"Supermodel" brings to mind one of the most celebrated eras in fashion: Calvin Klein's Eternity campaigns featuring Christy Turlington; Steven Meisel's Vogue Italia spreads with the so-called "Ugly Sisters" — Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Turlington. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, fashion was known for outsized glamour, flash and attitude. The mood was conveyed in sashaying hips, bouncing walks, bodily curves, sultry expressions and staged runway drama. It was a moment crystallized at Gianni Versace's Fall 1991 show, where models walked under spotlights, lip-synching to George Michael's "Freedom '90." There was a sense that these women were singular. There was no other Christy. There was no other Linda. There was no other Naomi.
Models moved across media, appearing on magazine covers and billboards, celebrity TV and "multimedia" CD-roms. Along with Campbell, Crawford, Evangelista and Turlington, about a dozen models — including Stephanie Seymour, Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen and later, Kate Moss — forged the supermodel mythos, creating moments seared into cultural memory. There was the time Crawford leaned back to take a long gulp of Pepsi during a 1992 Super Bowl commercial. There were hours-long theatrics at Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, where bionic women, superheroes and alien creatures stomped the stage. There was the cheeky approach of MTV's "House of Style," from Campbell applying "zit cream" to Crawford introducing the cast of "Seinfeld" to aromatherapy.
Appeals to grandeur and heroism were instrumental in crafting the supermodel mystique. Classicism and the Golden Age of Hollywood influenced visual culture of the time — epochal imagery carved for screen and stone. Prevailing influences in design, film and fashion were found in classical friezes and columns, serif typefaces and mytho-heroic settings. Cinematic references from Armani and Versace and images by Patrick Demarchelier, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel and Herb Ritts transformed models into celluloid characters inspired by noir and classic Hollywood film. Referred to as "goddesses," "Eurydices," and "Amazonians," the supermodels were treated with the hyperbolic awe of religious reverence. Campbell, Evangelista and Turlington were dubbed "the Trinity," appearing as a glamorous triumvirate on and off the runway. As veteran casting director James Scully told me, "It was a perfect cultural storm."
And there was the money. Supermodels earned unprecedented incomes, proving that modeling could not only make one a star — it could be lucrative. Powerful agencies like Elite and Ford scouted models throughout the world, discovering young Evangelista in small-town Ontario, Crawford in DeKalb, Ill. and Campbell in south London. Battling agencies and a booming global cosmetics industry propelled models' careers. Supermodels became associated with earning power. Their rates — often several thousands for a few hours — became subjects of fascination, regularly cited alongside their names. In 1990, Evangelista was infamously quoted in Vogue as having said, "We have this expression, Christy and I. We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day." Although it was meant to be a joke (Turlington later remarked, "I'd never say that"), the phrase struck a chord, subject to endless referencing, puns, quotation and misquotation. Six years later, Amber Valetta told Vogue, "I've gotten out of bed for a lot less than $10,000 a day."
Over a period of 30-odd years, the supermodel moment boomed, declined and recently re-emerged with the full force of nostalgia and brand strategy. Beyond the lurid appeal of five-figure rates and seven-figure incomes, media hype and changing cultural headwinds brought eventual unwind to the heady days of the supermodel. In 1993, when fatigue began to take hold, a 22-year-old Campbell told a reporter, "I hate being called a supermodel. I'm embarrassed. I mean, we did this commercial for a car called Supermodel and that's a supermodel. I'm not."
Yet the energy and flash of the period — the extraordinary personalities and images — endure as an enshrined memory for fashion, remaining vivid for industry veterans and fans alike. At Versace's Spring 2018 presentation, a group of the original supermodels once again ascended the runway, hand-in-hand with Donatella Versace. In 2018, Crawford re-created her role in Pepsi's Super Bowl commercial, this time with her son Presley Gerber — at the start of his own modeling career.
Today, models cast by designers such as Chromat and Gypsy Sport are embodying the fiery presence and vivacious personalities of '80s and '90s supermodels, communicating diversity and empowerment for a broad spectrum of body shapes and gender identification. While these models aren't defined by typical influencer metrics — being the most broadly known or the highest paid — they share with supermodels the force of charisma and performance on the runway. Whether they reach "Super" status, or opt to stay in the game as long as supermodels have, remains to be seen.
