In order to better understand what’s behind the return of the original supermodels in popular culture today, it helps to go back to the beginning.
“If you asked me when that moment really happened,” recalls Cindy Crawford one afternoon from her home in Malibu, “I would have to say it was the Versace show when Christy, Linda, Naomi, and I came out together lip-synching to that George Michael song.”
The year was 1991, and the song was “Freedom! ’90,” which had been playing nonstop on radio and on television too, with an accompanying David Fincher-directed video starring Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz, and, of course, Crawford. Gianni Versace, the Italian designer then in his high-glam prime, had one of the hottest brands on earth, having been early to recognize the potent combination of fashion and celebrity. His fall 1991 show in Milan, which re-created the supermodel lip-synching scene from Michael’s video, set the fashion world on fire.
“With the generation before us, there were show girls, and there were print girls, and very few did both,” Crawford says. “Gianni was the first to say, ‘I want the women in my campaign to also be on the runway.’ It was palpable that something had shifted.”
Fast-forward to this past September, when another electric moment happened on the Versace runway as Donatella Versace, who has carried the family torch as creative and artistic director since the murder of her brother Gianni 20 years ago, walked the finale of her spring collection to the same song along with five of the OG supermodels dressed in shimmering gold mesh dresses. Crawford and Campbell were there, joined by Carla Bruni, Helena Christensen, and Claudia Schiffer (each had been in the 1991 show as well). The explosive surprise ending and a collection that was based on archival prints from the early 1990s, Versace says, was her tribute to Gianni. And this time the entire social media world would take note: Her video post alone was viewed more than 1.1 million times on Instagram.
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“The reason why I did it, it’s simple,” Versace says. “I wanted the young people who maybe weren’t even born when Gianni was creating the world of Versace to experience it firsthand.”
Given how instrumental Versace was in the original rise of supermodels, it seems fitting that the company would, like them, be experiencing a resurgence. In December, shortly after Ms. Versace was presented with an icon award from the British Fashion Council, The Guardian dubbed 2017 the year of Versace. Tim Blanks, the veteran journalist and critic, named her designer of the year and the “best reminder that tomorrow is another day.” And the buzz is only growing louder this year, with ongoing celebrations of the company’s 40th anniversary, culminating in Versace’s sponsorship of the Met Gala in May.
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“I want everybody talking about Versace again,” she says from Milan with her signature shoot-for-the-stars, I-got-this gusto. “I want to be on top.”
All of this comes at an interesting—and perhaps critical—moment for both the company and the designer. There have been rumblings for more than a year that Versace, 62, might step aside, while plans for a public offering have been delayed. For months it was presumed that Riccardo Tisci, the former Givenchy designer and a close friend of Versace’s, would take over the house, but talks broke down last summer. Subsequent reports pointed to Virgil Abloh, Kim Jones, and Olivier Rousteing as potential successors, but those have been denied. Versace herself suggests all the industry gossip has been exaggerated.
“As much as it has already happened that I opened the door to my house to other designers, I do not really understand what all the fuss is about that it might happen again,” she says, citing her previous collaborations with young designers on Versace’s Versus collection, including Christopher Kane and Anthony Vaccarello, who have gone on to become stars themselves. “When you have a brand like Versace, it comes with huge baggage, and sometimes you want to see it through the eyes of someone else to remain relevant.”
But if any designer has shown an uncanny ability to remain not only relevant but also resilient over the decades, it is Donatella Versace—once spoofed as a mumbling, Champagne-swilling diva on Saturday Night Live (“Now, get out!”), now celebrated as a feminist icon in songs by Lady Gaga, Migos, and Bruno Mars. In recent years her collections have shown remarkable confidence while tapping into a contemporary message of women’s empowerment (her fall designs bore the words “Unity,” “Courage,” “Loyalty,” or “Love”), placing the sexually assertive Versace aesthetic in a modern new light. As Versace notes, many young people, including the next generation of models in her spring show, are just now discovering her brother’s impact, and so she wanted the story to be told correctly. (The Versace family, not surprisingly, objected to its dramatization in the FX series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which débuted in January.)
Crawford remembers meeting the Versaces for the first time when she was photographed for a campaign by Richard Avedon in New York in the 1980s and then came to know them more closely as she traveled to Milan for the shows, often as a Versace exclusive. In those days models often stayed in the same hotel, shared cars, and even carried their own makeup kits. Linda Evangelista could do her own eyebrows better than anyone else, Crawford says. Often they would sit around on the floor backstage getting ready, young women forming an unlikely bond at a perfect moment when fashion was changing.
“Gianni loved women and wanted them to feel beautiful in the clothes,” Crawford says. “Donatella was probably his first muse. She was always around, helping choose what we would wear and what she thought was important to him.”
Versace describes her earlier role as more behind-the-scenes, although she was already widely known to the fashion press as a glamorous hostess. “I was the one who pushed Gianni to do things his own way, to break the rules,” she says. But with his sudden absence, she found herself thrust into the spotlight, and, in her own words, “I had to put on a mask. I had to be strong for me, for my children, for all the people who worked at Versace.”
Finding the strength to use her voice was a process that took many years, filled with setbacks and mistakes, a public reckoning with drug addiction, but also moments of success. It was her easy relationship with megastars that led to some of the most indelible moments in the company’s history, like shows with performances by Prince and Tupac Shakur. At the men’s shows in January, she partied with 2 Chainz. When asked what they could possibly have in common, Versace responds, “We talk about life."
“I admit I was very insecure for a long time, but today no more,” Versace says. “Maybe it was the tribute collection that finally freed me of the burden I had and made me see the light, but I can say I feel liberated from the demons of the past. I am stronger and more focused.”
It is somewhat telling that Versace, once shy and reluctant to speak onstage, now seems to be embracing what she represents in an industry that has long been dominated by men, even in the top creative roles. “I believe women have achieved a lot, but it is still not enough,” she says. “We are not treated in the same way that men are treated. Women need to stay united and fight to get what should be theirs by right.”
Part of the current appeal of both Versace and the supermodels is that these women are doing exactly that. Crawford, Versace says, has never been afraid of using her own power or sensuality. “She is like the sun!” Versace says. “I remember that she was the one asking for the most sexy dresses. She always wanted the skirt a little bit shorter or the cleavage a little more strong.” Crawford does not dispute this account and in fact cites a very revealing Versace ensemble of black lace and bondage straps she wore to the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards as one of her all-time favorites. It remains in her private collection.
“Versace celebrated powerful women but also beautiful and sexy women who are unapologetic about not being a victim,” Crawford says. “Donatella has carried on the original brand, but she brings a female perspective as well.”
When they were reunited last fall, the models were each given a separate dressing area, and Pat McGrath and her team did their makeup. Crawford, longing for the old days, kept running over to Helena’s and Claudia’s and Naomi’s changing rooms to reconnect. One of the coolest moments happened when her daughter, Kaia Gerber, in the midst of her first big season on the catwalks and also walking in the Versace show, witnessed the reactions to the supermodels back in action.
“To her I’m mom, but I’m Cindy Crawford to her friends,” Crawford says.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Feb. 9.