22-Mar, 05:00

07:23, December 14 194 0

2017-12-14 07:23:04
Unbuttoned: The New Supermodelmania of 2017

One night last September, an event took place during Milan Fashion Week that reverberated far beyond the catwalks. It was the finale of the Versace show, a tribute by the creative director Donatella Versace to the work of her murdered brother, Gianni, the founder of the house, and it involved five of his favorite models of the early 1990s — Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Helena Christensen and Cindy Crawford — posed in a tableau from yesteryear, and then in full runway strut. People in the audience clutched their cellphones in an ecstasy of frenetic posting.

“Versace just won Fashion Month in its entirety,” HuffPost crowed, calling it an “epic reunion.”

It was “iconic,” The Fader wrote.

It was the definition of a fashion moment, and it isn’t over yet.

In late October, it inspired a variety of group Halloween costumes.

Last month, Stacy Igel, the founder and creative director of Boy Meets Girl, introduced her latest project: a collaboration with the famous 1990s model Veronica Webb entitled “Supermodel.”

And now Versace is unveiling its latest ad campaign (the one that goes with the Tribute collection), one-upping itself with a whistle-stop tour of famous faces though the generations, from Ms. Campbell to Christy Turlington, Gisele Bündchen, Natalia Vodianova, Gigi Hadid and Kaia Gerber, among many others. They were all photographed by Steven Meisel, whose collaboration with “the Trinity” (Linda Evangelista, Ms. Campbell and Ms. Turlington) lo those many moons ago pretty much defined the term “supermodel,” and who is returning to the Versace fold after more than a decade.

The photos, and the videos that go with them, will probably be greeted with the same nostalgic mayhem that met the Versace show finale. Supermodelmania, the 21st-century version, is reaching its apogee.

So perhaps it’s time to figure out where it came from, and what the word even means in 2017.

Ferdinando Verderi, the creative director of the Versace campaign, has an idea. “For us it was about making a family, but a family beyond DNA,” he said, referring both to the Versace family and the supermodel family. All the models had worked often with the brand in the past; Ms. Turlington had actually introduced Ms. Campbell to Gianni and Donatella; and Kaia is Ms. Crawford’s daughter. The self-selected family being a notably contemporary idea.

Even so, Ms. Versace was surprised, she said, by the “emotion and enthusiasm” that greeted the show finale. “It was a story that a new generation wanted to listen to,” she said.

“I think it’s about the 1990s,” said Ms. Webb, whose Boy Meets Girl line features images of her channeling the ’90s on black athleisure wear. The photos were taken by Sophie Elgort, daughter of the 1990s photographer Arthur Elgort, whom Ms. Webb remembered as a child running around her father’s Vogue shoots.

Certainly, since the Clinton campaign and the hope that once surrounded Hillary Clinton, the ’90s have been experiencing something of a revival, from the return of “Will & Grace” to the return of slip dresses, neon and Gucci — not to mention the Tonya Harding scandal, currently being dramatized in movie theaters everywhere.

“The ’90s was when the world was just on the cusp of the digital revolution, before mystery went out the window, and that had a real glamour,” Ms. Webb said. “If you look at a lot of the people today who are Insta-famous, their school was the 1990s.” And their teachers were the celebrities of the time — that is, the supermodels, a generation of mannequins who put a name and a personality to a face, and often built an empire out of charisma.

“They represented women with power and strong ideas,” Ms. Versace said. “They made their own rules.”

At a time when the question of power and gender imbalance is at the forefront of the cultural and political conversation, celebrating women who transcended the status of object to be not just our id, but also our ego, has resonance.

Especially because they were among the original content creators, imbuing clothing with a form of identity and lifestyle to which consumers of all ages could relate. “Now, with the crisis of content, and the decline of print, are you surprised we’re recycling?” said Michael Gross, the author of the 1995 book “Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women.”

But recycle a word enough and it becomes denatured. These days any model with any profile is a “supermodel” (especially to the tabloids), as if simply using the term will make it so. Ms. Campbell, perhaps the most representative of all the supermodels, shrugs. The word is “given out so freely now, I don’t really know what it means,” she said. “It represents some type of fame and false illusion.”

Ms. Webb said, “I think it really belongs to another era.”

Indeed, to look back over the history of the women who have been stuck with the label — to look at the Versace campaign — is to realize that not all supermodels are created equal, and there is a cycle that turns fairly regularly every five years with the crank of the social and cultural wheel.

By the mid-’90s, as Mr. Gross notes, there was something of a backlash against the original supermodels, who had become bigger than the clothes, born of the fashion co-option of grunge, oft worn by the group he termed “the wan blondes.” Come the late ’90s, there came Ms. Bündchen and the “powermodels”: the big-hair, big-contract names that chose mass appeal over elitism and reached fame and fortune via Victoria’s Secret.

Next, during the aughts, came Ms. Vodianova and the otherworldly models. And the decade after brought us Ms. Hadid and her peers, whom Ms. Webb called the “Insta-models.”

The women, said Ivan Bart, the president of IMG Models, who “were born with a device in their hand, and understood how the power of social media could elevate their voice, concerns, platforms, because they were living and breathing it.”

Which brings us back to the beginning, in a way, with Ms. Gerber, only 16, the effective end page of the Versace campaign and a scion of the generation that started it all. “I think she’s the start of a new wave that is more inclusive and multicultural,” Mr. Bart said. “She’s a transition.” But to what?

Mr. Bart favors “branded talent” — at least for the situation as it stands now. It’s a little more corporate than previous terms, but then, so is the world — and it’s also probably more accurate, reflecting the rise of the individual as brand, and modeling as a platform from which it can be extended.

Perhaps “superspawn”? An image that contains within itself both the seeds of our desire for what seems like a less chaotic time and an understanding of digital reality,

Either way, “supermodel” doesn’t really … well, fit, anymore.

So, perhaps as the year comes to a close, it is time to retire the term. Let the Versace campaign be its requiem. In 2018, for our own sakes as well as those of the workingwomen in question, we really ought to come up with a new word. Any ideas?