05/29/2024

The Evolution of Supermodels: From Fame to Relevance

By Edwin

In the 2005 film “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” there’s a memorable moment where Brad Pitt’s character, Mr. Smith, a hitman, boasts that he won’t get out of bed for less than half a million dollars. When uttered by a man, such a statement has always been perceived as a sign of power and professional success. Similarly, when spoken by a woman, the interpretation hasn’t been much different, though often with a different connotation: it’s seen as arrogance, indicating that success has gone to her head. This sentiment echoes Linda Evangelista’s original declaration, paraphrased in the movie: “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” While it served to define an era—the era of supermodels—it also ended up being a double-edged sword.

“I have a feeling those words are going to end up engraved on my tombstone,” Evangelista admitted when she turned 50 in 2015. The Canadian model has publicly regretted those words on more than one occasion, most recently in “The Super Models,” an Apple TV+ docuseries exploring the foundational myth of the models who revolutionized the beauty and fashion industries in the early ’90s. “I should never have said them,” she acknowledges at one point. “But I’m not the same person I was back then. I don’t want to be known for that,” she adds, driving the point home by saying, “If I hadn’t been a woman, I would never have been judged so harshly. Being proud of your demands is only acceptable if you’re a man.” And she wasn’t wrong.

In an interview with Vogue in 1990, the statement referred to the professional achievements of both Evangelista and her colleague Christy Turlington; Evangelista never used the first-person singular, as it has been distorted in posterity. In fact, a few months later, it was revealed that Turlington had pocketed $800,000 for just two weeks of work as the face of Maybelline cosmetics. A year later, Evangelista broke her own record by earning $20,000 for a single fashion show, the Lanvin Spring/Summer 1991 haute couture show. While money was important, what mattered most were the influence and real power of these women, who could elevate a brand, dominate a runway, sell magazines by the stack, and even propel others’ careers (many designers, photographers, stylists, or makeup artists owe them a debt) with their mere presence. That’s why they were called supermodels.

From the cover of the January 1990 issue of British Vogue, a black-and-white generational portrait by Peter Lindbergh featuring models Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Tatjana Patitz, these models gave legitimacy to a socio-cultural phenomenon of colossal proportions, describing and contextualizing an entire decade of recent history, from the fall of the Iron Curtain to the post-9/11 society of fear. With even political implications—their impact on the queer community and racialized individuals deserves separate study—the fact that their story is still being revisited and remains a topic of general interest 33 years later demonstrates their relevance. The docuseries, like the highly controversially retouched cover of the September issue of American Vogue, has just brought together the four surviving members of the seminal quintet (Patitz, unfortunately, passed away prematurely from breast cancer in January of this year at the age of 56) with the aim of humanizing them, stripping them of their divine aura to present them as ordinary women, entrepreneurs, and mothers in middle age, with their flaws, fears, and insecurities.

The Almost Forgotten Beginning

The phenomenon of supermodels almost didn’t happen. There was an initial group shoot, featuring Estelle Lefébure, Karen Alexander, Rachel Williams, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, and Christy Turlington, also photographed by the German photographer. However, it was almost shelved. It was 1988, and the then-editor of Vogue USA, Grace Mirabella, didn’t like the images of those young women in white shirts, all smiles on the beach in Santa Monica. Business decisions dictated that in November of the same year, Mirabella left Condé Nast to be replaced by Anna Wintour, who had just shaken up the British edition of the fashion bible. When the iron lady of the publishing business found and decided to publish the images, her former employer had beaten her to it. Lindbergh’s cover celebrating the dawn of the nineties also helped Rolling Stone unearth another previous group nude shot by Herb Ritts, with Stephanie Seymour instead of Linda Evangelista, which was supposed to be the May 1989 cover of the music magazine.

The Rise and Influence of Supermodels

“It was an extraordinary and intense time when photo shoots lasted for days and fashion graced the front pages of the media,” Claudia Schiffer explained when presenting “Fashion Photography from the 1990s,” the exhibition she curated in 2020. Like Californian Stephanie Seymour, Danish Helena Christensen, French Carla Bruni, or Australian Elle Macpherson, Karl Lagerfeld’s muse was also dubbed a supermodel. In fact, the German, hailed in her day as the new Brigitte Bardot, surpassed them all in the number of covers (she’s credited with over a thousand) and became the highest-paid among her peers (thanks to a contract with Revlon for 10 years, worth six million each, signed in 1992). But not being featured on the canonical Lindbergh cover, alongside the iconic music video for George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90,” in which Linda, Cindy, Naomi, Christy, and Tatjana—all of whom never needed last names again—sang along, usually excluded her from subsequent reviews or reunions. True, in 2017, she walked the runway hand in hand with Campbell, Crawford, Christensen, and Bruni, summoned by Donatella Versace to pay tribute to her brother Gianni on the 20th anniversary of his murder. Her small revenge was walking the runway to the tune with which George Michael proclaimed his creative freedom. A week ago, she defended herself alone in Milan, once again called upon by the House of Medusa.

