The death last week of Tatjana Patitz from breast cancer at age 56 has brought back memories and images from the dawn of the supermodel era. It’s one thing for 80s and 90s fashion to come back. It’s quite another to see how they look back on these original superstars of modeling: impossibly glamorous, impossibly tall, lit from within with blinding charisma.
The term “supermodel” has become so ubiquitous that it is worth recalling how it originated, in the last decade of the last millennium. Patitz, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell were the original Fab Five, appearing on a British vogue cover together at the dawn of 1990. They then exploded into broader pop culture history in George Michael’s “Freedom ’90” video. Patitz had the elegance of refusal, she embodied the natural in a sea of artifice. The camera loved her, especially Peter Lindbergh’s camera, for whom she served as a muse.
Patitz, born in Germany, lived far from the Paris catwalks, settling on a series of ranches in California, where she moved in 1989, at the height of her fame. More exotic – fascinated photographers often cite her lynx eyes – than American beauties Crawford and Turlington, more balanced than Campbell (who went on to earn a reputation as a phone-throwing diva), less haughty than Canadian Evangelista (who famously doesn’t wouldn’t wake up for less than her daily rate of $10,000), Patitz was ultimately less known to the general public.
Yet for top international fashion editors and designers, her strength was that of a chameleon: she was the perfect bridge between a major swing in the fashion pendulum, looking equally at home with excess taffeta exaggerated puff sleeves of the 80s than she was in the clean minimalism that emerged in the mid-1990s. become the definition of adult chic.
Patitz continued to work in the 1990s and beyond, selectively – she was the face of L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect makeup from 2010 – but her move to the West Coast and the fine art portrait that she created with Lindbergh and Herb Ritts earned her a backseat for up-and-coming faces, the second set of supermodels so to speak, like Heidi Klum and Kate Moss. Moss, of course, spearheaded the shift from curvy, glamazonian body shapes to what became colloquially known as “heroine chic,” a waify, grungy look that lasted much of the ’90s until the 1990s. explosive arrival of Gisele Bündchen in 1999, who brought back curves and added an athletic varnish.
Having been a fashion journalist on the international beat from the mid-90s, it’s hard for me to look back and not see history through a distorted lens – and with regret that we haven’t acknowledged that time for what it was. Namely, that it was all so exclusive and elitist. Almost entirely white, these genetic anomalies—creatures of perfect symmetry and zero proportions—represented hopelessly unattainable ideals. We were all complicit: magazine editors and photographers cast these models in campaigns and gave them covers, allowing successful magazine newsstand sales to be the barometer and driver of behavior.
During this period, the modeling industry became more extreme: girls became younger and thinner, and there were terrible abuses in the system – predatory photographers with casting couches, girls who hungry and have developed eating disorders to find work.
But the supermodel era really didn’t survive the arrival of celebrities in the fashion front rows and on magazine covers. When I became editor at the turn of 1999, the first thing I did was hire a celebrity wrestler to land the hottest actresses and singers to sell the most magazines. Britney Spears and Beyoncé sold exactly as well as you might think.
A few big models from the early 2000s – Canadian women including Daria Werbowy and Liisa Winkler – outsold other models, but not even in the range of famous cover women. Again, it was all about the money: advertising rates were based on eyeballs, and celebrities were now attracting eyeballs like models had done the previous decade.
We are entering, I say with great relief and a little wonder, a new era of inclusion. Progress is slow, but steady. A new generation of designers is beginning to incorporate women of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities into their campaigns. Parades are starting to return, often outside of traditional umbrella organizations that never fully functioned (at least in the Canadian market due to economies of scale). There are good reasons to hope that this inclusive wave is not just a stroke of hope or a token gesture. In our digital age, the economy is different and consumers can now vote more directly with their wallet.
What endures through the ages is the power of a true modeling star. Last week, watching the wave of nostalgic images of Patitz that invaded my feed, I was reminded of this singular glare. The jaw-dropping magic of seeing a model of Patitz’s enormous composure parade down a runway. You didn’t even point to the clothes she was wearing, such was her overwhelming presence.
Of course, that’s what killed the models in the end: they were so famous, they cost so much, that the clothes they wore became secondary. They were so charismatic and good at what they did that they managed to get themselves out of a job. Because at the end of the day, modeling is really about selling clothes.
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