Timed just ahead of last Thursday's official kickoff to New York Fashion Week, Maureen Callahan's book, “Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and the '90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion” (Touchstone 2014) was published, setting off a feeding frenzy in the tabloids with some of the more salacious reveals -- apparently published without the supermodel's input.
Many of Callahan’s revelations line up with Moss’s reputation as a sometimes out-of-control party girl. “Champagne Supernovas” says Moss was nicknamed “The Tank” for her ability to drink a liter of vodka in one sitting without missing a beat (or falling off her chair), and her partying ways were too much even for former boyfriend Johnny Depp, who ended their relationship. In her post-Depp years, Moss’s self-destructive behavior continued, much of it connected to her well-publicized relationship with musician Pete Doherty, whom Callahan describes as “a junkie, thief and former gay hustler.”
But Moss’ career has not suffered as much as one might expect. In 2005, after a grainy photograph was published of Moss doing lines of cocaine, she lost many lucrative contracts with brands such as H&M, Burberry and Chanel (which eventually reinstated her), but before long she landed new contracts to replace them -- including Yves Saint Laurent, Virgin Mobile and Longchamp. Rare is the model whose career outlasts her 30th birthday; Moss has been in the biz more than 25 years, with over 30 Vogue covers.
Moss’s career has thrived despite (or perhaps because of?) her bad-girl reputation much in the same way male rock stars such as Iggy Pop's or Keith Richards’ scandalous behavior only adds to their mystique. After all, Moss’s entry into the fashion world was a scandal of its own.
When Moss first arrived on the scene in 1990, her unusual thinness -- described as both a “waif” look and “heroin chic” -- drew accusations she was promoting anorexia and drug use. Her look was a dramatic departure from the taller, curvier “glamazons” of the 1980s, like Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington, prompting people to call Moss the “Grunge Goddess of the U.K.” (Moss is only about 5-foot-7, and rose to fame when most models were 5-foot-9 and taller. Current catwalk queen Karlie Kloss, for example, is 6-foot-1, but upstart Cara Delevingne, who many say is picking up where Moss left off, is 5-foot-7.)
Moss’s story is well-known among fashionistas, but it’s easy for the rest of us to forget she was barely out of childhood when she started out. When Moss was just 14, she was scouted by modeling agent Sarah Doukas of the agency Storm at JFK airport as she was returning with her family from a vacation. Photographer Corinne Day found the Polaroid image Doukas had filed away of the crooked-tooth, bow-legged, ultra-skinny young girl and became intrigued by her unusual looks. Her subsequent photographs of Moss for fashion magazine “The Face” in 1990 catapulted Moss to fame. In the black and white images of Moss, often topless or skimpily dressed, Day showcased the young model’s combination of frailty and sensuality.
Moss seems to have embodied contradictory ideals of femininity -- both in looks and propriety. She was silent, rarely giving interviews, but also a “bad girl.” She looked young and “waif-like,” particularly when compared with the buxom and “healthier” looking glamazons from the '80s, but was also sensual and smoldering, often appearing in various states of undress. Some rhapsodized she had the features of an Egyptian cat, others that she had the bodily proportions of Marilyn Monroe, in terms of ideal bust, hip and waist ratio -- a curious claim considering her body was often criticized as too thin.
Moss’s 1992 Calvin Klein photoshoot with actor Mark Wahlberg helped cement her image. But while she may have appeared at ease in the published images, in 2012 she told Vanity Fair the shoot itself was deeply traumatizing:
"I had a nervous breakdown when I was 17 or 18, when I had to go and work with Marky Mark and Herb Ritts. It didn't feel like me at all," Moss told the magazine. "I felt really bad about straddling this buff guy. I didn't like it. I couldn't get out of bed for two weeks. I thought I was going to die."
When she sought help for stress, the doctor tried to give her Valium, which friends dissuaded her from taking.
“Nobody takes care of you mentally,” she said of that time as a model, after which she was already a 3-year-veteran of the fashion industry. “There's a massive pressure to do what you have to do.”
On her first topless photoshoot at 16, she was told, after locking herself in the bathroom and crying, if she didn’t come out and get photographed topless, “[We’re] not going to book you again.”
Moss’s experience and others like it -- which could easily qualify as abuse -- has led to attempts at creating more regulation for minors in the fashion industry. The Model Alliance, for example, is a nonprofit labor organization for fashion models founded in 2012 by model Sara Ziff with support from Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. In addition to providing a place for models to report grievances, they advocate for the enforcement of existing child labor and contract laws in an industry that recruits models, like Moss, at such young ages.
Now in a stable relationship with another musician, Jamie Hince, after divorcing her daughter's father, fashion publisher Jefferson Hack, Moss is considered one of the most influential style icons who has ever lived, on and off the catwalk. Without a stylist, Moss effortlessly embraces haute couture with vintage looks, and inspires not only everyday women -- she popularized ballet flats and skinny jeans -- but also designers such as John Galliano, Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Hollywood stylists. Waif, Grunge Goddess, boho, with a “punk attitude,” Moss has been in the vanguard of fashion since the early '90s. And with those early images of Moss by Corinne Day, Callahan writes, “(She was) codifying a new kind of glamour, one informed by imperfection, lassitude, vice, decay.”
As long as she stays out of serious trouble, it looks like Moss will remain a fashion icon for decades to come.