The death last week of Tatjana Patitz, from breast cancer at age 56, brought back memories, and imagery, from the dawn of the supermodel era. It is one thing for the fashions of the ’80s and ’90s to return. It is another to see again how they actually looked on those original modelling superstars: impossibly glamorous, impossibly tall, lit up from within with blinding charisma.
The term “supermodel” has become so ubiquitous is useful to remember how it came about, in the last decade of the last millennium. Patitz, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell were the original Fab Five, appearing on a British Vogue cover together at the cusp of 1990. They then exploded into wider pop culture history in George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90” video. Patitz had the elegance of refusal, she embodied naturalness in a sea of artifice. The camera loved her, especially the camera of Peter Lindbergh, for whom she served as muse.
German-born Patitz lived far from the catwalks of Paris, settling on a series of ranches in California, where she moved in 1989, at the height of her fame. More exotic — enthralled photographers often cited her lynxlike eyes — than all-American beauties Crawford and Turlington, more even-keeled than Campbell (who went on to earn a rep as a phone-throwing diva), less haughty than Canadian Evangelista (who famously wouldn’t wake up for less than her day rate of $10K), Patitz in the end was less famous to the general public.
Yet for the top international fashion editors and designers her strength was as a chameleon: she was the ideal bridge between a major swing of the fashion pendulum, looking equally at ease wearing the overblown taffeta puffy sleeved excesses of the ’80s as she was in the clean-lined minimalism that emerged in the mid-1990s. Her Calvin Klein ads elevated the unadorned look, and as the face of Jil Sander in that same period, she became the definition of grown-up chic.
Patitz continued to work through the 1990s and onward, selectively — she was the face of L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect makeup from 2010 — but her relocation to the West Coast, and the art portraiture she created with Lindbergh and Herb Ritts, meant she took a back seat to up-and-coming faces, the second round of supermodels as it were, such as Heidi Klum and Kate Moss. Moss, of course, led the shift away from curvy, glamazon body shapes towards what became known colloquially as “heroin chic,” a waify, grungy look that lasted through much of the ’90s until the bombshell arrival of Gisele Bündchen in 1999, who brought back curves and added an athletic polish.
Having been a fashion reporter on the international beat from the mid-’90s onward, it’s hard for me to look back and not see history through a distorted lens — and with regret that we didn’t recognize that era for what it was. Namely, that it was all so very exclusive and elitist. Almost entirely white, these genetic anomalies — creatures of perfect symmetry and size zero proportions — represented such hopelessly unattainable ideals. We were all complicit: magazine editors and photographers cast these supermodels in campaigns and gave them covers, allowing successful magazine newsstand sales to be the barometer and driver of behaviour.
During that period, the modelling industry became more extreme: The girls got younger and thinner, and there were some terrible abuses in the system — predatory photographers with casting couches, girls who starved themselves and developed eating disorders in order to get work.
But the era of the supermodel really couldn’t survive the arrival of celebrities in fashion front rows, and on magazine covers. When I became an editor-in-chief at the turn of 1999, the first thing I did was to hire a celebrity wrangler to land the hottest actresses and singers to sell the most magazines. Britney Spears and Beyoncé sold exactly as well as you would think they did.
A few great models of the early 2000s — Canadians including Daria Werbowy and Liisa Winkler — outsold other models, but not even in the ballpark of celebrity cover women. Again, it was all about money: ad rates were based on eyeballs, and celebrities now drew the eyeballs the way supermodels had the decade before.
We are, I say with great relief and some wonder, entering into a new era of inclusion. Progress is slow, but steady. A new generation of designers is starting to cast women of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities in their campaigns. Runways are starting to come back, often outside the traditional umbrella organizations that never fully worked (at least in the Canadian market because of economies of scale). There is good reason to hope that this inclusive wave isn’t just a hopeful blip, or tokenism. In our digital era, economics are different, and consumers can now vote more directly with their wallets.
What endures across eras is the power of a true modelling star. Last week, looking at the wave of nostalgic images of Patitz that swarmed across my feed, I was reminded of that singular dazzle. The jaw-dropping magic of seeing a model of Patitz’s enormous self-possession stride down a runway. You didn’t even clock the clothes she was wearing, such was her compelling presence.
Of course, that is what killed supermodels off in the end: they were so famous, they cost so much, that the clothes they were wearing became secondary. They were so charismatic and good at what they did that they worked their way out of a job. Because, in the end, modelling is really about selling clothes.
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