirls say about the dreams and aspirations of our current world?

Christian Dior wrote in his memoirs, Christian Dior et Moi, of the burgeoning influence of models in the 1940s, that "it was as though Europe had grown sick of bombs and wanted fireworks instead." In defense and explanation of the Instagirl effect of today, perhaps this idea holds true. Perhaps they function best as glitterers living far away from life and its problems. Their constructed realities form gateways into fantasies. This effect is even more pronounced now, given our ability to comment, and imprint, on their profiles.

Tyra Banks might have convinced you that qualifying for top-model status involves dodging swinging pendulums over a swimming pool while communicating the pathos of plastic surgery addiction with your eyes, but it can't be denied that the success of our current supermodel gang is clouded by a faint aura of nepotism. It's an instinct to validate those who personify natural beauty, socialized personalities, chill-girlness. But with the elite backgrounds enabling the main supermodels today, are we the ultimate contemporary generation for congratulating genetic predispositions for success? And as for the likes of competitive reality TV shows like America's Next Top Model — which was once way more of a joke and an echo chamber of its own importance — it now has new power to hopeful contestants bereft of such inherited social mobility. Audiences see lifestyles transformed from shows like KUWTK and Real Housewives, and so, actually becoming Tyra's next top model might not be the operative goal. Maybe appearing on reality TV and gaining followers as an entry to stardom is enough.

A key part of the supermodel mythology is indeed the cash. To the extent that in the 90s, houses would book major supermodels just to prove that they could afford them (Valentino, purportedly). Carrying over the celebration of money, sex, and power from the decade prior, supermodels became the imperative brand of cool girl in their embodiment of these assets. It was legitimized with the January 1990 British Vogue cover of Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Tatjana Patitz shot by Peter Lindbergh, which led to George Michael requesting all five women to feature in his music video for "Freedom! '90," which led to them miming the song down the catwalk of the Versace fall/winter 91 finale. At this point, models became brands in themselves, and bodies functioned as hangers onto which lifestyle was hung, more importantly in a sense, than the clothes themselves. It's a mentality more relatable today than ever by the nature of social media. We're focused on the minutiae of supermodels' lives, and fashion houses are just lucky if their campaigns can be negotiated into the feed.

In mutual best interest, Versace continued to fan the flames of its supermodels for a number of seasons, and the Versace aesthetic is integral to the 90s supermodel brand ideology: conspicuous luxury, surface fixation, a self-assured female sexuality that felt dangerous within the sexism of capitalism. Aggression had to always be counterpoised. Like the girl at Halloween who simply cannot just be academic or professional or scary without some reminder of her body. Versace's aggressive materials like leather and signature Oroton chainmail were typically cut into scanty shapes: bralettes, thigh-high boots, little dresses, pelmet skirts. The idea was to allure, and to reject.

This seedling idea of an empowered woman is better developed now, and translates more effectively with the social media platform. Now, the supermodel appears to work as image-maker and author, and she has moved from the object-like identity that otherwise haunts models. This is a pillar of Emily Ratajkowski's divisive version of feminism, that promotes non-male-defined sexually explicit images, and it is best understood when she can preface it with words. In any case, social-media culture will always task today's models with the request of an image caption, a need to flesh out details, bridge public and private with intimacy, and join trending socio-political conversations. Feminism, Leavers, anti-Trump, it's best to go along with it at all costs, and it's hard to know whether followers or icons said it first in their mutual blind trust and simulacra of political discussion.

In today's world, the precise size of the supermodel collective is vague. It's no longer the Trinity, or, the Original Six. Our thoughts on who's most influential are all probably skewed from our personal feeds, our echo-chamber friends, our personal choosings of which characters to follow closest. We click, "I don't care about this," and the rest kind of melts away. We have an infinite supply of icons to pick from in this total transparent realm of profiles. We aren't hostages of the media, and as a result, the idea of icon has diffused, watered down across virtual shores. It's led to our ability to find private role models and iconography that won't thrust forth one obnoxious ideal, one product to fix our soul. We don't tolerate the marketing campaign that alienates, shames, and deludes. We champion a greater sphere of beauty standards, we like fashion with a little oddity.

The same thoughts came around in the middle of the 90s. After the histrionic supremacy of the supermodel, there was Marc Jacobs's grunge-themed spring/summer 93 collection for Perry Ellis, (though it needed a little time to be mulled over), and Corrine Day, David Sims, Mario Sorrenti, the rise in popularity of The Face. Label mania was swapped for gentler looks, or alterity. Both offered a kind of reaction against the narrow construction of beauty within supermodel branding. Kate Moss, Stella Tennant, and Kristen McMenamy drew acclaim. Aesthetically, right now, we are in the midst of a late 80s-early 90s revival, an ultra intensification of the sex and pageantry. Where will it go next? Looking at social media trends beyond the fashion industry, we have already experienced a shift from our initial enthusiasm for the more-is-more overshare of Facebook to the curatorial effect of Instagram. Instagirls have found a rhythm of social media fatigue, and certainly, not much within this bubble feels as disruptive as the effect of a blank slate on an Instagram account, or a barred, hidden entrance within the typically open fields of the internet. Maybe the next wave of icons will be all the more effective for the fantasy fostered through mystique. Maybe we're heading for a dip into another mid-90s moda povera. Supermodels come and go in cycles, after all. Ask Tyra.


Text Kinza Shenn
Photography Mitchell Sams

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