Born 20th March 1989, Catherine McNeil is an Australian model who has made retro beauty a must-have for contemporary fashion.
Catherine’s career started in 2003 when she won a local modelling contest. The contest, a collaboration between the Australian magazine ‘Girlfriend’, and the world-famous Cover Girl cosmetics brand, was launched in 1992, and has proved considerably successful: in addition to finding Catherine McNeil, top models Abbey Lee Kershaw and Alyssa Sutherland can also attribute their first big break to winning the competition.
Catherine’s modelling career started small, with two years spent in Australia working on ad campaigns and magazine shoots, and it wasn’t until 2006 that McNeil went to New York to have a meeting with agency NEXT.
Immediately impressed, NEXT signed McNeil and sent her to Paris to meet photographer Mario Testino. The photographer liked Catherine so much that he signed to her an exclusive 6-month contract, photographing her for French and British Vogue.
McNeil’s career began in earnest when she undertook her debut show season in February 2007. Having Testino’s seal of approval, she had a home-field advantage, and McNeil made an equally lasting impression on designers, snagging shows for Balmain, Dior, Costume National, Fendi, Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf. In addition to this, McNeil was asked to headline for Alexander McQueen, Missoni, Givenchy and Alessandro Dell’Acqua.
McNeil’s affiliation with Mario Testino continued throughout the year, with Catherine landing the cover of French Vogue (shot by Testino) and a slew of campaign work for D&G, Hugo Boss and Donna Karan, again all photographed by Testino.
Her runway season that September was equally dazzling, including show opener duty for Zac Posen, Carolina Herrera, Thakoon and Preen, with appearances for Chanel, Derek Lam, Gucci, Isabel Marant, Miu Miu, Rag & Bone, Rodarte and Versace. If McNeil was the hottest model-of-the-moment, her CV certainly proved it: she was working with some of the greatest design talent fashion had to offer.
In December, Catherine did an editorial for French Vogue (photographed by Mario Sorrenti), and in early 2008 Catherine worked with him again, this time for the French Vogue calendar. She also appeared in the 2008 Pirelli Calendar, shot by Patrick Demarchelier. Shooting a calendar for a tyre company may seem a surprising choice for a model of McNeil’s calibre, but the decision is not so left-field as you might think. Pirelli has worked hard in recent years to revitalise itself with a serious image overhaul. By hiring some of the top names in fashion, the concept of the Pirelli calendar has been remarketed for a new generation. Still sexy, but with a touch of high-fashion cool, it used the same technique as Victoria’s Secret, and with the same knockout effect.
To prove the point that she could do it all, Catherine went on to have a highly successful couture season, including Chanel, Dior, Lacroix and Givenchy. No model gets to the heady heights of couture without laying the groundwork first, and Catherine’s prep work had now been done. She was not just a fashion girl; she was a model on the rise.
In February 2008, Catherine did editorials for French and American Vogue, plus a cover for Numero magazine. Her influence in show season continued, with McNeil being asked to close shows for Belstaff, Hermes and MaxMara, with additional appearances for designers such as Alexander Wang, Bill Blass, Dries Van Noten, Halston, Herve Leger, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Valentino.
April was a particularly busy month with McNeil shooting her second cover of Numero, and scoring her first cover for Australian Vogue. Fitting in a tremendous amount of editorial and runway work for the remainder of the year, 2008 ended well when Catherine landed another cover of Australian Vogue in November. In December she then worked again with Mario Testino to create an editorial for American Vogue where she featured in a retro-styled shoot alongside ‘Mad Men’ actor Jon Hamm. The 50’s influence played to McNeil’s strengths perfectly, allowing her to channel old-school glamour with contemporary fashion.
However comfortable McNeil appeared in doing retro shoots, she was still very much fashion’s latest it-girl, becoming the face of the Louis Vuitton Cruise campaign in 2009, plus appearing alongside Claudia Schiffer for a Dolce & Gabbana Resort ad, photographed by Steven Klein.