The mood was celebratory at Chromat's Fall 2018 show. Fitted in the brand's signature bodywear, an eclectic blend of performers, models and political activists strode the runway with verve and confidence. Some twirled. One bit into a Cheeto at the end of the catwalk. And each model performed with a distinct personality — a unique look and walk — representing a spectrum of age, shapes and gender identities. The attitude and humor they brought to the runway carried an energy seen at earlier supermodel shows, like Chanel, Versace and then-up-and-coming designers Todd Oldham and Anna Sui. When I asked casting director Gilleon Smith about working with Chromat and founder Becca McCharen-Tran, she said, "We're often talking about how they made us feel as opposed to how they looked… What did she say? Where is she from? What were they bringing to the table aside from their body?'"
Chromat and Gypsy Sport hold open castings, broadening the casting pool to people who may not have "professional model" on their resume. In recent seasons, both labels' castings were met with around 300 people. Anthony Conti, Gypsy Sport's marketing and casting director, told me that from its inception in 2012, founder Rio Uribe "wanted his brand to represent people that the fashion industry did not represent." At the label's Fall 2018 show, models were voguing and sashaying—there was a simmering energy. "Diversity, to me, means really representing everyone," said Conti. "I don't know if you can really, truly get that from an agency casting. You need to go outside that box… True diversity means body size — it means literal heights. It means literally getting a slice of life… especially when you're a brand in New York City."
Scully has been known in recent years for his advocacy work, speaking publicly for the fair treatment of models and the creation of Kering and LVMH's model charter last fall. When Karl Lagerfeld's first show for Chanel was staged at Bergdorf Goodman in late 1983, Scully, responding to call for help on a bulletin board, began dressing shows backstage as a college student. ("I was bit by the show bug that minute," he said.) He's been in fashion ever since, taking his first two casting clients in the '90s: Todd Oldham and Gucci under Tom Ford.
"There are two kinds of shows now: There's the straight-on show and then there's the performance show," Scully told me. The change in the last three to five years, he said, is a new generation coming into fashion, one that's bringing a bootstrapping, transgressive approach to representation. "Which is very '80s, to be quite honest," he said with a smile.
Scully pointed to the legacy of designers like Angel Estrada, Michael Leva and Yonson Pak, who were embodying downtown energy, queer style and youth culture to fashion at pivotal moments in New York and London. "There was momentum in the '80s of really young people who did their own thing and beat to their own drummer," he said. "A lot of the streetwear that's come out of this is basically a reaction: 'It's our time, and we're just going to make a product in the world the way we see it and the way our world exists now.'" Watching Todd Oldham's shows from 1994 — "supermodel central," as Tim Blanks has called it — the mood feels part of a lineage, represented today by vibrant, individualistic casts.
"The unsung hero is Rick Owens," said Scully, who credits both Owens and Vivienne Westwood with paving the way for casts who subvert conventional ideas of beauty. "When I was young, Vivienne Westwood was, in the '70s and '80s, the person that just threw your idea of what fashion was on its head — how to interpret fashion and what it meant."
Scully saw underground scenes of the '80s bubbling up through the work of young designers. A trajectory traced from Bodymap, Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood in London continued into the '90s with the work of Marc Jacobs, Todd Oldham, Isaac Mizrahi and Anna Sui in New York. Conti and Scully highlighted Shayne Oliver's Hood by Air, a label whose style and casting brought an underground youth scene — and a sense of community — to fashion. "I think this generation has a lot less hang-ups about the beauty of gender, what gender is," said Scully. "You have someone with green hair and split teeth that doesn't represent the norms, but everyone embraces these girls and these guys."
Models are assembled like a cast of characters — their movement, features and garments suggest a fantastic world, perhaps the high-octane glamour of Gianni Versace or the lyricism and angst of Alexander McQueen. Models oscillate between anonymity and fame — blank canvases or celebrities in their own right. Dovima, Veruschka, Iman and Twiggy were referred to like other idolized pop culture figures, by a single name. Yet traditionally, models were relatively silent, remaining unidentified beyond the world of a designer's collection. Cast in the role of fictive identities, they broached boundaries between fantasy and the self, enshrined in a world meant to stir desire and aspiration. Even in the heady days of the supermodels, the majority of runway "mannequins" went unnamed, anonymous beyond industry insiders who signed and cast them.
