New model army: Why fashion has fallen out of love with its A-list clotheshorses

Unknown faces are replacing famous faces. Finally the frocks may be the stars of the show, writes Susannah Frankel

The September issues of the big fashion glossies, which are out next week, are traditionally the fattest and most lucrative of the year. If you do manage to find any actual, genuine editorial coverage lurking amid the all-new, high- budget, high-profile, autumn/winter advertising campaigns then you're a better woman – or even man – than many. And what campaigns they are!

A considerable fortune is spent on the placement of these ads, which are in effect the fashion industry's single most important marketing vehicle. And naturally, a huge amount of time and money is also invested in finding the right photographer, the ideal stylist and, most importantly of all, the perfect "face" to represent the brand – whether that brand is the ultra-chic Yves Saint Laurent, say, or the cheap-and- cheerful Rimmel.

Take Chanel, for instance, the high fashion label that over the past decade has used actresses such as Nicole Kidman and Keira Knightley as models – with the former famously being paid $3.71m (about £2.3m) for her efforts. Other famous faces as diverse as those of Madonna and Mikhail Gorbachev have fronted campaigns for Louis Vuitton. Then there was Lindsay Lohan and Vanessa Paradis for Miu Miu, Charlotte Rampling and Dakota Fanning for Marc Jacobs, anyone and everyone for L'Oreal … The list goes on and on, and provides proof, if ever any were needed, that such well-known names were indeed "worth it", as the slogan has it. The symbiotic relationship between fashion and celebrity, as seen everywhere from the red carpet to an increasingly sophisticated print media, has been the most ubiquitous and, it almost goes without saying, money-spinning phenomenon of the era. That is, until now.

This time last year – and as presciently as ever – the Prada Group sent out a press release to accompany the launch of its new women's wear campaign for Miu Miu stating, in the opening paragraph, that it marked "the return of the model as opposed to the celebrity" to fashion's most hallowed frontline. Shot by the super-fashionable duo Mert Alas and Marcus Pigott, the images established just that, featuring an array of painstakingly sought-out new models remarkable for their fresh personalities and entirely unrecognisable faces.

In February this year – in a move that was equally unprecedented – Marc Jacobs very publicly rid his catwalk show's front row of the formerly requisite A-list contingent, telling the influential American Vogue website that his love affair with celebrity was over.

"It generated so much press [but] at a certain point it was like, 'Did anybody actually watch the show?' " Even the season before that, only Lady Gaga and Madonna had been in attendance, Jacobs added. For her part, La Ciccone "just called and said she was coming: there are certain things I can't control" – the will of Madonna included apparently.

Given that Prada and Jacobs are two of the most influential names in international fashion, it's small wonder that the rest of the industry is now following suit.

And so it is this season, with the big autumn campaigns almost unanimously casting bona-fide models centre stage. These aren't models of the "super" variety either – the likes of Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell are all household names and have long had celebrity status in their own right. This time around, the women chosen, while they may be well-known and even celebrated within the fashion industry, are united by their anonymity outside of it. Sceptics may argue that this development is at least partly attributable to budgetary constraints – it's no secret that big names require big salaries to match. But there seems to be rather more to it than that, prompting many insiders to wonder: is fashion's long-running love affair with celebrity finally over?

"What I need to focus on is attitude, and this comes from a great, experienced model," the designer Stefano Pilati told Women's Wear Daily in April, of his decision to cast the 26-year-old Daria Werbowy for Yves Saint Laurent's latest campaign. "[Models] can feel the clothes and make them relevant from a fashion point of view." But while it is true that a model's experience of the way clothing performs may be more extensive than that of an actress, there is also a certain suspension of ego required – and this is not often acknowledged – in order to put fashion, as opposed to mere vanity, first.

"I think it's a very contemporary approach," says Frida Giannini, the creative director at Gucci, which has chosen another experienced model, 27-year-old Raquel Zimmermann, as its leading lady. "The other issue with celebrities is that they are characters who are often associated with a certain film, for instance. I prefer a strong, generic face that's not related to any particular world – whether that be music or Hollywood."

So there it is: the model as blank canvas, knocked off her pedestal for many years by more immediately recognisable actors, is making a return. And while this approach is in some ways more elitist – there are those who will inevitably argue that the unfamiliar is somehow also intimidating – there's something to be said for allowing people to project their own dreams onto an image. That is something that using an actor as instantly identifiable as Jennifer Aniston or Gwyneth Paltrow, say, inevitably precludes.

Leave it to Karl Lagerfeld – rarely backwards in coming forwards – to address this issue in just the faintly dismissive tones for which he's known and loved. Fashion's most protean player has also cast models, not actors, for the autumn campaigns of Chanel, Fendi and his own signature label (all of which he designs). "Why? Because I love them. They have the right look and class." Ah, class ... and with this in mind, he adds, "Their overexposure in 'people' magazines also makes it that one may be a little tired of celebrities and the red carpet."

