is it time to retire the word 'supermodel'?
While we can continue to admire the originals, we don’t need to recast them. The Instagirls reflect our generation, pouring their personalities into their social feeds, and living beyond the catwalk.
Last week Rebecca Romijn told Entertainment Weekly that she didn't consider Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid to be supermodels. Commenting "I have been disappointed that fashion magazines have been supporting this trend of social media stars to set our style standards," she suggested their millions of followers didn't equate to the same place in the cultural consciousness as the original icons of the early 90s. In response to the quote, British Vogue held a Twitter poll asking their followers if they agreed. A lot did; the overwhelming consensus was they did not deserve the hallowed title.
But amid the debates over whether Kendall and Gigi's skills live up to their likes, and fame's role in fast tracking a model's career, another question emerged: why are we still so hung up on that term?
While the origins of the phrase has been debated, it's come to mean Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, and Claudia Schiffer. Although some argue it refers to the stars of the George Michael's 1990 "Freedom" video (Linda, Cindy, Christy, Naomi and Tatjana Patitz) and others tack Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen onto the end as late arrivals.
No matter where you draw the line, one thing is clear: the term belongs to another time. In the late 80s and early 90s these were the women who shifted the role of model from clothes hanger to star. While models had certainly been celebrities before them, they emerged as a snapshot of the glittering ideal: they were powerful, fun, sexy, and unstoppable. There will never be six women like that again—and why would you want there to be? They were icons of a time, but it's a time that has passed. And while we can continue to worship them, we don't need to recast them.
In 2016 being model is a very different job, but it's no easier or harder. Girls today are still products that begin with unearthly beauty but they are also increasingly defined by their personalities and presence. While the supers marked their place by dominating catwalks and collecting campaigns, today's stars create digital followings that number in the tens of millions. The supers were muses and lent their faces to brands. Today's models are the brands.
From Cara to Kendall to Binx, these are women who have made their feeds their most marketable asset. A lot of girls have a pretty face, but massive success now comes to those who are savvy enough to recognize, control and market their own image. It's easy to roll eyes and suggest that jobs are secured by those who come with guaranteed Instagram likes, but that dismissal forgets the effort that goes into building a digital connection with a million kids through a million screens.
Often the term "social media model" is offered as a second class title. But in reality making yourself iconic online involves a very new kind of skill. While some are critical of how these women approach fame, they're also fixated on how they hold onto it. A supermodel is meant to be eternal. Decades after their debuts, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss have only increased in value on the catwalk. But today, eternity isn't the prize it once was -- and yes, today's stars don't tend to hang around so long.
That's not a reflection of skills, but rather focus. Millennial superstars grew up in a world where work, careers, recreation, and passions are fluid. Forbes has reported that that the average millennial worker today stays in their job for 4.4 years and are expected to have between 15 and 20 jobs in their lives.
Today's faces are less interested in sticking it out for half a lifetime; like their Gen-Y peers they're motivated by experiences and opportunities. It's less about being the dominant force in one industry and more about trying your hand at several. Models such as Gemma Ward and Abby Lee curtailed their time on the catwalk to move into acting, Jamie Bochert and Zoe Kravitz are dually focused on music, and Agyness Deyn side-stepped into fashion and acting as well.
In 30 years the life, role, expectation and career of a model has changed so much it's left our language behind. The term supermodel has long been criticized for being overused, but that's because it's ceased to mean anything truly representative of the current fashion landscape. Considering we're struggling so much to wield it, perhaps it's time to put it aside altogether.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Walterlan Papetti