Prepare to see more of the supermodels

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The Independent Online
IT HAS, as they say, been a heavy news week. Yet just about every day this week the papers have found space for a report, suitably illustrated, from the Milan fashion shows. There have been stories about hard times in recession (Gianni Versace using a mere 16 models instead of the usual 32), lavishly decorated with pictures of Christy Turlington in a frock held together with safety pins. There were snaps of Kate Moss and Helena Christiansen coupled with stories about Channel 4's plans to show clips of them in the buff on its Eurotrash programme tomorrow.

For the next six weeks, while the caravan moves to the other fashion centres - Paris, London, New York - this barrage of publicity will continue. By the time the shows are over it is perfectly plausible that many papers will have devoted more column inches to fashion than to the future of Russia, more space to pictures of Kate Moss than of Boris Yeltsin.

How is it done? The fashion business is not a particularly large industry. Even defined broadly, to include perfume and other associated products, it is a fraction of the size of, say, oil or brewing. Yet it pushes its way on to the news pages in a way most industries would adore to be able to do: in terms of impact it punches far above its weight.

Part of the explanation for this is the very simple one that fashion is showbiz: it is not selling frocks or scents, it is selling dreams. In that sense it is closer to the film industry than to other consumer-goods industries. That is nothing new - it has been doing that since at least the Sixties. What is new is that over the past five or six years it has learnt a new way of increasing its impact: the clever use of models.

The model industry is growing steadily but is still quite small. Laurie Kuhrt, chairman of the Association of Model Agencies, reckons there are probably only about 1,000 models making a decent living - pounds 20,000 to pounds 50,000 a year - in Britain at the moment.

Moving abroad, however, there are perhaps 150 models on the international circuit, each making up to pounds 150,000. And then there are the supermodels, who can earn millions.

It is this last band which has propelled the fashion industry forward, increasing its public profile right through the recession. Rationally, this ought not to have happened. The fashion industry ought to have been hit by recession more seriously than most: no one needs to spend pounds 10,000 on a dress and many would think it inappropriate to do so when people are having a tough time. Yet the impact of fashion has been sustained through the recession, largely thanks to the development of the supermodel. This has been a brilliant marketing device, for it has enabled the industry's products to migrate from the fashion pages to become news.

Katharine Hamnett achieved a similar transition by wearing her T-shirt with its anti-Pershing missile message to No 10 in the mid-Eighties. Benetton does it with adverts which ignore the product and instead make (to use adperson's jargon) a 'borrowed mission statement'. But supermodels do it in a more subtle way.

They are doing for the fashion industry what for 75 years film stars have done for Hollywood: break through the clamour for people's time and attention by promoting real, but far from ordinary, people.

The development of the international supermodel really is a new device. There have been internationally famous models before - Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy in the Sixties, Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin in the Seventies. But for the vast majority the rule was that the clothes were more important than the people who wore them.

Even now, fashion spreads will carry - aside from details of the clothes - information about the accessories, the photographer, the stylist, the location, the airline that took them to St Lucia (or wherever), maybe even the fragrance the models are supposed to be wearing. But revealing the names of the models is still unusual unless they are 'branded' supermodels - in which case a first name will suffice.

But this trend - from the model being an anonymous salesperson to becoming a brand in his or her own right - is going to grow.

The sheer volume of information, entertainment and promotion that bombards ordinary people now is such that it is very hard for anyone introducing a product to gain a hearing. Shouting louder - simply flooding the media with advertisements - will for the time being push them through, largely because of the limited number of television channels that accept advertising. But as television goes the same way as print media, and people gain access to 60 or more channels, the amount of time people spend watching any one channel will plunge. Even shouting will not achieve much, for the background noise will be too high.

One of the few ways in which advertisers will be able to attract attention will be to associate their products with talented people, in this case, the supermodels - whose line of work demands a rare combination of natural gifts and technical abilities.

The recent Vauxhall Corsa launch campaign was an excellent example of this trend. The Corsa pushed its head above the parapet and attract real attention by using models - as personalities - giving their names in the copy. The campaign even managed to generate a little controversy by not using the Naomi Campbell shots in Germany - supposedly because her clothing carried Nazi overtones.

How far will the development of the model industry go? I suspect it will continue to expand, roughly in line with the growth of advertising, but that the use of named models will spread beyond fashion and related products into the promotion of other products and services. Those Corsa ads will be seen as a early example of an important trend.

These are special people, with unusual attributes and skills. The greater the clamour, the greater the need and appetite for such rarity. The fashion industry knows this - which is why even the best-known designers have to use supermodels. As the rest of the global publicity machine realises it too, expect them to be used in more and more innovative ways.

We are going to see a lot of these people in the next six weeks . . . but more still in the years to come.

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