It wasn't until the Eighties – significantly the decade in which designer fashion first identified the potential of its power – that the relationship between fashion and celebrity began to gather momentum, and the seeds were planted for the behemoth it has become today. Giorgio Armani dressed Richard Gere in American Gigolo, and the response was such that the great Italian designer soon ensured that the front rows of his twice-yearly men's and women's wear shows were as star-studded as his jewelled evening gowns. Gianni Versace was quick to enter the fray. Speculation was rife as to just how much either designer was prepared to pay anyone, from Sofia Loren to George Michael to attend their shows, resplendent, it almost goes without saying, in Armani or Versace designs.

Versace, in particular, went on to invest huge amounts of capital in advertising campaigns shot by big names such as Irving Penn, Bruce Weber and Richard Avedon that featured everyone from Elton John to Madonna (yes, her again) and from Jon Bon Jovi to Lisa Marie Presley. If ever designer muscle was fully flexed, it was here. The fact that the label had the weight to employ not only the world's most feted photographers but also so many of its most famous stars was a potent formula that few – before or since – could ever match. By the late Nineties, it was rumoured that Nicole Kidman was being paid no less than $2m simply to wear Christian Dior to significant social occasions.

It was also during this period that fashion magazines began featuring celebrities as opposed to models on their covers on a regular basis – and it was doubtless quite a coup when, for the December 1998 issue of American Vogue, Anna Wintour landed Hillary Clinton for that purpose.

Within five years, however, the effect of such originally ambitious intentions had been watered down beyond all recognition. Testamant to this was the appearance of the alleged TV "stars" Amanda Holden, Hermione Norris, Tamzin Outhwaite and Ulrika Jonsson on the cover of the November 2002 issue of British Vogue, a decision that moved some high-minded commentators – and Sir Roy Strong, the flamboyant former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in particular – to bemoan a celebration of the "trash-ocracy" in British culture. This was hardly "aspirational", the thinking went, and that, surely, was the point of such glossy titles.

"Models come and go so quickly these days that they have no recognition factor," Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman replied somewhat testily in The Independent. "We are not a boutique magazine aiming to sell 35,000 issues. When you want to sell as many magazines as we do, that is very important."

And therein perhaps lies the point. Where previously the world of designer fashion had kept itself remote – that was an integral part of its appeal – by the turn of the millennium it had been well and truly "democratised", to use the common parlance. On the surface, this may have seemed like a good thing. But while magazines upped their sales by employing such tactics – and ventures like the online clothing retailer ASOS made a fortune touting budget copies of outfits "as seen on screen" – as far as real fashion and the imagery that promotes it are concerned, the effect mostly proved less positive. The concept of a team of people coming together to create either life-enriching clothing or a fantasy world that takes the consumer to a more beautiful place appeared to be taking a back seat.

This kind of thinking always had its detractors, of course – designers who believed that placing celebrities in advertising campaigns, in the front row at their shows and, even more so, on the catwalk itself, did nothing but detract from the main event. It is the stuff of fashion folklore that, in 1999, Alexander McQueen refused to invite Victoria Beckham to his show, arguing that her presence would be an unwelcome distraction. Almost a decade later, Janet Jackson received the same treatment. "I can't get sucked into that celebrity thing, because I think it's just crass," McQueen said at that time. "I work with people who I admire and respect. It's never because of who they are. It's not about celebrity, that would show a lack of respect for the work, for everyone working on the shows – because when the pictures come out it's all about who's in the front row."

McQueen's contemporary, Hussein Chalayan, has been equally outspoken. At the British Fashion Awards in February 2000, he was named designer of the year for the second time. "I'd like to take this opportunity to say how disappointing it was this week that all the press were still so impressed by celebrities appearing on designers' catwalks," he said when he went up to accept his gong. Again Mrs Beckham, this time opening and closing Maria Grachvogel's less than outstanding catwalk presentation, knocked every other designer, including Chalayan himself, off the news pages. "It was especially disappointing," Chalayan continued, "because that space could have been given to all the designers who bust their gut in the last week or so. It's Fashion Week, not Celebrity Week."

One can only imagine what Chalayan might have said when the troubled actress Lindsay Lohan was appointed creative director at the formerly esteemed French fashion house of Ungaro. When it was announced, in the autumn of 2009, that the now incarcerated starlet was designing a collection alongside Estrella Archs, the media storm that blew up around it may have been considered to be worth its weight in gold. To say that the resulting collection was thin, however, would be something of an understatement, and the fruits of the duo's labours were almost universally panned. Lohan and the ill-fated Archs have both since parted company with Ungaro – and the company has now wisely installed the British designer Giles Deacon at the creative helm.

With all of this in mind, it perhaps makes perfect sense that fashion is finally reasserting its less approachable side and the value of the model – who, it should be remembered, may still be an actor par excellence – over and above more familiar names. It's no secret, after all, that once an idea has become mainstream, it is unlikely to be tolerated for long by industry movers and shakers for whom innovation remains the Holy Grail. So is celebrity finally going out of fashion? The last word goes to Lagerfeld, of course. "Celebrities want to do their own lines, their fragrances," the designer told Women's Wear Daily with only thinly veiled contempt. "A change was needed."

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