Think of 1990s fashion, and supermodels like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista immediately spring to mind.
The decade that popularized velvet suits, low-rise jeans and slip dresses is closely linked to the women who first donned them on runways and in racing ad campaigns (like Calvin Klein’s now-infamous billboard starring Moss and actor Mark Wahlberg), forever searing both the clothes and their wearers into our collective imagination.
During the ’80s, the term “supermodel” became increasingly popular, with icons like Cindy Crawford and Iman breaking the industry’s boundaries in terms of stardom and earning capacity. In the 1990s, however, models became business and cultural powerhouses — not just within fashion circles but across the media and the entertainment worlds, too.
Now, a new book celebrates their legacy and the era’s free-wheeling spirit.
Titled simply “90’s” the coffee table tome spotlights the work of French fashion photographer Thierry Le Gouès, who helped define the aesthetic of that period by shooting for magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Allure.
Featuring some 280 photos from his archive, the book combines intimate portraits with commercial work, and nude images with glossy, stylized editorials.
“It’s a love letter to that time — a collection of some of the pictures I am most fond of,” Le Gouès said in a phone interview from Paris, where he is based. “And there were still so many I didn’t end up including.”
A passion project
Le Gouès began reminiscing about the ’90s during the height of the pandemic, starting with 50 images he retrieved from his private archives. “The moment I showed them to friends from the industry, they told me I should make a book,” he recalled, adding: “So, while Paris and the rest of the country was shut down, I threw myself into the project. It was a nice distraction during those months.”
Focusing on that specific era was a no-brainer for the creative, despite the fact he’d begun his career in the mid-’80s. “There was such a specific sense of freedom in the ’90s, especially in fashion, that no other period, before or after, has ever matched,” he said. “I wanted to highlight that.”
Most of the photos appeared in magazine spreads or fashion campaigns, which were Le Gouès’ main outlets at the time. Most of them are in black and white — a stylistic choice he described as “more cinematic.”
“I’ve never liked to shoot in color,” he said. “Black and white allows for greater mystery. It gives way to a rawness that a bright picture just doesn’t have.”
Indeed, Le Gouès’ images are strikingly dramatic. Most are charged with strong, sometimes edgy elements — a reflection of the tastes of the time, exemplified sartorially by designers like John Galliano, Azzedine Alaïa
, and Alexander McQueen among others.
If the composite shots look straight out of a film noir — all darkness and light, femme fatale characters and sultry details — the portraits have a dream-like quality to them, as if offering viewers a secret glimpse of a different, almost unreal kind of beauty.
That goes for the nudes, too. In one, Carla Bruni’s body appears almost ethereal rather than made of flesh and blood. In another, Naomi Campbell is captured in a way that’s both stirring and sensual, without feeling too sexy.
“The ’90s was a decade of experimentation, and that’s what I did when it came to my photos,” Le Gouès said. “I’ve always liked to highlight the beauty of my subjects, with no distractions or elaborate sets.”
It helped that the photographer had established a deep trust with many of the models he worked with (Bruni, who has written the preface for “90’s,” describes the photographer’s perspective as “very special: imbued with delicacy and empathy”).
“There was a relationship of friendship and respect that I think is harder to find today, when everything is so much more fast-paced and we’re constantly fed new images,” he said.
Many of the book’s photographs feature faces that are still recognizable today, including Eva Herzigová, Elle Macpherson, Campbell and Tatjana Patitz — all names Le Gouès helped put on the map with his photos.
But the book also showcases a crop of lesser-known models, a number of whom are Black. This was a deliberate choice, according to Le Gouès, who worked extensively with women of African heritage and ethnicity in those years (in 1997, he published a book featuring exclusively Black fashion models, “Soul”). Including some of those same subjects in “90’s” felt important to present a more representative snapshot of the era.
While the industry still faces challenges when it comes to diversity, Le Gouès said he began seeing better representation take shape during the ’90s.
“You had Naomi, of course, but also, for the first time, a whole cast of Black models to work with. Which I did,” he said.
Campbell was one of two contenders for the book’s cover. The other was Kate Moss, whose gold-painted portrait eventually ended up gracing the front of “90’s.” Le Gouès shot the image for British Esquire. “It was for a feature on Kate and how she turned everything she touched into gold,” he explained. “I thought it was a good representation of the decade — the golden age of fashion.”
Choosing between the two models proved difficult, the photographer added. “Kate is the ’90s girl,” Le Gouès said. “No one was, or is, quite as emblematic.”
The British model appears repeatedly throughout the book. She’s on the second opening spread, and in the final pages of “90’s,” aged 17. A glance at Moss and her contemporaries is all it takes to be transported back in time. “They are icons,” Le Gouès said of the models. “I think these photos are proof of that. They are evocative but also timeless.”
“There was a certain romanticism to have to wait (months) for a magazine to come out to see your idols and these models on the page,” the photographer added, reflecting on his career in print media. “Traveling around the world for a shoot, building connections between us behind the camera and those in front of it. I think that’s what makes these images so special.”
“90’s,” published by powerHouse Books, is out now.
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