INTRODUCTION THIS NEW KIND OF BEAUTY
EVERY LONG-HELD NOTION OF beauty and fashion—and the way these things were created and consumed—had begun to change, forever, in 1992. That was the year a scrawny, short, flat-chested unknown named Kate Moss was signed as the face of Calvin Klein, demolishing the reign of Amazonian supermodels and saving the house in the process. That was the year Alexander McQueen, a pudgy vulgarian from the East London projects, showed his thesis collection at Central Saint Martins, London’s famed design school. He called it “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” and it was twisted and warped and witty and sent the London press into paroxysms of outrage. And that was the year an emerging young design star named Marc Jacobs, three years into his job as VP of design at Perry Ellis, got an unusual phone call.
The man on the other end of the line was Nick Egan, a graphic artist from London with an impressive rock ’n’ roll pedigree. Egan had worked with the Clash, the Ramones, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and staged some of Marc’s early shows. Now Egan was directing music videos, and he needed a favor.
Would Marc let him use his space at Perry Ellis? Egan was working with a band called Sonic Youth—Marc wasn’t overly familiar—and
they needed a place to shoot. Also, could they use this collection that Marc was about to show, maybe even film some models walking in the pieces?
Marc was dubious. He was under enormous stress, and this collection that Egan wanted to use—it was unprecedented, Marc knew it. But at twenty-nine, he was a good generation removed from the girls he was designing for. Marc had come of age at clubs like Studio 54 and Hurrah, places that didn’t even exist anymore, and this collection mainlined a new kind of cool, one that a major designer had yet to interpret. Marc knew it could be the defining collection of his young, sun-kissed career: Like nobody else in American fashion, he understood this moment in youth culture. There was a smash-and-grab sensibility, a rummaging through thrift shops and discards, and an embrace of dispossessed beauty. It was a pulverizing, almost moralistic rejection of every excess wrought in the 1980s.
Marc had been struggling to establish an identity at Perry Ellis, to move the house, sclerotic in its preppy tastefulness, forward—if not ahead of the times, at least on track with them. With this work, which would come to be known as “the grunge collection,” he’d cracked it. But Marc was also self-conscious: Would the buyers and critics get what he was doing? Would the girls he was designing for get it? Was it sublime or sacrilege to buy a flannel shirt on St. Mark’s Place for two dollars, then ship it off to Italy to have it remade in silk? To turn a utilitarian thermal undershirt into a luxury good made of cashmere? Marc was equally aware that this collection might make him just another great pretender in the pantheon of fashion design, cannibalizing a subculture he knew little about.
And what was this band Sonic Youth about, anyway? Why had they zeroed in on him, at this critical time in his professional life? Did they actually like Marc’s clothes, or were they trying to mock his studied blend of high and low fashion? As it turned out, Sonic Youth was intimidated by him, and he was intimidated by them, and this was a
small example of the larger feeling among kids on the fringe: Nobody felt cool enough.
“Was I going to be used,” Marc said later, “as sort of a Seventh Avenue designer who has exploited grunge?”
Marc didn’t know it, but in 1992 he had a kindred soul in Lee McQueen, then a student at Central Saint Martins. McQueen, too, was an upstart, bored senseless with what was considered fashion. He was a fan of avant-gardists Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Helmut Lang and that was about it, really. McQueen was a happy warrior of dark arts, and he longed to infuse fashion with the things he was most interested in: sex and death, mutilation and contamination, perversion and harm.
“He always had these horrible Victorian pornography books that he carried around,” says his old friend Alice Smith. “I don’t know where he got them—they were these little fat books that he got in a junk shop or something and they were horrible pictures—he thought they were amazing—of women wearing ball gags and cages over their heads, over-the-top S&M, and he’d be going, ‘Isn’t that lovely? Look at this woman in these leg irons!’ He had quite a distinct idea.”
McQueen was gifted, and, as the best designers often are, a hustler and a showman. The press always covered the yearly thesis collections shown at Central Saint Martins, and he was determined to stand apart. “That show was their launchpad,” says Bobby Hillson, who established the MA fashion course at Central Saint Martins and was McQueen’s mentor. “The students were written up all over the world.”
It wasn’t enough for McQueen to be written up: His collection had to be the one to electrify. He went to Hillson with his concept: Jack the Ripper. His models were to be the victims, their clothes badges of bloody struggle; Hillson thought it was a shaky idea at best, but she wanted to help.
“He was doing terrible things to the fabric, and I said, ‘You can’t
do this with the cheap fabric you’ve got.’ And he said, ‘I can’t afford anything else!’ ”
And so Hillson went to her cupboard and removed “terribly expensive, rich fabrics that had been donated to us. And I said, ‘Take some of these.’ You know, somebody would’ve died if they saw what he did with them.”
McQueen was slashing and ripping, printing and staining. He was chopping off locks of his hair and sewing them into the clothes, a riff on a Victorian tradition among lovers, who would buy and exchange the locks of prostitutes. He was obsessed by the latter notion, and for as long as he could sewed his own hair into his label.
“Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” was shown in 1992, and it changed McQueen’s life forever: In that crowd was a peculiar, fashion-mad English aristocrat named Isabella Blow.
She went by “Issie,” and was so overcome that she told McQueen she wanted to buy the whole collection. She’d pay in installments, £100 per, until she owned all six pieces. She told McQueen she’d do whatever she could to help; Issie was averse to the nine-to-five, but she had deep connections in the industry and a strong affinity for mongrels and misfits.
First, she said, McQueen must change his name. Issie told him that Lee, his first name, was too common for high fashion. She suggested his middle name, Alexander: It was majestic, had some weight and dignity to it. He agreed. It wasn’t hard for him to make that change: McQueen would do whatever it took.
Marc and McQueen weren’t the only designers on the bubble in the summer of 1992.
Calvin Klein, who’d built the ultimate 1980s status brand, was on the verge of bankruptcy by the beginning of the ’90s, his name diluted through careless and diffuse licensing deals. To save his house, Klein had to become relevant again, and this meant going younger, less
crisp and arch—almost dirtier. Klein, approaching fifty, trusted his team, who were in their early to mid-twenties and dialed into what was happening on the streets of London and downtown New York: art director Fabien Baron, creative head Neil Kraft, senior art director Madonna Badger, and consultant Carolyn Bessette.
“Everything was up for grabs,” says Badger. The central conundrum facing the brand, she says, was how to reframe its overtly sexual DNA in the age of AIDS.
The team considered the women they’d pinned to their inspiration board as potential new faces of Calvin Klein: women as disparate as Rosie Perez, the short, curvy, Nuyorican actress hot off Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and the lithe, elegant supermodel Linda Evangelista, whose arrogance ultimately worked against her. “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day,” she’d said in 1990, and even for a supermodel, such a comment seemed deliberately contemptuous to the rest of the Western world, living, as it was, through a recession and the aftermath of the Gulf war. Evangelista didn’t make it past the first round.
For a moment, Perez was the front-runner. “I remember Carolyn Bessette shooting that down,” Badger says. “She wanted it to be modern and fresh.” Klein trusted Bessette’s taste; she was a muse, and he would eventually charge her with casting all his CK shows. In mid-1992, this moment of grunge and grit and ’70s regression, Bessette was nothing like the minimalist glamazon she became after marrying John F. Kennedy, Jr.: These days, she wore Egyptian musk and no makeup and had competitions with female Calvin staffers to see who could go the longest without washing her hair. Bessette coolly knocked back her own patrician beauty, spurning perfectionism for a warmer, no less artful dishevelment; at heart, she was a downtown girl who loved vodka, Parliaments, and partying at Save the Robots till six in the morning.
“We were half-hippie, half-natural,” Badger says. “It was a total
sea change, the opposite of the ’80s.” The question was: Could Calvin Klein make squalor sophisticated?
There were two other contenders on the inspiration board: Both were European, small and slight, and had an understated, off-kilter beauty. There was Vanessa Paradis, a French actress and pop star best known in the States for dating Lenny Kravitz. The other was Kate Moss, who had just begun appearing in a UK style bible called The Face.
For all the physical resemblance—egg-shaped faces strafed with stratospheric cheekbones; china-doll physiques; doe eyes and jagged teeth—the two girls represented the diverging path of high fashion. Paradis, says Badger, “was the one that had that look.” She’d just starred in ads for Chanel, as a chanteuse in a birdcage, yet the concept itself was already outdated: Putting a young girl in a cage, initially as terrified as any Hitchcock heroine, calmed by a splash of Chanel and unaware of the threat posed by the fluffy white cat alongside her perch—it was an atonal choice for 1992, made by an eighty-two-year-old house. Having Paradis watched over by the ghost of Coco Chanel only underscored the campaign’s mustiness.
But the shots of Kate were radical. Most of them were by an unknown British photographer named Corinne Day, and were unlike anything that would have been classified as fashion. Day favored black-and-white over color, wastrels-as-models with hangover pallors, the clothes falling apart, too big or too small, pillaged from thrift stores and bedroom floors. Her settings were outdoors and down-market, all natural light and awkward poses. Day’s work was as considered and manipulated as that Chanel ad, but the effect was the opposite: druggy, filthy, exuberant.
“Corinne was just attracted to youth culture and wanted to document it,” says Corinne’s husband, Mark Szaszy. “Because you don’t get any idea of what youth culture is doing from Vogue.”
The image that the Klein team kept coming back to was one of
Day’s, the July 1990 cover shot of Kate from The Face: the sixteen-year-old in close-up, a smile so wide it smushes her eyes nearly shut and reveals almost all the imperfect teeth in her mouth, a spray of freckles visible on the bridge of her nose. As a cover, it broke all the rules. It was black-and-white; Kate wasn’t making eye contact with the viewer; she was barefaced. Three years earlier, such imagery would never have reverberated beyond its subculture. In 1992, it was stunning.