Catherine also landed a significant campaign when she was exclusively signed to represent the new fragrance by Narciso Rodriguez. Already known for his mastery of minimalism, Rodriguez had experienced earlier success with his self-named fragrance and his second try, ‘Essence’, became a worldwide hit shortly after its release in early 2009. A deliberate play on Rodriguez’s fashion philosophy; the clean, modern feel to the campaign was tempered by Catherine’s sensuality, making the perfume, the designer and the model a winning combination.
2009 also brought a considerable amount of editorial work, with Catherine doing fashion spreads for Harper’s Bazaar, V, American and French Vogue in March; Numero, V and i-D in May; German Vogue in August; Australian Vogue in September and finally, Italian Vogue in October.
Catherine’s star continues to rise in 2010, with an already stacked season under her belt, walking for Blumarine, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Stella McCartney and Prada. Catherine’s appearance in the noteworthy A/W 2010 Prada show especially got the press talking. This season’s Prada show was awash with not only new modelling talent (Barbara Palvin, Samantha Gradoville) but had a few surprises in store. Joining Catherine on the catwalk were Victoria’s Secret favourites Miranda Kerr, Doutzen Kroes and Alessandra Ambrosio.
Sporting retro beehives and pinafore dresses, the look was a million miles away from the uber-glamour of Victoria’s Secret, but this collusion of curves with high fashion was no token gesture. Catherine McNeil’s vintage beauty was ideally situated to the Prada show. Walking the line between the Victoria’s Secret girls and the new model talent, she bridged high-fashion with romance, and if there’s one thing the fashion crowd love more than novelty, its romance.
We often tend to think of high-fashion as having a singular template of beauty, but when made a closer study, the fashion world is more accommodating than we think – as well as Catherine McNeil, there’s room for the ultra-edgy look of Kasia Struss; the glossy girl-next-door (a speciality of Miranda Kerr & Doutzen Kroes); the quirky, youthful appeal of Karlie Kloss and Caroline Trentini, while blondes get represented by models like Hannah Holman and Anja Rubik.
Despite having that retro sensibility that works so well in themed shoots and runways, Catherine McNeil is still very much a contemporary face. The new feminine, as celebrated by Prada, is something more than a passing trend – it is marking a new way forward. Just taking a brief look at some of the runway hits over the past season points to the fact that no matter where you look, fashion’s embracing its feminine side.
This season’s Prada girl wears 50’s Riviera prints that are so authentic it is easy to imagine them being worn by Grace Kelly whilst engaging Cary Grant in a filmic game of cat and mouse. Florals are given the 5-star treatment by Erdem and for this autumn, style-leader Marc Jacobs has given us a collection of keeper-classics that will make it to the top of any stylish girl’s wish-list.
In times of deep uncertainty, it doesn’t take much to figure out that something comforting and familiar is always going to be a sales-winner. The go-to references of modern retro: strong, classic shapes with soft colours and prints piece together a look that’s as timeless as it is fashion-forward.
By going back to fashion’s past, the industry is securing its future, but more than being a cynical money-making exercise, this new venture into fashion’s back catalogue is an attempt to reconnect with the (considerable) group of style consumers who won’t be doing tribal or sports-luxe this season. Prada’s highly vocal celebration of femininity proves that trends don’t just end with hemlines. With the best will in the world, having a must-have trend on your hands doesn’t necessarily mean victory at the tills. Selling a trend takes more than buzz: personal connection still counts and classic beauty connects across the board.
This new look appeals to the girl whose fashion icons are not just Grace Kelly or Bettie Page, she also rates Paloma Faith and SJP in her softer red-carpet moments. Its feminine made modern: flounces are tempered with a chunky heel; a summer coat is off-set with a low-slung messy ponytail. This fresh take on old-fashioned glamour is what makes Catherine McNeil such a hot ticket.
By appealing to a whole new demographic, fashion is doing more than trying to claw its way out of recession. Recovery is about confidence as much as the balance sheet and this array of heaven-sent fashion has shown that the industry is finally getting its mojo back. Having faces like Catherine McNeil for inspiration is convincing designers that style doesn’t have to be an either / or situation between modern and retro: it can, like Catherine, be a beautiful blend of both. By making retro-fashion relevant, the fashion world is finally letting its inner beauty show, and it really is the start of something new.