Quirky supermodels appear -- millions flee

Geeked-out, normal or born to fiddle, the models of spring still don't resemble the lowly likes of you.

By Salon Staff
Published April 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

BY JAMES PONIEWOZIK | Supermodels are all alike; each not-so-supermodel is not-so-super in her own way. Such is the Tolstoy-ian logic of a March Vogue article hailing fashion's latest trendlet -- the "quirky" model. Charles Gandee's piece takes as its prime example "pixieish" VH1 Model of the Year Karen Elson: a "no-profile" 19-year-old "who would never be mistaken for [a] prom queen," a woman who was once described, she brags, as a "mutant."

What kind of freak show is Elson, exactly? Does she have a goiter, a vestigial tail, an undeveloped Siamese twin dangling from her right hip? No -- in fact what Elson displays in the accompanying photographs is a stunning head of red hair, delicate features and about five miles worth of legs. Oh, plus she has a few freckles and a pug nose, which, in her rarefied field, means that "you actually believe it" when she tells you she spent Saturday nights alone before hitting the big time, that indeed she "really does look like the girl next door."

In other words, Vogue reader, interpret your magazine's "quirky" as "resembling, in some remote way, if you really, really use your imagination, some godforsaken Eleanor Rigby like, well -- you."

Not that you should put in a call to Eileen Ford just yet. Certainly a glance through the numerous spring-collection issues -- not to mention this week's NYC Fashion Week coverage -- proves you're not likely to see any 6-foot Eurostrutters slinging jalapeño poppers at your local Chili's anytime soon. But it also shows signs that editors, designers and photographers -- the crowd who put the "oui" in "ennui" -- are getting a tad bored with beauty, bored with glamour, bored, at times, with models, period.

For example, Hermès' Martin Margiela, profiled in the New Yorker's March 30 fashion issue, recently did a runway show using mannequins with their heads wrapped in plastic. The current Valentino ads pose their models as glassy-eyed, exquisite corpses, photographed prone and lifeless from above, rimmed by candles, like suicides from an exceptionally chichi cult; and in the April Details, Diesel hawks its "antique, dirty denim" with a blowsy grandma grabbing her old man's crotch (a scene nearly as disturbing as the return of "distressed" jeans).

But what stands out about some of spring's most interesting fashion campaigns is their dabbling with normalcy. By "normalcy" I mean, of course, Kate Moss playing a fiddle in the mountains. That's one of the many sylvan delights Calvin Klein offers in his current campaign: In blazing, hypernatural color, his rosy-cheeked, strapping models build campfires, unload crates, climb trees and even wear cowboy hats -- this last a particularly pointed image given that, the last time we checked in with Calvin, his models were under attack for looking like they were rustling an entirely different breed of horse.

Like Versace Jeans' homoerotic-agrarian shot, in the March Detour, of a passel of muscly boy toys hitching a ride on a farm truck, CK's cleverly artificial ads both apologize for and sneer at the heroin-chic controversy, their overlit, socialist-realist tableaux depicting some sort of rural reeducation camp where models happily work off their debt to America's youth through honest physical labor. (The effect is particularly striking in the newly scrubbed Times Square, where a stories-high placard of Fiddlin' Kate currently looms noble and earnest over the cornfed tourist millions and Disney's propagandistically named New Victory Theater.)

Dolce & Gabbana, meanwhile, sets its own homely campaign indoors, in a series of teenage bedrooms -- carefully composed and detailed little pop-culture shrines where the subjects stare intently from their twin beds. These are no teens you'll ever meet -- with their impeccable collections of vinyl LPs and vintage clock radios, they're living the idealized supergeeky adolescence of a 35-year-old East Village kitsch-shop entrepreneur -- but they display a touching, embarrassingly familiar awkwardness all the same. In a D&G ad in the April Elle, a girl sits on a bed covered with green shag and stuffed animals, wearing heavy blue eye makeup, a sheer top and satiny silver pants and leaning on a giant teddy bear. For all her Pretty Baby trappings, she looks naive and innocent. That is, she looks like a little whore. But she looks like a little whore in the same way that your dad might have said you did when you were a preteen and slathering on your first purple mascara.

