Cultural hallucination

How has Kate Moss maintained her iconic status for two decades?
November 14, 2012

Kate Moss emerged in the early 1990s and became a poster girl for the era (photo: Getty Images)

Put Kate Moss in a parka jacket by the swings on a council estate, fag in hand on a grey English day, and the chances are no-one would give her a second glance. This is the paradox of Moss. She has graced a thousand magazine covers, walked miles of catwalk and hangs beside Princess Diana and Angelina Jolie in the gallery of the modern icon. Catch her off guard, though, as the paparazzi regularly do, and Moss is average-looking, mooching around like another lost generation slacker from Britain’s suburbs. How did someone so normal become such a myth?

Some of the answers can be found in a new book, Kate: The Kate Moss Book, from US art house publisher Rizzoli. It’s a memoir of sorts, a coffee table book with photographs selected by the model herself. She is technically the author, but the book is carefully choreographed and edited by a team of creatives, including the influential art director Fabien Baron.

Moss’s career famously began in an airport. Sarah Doukas, a pushy young agent, was at New York’s JFK to catch a late plane back to London. The 14-year-old Kate was also hanging around the terminal, smoking even then, waiting for the same flight on her way back from a holiday in the Bahamas with her father, a travel agent. Doukas saw something in Moss and approached her on the plane about modelling. “You’re a freak,” was the toothy Moss’s first thought.

In the late 1980s, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista bestrode the catwalks. Moss was something different—a beautiful but skinny 14 year old, who, at just over 5’6”, was tiny for a model. Doukas used the oddity, teaming Moss up with Corinne Day, a photographer who preferred realism to the glare of the studio lights. She and Moss went for a day trip to the unfashionable English seaside of Camber Sands. The pictures, of Kate wrinkling her nose while grinning at the camera or running along the sands using a sunhat to hide her naked childlike body, had the immediacy of polaroid snaps. The photographs ran in 1990 in the edgy fashion and culture magazine The Face.

Something about the photographs caught the imagination of Harper’s Bazaar creative director Fabien Baron—maybe it was Moss’s blitheness—and he picked her for the Calvin Klein jeans campaign he was designing. Soon afterwards she was chosen for a second campaign, this time for Calvin Klein’s perfume Obsession, and suddenly the teenager from Croydon was the model du jour.

As the dishevelled cool of grunge and Britpop overturned the super-styled aesthetic of the 1980s, Moss became a poster girl for the era. But her knack for channelling the zeitgeist also got her into trouble. A 1993 Vogue shoot with Corinne Day caused a storm, showing images of a tiny Moss wearing pants and a top against the backdrop of a grubby flat. At the time, cheap heroin was flooding into Britain and Moss, with her gaunt face and low rent living, was charged with promoting an aura of chic around it.

Moss’s career could have been destroyed by the “heroin chic” tag, although she says she has never taken it. But her defining quality was that she was “natural,” and with that came imperfection.

Just after Vogue put her on its cover in 1994 (photographs by Juergen Teller, strapline: “The Life of a Modern Icon”), Moss’s then-boyfriend Johnny Depp trashed a New York hotel room in which the couple were staying. In 2002, when Burberry plastered Mario Testino photographs of Moss looking lively and elegant across billboards, she was also to be found lying on a bed for a fleshy and saggy-bellied portrait by Lucian Freud. She knows her errancy provokes desire. When her friend Nick Grimshaw recently started his job as a Radio 1 DJ, he said that Moss had advised him to just not turn up some days. “People love that,” she told him. “They don’t know what to expect.”

In the end, Moss has two faces. One is the guardian of the fashion industry, exemplified at Alexander McQueen’s show in Paris in 2006. A hologram of Moss in a billowing dress was projected onto the stage at the end of a show that resurrected her image after a scandal a few months earlier. “Kate Moss is a cultural hallucination who we have all agreed to create,” as sculptor Marc Quinn has said.

Her other face is the one familiar from the tabloids and gossip magazines, blemished and bleary-eyed after a night out. Such shots continue, by accident, the spirit of Day more closely than the spirit of Testino, because they document her humanity. Her body is her profession, but Moss has treated it with negligence. She lights up another cigarette, downs another beer, throws herself deliberately out of perfection. Her smartest move has been to make imperfection her signature.