Alice Keegan retraces the good, the bad and the ugly surrounding the mythical figures of nineties supermodels.
In this era of Instagram models and ‘nepo babies', the 'golden age' of the nineties remains influential, with the media-dubbed ‘Big Five’ posing as objects of captivation for over three decades. The dawn of the supermodel era truly arrived in January 1990 when Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patiz and Cindy Crawford all graced the now mythic cover of British Vogue. Photographed by Peter Lindbergh, they appeared like deities amongst mortals and in doing so, cemented themselves as the coveted elite. In another defining moment, they stood together at the 1991 Versace Spring fashion show in Milan. This exclusive club would allow only a few more members in, including Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss. And just like that .. the ‘Big Five’ became the ‘Big Six’. Overnight, each model becomes instantly recognisable. They dominated the fashion landscape and were the first of their kind to make the transition to international celebrity.
But has their dominion in fashion stood the test of time?
These covergirls were coveted by high profile designers, and big fashion houses alike. Gianni Versace and Azzedine Alaïa notably made Naomi Campbell their muse (she would call the latter “Papa”. Certain models became synonymous with brands following campaigns such as Kate Moss and Calvin Klein in 1992, as well as larger corporations such as Cindy Crawford and Pepsi Cola. Rather than blank canvases, these women were ambassadors, becoming the faces of cosmetic brands, perfumes, lines of lingerie and even appearing in George Michael’s iconic music video for ‘Freedom 90.’ Together, these models, designers and editors collectively disrupted the couture industry.
The models themselves shifted beauty standards. Following on from the loud excess of the 1980s, gone were the days of neon prints, bright eyeshadow and excessive frills: photographers such as Lindbergh presented a new vision of what the ‘ideal woman’ should look like. They wore bold yet fresh makeup with voluminous blowouts and were led by artists such as Bobbi Brown and Pat McGrath. Balancing authenticity and glamour was the game, appearing effortlessly cool was the goal.
Photographers like Peter Lindbergh introduced a new vision of what the ‘ideal woman’ should look like. They wore bold though fresh makeup with voluminous blowouts and were painted by the skilled hands of makeup artists such as Bobbi Brown and Pat McGrath. Balancing authenticity and glamour was the game, appearing effortlessly cool was the goal.
Although household names like Twiggy and Jerry Hall had already taken the industry by storm, this new phenomenon of the supermodel was unparalleled. These women became archetypes and their exploits on the runways of New York, Paris, and Milan made headlines.
This nuclear group was constantly photographed partying, drinking, and smoking in the most elite locations. They quickly became tabloid fixtures and gained reputations for diva behaviour and bad attitudes. It seems that faced with the uncertainty of a new millennium looming, the public had a renewed appetite for escapism in fashion, and the models provided plenty of drama.
But can we say that their taste of fame, scandal and excess is empowering ?
Naomi Campbell as the first black model to appear on the front of Time, British Vogue, and the illustrious September issue of American Vogue made history. Similarly, Tyra Banks was the first African-American woman to cover both GQ and the coveted Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Despite these significant strides, the lack of diversity in the industry was undeniable. And it is this notable lack of diversity that cemented the cultish nature of the couture industry.
Despite these significant strides, the lack of diversity in the industry was undeniable. And it is this notable lack of diversity that cemented the cultish nature of the couture industry.
As these women became more recognisable than the brands they were associated with, designers, photographers, and journalists were less than impressed with the models’ alleged sense of entitlement. Longtime Steven Meisel muse, Linda Evangelista infamously claimed, “we don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day” – a comment which caused uproar at the time of its release. The class of models she belonged to was typecast into tropes and sensationalised by the media into “divas”, “bitches” and “drama queens”. The fashion industry experienced a shift when an increasing number of high-flying executives eventually grew tired of the models’ behaviour and demands, and began to prefer professional actresses and singers to grace their covers. The models were slowly stripped of their monopoly.
These commanding presence these women had on our culture tended to overshadow the many dark aspects of their era (ramping disordered eating, unsafe working conditions and unfair pay) and allowed them to lead fashion into a new era.
Beautiful, cosmopolitan, but blessed and plagued with notoriety, these women were the original influencers. The fashion world and our own remains enamoured with this generation of supermodels and publications and designers alike are constantly striving for younger models to reach their levels of stardom. Earlier this summer, Apple TV+ announced it is releasing a new documentary series titled ‘The Super Models’. The docuseries, helmed by Academy-Award director Barbara Kopple will chart the meteoric rise of these models while capitalising on the nostalgia that still exists for this period in fashion history. These commanding presence these women had on our culture tended to overshadow the many dark aspects of their era (ramping disordered eating, unsafe working conditions and unfair pay) and allowed them to lead fashion into a new era. Their cultural imprint was and remains significant and not allowed public fascination about them to falter.