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90s models just can't get enough

This season designers brought 90s and early 2000s 'classic' models back on the runways, making a special connection with their audience

In this Blog, Stéphane Gaboué and other Parisians comment on life in the City of Lights. 

After the Prada show in Milan last month, fashion forums – and die-hard fashion fans in general – went into overdrive. They sure raved about Miuccia's hip versions of ladylike clothes, but were particularly amazed at the comeback of cultish models like Canadians Kirsten Owen and Liisa Winkler and Esther de Jong, an elfin Dutch beauty who was the brand's poster girl in 1996. The same kind of chatter fuelled conversation when Delfine Balfort hit the Maison Martin Margiela runway in Paris, or when a bevy of Belgian models, including Elise Crombez and Anouck Lepère, walked down Raf Simons' surrealist set at Christian Dior. In New York, it was Calvin Klein who staged the modelling comebacks of the season by summoning Carolyn Murphy and Elise Crombez back to the catwalk. In fact, for several years now, each round of shows has had its share of surprises (even the elusive Shirley Mallman resurfaced at Hakaan two years ago), with Riccardo Tisci standing for the main purveyor of 90s modelling flashbacks. The Givenchy designer has indeed stunned many cognoscenti by bringing back Danielle Zinaich, Kristen McMenamy, Michelle Hicks, Kirsty Hume, Ling Tan and Jenny Shimizu. But maybe his biggest coup happened in 2008, when he tracked down Brandi Quinones, the comet-like 1990s star with the unforgettable wiggly gait.

But unless you're a real insider (and at least 25 years old), there is little chance that you'll feel the visceral reaction that can be caused by these blasts from the past. That's because at some point in the 1990s and early 2000s, these “comeback girls” were all prominent figures in the industry, without crossing over into the mainstream, which makes them pure “fashion” models. Nian Fish, a veteran show producer and creative consultant at KCD, calls them “the 'classics', for lack of a better term, as opposed to a 'supermodel', who is someone a vast majority of people from all walks instantly recognize by face or name, like Naomi, or Linda.”

So by hiring these “classic models”, designers generated surprise, but also a real emotional connection with their audiences. This has to be one of the last coded, insider messages in an era of live fashion shows on the internet. “This season, for Calvin Klein, while seeing all the new models, Francisco Costa, with the stylist, casting director and me, thought the casting would get 'lifted' by having the presence of models with strong personalities from the past”, said Fish, who produced the show. Hence the hiring of Carolyn Murphy and Elise Crombez, two models who historically worked for the brand. “The women know everyone's name in the room”, added Fish. “They have the depth of life's experience to draw in the audience who knows the history of this model, what she stands for, and therefore is seduced to the clothes by seeing her in it”. 

Many industry professionals, like Julien Baulu, a Paris-based designer at who might also be one of the greatest model pundits in town, think that 1990s models fulfill a need for girls with personality, which is something you don't easily find in the current crop of – although Fish finds it unfair to say, pointing that back in the 90s girls and the people working with them, who took time to develop them into these iconic figures, which is no longer the case today.

This nostalgia for familiar faces from the past is actually not a new phenomenon. “Many models came back [in the past]. Some repeatedly”, said Michael Gross, the author of the landmark book “Model”. He was notably referring to Bryan Bantry  a New York model agent who, in the early 1990s, opened a division exclusively devoted to reviving model careers. That idea sprung to his mind after the model Lisa Taylor bumped into Calvin Klein on an airplane, and was asked by the designer to appear in an ad campaign for him. Shortly aterwards, for his 1993-1994 AW collection, Calvin peppered his waifish casting (Kate Moss, Shalom, Eve Salvail) with several older models including Lisa Ryall, Lauren Hutton, Patti Hansen, Jane Hitchcock, Rosie Vela, and Donna Jordan. “As each of these models walked out, there was a spontaneous burst of applause, a rare occurrence for our been-there-done-that crowd,” remembers Nian Fish. “They just loved seeing these women own the look they were wearing on the runway.” One year later, the legendary Veruschka walked down the Chanel runway alongside Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen, and many other luminaries of the time.

In the high noon of Lauren Hutton and co, modelling was considered a profession that ended around the age of, say, 25 . In the 90s, these women came back to an industry that had considerably evolved, was much more organized and lucrative, and the “vintage” trend they triggered has, in a way, contributed,  to extending models' professional life spans.

The truth is, although many “classic” models no longer appear in high profile publications the way they used to, many are still busy doing commercial work. “You know, I’m not doing every Italian Vogue cover now. But I’m working with a lot of great advertisers,” declared Angela Lindvall in New York Magazine last year. Whilst Jenny Shimizu “brushes off the cobwebs from time to time.”

Supermodel comebacks are not emotional only for the audience. “It might sound weird, but the houses who hire me are now more important to me than before,” revealed Delfine Balfort, who also walked for H&M this season. Natane Boudreau, a 1990's Donatella Versace favourite whose comeback would be welcome, confessed that seeing Carolyn Murphy at Calvin Klein made her nostalgic for her runway days. Now an actress, Boudreau is busy working in the film division she started within the  production company of her mother, Nian Fish. “If it was for the right designer, I would love and be honoured to do a little sa-shay again,” she says. Indeed, these comebacks are only effective when these models do it with a current zeitgeist designer, one of the best being Givenchy. “I was surprised to get the initial mail that Riccardo was interested in me, and I didn't really think it would happen. It was truly a gift to walk for Givenchy,” Shimizu explains, liking the no heel, and no make-up details of a men's fashion show.

If a simple email was enough for Tisci to get in touch with Shimizu, chasing semi-retired models can actually be a big deal. “The planning of who these models are, the strategy to secure them, and deal with their travel etc becomes its own production”, says Nian Fish. “These models now have families and their own businesses or other careers.”

Indeed, most of these girls actually end up pursuing, to quote Fish, “other dormant dreams that were usurped by their modelling ambitions.” Delfine Balfort is also studying for a Master's degree in theater. Shimizu is a model agent. But with their looks still intact, they're never very far from the modelling world.

The good thing with this new trend is that with the modern technology of today, a new generation gets to discover them. And it brings back a much-needed excitement into the industry. Each season, we now all wait for that surprise cameo appearance, that shocking memory trigger, and that knowing designer who will manage to chase back all these girls many of us still miss today: Annie Morton, Nikki Uberti, Iris Palmer, Dana Douglas, Beverley Peele, Valerie Celis, Alice Dodd, Georgina Granville, Meghan Douglas, Lorraine Pascale, and maybe THE ultimate Greta Garbo of the modelling world: Yasmeen Ghauri.