Fashion Flashback: Gianni Versace and the Birth of the Supers

How "Freedom! '90," the music video, and "Freedom! '90," the fashion show, blended fashion culture into popular culture.
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Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, Gianni Versace, Nadège du Bospertus and Linda Evangelista attend Gianni Versace Atelier's Fall 1992 show at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Photo: Foc Kan/Wireimage

Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, Gianni Versace, Nadège du Bospertus and Linda Evangelista attend Gianni Versace Atelier's Fall 1992 show at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Photo: Foc Kan/Wireimage

Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.

Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista: the holy trinity of supermodels. They weren't the only "Supers," of course. The term refers to a whole slew of women who catapulted from fashion notoriety to full-blown celebrity status in the early 1990s. In the span of a few short years, Cindy Crawford, Stephanie Seymour and Carla Bruni became recognizable names who dominated every catwalk, campaign and cover imaginable.

But the rise of Supers coincided with (and arguably benefitted from) the rise of one man, Gianni Versace, who solidified their status, as well as his own, in popular culture. His Fall 1991 show (generally referred to as "Freedom! '90," after the George Michael song of the same name) set a new standard for fashion show casting when he had a bevy of major models appear on his catwalk. For the finale, Campbell, Crawford, Turlington and Evangelista — who had all just appeared in Michaels' "Freedom! '90" music video — came out lip-synching to the song. It was a game-changing moment that proved the runway could be an arena for cultural impact. "If I had to label my supermodel moment, I would say it was that Versace show," Crawford told V Magazine in 2013. "It felt like the stars had aligned."

It Started With George

It wasn't that the Supers weren't already working at the top of their game, or that they weren't already appearing together in photo shoots. They were. But appearing together in a music video for a hit song because they were successful fashion models was entirely new, and introduced them to an audience that might not have followed high fashion — but one that certainly had MTV.

Apparently, Michael got the idea to cast the Supers after seeing them (along with Tatjana Patitz) on a then-recent cover of British Vogue. "I knew that George wanted everybody that was on that cover, and it had to be all the girls," Crawford explained to Allure in 2016. There wasn't even any "fashion" on the shoot; apparently, most of the budget had been blown on the white linen sheet that Turlington wore, so the rest of the cast was decked out in pieces stylist Camilla Nickerson had on hand. But it became a massive hit.

"We did hit another audience there," Evangelista told Interview in 2013. "No matter where I went in the world, they knew me from the video and not from my campaigns."

At the same time, legendary editor Liz Tilberis had apparently convinced Versace to use the same models he was casting in his advertisements to walk his show, and so he did. Bruni, Seymour and Schiffer all swaggered down the runway that day, but all anyone can remember is the lip-synching finale. Versace made it clear that fashion had infiltrated pop culture through the "Freedom! '90" music video, and not the other way around.

"The incredible power of these women was inescapable, and Versace capitalized on it by grouping them on the catwalk. It wasn't one girl at a time," Tim Blanks has recalled of the lineup. "It was just such a 'wow' moment. I think these girls symbolized a whole era in a way that fashion models never had before."

All About the Models

The "Freedom! '90" show was only the beginning for Versace and his Supers. From then on, they not only continued to appear on his runways, but in his campaigns, as well. Tapping major photographers like Richard Avedon, the ads have become iconic in their own right, thanks to both Versace's easily recognizable styles and the bevy of models we still can't seem to get over, all organized by expert eyes into beautiful images. The campaigns encapsulate a moment in time in which excess was celebrated, and the entire industry seemed to be one giant party.

Seeing the immense impact of having the most famous models in the world all together sparked a new show standard for other designers. Suddenly, everyone had to have as many big names on their runway as they could afford, and fashion fans couldn't get enough. It's a phenomena we still feel today — designers make sure to have as many top girls on their runways and in their campaigns as possible, while eagle-eyed journalists track who was cast where on websites like Models.com and The Fashion Spot.

The End of an Era

It's unlikely that one man could be the driving force behind an entire industry's morale, but when Versace was murdered in 1997, it certainly felt like the light behind fashion dimmed. 

Of course most of the changes were a natural part of the industry's ever-evolving nature. While the Supers continue to work today, demand for them waned by the early aughts, especially as designers increasingly relied on casting agents to pull their shows together. Suddenly, our celebrity model set was replaced by interchangeable adolescent girls. Meanwhile, our ideas of luxury shifted in favor of the quieter, more minimalist styles put forth by designers like Phoebe Philo at Celiné. Whatever glitz and glamour fashion still had was brought in by celebrities who now graced front rows — and eventually magazine covers — en masse.

Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen walk the runway at Versace's Spring 2018 show. Photo: Venturelli/WireImage

Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen walk the runway at Versace's Spring 2018 show. Photo: Venturelli/WireImage

Lasting Legacy

Gianni Versace held a place in fashion's heart that's still empty today. The recent 20-year anniversary of his death proved there is still an intense interest in his life, as well as in his era of fashion. Entirely new generations of fans gobbled up online tributes, an acclaimed FX miniseries ("American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace") and, of course, his sister Donatella's tribute collection. Featuring nods to several hallmarks of his career, including famous prints, reissued styles and even the brand's original 1980s logo, the show reveled in nostalgia, and love. The clothes alone would have made it a highlight of Milan Fashion Week, but its finale is what it something truly special. 

As Donatella came out to take her bow, the back curtain fell, revealing Campbell, Crawford, Bruni, Schiffer and Helena Christiansen in gold gowns. As they held hands and walked the runway together, "Freedom! '90" began to play, reminding us, for a brief moment, of what her late brother's glory felt like. 

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