But Paradis was the known quantity, and she got the offer first. She turned it down, so Klein and his team turned to their second choice: Kate.
As the final decade of the millennium dawned, there would be no greater expression of the cultural, economic, and social revolutions to come than fashion. What rock ’n’ roll was to the ’50s, drugs to the ’60s, film to the ’70s, and modern art to the ’80s, fashion was to the ’90s: the fuse, then the filter.
Much of it had to do with the long-escalating interplay between art and fashion, which had existed since the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with Dalí, Cocteau, and Man Ray in the 1930s. The cross-pollinating continued through the modern age, from the founding of Andy Warhol’s Interview in 1969 to the insurrectionism of Helmut Newton, Vivienne Westwood, and Malcolm McLaren in the ’70s and Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman, and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the ’80s. And there was the electrifying emergence of hip-hop, which brought with it a whole new style.
“Fashion as a significant cultural phenomenon in the ’90s had to do with an increasing popular awareness in fashion, and the increasing interchanges between fashion and art,” says Valerie Steele, director of the Fashion Institute of Technology. All that had come before allowed someone like Alexander McQueen to be recognized as “sui generis—a phenomenon recognized for being a fashion designer and
an artist,” she says. “Fashion was increasingly seen as something that penetrates.”
Alternative culture was simmering by 1991, yet in so many ways, society hadn’t moved on from the 1980s: Michael Jackson had just been signed to Sony in a $1 billion deal. The year’s biggest acts ranged from the polyester pop of Color Me Badd and New Kids on the Block to the cartoonish hair-metal of Poison, Skid Row, and Extreme. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the sequel to the 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger original, was the year’s top-grossing movie. The year’s overarching question was, “Will Charles leave Di?” A divorced future king, let alone one remarried to his longtime mistress, was unthinkable.
Politically, it felt very 1980s too: George H. W. Bush was still in the White House, his reelection a given. The Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings broke open a long-delayed discussion about sexual harassment; public opinion polls showed a wide majority of Americans believed Thomas. And in fashion, the trends of the 1980s had yet to give way: shoulder pads, shellacked makeup, and a brittle, sequin-encrusted Dynasty glamour; Lycra and leg warmers as daywear; neon and bulky knits paired with stirrup pants; high-waisted jeans, side parts and suspenders and high-top sneakers—all of it prevailed, all of it long past modern. Big houses like Armani and Versace, Ralph Lauren and Bill Blass, dominated the marketplace; beauty was defined by glamazons like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, and Christy Turlington—who, in 1991, was signed to a record-breaking $800,000 contract with Maybelline, requiring only twelve days’ work per year. “We realize the power we have,” Turlington said in a 1991 Time magazine cover story. “We’re making tons and tons of money for these companies, and we know it.” According to Karl Lagerfeld, supermodels were the new movie stars: “For me, the really great girls today . . . are like goddesses from the silver screen,” he said. “They sell dreams.”
But whose dreams? Fashion was supposed to be for the young and by the young, yet it hadn’t been that way since the London youthquake of the ’60s and ’70s, since Twiggy and David Bailey and Mary Quant and the mods, since Westwood and McLaren and the punks. The supermodels of 1991 may have been in their early twenties, but with their height, their proportions, their peculiar expressions—they often looked angry about being so beautiful—they seemed so much older and harder, haughty and remote, the clothes they wore so matching and mature. The young found no haven here, no place of hope or worship. That was not the way it should be, and even designers felt it.
“That was a time in fashion where all of a sudden, there was this great division,” Marc Jacobs said. “There was that old-school mentality of what fashion was, but then there was this far more interesting, far more subversive side of fashion, which was cool in spite of itself.”
Bubbling under at the end of 1991 was a collective hunger for change. Outlier Bill Clinton was gearing up to run for president of the United States. Magic Johnson became the first major American sports star to announce he had AIDS. The Soviet Union collapsed. And a band from the Pacific Northwest whose major-label debut, in its first week of release, ranked #144 on Billboard’s Top 200, would set the tone for a new era: Four months later, on January 11, 1992, Nirvana’s Nevermind became the #1 album in the country, knocking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of its slot and becoming a cultural and generational rallying call. The ’90s would be a leaching-out of all that had come before.
“I remember being in Berlin the year the Wall came down,” Marc said, “and I was in some bar, and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was on the radio, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this has really crossed over.’ I started to feel like, ‘This is the way I felt a very long time ago, and now it seems to be acceptable.’ The idea of imperfection, girls like
Kate Moss. There was this new kind of beauty that was starting to be recognized.”I
A revolution happened in the ’90s, and no one noticed. This is the story of that fleeting yet hugely influential time—the moment when the alternative in fashion and beauty became mainstream, and the mainstream became big business—as told through the stories of three of its leading luminaries: Kate, Marc, and McQueen. I
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released in the US on September 10, 1991; the Berlin Wall fell in the fall of 1989.