My first meeting with a flesh and blood supermodel was in 1992. I was at a party hosted by American Vogue editor Anna Wintour to introduce me to the Parisian fashion world as the new British Vogue editor.
The party took place in one of Paris’s most opulent venues, with a beautiful room opening on to gardens, and was filled with the great and good of that milieu.
Anna and I stood in a receiving line to greet the guests who, along with the big designers of the time including Karl Lagerfeld, Sonia Rykiel and Emanuel Ungaro, included a smattering of the world’s top models.
The British designer Antony Price had made me a dress for the occasion in a deep red velvet — the first I ever had created specifically for me. He was known for his sexy, souped up aesthetic and my off-the-shoulder gown gave me an hourglass figure which I accessorised with huge drop earrings.
At some point, I was introduced to Linda Evangelista, who I dimly remember being in mini-skirted Chanel and who absolutely towered over me as we posed for the cameras. She simply couldn’t have been more friendly, but, standing alongside this fabulous creature, with her long, lithe physique and mega-watt smile, and despite the fact it was a party held in my honour, I couldn’t help but feel diminished in every way.
Those girls were almost too perfect to be human. Which is probably why, defying the fashion world’s notorious ageism, they are still a phenomenon in their 50s.
Last week, they appeared on stage at Vogue World and, today, a new documentary series launches on Apple TV celebrating their extraordinary lives.
When I arrived at Vogue the supermodels were hugely powerful. Linda, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and the sadly now late Tatjana Patitz — a quintet that was immortalised on the famous Peter Lindbergh British Vogue cover in January 1990 — were in demand for every ad campaign and fashion show.
Every photographer (and magazine they agreed to work with) wanted them for covers and fashion shoots. The competition for their time and faces was immense — and their agents commanded fortunes for their appearance.
Linda’s famous remark that they didn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day was an overstatement, but demonstrated that they knew they were worth it. (Interestingly, Vogue paid them the same £75 a day that all models received.)
Fame accrues fame and the more feted they were, the more they were anointed with goddess-like powers. They were beautiful and photogenic as individuals, but it was the collective that fascinated — they were not just successful models but supermodels.
Magazine covers are a curious mix of talent, work, planning and fate but, in 1992, it was thought that if you could get one of these girls on the cover, you were more than half way there.
It wasn’t simple, of course. They would only work with certain editors, certain magazines and certain photographers — and the photographers would only work with certain magazines, fashion editors and hair and make-up teams.
The first Linda cover of my time was in September that year and remains one of my favourites of my 25-year tenure. It was shot in a Clerkenwell garage by Lindbergh and styled by the then freelance fashion editor, Lucinda Chambers, who went on to become Vogue’s fashion director for many years.
It was entirely different to the previous Linda covers for Vogue, where she was always in full glamazon mode.
Lucinda styled her as a boyish taxi driver, kitted out in a £40 waistcoat from High Street brand Principles and painted-on tattoos.
‘I phoned Linda to tell her the story and said the inside of her cab had to be authentic, so she brought along photographs of her family and other mementoes that we hung inside,’ remembers Lucinda. ‘That was the brilliance of her. She so wanted the best picture.’
It was the first of my covers shot by Lindbergh, one of the two star photographers — the other being Patrick Demarchelier, favoured by my predecessor Liz Tilberis. They were both incredibly talented and the models adored them. I remember being faced with the enormous budget for the shoot, which involved flying in Lindbergh’s specific choice of hair and make-up team from New York at vast expense.
I was confounded by the idea that there couldn’t be another hairstylist and make-up artist in the whole of London able to do the job, but I was informed that what Peter wanted, Peter got, particularly since he was being wooed by Tilberis to join her new team at U.S. Harper’s Bazaar, which would prevent him working for Vogue.
Fortunately my next supermodel, Christy Turlington, was available for my first December issue, traditionally a celebratory issue in the Vogue calendar and often more celebrity and less fashion driven.
This time we tore up the rule book and the cover was a full-length image of Christy, in a crimson Westwood shirt and Versace leather jeans, with U2’s Bono. There had only been one previous male on the cover (oddly, Manolo Blahnik with Anjelica Huston in the 1970s), but mixing the allure of the supermodel with the popularity of U2 on their massive Zoo world tour was particularly exciting to me.
The group working on it were not the usual Vogue team but a young stylist, Camilla Nickerson, and photographer Andrew Macpherson, who were more usually used in portraiture. The cover and inside story — where our writer followed the band — was dynamite.
Bono was clearly delighted to be vamping it up with one of the most beautiful models of the time and Christy felt similarly about this famous rock star. It was rare that a cover arrived looking exactly as I had hoped, but this was it.
It was a very different cover from her subsequent one, the next September, photographed by Mario Testino alongside fashion editor Jayne Pickering, who remembers a raucous shoot at Stanway House, the gothic seat of the Neidpath family in Gloucestershire.
The final pictures showed a very traditional vision of posh British country life complete with a lot of tweed and tartans. Yet Jayne remembers: ‘On the night after the first shoot day, everyone apart from Mario, myself and the make-up artist went to the pub and got home very late. They found some chains to drag around the house to try and scare us. Christy had had a fair bit to drink too, but was up and running completely normally the next day.
‘I got teased by a journalist who was there from the Observer when I asked for the sheep to be washed as they were dirty. And Mario wanted to bring a horse into the main house but we couldn’t get it up the steps!’
Although the models were a famous group, each had individual characteristics that they brought to the shoots. Christy was in some ways the most conventionally beautiful with a calm, easy allure, and over the next 25 years she worked with us frequently — even up to 2016 when she was the cover star for our annual Ageless Style issue.
