Why 1990s supermodels are still household names, and still working

A handout photo. Helena Christensen (above in an advert for Coco de Mer) and other supermodels from the 1980s and 1990s such as Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, are still working because they appeal to wealthy women in midlife like them.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Fashion is no stranger to recycling past hits. But when it comes to people, youth traditionally trumps age in an industry that deifies the new.

This is particularly true in the world of modelling, where women were once deemed past it at 25 - and, until regulation against it came in, brands were regularly working with girls as young as 14.

And yet one look at the most recent fashion shows proves that the cohort of 1980s and '90s supermodels not only still have it, but are undeniably leading the pack 30 years on. In Milan and Paris this season, Kate Moss, 48, and Naomi Campbell, 52, opened and closed some of the biggest shows of the month.

Meanwhile, Helena Christensen, 53, is fronting an underwear campaign for Coco de Mer; Claudia Schiffer, 52, designed a collection for Frame; Linda Evangelista, 57, was on a recent cover of British Vogue; and Christy Turlington, 53, has been the face of Calvin Klein fragrance Eternity since she was a 19-year-old breakout talent in 1988.

Claudia Schiffer wearing Chanel in 2009. 
PHOTO: Reuters

Of course, these women are undeniably gorgeous and deserving of as much acclaim now as they received 30 years ago - but what is surprising is that no 20-something models currently seem able to touch them in terms of status, celebrity and sheer glamour.

In 2022, it is very rare for a model to be known enough to be referred to by their first name alone. In the 1980s, models were some of the most famous people in the world - they wouldn't get out of bed for less than US$10,000 (S$13,757) and their perfect faces gazed down on us from news-stands and hoardings like Greek gods surveying the mortals.

With hindsight, we can see that this was a very specific moment in time. Glamour was everything and models and designers encapsulated a fast-paced, high-status industry that so many people wanted to be part of. Those who were successful in fashion were admired not only by their peers but across wider Western culture.

At some point around the millennium, however, this cachet shifted and it was actors, singers and even reality television stars who started appearing on fashion magazine covers.

With the rise of internet culture, brands realised that the people who actually sold clothes were the influencers who were very famous to those who followed them, but unrecognisable to those who didn't.

Vittoria Ceretti is a model and influencer, famous among her generation but unknown outside it.
PHOTO: Instagram/vittoria

Notably, the only young models today who are household names are the Hadid sisters and Kendall Jenner - all of whom have links to reality TV and possess a vast social media following.

Then there are cool girls like Vittoria Ceretti or Mica Arganaraz, who are admired by the younger generation but largely unknown by everyone else.

So why this continued obsession with a cohort of women in their 50s?

Perhaps they represent the industry at its zenith, before culture fractured and fast fashion turned us all into throwaway consumers with less reverence for big-name designers. Fashion today is far more accessible, but it is also no longer the height of popular culture.

The original supermodels represent fashion at its most powerful - and brands want to use these women to sell their wares because they create an aura of grown-up glamour that they can't recreate as easily with younger models.

"Helena has been a customer of Coco de Mer for years, which was always such a compliment," says Lucy Litwak, the CEO of Coco de Mer. "But she is also the perfect muse for our campaign.

"There's something so modern about her: she's one of the original supermodels, she is an accomplished photographer, she is a global UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] ambassador and she owns her own swimwear business.

Naomi Campbell presents a creation by designer Anthony Vaccarello as part of his Spring/Summer 2020 women's ready-to-wear collection show for fashion house Saint Laurent during Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, on Sept 24, 2019. 
PHOTO: Reuters

"And I love that the campaign is being fronted by a woman in her 50s - she is living proof that sensuality is ageless."

This strategy also makes financial sense. According to recently released figures from Euromonitor, 50- to 60-year-olds spend nearly four times as much as twentysomethings do on fashion.

Research by the International Longevity Centre (ILC) has backed this up, and shows the power of the "silver dollar".

Fashion is certainly no longer for the young, and while the clothes being created are still often cut for younger bodies, the fact they're being advertised on midlife women makes them feel accessible to everyone - even if the midlife women in question possess goddess-like beauty.

ALSO READ: Kate Moss ran away from a modelling job at 15 when she was told to take her bra off

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.