The Twilight and Resurgence of Supermodels

If brands and designers came to fear their influence, feeling overshadowed by their powerful presences and tired of their whims and delusions of grandeur, enough to end the reign of supermodels, it’s mere speculation. The only certainty is that in fashion, cycles are short, and whoever dies of success or boredom is followed by someone diametrically opposed, which is what happened from the second half of the nineties onwards after the rise of Kate Moss. “The supermodels led us to celebrity status. The generations that came after Claudia, Linda, and Naomi never aspired to be anything other than simple models; they didn’t want the attention. Meanwhile, actresses and singers began to engage with fashion, realizing its power to shape their personalities and express themselves on the red carpet. That’s how the supermodels ended up being replaced by celebrities,” argued Anna Wintour in The Guardian in 2019, referring to her disruptive decision to put actress Renée Zellweger on the cover of Vogue’s September 199

8 issue. It was the first time a professional model didn’t appear on what is still considered the most important issue of the editorial year in the industry.

The Everlasting Legacy of Supermodels

The reality is that they never really went away. This is also because the label lingered well into the 2000s, applied to faces and bodies like Eva Herzigova (the Wonderbra queen), Nadja Auermann (the longest legs in the business), Kristen McMenamy (the attitude), Amber Valletta (the only one who truly made a career as an actress as well), Stella Tennant (the aristocratic one, who died prematurely in 2020), Tyra Banks (the lingerie rebel), or Karolína Kurkova (the revelation from Eastern Europe). Most of them have continued to be seen intermittently, either on the catwalk or in ad campaigns. Some seem as if they never left, still regulars at fashion weeks. Whether strutting the runway or sitting in the front row, they have recently stormed Milan (Maggie Rizer at Etro, the ubiquitous Campbell at Dolce & Gabbana) and Paris (Valletta and Shalom Harlow at Schiaparelli, for example). It’s another symptom of the so-called nostalgia economy, well oiled by the current Y2K revision (the style of the early 2000s), but also evidence that age is no longer a problem in the business, at least not if you’re a model. At 43, Gisele Bündchen, the spearhead of the Brazilian takeover in the late nineties, made a sensational comeback via Louis Vuitton and Victoria’s Secret just a few months ago. Daria Werbowy, who turns 40 next month, is eagerly awaited as the face of Phoebe Philo and Gucci.

Conclusion

Spanish models were also part of this contingent: Judit Mascó, Laura Ponte, Esther Cañadas, Eugenia Silva, but here they were called top models, and although they had significant international careers, their popular impact has always been more localized. They don’t appear in Vanity Fair’s latest global cover celebrating the “mythology of beauty,” spanning from the sixties to the nineties. Even though historical predecessors like Twiggy, Penelope Tree, Elisabetta Dessy, Pat Cleveland, Lauren Hutton, and Iman are crowded alongside the usual suspects and a few more in a photo montage by Luigi & Iango that has stirred discussions on social media. Linda isn’t there either. But then, she has her own story.

Visibly recovered from the cosmetic procedure that disfigured her body and face a few years ago (not to mention the two breast cancers she had to face over the last five years), Evangelista is currently enjoying a much-celebrated comeback, as the face of the Zara x Steven Meisel collection—which took her to Arteixo just a week ago, where she shared experiences and lessons with Inditex employees—and starring in the monograph “Linda Evangelista Photographed by Steven Meisel,” recently published by Phaidon, which also brings her together with her longtime collaborator photographer on a journey through their long years of collaboration. The snapshots of her promotional tour are buzzing on social media, just like those that show her walking alongside Naomi, Cindy, and Christy at the Vogue World Party during London Fashion Week. It was what they needed: supermodels gone viral.

In essence, the story of supermodels is not just a tale of glamour and fame but also one of power, influence, and resilience. From their iconic status in the ’90s to their resurgence in the present day, these women have left an indelible mark on the fashion industry and popular culture as a whole. While their era may have come to an end, their legacy lives on, shaping the way we perceive beauty, success, and femininity. And as Linda Evangelista’s triumphant return demonstrates, age is no barrier to reclaiming one’s place in the spotlight.