D&G is deluded, however, if it thinks a well-trained public is going to look at the campaign as anything besides a Whitman's Sampler for pederasts. After all, fashion's recent controversies were more about the public's impatience with artistic irony than about the at-long-last lack of decency of an effete, bored übercaste of perverts. Even commentators who would have leapt up to defend a Serrano or a Finley were glad to pile on Steven Meisel for his artwork in the service of mere commerce -- and it's too bad, since this commercial art, playing off the motives, history and public images of its business patrons, is far superior to much of the Op-Ed art promoted on the public and academic dime, whose tastes tend to run toward the Santa-nailed-to-a-cross level of sophistication.

So do these gestures of humility and antiglamour mean that the years of bitch slaps to the fashion industry from feminists and fundamentalists have finally had an effect? Has couture recognized that Real America wants to see itself, its values and its look better reflected in the fashion pages? Is the supermodel-weary fashion world finally ready to rip open a bag of Cheetos with us and get real? Certainly Vogue purports to think so, claiming in an April article on the "megadose of reality" in the spring ads (which it somehow attributes, inexplicably and about five years late, to the popularity of "Seinfeld") that "glamour ... has become just a little too ho-hum."

And I would have loved to see Anna Wintour read that line and spray San Pellegrino out her nostrils in sheer hilarity. In fact, the fashion world's occasional deliberate self-abasements, far from democratizing it, only emphasize its distance from us permanently, ah, quirky types. For proof, look at Mode, the fashion magazine for size-12-and-up women that recently celebrated its first anniversary. Mode has been hailed as bringing glamour to the larger woman, and certainly its efforts to validate the Gibson Girl figure are admirable; but what really distinguishes the magazine is not the size of its models but its conservatism. Since it can't take creative risks without seeming to make its zaftig beauties into grotesques, they ride horses and happily swing Georgie Girl-style down beaches and friendly streets. It's all very empowering and all very respectful, and it's about as hip as the Sears catalog.

CK's country holiday and Vogue's token freckle-faces may be novel, but they're simply proof of an ancient truth, namely, that if the cool kids are slumming at your lunch table, it's only to prove they don't have to. If fashion magazines have any message for us, it is this: Those who fail to learn from high school are condemned to repeat it.

A brief history of Time: When PBS's NewsHour offered a belated tribute for Time's 75th anniversary last week, it picked to do the honors its essayist, Roger Rosenblatt, also -- surprise! -- an 18-year veteran of Time. One might note the unseemliness of a public-broadcasting freebie for a major commercial publisher -- but you know, at this stage in the history of cross-promotion, who really gives a crap? More interesting is how the commentator redeemed the segment with this classic bit of Rosenblather about his patron magazine: "Very few things in life are so unlike anything else that their names become nouns."

You can be excused for saying "Wha -- ?" Few Americans, what with our short cultural memories, recall the relatively recent history of "time," the noun. Oh, sure, before Briton Hadden and Henry Luce founded their magazine in 1923, people were more or less aware that one damn thing followed another in a linear progression of events -- but the language simply contained no word for the phenomenon. This quaint lacuna was fine enough in the days of the butter churn, but with Hank Ford's Tin Lizzies rolling off the assembly lines and Marconi's crazy invention introducing the nation to mass media, well, the joint was jumpin' in the U.S. of A., and things had to change!

True, some thinkers had tried to theorize the concept -- when Fitzgerald anointed the "Jazz Age" he was obviously groping toward the recognition that it had followed earlier "ages" (Bronze, Gilded) in some sequential arrangement, but what the deuce to call that sequence? There were attempts -- "dayrollering" enjoyed some popularity in the Yankee dialect, while tweedy types favored the German "Minutenkeit" -- but none caught on until the revolutionary publication took the national stage. Folks were talking: "What I like about this here skinny book, you know, the postman brings it every week, reg'lar like clockwork, one after t'other, just like -- just like a prairie sunrise, or ... or that thing where one minute ends and then another one starts ... why, you know what, Asa? They should call that thing -- "

And they did. Thank you, Roger, for the reminder.

Salon Staff

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