Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington in the Gianni Versace fashion show, 1991.
Photo: Maria Valentino/ MCV Photo
Once upon a time, let’s call it the ’90s, a handful of women ruled the world. They were called supermodels and you couldn’t swivel your head without colliding into an image of one or more of these bodacious babes. The supermodel industrial complex was some kind of powerful—billboards, magazine covers, cosmetics and fragrance campaigns—it seemed like this tight-knit clique and their logo-like faces dominated every inch of American and International advertising real estate. They made millions.
While it’s undisputed that these girls were successful, there’s heated debate surrounding what constitutes a supermodel. Does Beverly Johnson? What about Janice Dickinson? Gia Carangi? Jean Shrimpton? For us, we’re talking about the “It” girls of the decade— Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz and Helena Christensen. And even then the circle gets a bit elliptical, extending to include Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann, Eva Herzigova, Veronica Webb, Stephanie Seymour, Yasmeen Ghauri, Carla Bruni, and Yasmin Le Bon—depending on the occasion. Whatever permutation of names you ascribe to, one thing’s certain, the supermodel era was a fascinating, outrageous and wholly unique time that’s never been replicated since.
Honestly, I can’t remember a time when Cindy, Naomi, Linda, Christy, Claudia and Helena weren’t famous. Just as some of you are too young to remember just how big deal these girls were. But if you look at the very first House of Style that aired in the summer of 1989, you’ll notice two things. One, Cindy Crawford was beautiful. Two, Cindy Crawford was breathtakingly young. To wit: Cindy Crawford was not yet Cindy Crawford.
See, I’d thought the supermodels existed alongside the launch of the MTV fashion news show. Not so. Granted, their rapid ascension happened very near the beginning—within the first two years of the show’s life give or take—but when we first meet our lovely, green, earnest, Midwestern host, she wasn’t yet a pop culture icon.
So what was it that led to her rise? I’m not going to take this occasion to tout House of Style as the lone jetpack that propelled her to stratospheric heights because that would be plainly untrue but the show, compounded by Cindy’s unfettered access, serve as a fascinating viewpoint of the supermodel world and what made them so special at the time.
I realize that models exist. And that they’re as beautiful as ever.
Their limbs are long and lithe. Hair glossy, mouths pouty, eyes as glittery as you’d require from girls whose job is to be lovely. In fact, it seems there are more models. There has never been more diversity in terms of countries of origin and no shortage of empirically attractive women to bound down the thousands of miles of runway for the countless fashion weeks from the newer upstarts (Miami, Berlin, Australia) to the old guard of Paris, London, Milan and New York. Not only are there more fashion weeks, there are more shows and showcases in each. Hence, there are more girls.
It’s just that I’m not in love with any of them.
Especially the green 14-year-olds plucked from obscurity from some far-flung Eastern European hamlets or the hottest, newest, Asian faces. See, the modeling industry is a very different business. There are even “top” models. The ones whose Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts I’m familiar with like Karlie Kloss, Coco Rocha, Natasha Poly, and Lindsey Wixson but still, even with these added conduits for information and heightened intimacy, there aren’t those larger-than-life rainmakers who transcend fashion to become household names. And it’s because fashion is different.
Europe doesn’t dominate quite the way it used to. Neither do the Big American Designers. With diffusion lines, Project Runway, H&M, TopShop, Etsy and countless in-house collections, you don’t expressly look to the runway or magazine covers for what’s next. We have the internet, we don’t wait to be told what we like anymore. Without such a centralized knot of power, a pecking order can’t be dictated and enforced.
What and who is “in” and “out” is no longer decided by a select cabal of deal-makers. In several episodes, as we delve into the inner workings of the fashion industry in the early ’90s, it’s astonishing how straightforward the processes were. Agents, editors, photographers and designers anointed who was next. That was that.
In our documentary short on the story of House of Style, producer Chad Hines discusses the confluence of factors that made for the supermodel perfect storm—it was a January, 1990 Vogue cover shot by Peter Lindbergh with Naomi, Cindy, Christy, Linda, and Tatjana and their appearance in George Michael’s “Freedom! ‘90” video directed by David Fincher. Gianni Versace sent Naomi, Linda, Cindy and Christy down the runway blasting that very song with linked arms and something about that magical moment sealed the synergy.
Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Christy Turlington
It was the ultimate team-up, not only for those behind-the-scenes but the romance of the meta narrative that these freakishly attractive, impossibly dynamic women were friends. Alone they were devastating enough, together they were unstoppable. They comprised a supergroup—they were fashion’s Avengers. That voyeurism was everything. The ostentation and conspicuous consumption of ’80s style still resonated in mainstream fashion. Long before Naomi threw her first phone, we saw her in Chanel, Anna Sui, Versace and wondered what she did when she wasn’t hanging out with rock-stars.
House of Style had the answers. We were invited into her hotel room in Milan at 2 AM to watch her scrub her face in a massive tie-dyed sleeping tee and applying zit cream and it blew our minds. Sound the alarms! Naomi Campbell without makeup. As Linda coolly told Vogue that she didn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 and as Christy landed a multi-million dollar Revlon contract, we watched them apply their own makeup, run around frantically backstage, crack jokes, pack their own bags, play dress up and confess of the back-breaking fatigue that accompanied every fashion week. And they did all of these things without artifice. Some of them didn’t even have their hair done at the time.
We could not stop watching. Cindy was seen by about 80 million in a Super Bowl Pepsi ad but we got to witness her in confessional mode talking about how grueling the shooting schedule was for those spots and how challenging the director, Joe Pytka, was for his reputed lack of respect for models. We saw her change because a dress was considered too sexy but we also saw her make a goofy face at our cameras because she saw the ridiculousness of her predicament.
We followed Linda Evangelista around Paris as she divulged how self-conscious she felt growing up in Ontario, wanting so desperately to model but not possessing the all-American traits like the “wheat colored hair” and “blue eyes” that were so admired at the time. We met Helena Christensen just after her collaboration with Chris Isaak for "Wicked Game” and shrug while she announced that she spoke 5 languages. We went on countless locations with Cindy—Monte Carlo with Helmut Newton, Grand Cayman, Hawaii and Mexico while she shot her iconic calendar. Where Cindy went, we went.
Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Lauren Hutton, Beverly Johnson, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell
The moment that signaled the culmination of the supermodel movement and the height of our fascination was episode 24, “The Supermodel Roundtable,” where Cindy, Linda, Christy, Naomi, Lauren Hutton and Beverly Johnson discussed everything we ever wanted to know about what it was like to be them. From dysfunctional relationships with food to nervous breakdowns in Paris and the wretched loneliness of traveling to the most glamorous destinations all by yourself, we heard it all.
At one point, Cindy talks about how she becomes engrossed in figuring out just how much money she’s making per minute to pass the time and Naomi talks about how she was felt up by a particularly handsy client. We were transfixed. This predated reality television and this one-hour-special was the mother of all reunion episodes of all the real life events that we’d shared with them. Karl Lagerfeld called them goddesses of the silent screen and he was right. Just as the girls were right in discussing how aware they were of the fickleness of the industry and how different the new girls looked. How they were all so skinny and blank. They could feel it—it was the beginning of grunge and the end of the supermodel.
Kate Moss signaled the final act. She is the demarcation. She counts as a supermodel, at least she does to me, but she also broke the mold.
Since Kate Moss there has never again been another. Granted, we were ready for something new. Something more insular, more quietly enraged, uglypretty, looks that involved cardigans, unkempt infantilized dresses and ripped up pantyhose. We were ready for Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis and his skinny eyebrows, slouchy silhouettes and pallor because a fatigue set in for models who became so much larger than life that they overshadowed the clothes and the designers behind them.
Elle MacPherson, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell at the opening of The Fashion Cafe.
The fame became a distraction. Most of us agree when Naomi Campbell, Elle MacPherson, Christy Turlington, and Claudia Schiffer’s Fashion Café in New York’s Rockefeller Center was shuttered in 1998, the shark was jumped. One-by-one, the girls fell out of favor, news of infighting tarnished the folklore and when they could no longer join forces, they could no longer summon the mythic powers that made them great.
Fashion is designed to change. It is defined by seasons and plans for obsolescence. But for as frequently trends are revived and evolve each time they’re re-introduced, lately we seem extra nostalgic for our love affair with this band of extraordinary women. Thirty years after her Guess campaign with Ellen Von Unwerth, Claudia Schiffer shot another campaign that vividly mirrors her first. Cindy Crawford’s face can be seen all over Los Angeles for the Herb Ritts retrospective and Naomi Campbell has a new television show. Sure, there is no such thing as a new supermodel but who needs them? We’ve still got the real deal.
Watch footage from House Of Style that didn't make it into the show.
+ CINDY CRAWFORD'S FIRST INTERVIEW