When supermodel Linda Evangelista closed the Fendi show last month during New York Fashion Week, the crowd went wild.
But she wasn’t the only ’90s supermodel in attendance that night. Christy Turlington, Amber Valletta, Kate Moss and Shalom Harlow all sat front-row at the A-list extravaganza.
Their presence marked a bigger culture shift. In an era of diversity and inclusion, many brands are going back to, not just pre-pandemic times, but pre new millennium, seeking out models — who both came of age during and rocketed to stardom in the ’90s and 2000s — to display their wears. It’s no secret that they’ve aged. And in a culture that is notoriously hard on women for aging, many of these models have even come out of retirement (at the ripe old age of 40 or 50-something — though some are nearly 80) to grace catwalks, magazine covers and ad campaigns.
“[It’s] sort of debunking ageism, which definitely has been something that has been part of fashion past; the embrace of youth,” Catherine Sadler, a brand expert and chief executive officer and executive creative director of brand strategy firm Sadler + Brand, told WWD.
But are these fashion brands fully embracing diversity? By using iconic supermodels in their marketing campaigns, designers and brands seemed to have found a loophole. They’re able to use (for the most part) naturally skinny and majority white models, just slightly older. In doing so, brands are tackling one aspect of diversity — ageism — but are often leaving out other forms of diversity, such as displaying different shapes and sizes, physical abilities and ethnic backgrounds.
“On the one hand, you could argue that the resurgence is a kind of triumph over the fashion industry’s age-old embrace of youth. And it’s a welcome celebration of a particular form of diversity,” Sadler, a brand expert, said. “Certainly, it’s wonderful to celebrate the fact that these women have aged and they have life experiences. It’s on the surface an embrace of a particular type of diversity, i.e. ageism.
“But it’s hard not to question whether the redux of these fashion icons is actually showcasing a more enlightened worldview, or whether it’s a token nod to it, which actually perpetuates archaic views of beauty,” Sadler continued. “Today we talk about diversity in broad, deep terms; we talk about the uniqueness and beauty of individuals at all sizes, ages, ethnicities, in our own unique, individual person experiences. And yet, we’re seeing Linda all covered up [on the runway] and simultaneously, we know of her personal trauma via CoolSculpting. And we’re seeing supermodels on the runway are majority white and thin, whatever their actual age. To me, it’s a double-edged sword. Frankly, I think it’s a troubling symptom of a world of fashion that hasn’t fully embraced the need to move to a new standard of beauty and style.”
Still, there are benefits that stem from the return of these models who are outside the typical age range so coveted by the fashion industry. For one, consumers, including older women, can see themselves in advertisements and even on high-fashion runways in ways that deem them still desirable. It’s difficult to forget when, just a few years ago, former British Vogue editor in chief Alexandra Shulman publicly shamed ’90s supermodel Helena Christensen for her outfit at Gigi Hadid’s birthday party, telling her in effect — and all women past a certain number of years — to dress their age. Would anyone dare do the same now? The backlash from social media and consumers alike caused retailers from Victoria’s Secret and Valentino to rethink their marketing strategies.
Whether it’s a sign that the fashion industry is welcoming a greater variety of women or not, the shift in cover girls is not entirely unexpected. Fashion follows the trends, after all, and ’90s and Y2K styles are definitely hot right now, especially among Gen Z-ers and even younger consumers. Many of the models showcased in this new crop of imagery were in their prime when the original ’90s and early Aughts looks first appeared, making them a fitting segue into the styles.
In the lingerie world — where it is perhaps the most difficult to hide flaws behind the product — brands are happily embracing older models. Kim Kardashian’s Skims, Cuup and Coco de Mer are just some of the brands flaunting these iconic models.
Kate Moss has modeled for Skims, in addition to former Victoria’s Secret Angels Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks in previous campaigns. Most recently, Skims tapped Brooke Shields, Juliette Lewis and Chelsea Handler to model its new underwire bras. Shields — who at 57 has been outspoken about ageism, even launching her own digital platform for women over 40, “Beginning is Now” — previously posted photos of herself in Aerie swimwear on Instagram, which the brand said organically helped drive sales. Comedian Handler, while not a traditional model, previously partnered with innerwear and activewear brand ThirdLove in her late forties, although the deal later went sour.
At 53, Jennifer Lopez recently signed as a brand ambassador for Italian innerwear and lingerie brand Intimissimi. While not a supermodel, Lopez was certainly relevant in ’90s fashion. Digital lingerie start-up Cuup hired ’70s “It”-girl Lauren Hutton at 78 to lead its latest campaign.
“We were completely honored to have the opportunity to work with Lauren Hutton,” said Pascale Gueracague, chief design officer at Cuup. “She has been a long-standing Cuup brand muse and source of inspiration for her style, modernity, beauty, effortlessly chic sensibility and strength as a woman. She powerfully embodies the alchemy of our unique brand story and transcends age in a way that our community, brand culture and customers resonate with. It was a dream to bring this icon into the fold and a major milestone for Cuup, as we build on our mission to change the way you look and feel in your underwear.”
Christensen, meanwhile, has returned for the second year in a row to front British-based luxury lingerie brand Coco de Mer’s campaign, this time titled the “Icons Collection.”
“She is a perfect embodiment of the Coco de Mer woman,” Lucy Litwack, owner and chief executive officer of the business, said regarding Christensen.
More or Less — a fashion magazine upstart, founded by former British Vogue creative director Jaime Perlman — recently put a handful of early Aughts supermodels (and former Angels) on the cover of issue number six in lingerie by upcycled French brand Kezako. The models include Alessandra Ambrosio, Candice Swanepoel, Sara Sampaio, Elsa Hosk and Lais Ribeiro, in a shoot that looks strikingly similar to a pre-pandemic Victoria’s Secret’s campaign. Two of the nine models are non-white; one is fair-skinned Latine, all are long-legged and slender.
“We assembled an all-star cast of Earth Angels,” the magazine wrote on its Instagram page.
In an era of uncertainty, seeing familiar faces can also be comforting — and a proven business model for companies. Nineties supermodels have demonstrated that they can push product. Many are still household names nearly three decades after their reign. They were, in some sense, the original influencers.
“The supermodels of the ’90s are brands unto themselves, with huge reach and huge brand awareness and in a way, celebrity status. These were fashion icons, no question,” Sadler said. “They’re leveraging their fame and their brand awareness and embracing their age in a show of an enlightened embrace of diversity. But at the same time, it’s an embrace of a particular form of diversity. I don’t think it goes far enough. It feels time to relegate these archaic images of beauty to fashion history books.”