Fashion: Return of the '90s Supermodel

The fashion industry wants everything skinny—except, of course, its magazines. While thin models sashay under the tents at New York's Bryant Park for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, the September issues of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Elle, Marie Claire and W are fat with glossy ads. Traditionally, these Fall Fashion editions feature up to 700 or more pages of models peddling cold-weather couture. But this year, with advertising page counts down an average of 6 percent from September 2007 in some publications, a slightly surprising trend has emerged: 1990s supermodel déjà vu. Many of the familiar faces in this season's fashionable ad campaigns aren't new, or even all that young. But with years of experience under their stylish belts, they've got cachet with advertisers and consumers alike.

"Supermodel" is no longer a term of art. These days, anyone who gets paid to pose in oversized sunglasses and lipgloss might qualify for the title. Model Janice Dickinson claims to have invented the word in the 1970s. Actually, the moniker appears to have originated in a 1968 Glamour article about famous one-name faces Twiggy, Wilhelmina, and Veruschka. But it wasn't until the 1990s that a single elite group of models gained the kind of media omnipresence worthy of "super" status—editorial spreads and magazine covers, runway gigs and billboards, even music videos. Despite a glut of recent TV shows about up-and-coming models (see: the CW network's "America's Next Top Model," Bravo's "Make Me a Supermodel" and, most recently, VogueTV's launch of the online series, "Model.Live"), the era of the true supermodel probably ended with designer Isaac Mizrahi's 1995 documentary, "Unzipped." The film's groundbreaking glimpses of model life arrived just before nonmodels started becoming cover girls: Oprah Winfrey first graced Vogue three years later, and actresses such as Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie became the new millennium faces of Versace and St. John.

This fall, the primary subjects of "Unzipped"—including 39-year-old Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista (43), Naomi Campbell (38) and Kate Moss (34)—are back and in ads for Escada, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent and Donna Karan. (Although Moss really never left the scene, her recent deals are considered a comeback after a 2005 stint in drug rehab jeopardized her contracts with Chanel, H&M and Burberry.) Add several other '90s modeling alums to September's mix—including Claudia Schiffer for Chanel, Eva Herzigova for Louis Vuitton, Stephanie Seymour for Loewe and Stella Tennant for Vera Wang—and you've got a bona fide supermodel reunion.

At a time when branding gigs with top designer labels are often reserved for Oscar-nominated actresses (such as 23-year-old Scarlett Johansson, who mugged for Louis Vuitton) and the hottest model du jour (like Agyness Deyn, 25, who brought spiky-haired spunk to Burberry), does the recent convergence of mature models signal a change in taste? Or is their familiarity providing a glamorous safety net for a fashion industry desperate to connect with the 25-54 demographic during an economic downturn?

Mizrahi, who recently ended his partnership with Target to join Liz Claiborne Inc. as creative director, believes the return of the supermodel is due to the fact that these particular models are truly super. "I always felt that those girls were here to stay," he tells NEWSWEEK. "Kate, Christy, Naomi and Linda, in particular, are just so iconic. I think [the industry] has gotten a little saturated with the Eastern European girls who weigh five pounds. They're pretty, but these [supermodels] now have substance."

If "substance" is not a word regularly associated with models, Bruno Salzer, CEO of the German fashion group Escada, says his company pegged Turlington to show off the clean lines of Escada's clothing and accessories this year, "because she is a woman who brings meaning as well as beauty." Turlington's business ventures, including her association with the antipoverty organization CARE, as well as her Nuala yoga clothing line and Sundari beauty brand also impress him. "She is a strong, responsible businesswoman," Salzer says. "And she is very much in tune with key social trends of the moment."

A diverse résumé like Turlington's is nice, but is it enough to persuade shoppers to part with $2,000 for a dress, especially in an economy where consumer confidence continues to weaken? Despite strong second-quarter sales by certain luxury brands (Hermes's leather goods are up 17 percent), overall retail spending is down. Banana Republic's second-quarter sales, for example, have dipped 6 percent. "Everybody everywhere is affected by the economy, even if it's not in their pocketbooks," says Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder of the Jeffrey stores and executive vice president at Nordstrom. Still, he's inclined to chalk up the resurgence of the supermodel to creative coincidence. "It's just the same as when you start to see a lot of the same lengths of skirts on a runway," he says. "It's people thinking alike."

But Premier Model Management's Carole White, who represents Turlington, sees a direct correlation between a weakened economy, lower magazine page counts and her client's renewed popularity. "The advertisers are saying to their customers, 'Look, we can afford these amazingly beautiful iconic women [for our ads], and we know you, the customer, can relate to them'," she says. "The customer feels comfortable with the models' very famous faces, and the customer likes familiarity and success."

That familiarity, as well as nostalgia for the booming economy of the late 1990s, is the primary reason for the supermodels' return, says Kaye Davis, executive director of Fashion at AmericasMartAtlanta. "Christy, Linda, Naomi and Claudia are women we admired. They represented the good times, economically, 10 years ago—and still do today. With the uncertain economy, people are purchasing brands they know. These supermodels are women we know, therefore they ensure confidence in consumer purchases."

Mizrahi would rather believe a certain je ne sais quoi keeps these lovely old-timers on the pages of fashion magazines. "They've hung in there, and they enjoy themselves, and you can tell. And, they look beautiful in juxtaposition to some of the new girls," he says. "Today, I saw a Prada ad with Linda in it, and I said, 'Is that Linda? That's amazing!' I don't think [Italian designer] Miuccia Prada sits there and thinks, 'Uh oh, it's a bad economic time, so I'm going to put someone older [in my ad] so the consumer can relate to it.' I think she does just the opposite. She's trying to keep it interesting."

And who would argue that a fortysomething supermodel in a black lace number and sky-high heels isn't at least a little interesting?

Fashion: Return of the '90s Supermodel | Business