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90s Supermodels – Can We Ever Move On?

Kate Moss billboard on a corner in New York City
Picture of Kate Moss billboard on a corner in New York City. Taken by Karl O'Leary, November 2006.

Staff Writer Zahra Ahmed questions nostalgia-ridden fashion trends and their potential to inspire new generations as 90s supermodels used to.

When Kate Moss first began modelling, she was only fourteen. Scrawny with huge doe eyes, mousy-brown thin hair surrounding her 5’7 frame – at the time it was almost inconceivable to imagine this skittish, rather unremarkable figure could change the fashion industry to such a degree. She was a complete 180 to the 80s ‘Glamazon’ era which saw the likes of Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer dominate (known as the “Big Five”). 

Moss not only pioneered but was the face of this new era of fashion throughout which, in conjunction with Miuccia Prada, apathy and thinness were in! I don’t bring this up to critique the nature of bodies and how they have been treated in the years since, many people have discussed this in more eloquent ways, but rather to emphasise the power of Kate Moss’ presence during this era. She redefined an already established modelling canon set by the original five with just her mere presence.

And after a whirlwind of a career rife with drug and sex scandals, akin to a rockstar, Kate Moss has now finally made an anti-climatic return as Saint Laurent’s new ambassador. Shot by Gray Sorrenti, (fitting as she is the daughter of Mario Sorrenti – Kate Moss’ first high-profile lover), it is a testament not only to the fact that nostalgia has a strong hold on the fashion industry but also to the fact that it has become increasingly monopolised.

And it is not just Moss along with her predecessors. It seems like the ‘canonical models’ are attempting to make a comeback. Despite embodying distinct modeling eras, their influence is waning, leading to lackluster campaigns.

Even when the Big 4 graced the cover of Vogue’s September issue once again, it should have been another monumental and historical event in the fashion industry as was the original supermodel cover. Yet it appears lacklustre and uninspired. For women that defined glamour and stardom, during a time when supermodels had superseded actors as household names, now we can’t help but see this Vogue cover for what it is – an attempt to play on the older generation’s feelings of nostalgia (for a time when stars were unapologetically messy, yet glamorous and full of personality) whilst simultaneously playing on Generation Z’s FOMO of having been born too late to experience their allure. And I expect the upcoming supermodels documentary will only exacerbate these sentiments.

We’re a people starved of glitz, drama, scandal, of brands and people defining whole generations.

Victoria’s Secret also used to be a force to be reckoned with. Circa 2010 they had girls everywhere glued to their TVs waiting for the annual VS Angels fashion show, flooding the stores for the latest in the Pink collection. Not to mention they featured the biggest names and the most beautiful women. They were revered.

Therefore, it’s hard to imagine how far from grace they have fallen – they really are fallen angels. The new ‘Icon Collection’, although aptly named and featuring many iconic, still beautiful women, has barely made a dent in the public consciousness. Fashion fans online call it out for the boring lingerie and criticising the brand’s move away from their alleged ‘rebrand which was supposed to feature more inclusive and fresh faces. Instead, they’ve returned to their tried and tested models.

Gisele Bündchen and Adriana Lima, in particular – the  Brazilian bombshells of their time, both mothers who have kept out of the spotlight for a number of years, are now gracing our covers and starring in campaigns once again. On the one hand, in a world that is obsessed with capturing youth, it is refreshing to see older women be glamorised in such a public way. Yet it’s hard to imagine how any other ordinary older woman could ever be received in the same way because this move was never about going against the tide and celebrating ageing.

Like many other brands, in the wake of social media – in an era where we are being bombarded with thousands of beautiful faces every day and we rally for diversity from the very brands that have defined the culture (as we should), Victoria’s Secret’s branding has become confused and contradictory. Rather too late, they decided to commit to a major brand overhaul instead of organically moving with the times. We see the effects of these brand decisions reflected not only in the campaigns but in the clothes themselves.

This leaves audiences bored — and hungry, starved of authenticity, of real glitz and glam.

“Bring back 90s models”, “Models aren’t modelling like they used to – TikTok is obsessed with comparing the new generation of models to the old. And the consensus is — there is no comparison. As the audience, we allow the supermodels of the past to monopolise the industry because we are obsessed with nostalgia and want to constantly re-live the same feelings the wildest eras of supermodelling gave us. Of course, the originals have set a standard that is hard to reach, but what do we gain from constantly looking back on modelling in the 90s and holding them to this impossible standard?

Modelling is not the only industry to suffer from this abrupt switch in pop culture. In the new age of the internet, every aspect of culture is inspected and critiqued to an insane degree and subject to the opinions of thousands of people. That changes how audiences interact with many industries such as film, TV and music, even though those are cultural critiques in their own right.

The old models have also quite literally birthed the new generation. With Lila Moss and Kaia Gerber opening shows and featuring in some of the biggest brands of today, their presence has opened the floodgates to talks of nepotism and essentially the inheritance of their profession. Despite not fully stepping into the spotlight in decades, it’s hard to imagine that the ever-present originals do not pull the strings at least a little bit and still dictate the fashion sphere. 

Rather than being plucked at JFK airport, caught smoking, awaiting a flight home, the new supermodels spend years being groomed for the position by their equally high-profile families; although they are just as beautiful and talented, we can’t help but feel their presence is much more sanitised.

No longer shall we see a supermodel so flagrantly do drugs, party with rockstars or be photographed smoking cigarettes out of a window. Whether this is a good thing or not, with regard to the mental health and self-esteem of the new generation of young girls looking up to their idols, I cannot say. And this is also not the point.

What is obvious, however, is that we long for moments like these again. We crave to once again be able to look up to these beautiful, tortured starlets and have something to talk about, to revere them – not because we want to be them but because we can never be them.

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