In "The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America," Caroline Evans described that some models were accustomed to performing a blank gaze as defense against the salacious stares of male onlookers, writing: "One of their attributes was to appear not to know that they were being looked at, and to cultivate an automoton-like impassivity, so that the very blankness of their behavior could induce discomfort." With recent accusations of sexual harassment and abuse across the modeling industry, conversations favoring fair treatment, labor organization and regulation have emerged. Casting models that are unapologetically drawn from all walks of life — that resist conventional labels — is a form of cultural commentary.
"'Diversity' is a very used word now," said Conti, "which is great. Not always right, not always correctly, but it's used. And inclusion and representation and all those are words that are constantly going through people's minds. Even fluidity. None of that stuff is new. If you look at the '80s, the '90s, all of those decades had people expressing their gender in other ways, but I think it's just a conversation that we're finally [having]. It's sticking."
There's an ever-present duality for models. On the runway, a model is a person with a life — an industry persona, political views, a career; and at the same time, that model is cast as part of an imaginative world — a projection of glamour, luxury or supernatural fantasy. Supermodels were characterized as "image" models, known for signature looks and features that, at the time, were considered "quirks" in the modeling industry; much awe and fascination was, at one point, centered on Crawford's facial mole. Supermodels were recognized for the greater context of their lives, everything from which clubs they were hitting to whom they were dating, which contracts they landed to philanthropic causes they supported.
Now, in 2018, that modeling context includes activist causes: body inclusivity, labor rights, feminism, LGBTQ representation and more. Conti told me that for Gypsy Sport's Fall 2018 show, "a big part of our casting process was finding people that have a voice." Diandra Forrest, a "day-one muse" (she's also appeared at Chromat), is known off the runway for her work spreading awareness of albinism. Gypsy Sport also cast Kabrina Adams, who runs an organization called "Free My Boobs," and Kelvin Peña, who founded an organization called "Everybody Eats" after videos of him feeding deer surged into thousands of views on Instagram. Geena Rocero, known for her work as a pioneering transgender activist, also walked for Chromat that season.
A sense of community connects the casts of Chromat, Gypsy Sport and the former Hood by Air to the supermodel legacy when, several decades ago, model clans at Alaïa, Chanel and Versace brought the houses' aesthetics to life. The legacy was drawn from designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Halston and others who hired models that become synonymous with their designs. Supermodels flocked to Azzedine Alaïa, wearing the late designer's clothes in their personal lives and touting the designer as "family." "Rio's always described Gypsy Sport like family. Like a tribe," said Conti. And in the era of social media, a sense of community crosses the threshold of a screen. Instagram forms a direct feedback loop. "When they see another brand knocking off Gypsy Sport, they'll be the first one to call it out before Gypsy Sport even knows it. They're very protective and they love Rio… So we're like, 'Then, we should just be using them.'"
Authenticity is a powerful sentiment in matters of style. From #sponcon to influencers to corporate co-opting of youth colloquialisms, a halo of authenticity can drive powerful loyalty for brands. It has its share of misfires. Crawford was known as one of the first models to "become her own brand," working as a runway and editorial model, TV host, commercial spokesperson and more. To "brand" oneself today is a form of personal expression and daily exercise on social media, treated with varying levels of irony. Memes like the Personal Brand™ — a sardonic collage of images meant to convey one's taste — communicate all the ambiguity of political and professional landscapes today; it's part poking fun at oneself, part recognition that advertising interests and slickly packaged products extend handily into the realm of identity and social behavior. Jobs or swag may follow… the followers.
When I asked Conti why inclusivity and runway personality is resonating now, he said, "I think people were like, enough's enough… They're bringing community-based people. They're given this voice now, and this is how they're choosing to speak," adding: "Some of it's necessity; you can't afford models. So you start using friends and people on social media." Both Smith and Conti, however, are wary of gimmicks and tokenism. Audiences react when diversity reads as too tactical or marketing-driven. "It's part excruciating analytical discussion and part simple understanding of what looks best, what fits best and what energy brings that look to life," said Smith. "It can't be done for publicity or social media likes. You have to feel authentic when you're doing it."
For the new generation, the opportunity — and even the desire — to stay in the game has yet to be determined. Many of the original supermodels maintained decades-long careers. "You used to start at 18; your career would peak at 30. Then you started at 15 and your career would peak at 17. So, the whole thing… went backwards," said Scully, skeptical of the industry's drive for newer and younger faces. "Models from every era have gone on to do philanthropic things and start great charities. From Liya [Kebede] to Christy [Turlington] to Natalia [Vodianova]," noting Scully. "A lot of these kids are artists or scientists or activists or they're all so many different things that this is just one part of what they do," added Conti.
