Sunday, 23 August 2009


Born in 1986, Jessica Stam headlines a chorus of new models who are rapidly re-defining the term ‘supermodel’.

Jessica, a Canada native, was famously discovered in 2001 by modelling agent Michele Miller. Stam and her family were on their way home from an amusement park and stopped off at a coffee shop. This is where Miller spotted Stam and immediately recognised someone with serious modelling potential.

A year later, Stam took part in, and won, the LA Model Look contest. Her win secured interest from the fashion industry, and Stam became a bona fide fashion girl, working with photographer Steven Meisel who was so impressed, he dubbed her his muse. With a nod of approval from one of the world’s top fashion photographers, Jessica ended up opening the A/W Miu Miu show in Paris. Five years on, Stam still refers to it as the label that started her career.

Stam’s name went supersonic in 2005, with the announcement that Marc Jacobs would be launching a handbag called ‘The Stam’. An honour usually reserved for pop-culture icons, the Stam bag became an immediate fashion hit. The elegant quilted design with a chain draped from the handles became a contemporary classic, with the high-street stores clamouring to make their own version and bask in some of the reflected glory. More importantly for Jessica, it made her surname recognisable, even if many had trouble putting a face to the name.

Stam’s career was at an all-time high, with Jessica landing campaigns for companies as diverse as Giorgio Armani and H&M. At both ends of the fashion spectrum, Jessica was making an impact. But beyond the industry itself, Stam was relatively unknown. To be this famous within the fashion world, but virtually a stranger to the world at large, was crossing into new territory.
The fashion world had been used to models staking fame on a global scale: Evangelista, Turlington and Campbell were celebrities first, and models second. The term ‘supermodel’ coined in the Eighties, was applied to any model that was recognisable by one name. If I say ‘Cindy’, it is impossible to not follow with ‘Crawford’.

Models, right up until the early Nineties, if they were famous, they were very famous indeed. They routinely shot magazine covers – not celebrities as is now commonplace. Actresses made movies, models did the modelling. But with the advent of celebrity culture in the late Nineties, cover girls found themselves sidelined in favour of singers and actresses. No-one was being offered $10,000 to get out of bed and if they did, they were smart enough to keep quiet about it. The age of the supermodel was over.

However many campaigns Jessica managed to rack up, she remained a nameless face in the pages of a magazine. Her lucrative beauty and fragrance campaigns were, and remain, a speciality but Stam was still unknown to the public.

This state of affairs changed in November 2006, when Jessica was asked to walk in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The highly-publicised fashion event, broadcast yearly on U.S television, showcases the lingerie mega-brand by means of a famously sultry catwalk show that is watched by millions at home and millions more on the Internet.

Its popularity is incredible for a fashion event, and acts as a platform for models who might not ordinarily work the editorial circuit. Connected with names such as Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks, Victoria’s Secret has a degree of influence that cannot be overestimated. Being asked to walk in the show was a watershed moment. Jessica had an opportunity to make herself a visible presence – no longer a nameless fashion girl, but to become a modelling superstar.

Stam, in the moment she stepped onto the Victoria’s Secret runway, made her crossover from high fashion to the mainstream. Her approachably pretty face was perfect for the brand, and that stomping, editorial walk helped lend the lingerie a little high fashion cache too. The success of Stam’s appearance cemented the brand’s determination to use not only curvier models, but to celebrate the best and brightest of modelling talent working today.

It did Jessica’s career no harm either. People who had heard of (or even owned) the Marc Jacobs Stam bag could now confidently put a face to the name, and those who hadn’t were now introduced to what the fashion world had to offer.

With this success to push her forward, Stam’s progression became an irresistible force. In 2007, she became the face of Christian Dior and jewellers Bulgari, and opened the Valentino Couture show in Paris.

Stam’s career trajectory – from the truly cutting edge to the (fashion) girl-next-door - shows just how modelling has changed during the intervening years since supermodels were last considered cultural currency.

Despite Stam’s diverse range of campaigns, her fame is nowhere near the all-encompassing nature of Cindy Crawford’s, or Linda Evangelista’s. But instead of pursuing fame to even greater heights, Stam has thrived on this life, half in the shadows and half in the spotlight.
Stam represents the new-world vision of what a supermodel should be. A chameleon rather than a celebrity, Jessica has been so successful in crossing over to the mainstream without losing her edgy fashion credentials, that it has become obvious that the notion of the ultra-visible, ultra-famous supermodel is outdated and irrelevant.

The term ‘supermodel’ had to be re-defined for the new celebrity age. If models couldn’t out-perform celebrities, they had one more ace to play. They used their anonymity to become true fashion chameleons, adapting to any campaign or any designer’s vision. They went back to Modelling Basics – and the strategy worked. They did what celebrities couldn’t: they became someone other than themselves. Not hemmed in by their own image or ego, the creative possibilities were endless.

Stam’s success has ushered in a new, more discreet brand of supermodel. She is professional, competent and acutely aware of what the fashion industry wants - the type of insight that can only come from someone who is an insider themselves. Creating characters, a mood or a moment on camera is what models do. The subtle nuances of a good model are unattainable by a celebrity, however comfortable they may be in front of a camera. The reason why Jessica remains so in demand is because, first and foremost, modelling is a skill – some people fake it well, but possessing that instinct to create a magical moment on film is something that cannot be replicated, no matter how good the actress.

Celebrities may well have cornered the market in boosting magazine sales, but girls like Jessica are on a fundamental level, keeping the modelling industry alive, simply by being good at their job. Stam is part of a new generation who are carrying the torch for high-end fashion and all it represents. It is no coincidence that the fashion world has, within the past five years, turned its back on ‘bling’, preferring to embrace the softer side of sartorial: tailoring, elegant and timeless chic. Trends still come and go, but not with the clockwork ferocity they once did. Fashion is looking for something, and someone, that will last. There is a lot to be said for the model that is in it for the work, not the ego boost. The clothes-horse girls of the fashion industry are its lifeblood: they are ultra-adaptable, hard-working and don’t take themselves too seriously.

Unlike their celebrity counterparts, Jessica and her peers are less concerned with their image, than getting on and getting the job done – no tantrums and no excuses.


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