There's one thing missing from today's models - and it's why they'll never be super
Decades later, the original catwalk queens are still enjoying robust careers, but today's young models lack the attitude to make them true stars, writes Katie Byrne
The word iconic is overused, yet it's the only word that can describe the moment fashion designer Gianni Versace sent Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford down the runway to the soundtrack of George Michael's 'Freedom' in 1991.
The same song was playing when Campbell and Crawford reunited on the catwalk last month, alongside models Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni and Helena Christensen, to mark the 20th anniversary of the designer's death.
The word 'supermodel' has also become commonplace since it was originally bestowed upon the 10 women who took over the fashion industry in the early 90s, but as the recent Versace tribute proved, there will never be another generation like them.
Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Cindy Crawford's daughter Kaia Gerber are closing catwalk shows and fronting magazine covers, yet as tempting as it is to compare the old guard with the new - especially since Kaia joined the ranks - it's difficult to place them in the same category.
The new generation of models has, of course, won the genetic lottery, but beauty alone does not a supermodel make. The originals had attitude, the likes of which we haven't seen since.
Imagine a casting director being presented with the compelling faces of Linda, Helena, Naomi et al. They could have played femme fatales, James Bond villains and part-time assassins. Even the all-American Cindy had a certain 'Thelma & Louise' grit in the famous 1992 Pepsi commercial. Conversely, it would be difficult to cast Gigi, Kaia and Kendall as anything other than beautiful girls - girls being the operative word.
Kaia turned 16 last month. Her mother was a decade older than her when she marched down the Versace runway with Linda, Naomi and Christy. Older and wiser, the original supermodels had enough life experience to represent strength and conviction. The new breed has about as much personal power as a slumber party. Likewise, while 90s supermodels had attitude - both on and off the runway - the new generation are obsequiously #grateful.
"Isabel Marant, I am such a huge fan, thank you for letting me close your amazing show last night," wrote Hadid on her Instagram page after walking the runway for the French designer at Paris Fashion Week. Gerber, her friend and colleague, also reaches for the sickly-sweet platitudes. She sounded like a Miss World contestant when she said that her goal is to "work with even more amazing people and build lasting relationships". Sure, Gerber's words are #humble but they haven't got quite the same impact as Linda Evangelista famously intoning that she wouldn't "get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day".
Evangelista's remark portrayed the supermodels as a cohort of demanding divas, but it's important to remember the cultural context. While previous generations were beholden to the considerably older men who 'discovered' them, the supermodel generation came of age during the democratisation of the industry.
Jerry Hall was 'launched' by fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, who she lived with for two years. Marie Helvin was modeling before she met photographer David Bailey - who she later married - but her career only took off when he chose her for a Vogue magazine shoot.
Somalian model Iman was spotted by photographer Peter Beard, who later unveiled her at a press conference like a gemologist who had just discovered a rare stone. He told her to pretend not to be able to speak English - all the better for publicity. In truth, she was a political science student who spoke four languages.
While fashion models of the 70s and 80s had about as much autonomy as Warhol muses, the 90s models ushered in a paradigm shift. They were self-made women who entered model searches and walked into agencies without a man by their side to do the bidding.
The supermodel generation was also smart enough to leverage their earning power and flip the script. Photographers once took credit for launching the careers of fashion models, 90s supermodels dictated their own terms and launched the careers of photographers, stylists, hairdressers and make-up artists.
"They were more than a group of models - they were carrying a message and represented a lot of things at the same time," said fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh about their rise. "It was extraordinary."
The rebellious streak only added to the intrigue. The supermodels dated bona fide rock stars. Stephanie Seymour paired off with Axl Rose; Naomi Campbell got engaged to Adam Clayton; Helena Christensen dated Michael Hutchence. Hadid, on the other hand, is dating former One Direction singer Zayn Malik, which isn't quite so rock 'n' roll...
If you want to tell the difference between a high-profile model and a supermodel, compare George Michael's 1990 music video for 'Freedom', starring Linda, Naomi, Christy and Cindy, to Malik's video for 'Pillow Talk', which stars his girlfriend. The former is a celebration of female empowerment, the latter is a glorified perfume commercial. George Michael followed up 'Freedom' with 'Too Funky'. The video was another subversive supermodel fest but it was the peak just before the inevitable decline.
Victoria's Secret tried to recreate the magic of the supermodel generation by casting choruses of mesmerising, mononymous Angels. Unfortunately they confused charisma with sex appeal and, before long, the insouciant attitude of the supermodel generation had been replaced by hair extensions, arched backs and heart-shaped hand symbols, while a pair of fluffy white wings became enough to confer supermodel status.
Stephanie Seymour was one of the first models to wear the wings. Nonetheless, she believes we need a new term to describe this generation of models. "They are completely different than we were," she points out. "Supermodels are sort of the thing of the past. They deserve their own title. [Kendall and Gigi] are beautiful girls, and I support all of them, but they need their own title."
Elsewhere, former model Rebecca Romijn says we need to start differentiating between social media stars and supermodels. It's a valid point, especially now that modelling agencies consider a model's online following as a vital statistic. Marketeers are also quick to capitalise upon a model's potential to build a brand. Nobody is just a model these days - they are multi-hyphenates who have to head up a lifestyle blog and a fashion label to be culturally relevant. It's financially lucrative - not that these silver-spooned women need the money - but it fundamentally leads to overexposure.
Lindbergh put it best: "Those 10 faces were eventually corrupted by the beauty and fashion industries. They lost all of that freshness, all of the independence and simply became what the women in magazines had been before."