Over two days in May, Cindy, Christy, Linda, and Naomi (no surnames required) can be found at a photo studio on the West Side of Manhattan doing that thing they do—supermodel-ing—with humor, and with ruthless precision. They don’t balk at wearing massive shoulder pads, pastel mini suits, skinny ties, and pointy pumps—items that bear no relation to the cozy cashmeres and jeans they arrived in—and they smile with familiarity at the racks of this season’s most important looks, which look not unlike designer offerings they wore more than 30 years ago. Back then they were just kids, really, and the clothes made no sense; now they are in their 50s, and ditto (save for a Schiaparelli gown in jersey that Christy falls in love with). Even the coolest, most downbeat look—jeans and a tank from superhot Matthieu Blazy for Bottega Veneta—is paradoxically made of leather. How does that work when walking a dog? But never mind. These are Supers and they can own any look, gamely sing along to a soundtrack of early Madonna and Lauper, catch the light just so to create shapes that don’t actually accord with their actual bodies, and all the while subtly coach the young, rising-star photographer Rafael Pavarotti on how best to capture the movement of the clothes. Between takes they check the monitors; being “bossy ladies” (Cindy’s term), they offer corrections. Naomi never gives up the heels, even when her costars are barefoot. It’s a master class in commitment. But how odd it must be to be in a back-to-the-future version of your own life! And even odder to have spent a life working at being beautiful when you are naturally, by any gauge, gorgeous. When Edward Enninful, who has known them all for decades, charmingly references an episode of 30 Rock in which Tina Fey’s character dates a man (played by Jon Hamm) who is so handsome that he unknowingly lives in a bubble of special treatment and privilege, it is Cindy, who has literally made beauty her brand, who smiles first in understanding.
Oh, but that bubble is intoxicating. How it blew up and why it continues to mesmerize the globe more than three decades later is now the subject of a four-part documentary entitled The Super Models, set to debut September 20 on Apple TV+. Directed by Roger Ross Williams and Larissa Bills for Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, the series paints in both broad and fine strokes a picture of the style community in the late ’80s to mid-’90s, when high fashion went from a niche hobby for aspirational clothes hounds to a pillar of mainstream entertainment standing alongside film, television, and music. Says Grazer, with his characteristic offhand foresight, “I think I was just tripping on the fact that this was a cultural moment that became singularly important.” At the center of this transformation were Christy, Naomi, Cindy, and Linda, four teens and barely teens whose rare combination of extraordinarily photogenic features, born-with-it confidence, quick wit, intuitive style, intense curiosity, and utterly bananas work ethic flipped the switch for the industry.
And the lights have never gone off. In addition to this series, which was produced by its four stars (Christy: “Why shouldn’t we have some control over our own story?”), there are more documentaries in the works, and Linda and Steven Meisel have a book of their seminal collaborations due out from Phaidon next month. The red carpet looks the Supers made famous are now worn by Gen Z stars; their faces peer down from billboards (Fendi’s Kim Jones: “Put them in a campaign and they sell!”). They remain compulsively fascinating. With all of this in mind, here are some dispatches from the Supermodel bubble.
They Were Rock Stars…
“It was insane. We are not the Beatles,” recalls Linda, in response to the press frenzy that followed the release of George Michael’s single “Freedom! ’90,” with its David Fincher video (cast from a cover of British Vogue) and the subsequent arm-linked, lip-synched Versace show finale walk. That said, the comparison isn’t so far-fetched: four provincial outsiders who collectively bewitched a culture, rewrote the game for an industry, and felt disarmingly and utterly new even among their peers. “They weren’t born into this. They came into the industry from various backgrounds, normal girls,” says the director, Williams, “and they surpassed the world they entered into.” Much like the Fab Four, the Supers were ubiquitous in pop culture—on late-night talk shows, in gossip columns with their famous partners, plastered on the walls of bedrooms and hair salons globally, the focus of so much youthful longing: fandom incarnate. “They were like fashion’s Spice Girls,” says the hairdresser Guido Palau, who first met Naomi “when she was barely a model and I was barely a hairdresser.” And they were just helplessly ahead of the curve. Recalls Michael Kors, “I remember when Cindy first walked in for a casting in 1986. I am a designer who was always happy to see some curves. At that time everything was still very church and state; print models didn’t know how to move. Cindy walked for me and you knew it was a whole new chapter—very poised, her own way of moving, not stuck in the old-world Parisian way of modeling. The models who were traditional runway models in that show took a look at her and knew this was going to be a whole new era.”
Here’s the point: When one watches a very young Naomi speaking out during a House of Style model roundtable about racial discrimination in the industry; when one encounters again the cinematic intensity and complexity of the portfolios Linda was regularly creating with Meisel; when one considers the astuteness of Christy to become the face of Calvin Klein or the cleverness of Cindy to become both the star and chronicler of her world via the new medium of MTV, one is left breathless. These were rock star moves. And yet, while they had the perspicacity to speak out about racism, they were also winging it, just kids. Recalls Garren, the hairdresser who first turned Linda platinum: “The night before the George Michael video shoot, we bleached the whole thing. She said as she got on the plane: ‘I don’t know who I am, but I will figure it out before I land.’ ”
They Were Friends…
The authenticity of the Supermodels as a girl band made everything more dazzling (for the public) and doable (for them). Says Naomi, “There was a sisterhood there, defined by caring and loyalty: When one is down you pick the other one up.” It was Christy who persuaded Cindy to walk twice for Marc Jacobs. Naomi got the nod for her first Michael Kors show after her friends persuaded him to let her fill in for a late cancellation. And their generosity has extended to include their larger fashion family. Naomi talked Marc into going to rehab after she had done so herself. (“I am very much a believer in recovery,” she says. “Recovery saved me.”) Linda flew to Arizona to visit John Galliano on family day while he was in treatment. And when Linda was still married to the French modeling agent Gérald Marie—who has faced accusations of sexual misconduct from models he encountered in those years, allegations which he has strongly denied and which are beyond the statute of limitations in France (he has never been prosecuted)—she says it was Christy who tried to help: “One time, while I was still married, Christy tried to tell me. She’s like, ‘They wear your clothes, Linda.’ And I got so mad at her.” Christy remembers it otherwise. She had no awareness of the dark places in Linda’s marriage but recalls a time when a previous boyfriend was screwing around, and that, on a shoot with Irving Penn in Paris, she was distraught and ashamed and vented to Linda. By the end of the day, they were both laughing. Moral of the story: Men are dogs, even to supermodels.