Early on she embraced the idea of wellness and yoga and quietly shifted the emphasis of her personality away from the extravagance of supermodel life into this new arena. Cindy, whose covers regularly sold the most, always had that girl-next-door-of-your-dreams aura, while Naomi had this unbelievable body, shimmering glossy skin and a big dollop of attitude.
The huge success of Linda Evangelista was arguably the least predictable, but she was funny and sharp and determined to succeed. Hair stylist Sam McKnight, who worked with all the ‘girls’ as they were known, and was part of the team that created many early Linda covers that established her super-ness, says: ‘Linda didn’t have the most beautiful face or the best body, but she knew how to sell, how to put it on to the page.
‘People could be intimidated by Linda who, in some ways, was ahead of her time having strong opinions,’ remembers Sam. ‘She’d say, “Why am I always given the cheap clothes?” but it was because she could make everything look like Chanel. Linda worked hard and would keep shooting until we had the picture.
‘She understood the commerce of the business when she shot covers and would say, “You gotta look right at the camera and make people part with that money”.’
One of Linda’s Vogue covers has her in a Cartier necklace worth more than £400,000, her hair artfully tousled by Sam, wearing that smile she knew would sell.
During the 1990s, the tide in fashion turned first towards the short-lived grunge aesthetic, then to a new flashy logo-laden glamour driven in part by the success of Tom Ford’s Gucci.
For November 1993, Linda posed for Nick Knight who, along with Mario Testino and Tim Walker, became a key photographer of my years editing the magazine. He used the old 1970s ring flash technique to add a brilliant glitz. The cover line was Glamour Is Back (it turned out shoppers and magazine buyers weren’t wild about the downbeat grunge movement) and the story inside was called Transition Vamp, which demanded the kind of sophisticated sexuality and brio that Linda was able to bring.
However, while the supers were still in demand, there were new girls on the block — primarily Kate Moss, and others like Shalom Harlow and Amber Valletta.
Then a battalion of Brazilian stars such as Gisele Bundchen appeared on the scene, too.
In fact, the supermodels had become so in demand, and so expensive, their agents so controlling, that at Vogue and among the designers, there was a concerted attempt to use different faces.
In Britain, we adopted these new
models but also started to shoot young actresses such as Uma Thurman, Winona Ryder and Julia Roberts.
In the U.S., they almost entirely moved over to film stars.
Naomi Campbell, though, remained a regular in British Vogue’s pages and on its covers. She was the only Brit of the supermodel band and I wanted to support our homegrown talent.
She had, through her often controversial behaviour, become a notorious celebrity, somebody that people were interested in, which made her valuable as a cover star.
In 2002, I was waiting to interview Naomi in a suite at the George V Hotel in Paris. That was nothing new. ‘Naomi is washing her hair’, ‘Naomi saw the wrong time on the call sheet’, ‘It takes a long time to get Naomi out in the morning’ were just a few of the litany of excuses I was given by her long-suffering entourage as I waited.
Naomi had just taken the Daily Mirror to court over an invasion of privacy for a photograph of her leaving Narcotics Anonymous. She had won the case but a judge had decreed she had lied under oath about drug use.
In response to this, we had decided to do a deliberately down-played cover and slightly deglam her, using photographer Corinne Day who had a famously naturalistic style.
Something like six hours late, the shoot began. The image we used of Naomi seated on a radiator with a blunt fringe and Gucci jeans was nothing like as gorgeous as some of the inside shoot.
The next Naomi cover, published in September 2001, was of her and Diddy, following the Bono and Christy triumph and, the previous year, a hugely successful double act of Robbie Williams and Gisele Bundchen.
Rock stars and models seemed to be a win-win mix. Naomi was wearing a colourful scrap of handpainted Dior and Diddy a pinstriped bespoke Kilgour, French and Stanbury suit. It was terrific — as was the story inside.
About three weeks after it went on sale, I was in the monthly circulation meeting where the cover’s performances were reviewed.
There were glum faces around the table, which included the company’s leading executive team. The issue was selling badly, they said. They could, they all said, have known it wouldn’t work to have two black celebrities on it.
I was shocked by their comments.
Hadn’t anyone, I asked, noticed that only a few weeks back two planes had flown into the Twin Towers in New York killing thousands of people? There was talk of war. The appetite for glossy magazines was hardly at a peak.
Indeed, Naomi has had one of the most successful and enduring careers of the all the supers. At 53, she’s as in demand as ever — on the catwalk, on covers and fronting campaigns.
The role of covers has changed hugely in the past five years and no longer do they have the same role as they did. Fewer people are drawn to buy them on a crowded newsstand. Print sales are in decline.
I always thought of them as a bit like a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes packet — clearly recognisable and easy to see. The general Vogue buyer (and this was backed by sales figures) liked quite simple images, a recognisable face, nothing too busy or tricksy — like the 2002 Union Jack cover I did when our troops went into Afghanistan.
Our readers were a broad bunch, but if you could generalise it was that they really liked the model to appear beautiful, happy and like something that they might in their very wildest dreams look like themselves.
The ideal template was a 1995 December issue of Cindy Crawford shot by Arthur Elgort, barefoot and relaxed in an Issac Mizrahi pile of crimson tulle looking totally Cindy.
In the interview that went with the shoot she says: ‘I’ve been very lucky. I’ve got a good envelope. You know an envelope — the packaging is good. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done without it.’
Good envelopes indeed were what that enchanted band of supermodels most certainly had.