Sunday, 21 June 2009


Just when you think you have fashion all figured out, it has a habit of going and changing on you. It’s all part of its charm.

For the past two years, the high fliers of the modelling industry have been faces who pack a punch. Edgy, confrontational and even controversial, these faces are unforgettable and dynamic.
They lend an age of cool to any designers’ clothes, and it is their personality, rather than versatility, that sells. But fashion operates in cycles (or seasons if you prefer), and every face has a shelf-life.

In March 2007, a teenage girl from Utah was discovered by an agency scout whilst out shopping with her family. Six months later, Ali Stephens (now signed with Elite) made her debut at the Spring / Summer Prada show in Milan. To put it into perspective, it is the equivalent of winning an Oscar for your first film role.

Stephens was an instant hit, and a very new look for the industry. She was 16 years old, tall, lean and classically beautiful.

Previously, Ali (born in Salt Lake City in 1991), who had spent all of her energies in winning cross-country competitions for her school, and thinking about which college to apply to, found herself, after a chance encounter at a mall, at the epicentre of a fashion frenzy.

Designers were immediately struck by Stephens’ fresh-faced look and clamoured to sign her up for shows. Just two years on from being discovered, Ali can now claim Chanel, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Nina Ricci and Miu Miu among her catwalk credits. Appropriately for a runner, Ali Stephens has taken the fashion world at phenomenal speed.

Using her skills as a cross-country champion, Stephens learned the ropes quickly and overtook her competitors. She now excels – the girl who was once a self-confessed fashion novice now cites Balmain and Alexander Wang as her favourite designers. Knowing the industry is vital for succeeding in it, and an important lesson Ali learned fast. Fashion-literacy is something no model can afford to be without.

Ali’s popularity among designers is attributable to her versatile look. Rolling out high-profile campaigns for design houses as prestigious as Calvin Klein, Chloe, Missoni and Prada Sport, shows that Ali’s strength is moulding her image to whatever the brand requires. It is Modelling 101, but perversely, the hardest principle to master with any degree of success. To be truly versatile is not just down to genetic blessings (although it doesn’t hurt), it goes hand-in-hand with hard work: perseverance and listening to what a client wants. Ali makes every campaign shoot work because she is believable and equally convincing in each ‘role’.

That dedication to getting it right is why she gets re-booked time after time. Ali is part of a wave of models that team edge with effortless beauty to embody the best of both worlds. Ali Stephens is the Classic American who outperforms them all – she taps into the aesthetic of clean-cut, all-American girl who is transformed by a gown or a pair of sunglasses into something entirely new.
It is this transformative effect, the tomboy-to-fashion-princess moment that is at the core of what makes fashion compelling. Fashion, when it’s right, can change the way we feel about ourselves, and that transition spells magic.

For the industry now struggling to maintain consumer interest, it is this pull that keeps costumers coming back for more. The addictive quality of ‘who can I be today?’ is hard to beat, even in tough times like these.

Stephens’ ability to shift from dreamy-eyed ingénue to Label Mabel shows that her career is secure. She can adapt herself to any trend, past, present or future.

When fashion refers to the term ‘All-American’, it conjures up images of bronzed skin, athletic build and frankly excellent teeth. It is bold, winning and practically impossible to resist. Chalk it up to the current wave of nostalgia for the quietly-assured sophistication of models like Christy Turlington (who herself is experiencing a career second act at the moment), or the fact that America finally has everyone on-side again for the first time in nearly a decade, but the popularity of girls like Ali Stephens is not by chance.

Ali’s look harks back to the classic American model, very much of value during the late Eighties and early Nineties. A girl like Ali sells product not by shock value, but providing a timely reminder that fashion is about making women feel beautiful. There is something to be said for a model that is not a trend-setter, but a trend-interpreter. She shows us how it can be done, and this, going beyond all the hype and window-dressing, is what designers crave most of all.

By using aspirational models like Stephens and Turlington, fashion is tapping into the desire to create, not compromise. No-one feels threatened or offended by the Turlington-brand of beauty: it creates desire in male consumers, but does not alienate the woman looking to make a luxury purchase. For any client, this is a win-win situation, which explains why this look keeps reappearing with every new generation of models. In selling terms, Stephens’ look is both reliable and consistent in achieving sales, and that is something everybody wants.

If she wants, Ali can have a career as long-lived as Christy Turlington and Erin Wasson. Whatever else is happening in fashion, this type of look will always be in favour, and therefore, in demand. Stephens’ career, already well-starred, will sprint ahead over the next five years, while other, more ‘of the moment’ faces may stall as the whims of fashion change against them.

From fashion-unknown to the top of everybody’s ‘must have’ list within the space of two years, Stephens has proved herself the ready successor to Turlington. Her success is down to more than good timing, or plain good luck. With her willingness to learn, and learn fast, Ali Stephens is part of a generation of girls who are smart, timeless and headed straight for the top.


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