In celebration of the cult icon’s birthday, we look back at five defining moments that cemented her status in the fashion industry
Perhaps you recognise her as the bare-faced beauty of Helmut Lang’s AW97 campaign, or maybe you’ve seen her more recently, dominating the runway for the likes of Rick Owens or Prada. Either way, Kirsten Owen’s unique look achieved a kind of quiet ubiquity throughout the 1990s, making her face synonymous with some of fashion’s most-revered cult icons. With her razor-sharp cheekbones and barely-there eyebrows, the British-born Canadian model has forged an impressive career spanning more than two decades without ever really trying.
The antithesis of the high-profile supermodels that preceded her, Owen’s moody aesthetic was only emphasised by her refusal to play up to the press and cameras, instead preferring to maintain a commercial anonymity not unlike that of the enigmatic designers that she favoured. Dubbed ‘the reluctant model’ by the press for her tendency to unexpectedly take long hiatuses from modelling, Owen is intrinsic to the high-fashion success of the grunge movement that became omnipresent on runways worldwide through the 1990s.
She also gained cult status by becoming a regular fixture at the houses of avant-garde pioneers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, with her combination of unconventional beauty and critically acclaimed collaborators establishing her as one of the most under-the-radar success stories in recent history.
In celebration of her upcoming birthday this weekend, we take a look at five high-profile fashion moments that have helped to shape the beauty’s 20-year career.
SPEARHEADING THE MINIMALIST MOVEMENT WITH JIL SANDER
There are few designers that manage to capture the zeitgeist in the way that German-born Jil Sander did throughout the 1990s. Creating simple looks with discreet labels at a time when fashion was still enamoured with logomania was a brave move, but it paid off, earning Sander a reputation as a forward-thinking minimalist. It seems fitting that Sander was among the first to recognise Owen’s potential – this image, taken by Jean-François LePage for one of the house’s early campaigns, depicts the model with slicked-back hair, painted lips and piercing blue eyes which stared nonchalantly past the camera. The shot was huge for Owen, perfectly encapsulating the brand of disinterested beauty that would later see her profile skyrocket.
Prior to the pop-art girl gangs and space-age geishas of recent years, Prada throughout the 1990s was renowned for its stripped-back aesthetic. Naturally Owen was the perfect fit for the Italian house, walking regularly enough to become synonymous with the clean, androgynous brand of beauty championed by Miuccia. Twenty years later, Owen’s relationship with the house is as strong as ever – in fact, Miuccia loved her so much that she booked Owen for the SS13 campaign and subsequently as one of Prada’s prestigious ‘model exclusives’ for the AW13 show.
PREGNANT ON THE RUNWAY FOR YOHJI
Proving it is possible to juggle modelling and motherhood, Owen took to the runway for Yohji Yamamoto’s AW92 show in an all-black look adorned with metallic arms that cradled her enormous baby bump. It wasn’t the first time Owen walked for Yamamoto – over the years she would become a runway regular for the Japanese icon – but there was something defiant about Owen’s choice to walk while pregnant. It’s a testament to her status as an icon that Yamamoto selected her and strayed from fashion’s ever-rigid sample sizes to accommodate one of the defining moments of Owen’s career.
DRAPED IN BARBED WIRE FOR MCQUEEN
No cult 90s model can be said to have truly earned her stripes unless she walked for McQueen during his heyday. Owen achieved this, most notably walking for the designer’s infamous Dante show, a collection that acted as a commentary on the relationship between war and religion, staged in a dilapidated Spitalfields church. With her hair pulled back into an enormous braided pony and her arms and neck wrapped loosely with barbed wire crafted by McQueen’s long-term collaborator, jeweller Shaun Leane, Owen stormed the runway in what would go on to become one of her greatest fashion moments.
AS THE POSTER CHILD FOR HELMUT LANG
Owen’s close affiliation with the Austrian-born master of minimalism is well-documented – most famously in a series of backstage photographs captured by one of fashion’s favourite photographer, Juergen Teller. Despite having been a runway regular for many years prior to this campaign, it was this image that would go on to be seen as era-defining; the slouchy pose, the pushed-back hair and the steely glare epitomised the new wave of forward-thinking, pared-back design (think Margiela and Jil Sander) that enamoured the fashion press during the late 90s.