Sunday, 13 December 2009


Carmen Kass has been a visible presence on the world’s runways for over a decade.

Born in Estonia, 1978, Kass is working (and working hard) at an age where most models are getting comfortable with the idea of being retired. But Kass is still commanding attention, with current campaigns including Michael Kors, Narciso Rodriguez and Max Factor.

To be relevant for this long, and without the backing of a media empire, takes some doing. Truly a ‘model’s model’, Kass is well regarded within the industry, and still maintains a steady balance of editorial print work with runway appearances. Her longevity has endured because Kass delivers impact on all fronts. Most models have a leaning towards a particular medium, or actively prefer print work (editorials and covers) to runway, but Kass is uniquely placed because she is equally strong at both disciplines.

Kass was discovered in 1992 by an Italian modelling scout. Travelling through Estonia, the scout stopped off at a supermarket and discovered 14-year-old Carmen.

In 1996, Kass moved to Milan (and then Paris) to pursue a modelling career. She did not have to wait long for success, as in September the following year she found herself walking in runway shows for Chanel and Versace. Not a bad start by anyone’s standards.

Her career blossomed, with fragrance contracts from Dior in 2000, a Pirelli calendar shoot in 2001 and several runway credits including Givenchy, Balmain, Marni, Oscar de la Renta and Valentino Couture.

It became self-evident very early on in Kass’ career that she would make an indelible mark on the runway. Her walk, once seen never forgotten, quickly became her signature. The stride that embodied confidence and sensuality was a fashion crowd-pleaser in the years before the Brazilian stomp became the industry standard.

Hired to walk in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in 2002, Carmen (at that point not well known outside fashion circles) worked the runway with effortless aplomb. Kass, not necessarily the most commercially beautiful, stormed the show and was consequently signed up for the next show in 2003. Hiring Kass was a gamble for the lingerie brand, but it was a decision that paid off and explains why they are so keen to hire new names, their latest recruits including Chanel Iman and Rosie Huntingdon-Whiteley.

The strength of Kass’ walk helped her forge connections with designers: she opened and closed the Oscar de la Renta shows for Autumn & Winter, and Spring & Summer 2002, doing exactly the same for Roland Mouret’s shows in 2005. Her walk took her to the heart of couture, walking for Givenchy, Valentino and Versace, plus additional catwalk credits with names such as Gucci, Carolina Herrera and Yves Saint Laurent. In 2004, it was reported that she was now able to command $200,000 for every catwalk appearance. Clearly designers considered it money well spent.

In 2006, Carmen entered the ‘campaign’ phase of her career, signing contracts with DSquared, Michael Kors and Chloe, and in 2007, landing 10 campaigns in 1 year including Versace, Gap, Ferragamo and, once again, Michael Kors.

Her affinity with the Michael Kors label continues to this day, as Kass remains the face of his fragrances, as well as opening and closing his catwalk shows in 2008 and opening the Spring & Summer 2010 show in New York just this September. Also walking for designers such as Isabel Marant, Balmain and Proenza Schouler, it is astonishing to think that Kass is still working with the best of the cutting-edge designers 12 years after her catwalk debut.

Her ongoing popularity isn’t hard to analyse. Notoriously difficult to replicate, Carmen’s walk defies interpretation. A good walk may be an advantage for any model, but a great walk really does last forever.

Imbibing clothes with personality while keeping them the area of focus, is the most difficult part of runway modelling (after mastering the heels). A model’s job is to give a designer’s vision a sense of identity and purpose on the runway so buyers and editors can assess the collection and crucially who would be its potential customer. To get an idea of how to pitch a designer’s work to their reader or customer, the coal-face of the fashion industry has to be able to recognise, at a glance, who the designer is really designing for. Fashion is about fantasy, yes, but at the end of the day, fantasy doesn’t pay the bills. Having a great model that understands this is the best asset a designer can have. Carmen Kass, with that cool, analytical brain, understands very clearly the fiscal connection between fantasy and reality. One feeds the other, and together they form a coherent brand for the designer. Knowing your customer is as crucial as having a sartorial point of view. Trying to survive without either is virtually impossible.

A competent walker will always find work, but someone who really makes their walk a part of themselves will see the benefits. Carmen is so well-loved because she is a true original: there is no-one else like her. She is not a headline-grabbing ‘classic beauty’, but her look has stayed the distance because it is versatile, and unique.

The importance of the runway walk is once again front row and centre with new kid Karlie Kloss. The American model has wowed the fashion circuit with her controversial ‘death stare’ swagger. Like Carmen, Karlie’s fame is attributed to her ability to imbue any designer’s collection with personality and character. Such is her popularity online; that a video of her giving a runway tutorial claims over 45,000 hits. Now with a fragrance contract with Marc Jacobs to her credit, Karlie is hitting the big-time and looks destined to follow in Carmen’s footsteps, racking up 64 shows in autumn 2008. Whether Karlie’s ascent would have happened so quickly without that devastating sucker-punch of a walk is impossible to gauge, but it proves that a seriously good walk can still take you places in the fashion world.

What is fascinating is how interest in fashion has not only developed, but diversified. There is a definite shift of attention towards the ‘live’ element of fashion: its runway shows. With facilities like YouTube, having a pass to Bryant Park is no longer required to see the latest shows.

Virtually all the major players of Spring & Summer 2010 are already available to view online.
Done right, runway shows can be miniature pieces of theatre, with the big names really putting in the hours to make a truly memorable show. Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Prada all make the effort to produce a show that will be talked about as much as the clothes. Again, its fantasy paired with reality: pitching a dream to sell a jacket. What’s more, it works.

Prada’s pre-historic theme with models teetering on 6” heels; any Alexander McQueen show of the past 5 years, and Marc Jacobs taking us on a guided tour of American fashion history. These moments become markers in fashion’s progress because, unlike theatre, we can re-play and re-visit them on demand. They become as much of the fashion experience as buying a copy of Vogue or visiting a boutique. Technology is fusing fashion to the next decade, and where it goes from here – well, you can’t help but get excited by the possibilities.

Just when you thought fashion had lost the personal touch, it has found a way to make itself accessible. In the next decade, the challenge will be pursuing this line of thought. Designers are realising the power created by making that one-on-one connection, and the return to favour of models that exhibit guile and daring on the catwalk is no accident. Aloof and abrupt just doesn’t cut it anymore. We want personality and wit but most of all, we want to be entertained.


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