In January 1990 Peter Lindbergh, whose work features in the Photographs sale in London on 19 May, shot an era-defining cover for British Vogue. His relaxed black-and-white photograph of the models Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford exuding natural beauty, smiling easily at the camera, embodied the new woman for the new decade.
PETER LINDBERGH, LINDA EVANGELISTA, TATJANA PATITZ, CHRISTY TURLINGTON, ESTELLE LEFEBURE, KAREN ALEXANDER, RACHEL WILLIAMS, VOGUE US, BEACH LOS ANGELES, 1990. ESTIMATE £60,000–80,000.
"There will never be anything like the era of the supermodel again," Lindbergh said years later. "They were more than a group of models, they were carrying a message and represented a lot of things at the same time. It was extraordinary."
Although the term supermodel had been around for a while – Twiggy was a household name in the 1960s – it was during the late 1980s and 1990s that a select, powerful coterie of ten or so women helped redefine their profession.
ALBERT WATSON, CHRISTY TURLINGTON, NEW YORK, 1990. ESTIMATE £3,000–5,000.
Together, they reclaimed the covers of magazines from film stars and rivalled their salaries (Linda Evangelista famously told Vogue that she and Christy Turlington wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day). Dating prize-fighters (Naomi Campbell and Mike Tyson), royalty (Claudia Schiffer and Prince Albert of Monaco) and marrying Hollywood heartthrobs (Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere), they were the toast of glamourous parties and gossip columns.
The "supers" rise to fame had as much to do with their individual identities as it did with the impression they gave of belonging to a supportive sisterhood. Naomi Campbell has since said: "My girls stood up for me to so many designers who didn’t want to use black models. They were like, ‘If you don’t put Naomi in, we’re not doing the show, either.'" Their look emanated a similar strength and independence. "We were the glamazons," Cindy Crawford later recalled. "You couldn’t be too tall, the hair couldn’t be too big, and the boobs were pushed up and out."
ALBERT WATSON, KATE MOSS, MARRAKECH (FRONT NUDE II), 1993. ESTIMATE £18,000–22,000.
And then, fashion being fashion, in the mid-1990s that look quickly went out of style. Kate Moss and grunge marked the arrival of an androgynous, understated "heroin-chic" aesthetic that has proved tenacious, while singers and actresses have once again conquered magazine covers and fashion campaigns.
Lindbergh was not wrong: the term "supermodel," used far less frequently today, will forever be associated with the original group of women who helped merge fashion and celebrity into the hybrid world we know today. But it is exactly because of this achievement that they have their parallels today. The Victoria’s Secret Angels form another curvaceous clique with the power to make a career go stratospheric. And like their iconic predecessors, the fêted faces of Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevingne are known as much for the personalities they reveal to their millions of Instagram followers as they are for their ability to straddle catwalk and campaigns with ease. The legacy of the supers strides on.
Lily Le Brun is an arts and culture writer based in London. She has written for publications including Sunday Times Style, the Financial Times, Frieze, The Economist and Apollo.
The Photographs sale is in London on 19 May.