Under the auspices of an editor aiming to convert fashion into cash, Kate Moss collaborates with photographers to make images of herself. Though many of these images (dating largely from the latter part of her career) are crassly commercial, many more have an artistic force that transcends commerce. It is this force that I shall reflect on here.

We live in the age of the sign—living signs, dead signs. In the Burberry, Rimmel and Longchamp campaigns, for example, it is clear Kate is selling the tailored silhouette of a trench coat, the ‘salon look’ in nail colour, and the refined chic of a cross-body bag: there is no ambiguity, nothing contests the primacy of the commercial imperative. Here, no sooner does the viewer open her eyes on the image then the deadweight of advertising comes to close it, for however new the substance (coat, nail polish, bag), the hackneyed style of its presentation (Kate looking like any other model) does not stimulate. In this sense, the sign is dead. (For the relevant images, see ‘Kate as Saleswoman’ further down in this post.)

In many another Kate Moss image, however, the sign is living: the play of signifiers between image and viewer unsettles. Here, the viewer keeps her eyes open and tries to decipher the enigma of why her gaze can’t leg go: What is it, via Kate, that she is looking for? In this sense, the sign is living.

It is my contention that Kate Moss, via the photographers and designers she has collaborated with, has given us not only more ‘living signs’ than any other model, but also a greater variety of them. She was one who consistently spoke in different tongues, and yet always in the same voice. In this sense, she was an artist. (I use the past tense, for the period when dollars didn’t kill distinction seems to be over.)

In the early days of modelling, the models showed off the work of the designer—Jacques Fath, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Dior—in the salon of his atelier  to a small group of potential customers. Whatever photographs were taken were not widely circulated. These ‘showings’ in tiny salons prevailed throughout the fifties and early sixties. Indeed, it was not until David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan (the ‘terrible three’ of ‘Swinging London’) captured in their  lenses Veruschka, Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree that things really changed. And then along came Twiggy, a ‘modern-faced’ androgyne child-woman, so in tune with the times that her fame would spread worldwide. Clearly, in terms of a socio-cultural phenomenon, Twiggy was a precursor of Kate.

The seventies saw Jerry Hall bring her golden-age-of-Hollywood glamour to modelling. Inès de la Fressange then brought her freshness to the profession, along with her Parisian chic. As these two genuine individualities continued to thrive into the eighties, the ‘California girl’ look—personified by Christie Brinkley, Elle Macpherson, Stephanie Seymour and, to some extent, Cindy Crawford—came onto the scene. Healthy and wholesome, at once buxom and sporty, these models worked out as hard as they worked.

Then, at the end of the eighties, British Vogue asked Peter Lindbergh to shoot its first cover of the new decade. And thus it was that the January 1990 cover crystallized the phenomenon of the ‘supermodels’: Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Tatjana Patitz. Versace shows and a George Michael video would confirm their place at the top. Soon they were joined by Tatjana Patitz’s fellow-Germans—Nadja Auermann, Heidi Klum, Claudia Schiffer—along with the Franco-Italian Carla Bruni.

And then along came Kate to blow them all away (or at least, give them a good dusting off). Hollywood glamour or Parisian chic? Buxom good health or steely Teutonic beauty? The divine right of ‘perfection’, the royal road to consumer heaven? Kate had nothing in common with any of that. Instead, still in her mid-teens, she made one-day-at-a-time her way, trusting her intuition that whatever she had to offer, in whatever guise it might be expressed, things would work out best if she’d keep faith with her individuality and ignore all the rest.

And so, just as David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan had seized the spotlight from the established photographers in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, so Corrine Day and David Sims, Juergen Teller and Craig McDean, would sparkle as ‘Cool Britannia’ (and, for a while, the rest of the fashion world) became receptive to an aesthetic different from the one Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Peter Lindbergh and Steven Meisel, had crafted with the supermodels. And the most potent spur to the creativity of these rebel photographers was the young anti-model, Kate Moss.

Later, after the Calvin Klein campaigns, John Galliano would take Kate under his wing, just as, later still, Alexander McQueen would: South Londoners all, the three spoke a common language in more ways than one. And thus it was that Kate the anti-model, giving herself up wholly in each creative encounter, would become a hyper-model.

For me, what is the appeal of Kate Moss? Simple: her attitude. And how would I define that attitude? In two words: fuck off. Yes, that’s why I like Kate. She says ‘fuck off’ with style and conviction, as only a truly free person can (think of Keith Richards, Frida Kahlo, Alain Robbe-Grillet). Of course, I am not alone in finding Kate attractive for this reason. For many, she represents an ideal of freedom, understood as the courage to fully assume one’s individuality. For example, in the permanent tension fashion maintains between imitation and distinction, Kate comes across as one who doesn’t compromise: for her, beauty will be distinctive, or not at all.

Fashion is a central driver in our hyper-consumerist society. Here, Kate takes the money and strolls away, with style. Unlike most models in our globalized gig economy, she ferociously resists social media. Where others become 24/7 self-promoters, compromising with grace as they carve out a place on fashion’s totem pole, Kate gives the finger to Facebook, tells Instagram to fuck off, and with dignity maintains the attitude she’s adopted from the start: never complain, never explain, never suck up to the powers that be. In a word, she maintains her freedom.

According to the Guardian, Kate today is branching out into ‘styling for Vogue, running her own model agency and working with Japanese skincare brand Decorté’. I find that a bit disappointing. I’d admire her more if she’d take up a new challenge, do something outside her comfort zone. But then again, I don’t know many people who’ve mastered the art of living while maintaining their individuality. For that alone, then, I salute Kate.

What else can I say about her? Just this: Every woman articulates the feminine in the way she dresses (and undresses) her body. The artistry of Kate Moss consists in making the feminine luminous through the way she disrupts it. She incarnates with absolute conviction the proposition of the feminine that photographer or designer puts to her, yet at the same time she never fully coincides with it: the enigma that is ‘Kate Moss’ always comes between the two, a shadow that intensifies the light’s glow in the same way that Lucifer’s darkness makes him incandescent. In this, Kate is sublime, but not the hackneyed ‘sublime’ of advertising’s dead signs, but rather the sublime articulated as a living sign as defined, for example, in Schlegel’s theory of art: ‘The essence of artistic presentation is that it dissolves in its self-positing, so that the reality of the work of art is always preliminary and never more than a simulacrum’ (Ginette Verstraete, Fragments of the Feminine Sublime in Friedrich Schlegel and James Joyce; p. 36). Unschooled Kate Moss, anti-model and hyper-model, intuitively understood this, and therein lies her genius. She has shown that the intimate kinship between femininity and art goes way beyond the cliché of artist and model. A model, she is an artist of the feminine, and a supreme incarnation of the beauty of paradox. Now if she’d only step out of her comfort zone and do something creative again, instead of the ‘Kate as Saleswoman’ stuff…



A conversation between Kate Moss and David Bailey

The Guardian, 20 January2018

Kate! Creating an Icon

Director: Nicola Graef, 2011

The Riddle of Kate Moss

James Fox, Vanity Fair, December 2012



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By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2020 | All rights reserved