He highlighted transgender model Espan Dulce, who has walked for Gypsy Sport for the last several seasons and just appeared in Vivienne Westwood's Fall 2018 campaign. Modeling, however, might be only one dimension of multi-hyphenate careers. Drawing from his mentorship work with students, Scully said, "Their energy's different… their view of the world." He described an outlook shaped by unpredictable market rhythms: "It's how they'll treat everything: a non-linear, up and down, all-over-the-place trajectory."
When RuPaul's "Supermodel" topped the Billboard dance charts in 1993, a combination of overexposure and media fatigue had industry-watchers calling the supermodel moment passé. By the mid-'90s, supermodels were regularly featured in tabloids and celebrity TV, at one point being molded into Madame Tussaud-style "video mannequins" for a fashion version of Planet Hollywood. Rumors of diva behavior became part of a running media narrative that shared "inside stories" of models throwing tantrums, skipping shows or feuding with other celebrities.
And, of course, a new wave of models entered the scene. Dubbed the "waifs," they were led by Moss, Valetta, Shalom Harlow and Kristen McMenamy, ushering in change from raucous excess to clean lines, stark palettes and a subdued mood in fashion. "I went from the whole Azzedine, Montana and Mugler moment to, within 5 years: the stock market crashing [in 1987]; we went into the Gulf War [in 1990]; and minimalism happened... It really became about Dries [Van Noten] and Ann [Demeulemeester] and Helmut [Lang] and Raf [Simons]," said Scully. Timing was right for dramatic change, yet Scully said in fashion, conventional thinking took hold. "Just to have this kind of slate washed clean — I think a lot of show producers unfortunately took that model, especially one show producer in particular, and ran with that," he said. "People were taking it at face value."
At the end of our interviews, for fun, I asked each casting director to suggest a word to replace "supermodel," a term that's been accused of being overused since its inception. Scully said, "It really was those women and that time, and there never was a before or after. Before there was the supermodel, there was the 'top model.' Kim Alexis, Kelly Emberg, those were our 'top models.' I don't know if there's a term because I don't think there's anything that equals what they [were]. We haven't had that moment yet." Scully acknowledges the careers of the so-called Instagirls — Gigi, Bella and Kendall — and newcomers like Adwoa Aboah, Grace Elizabeth and Binx Walton, yet he's hopeful for one model who represents a literal passage to the new generation: Kaia Gerber.
"Everyone's treating her the way every model should have been treated," Scully said. "There are all of these factors now that models have to navigate that they never had to navigate before, which just makes the business 50 times harder and shorter. If this were her mother's era, if Kaia Gerber were not Kaia Gerber and this was 1991, she wouldn't necessarily be starting at 16, either." Scully spoke to a time when models had longer to develop their craft, "but now we're in a place where you jump start all that — you have to pass it all — because you either get your moment or you don't. Part of me wants to think that [Gerber] will prove that you don't have to jump on everything, even though she is 16."
The supermodel era is, in Conti's mind, specific to a particular time. "It's almost inappropriate to use that term now," he said. "I don't think there is a word." I offered that maybe that's the point, and Conti agreed, saying there's no way to shortlist inclusivity. "There's no one way to describe every person in the world."
When asked what she'd replace supermodel with, Smith said, cheekily, "powerhouse babes," which is a lot better than what I came up with a few weeks earlier — "uber-models" — a term that in today's world, would likely come across as model who Ubers — as in, takes an Uber, rather than the effervescent, magnetic force that creates a phenomenon like the supermodels.
Thinking back on Smith's "powerhouse babes," a crucial piece of it rings true: power. Modeling has always been about dynamics of power in an industry of extraordinary creativity, relentless striving, destructive flameouts and triumphs in the face of it all. It's about power — yes, the power of an industry — but also the power to be recognized; the power of self-expression; the joy of shared imagery and relating to others. Style as identification, or as Scully put it, "Beauty as revolt."
Perhaps today, the balance of power is turning again to the recognition of individuals — to models that have voice. Models that, even as they transmit a projection of imagined desire and identity, are empowered with something that fashion and style can help us all find. The power to declare, I'm here. I'm me.
Homepage photo: Yasmin Wijnaldum, Kaia Gerber, Vittoria Ceretti and Mica Arganaraz at Versace’s Spring 2018 runway show. Photo: Venturelli/WireImage