A true supermodel is much more than a pretty face. They are a genuine tastemaking presence – one whose every move, statement and wardrobe choice sends ripples through society and who helps define the zeitgeist of their age. We take a look back at the select names to have joined that club through the years…

The term “Supermodel” is a staple of popular culture. For most people it applies to those fashion models who have transcended the clothes they wear and attained such international recognition as to be called celebrities in their own right. But really, it takes much more than that. Any face, simply by virtue of being seen regularly, can become famous. Real supermodels are the ones able to define the very discourse of style and fashion in their time –ones who come to represent both a physical and cultural ideal, and are wholly emblematic of their generation.

Despite our notions of beauty having shifted somewhat over the past 75 years, those fundamental supermodel qualities have remained largely intact. So why do some models have them and others not? Read on and find out who exactly had that elusive “it” factor and who didn’t…

The First-Ever Supermodel

Swedish born Lisa Fonssagrives is the woman credited with the first-ever supermodel status, and the sheer weight of her appearances within the media of the 1940s will attest to that. Never before had a single face enjoyed such a concentrated amount of attention. In that decade, most models made around $10 to $20 USD per hour, while Fonssagrives was paid more than double that. She worked with a who’s who of celebrated fashion photographers – everyone from Richard Avedon to Horst P. and Erwin Blumenfeld – and in 1950 she even married Irving Penn, becoming one of the first power couples the fashion industry had ever known.

Sister Act

Arguably, the following 15 years in fashion were dominated by two sisters: Dorian Leigh and her younger sister Suzy Parker.  Dorian had dark hair, an hourglass figure and a mysterious and seductive feminine aura. She was the muse to the most recognized photographers of the time, and Richard Avedon photographed her for Revlon’s “Fire and Ice” campaign.

Red-headed beauty Suzy Parker, on the other hand, would become the face of Chanel with her rebellious expression and signature scarlet lips. It wasn’t long before she was the highest-earning model of all time. While Leigh and Parker represented two opposing visions of physical beauty, together they encapsulated everything about femininity within that era.

The London Faces

In the 1960s London was booming and it was there that the true supermodels of the decade were discovered. The “Flower Power” movement was represented by the stick-thin Twiggy – the pioneer to all androgynous models that would follow afterwards. With her doll-like features and tiny frame she popularized the waif look, and created a marketing sensation that even resulted in a Twiggy Barbie, among various other merchandising that highlighted her true celebrity status.

Meanwhile, model Jean Shrimpton was proclaimed “the face of the Swinging Sixties London,” and came to be seen as the embodiment of rock n’ roll freedom. Her then boyfriend David Bailey shot her for British Vogue in a groundbreaking editorial that transformed fashion into a young and fresh industry, breaking away from the prim and stiff models that dominated the 1950s. Famous for her tall, slim physique – earning her the nickname “The Shrimp” – she was the first model to popularise the mini skirt and was frequently proclaimed the “Most Beautiful Girl in the World” by the global fashion press. Even today, her effect on the industry is still felt.

Million Dollar Babies

In the 1970s, Margaux Hemingway – great-grand daughter to the mighty Ernest – departed from the prestigious traditions of her family to become a successful model in her own right. In 1975 she broke all records by landing the world’s first million-dollar contract with Fabergé, for the perfume Babe, and even embarked on a semi-successful acting career. Margaux’s blonde hair, sultry eyes and flawless bone structure were an absolute knockout, and her ability to mix classical fashion with a fiercely rebellious streak (she was a regular of the notorious Studio 54 club) helped make her the complete, mysterious package.

Another name that was never far from the limelight was Lauren Hutton: the first model to receive a major contract from Revlon (the biggest the cosmetic industry had ever handed out, prior to Hemingway). These two models, together with rock muse Jerry Hall and Somali goddess Iman (the first ever black supermodel, muse of Yves Saint Laurent and later wife of David Bowie), were part of a brand new generation of faces able to negotiate lucrative contracts with companies based on their personal popularity, as well as their good looks.

Among these new figures rose the infamous Janice Dickinson, who stood out among all others thanks to her exotic and unusual features – something played upon in her infamous “safari shoot” by photographer Peter Beard. She was then followed at the end of the ’70s by wild-child Gia Carangi, who took the industry by storm. For once the world was given a glimpse of a model who had attitude, mystery and one seriously bad temper – a far cry from the well-mannered figures of previous decades. Even more enticing – she wasn’t afraid of posing nude (as seen in Chris von Wangenheim’s famous photo of her behind a wired fence), making her an instant sensation among the youth of the day.

The Golden Age and the Big Five

In the early ’80s the world was still yet to experience the full effect that the statuesque “Big Five” (occasionally referred to as the “Big Six,” depending on who you include) would have over the following 20 years. Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Christy Turlington (and later Stephanie Seymour) came along, turned the market upside down and influenced the shape of the industry like never before. Fiercely feminine, glamorous, full-bodied and diverse in their looks, with the arrival of these ladies, fashion reached to the stars…

Linda Evangelista was the catalyst for the great age of the supermodel. Nicknamed “The Chamaleon,” on account of her sheer versatility and frequently changing look, she has appeared in more than 700 fashion editorials, holds the unbroken record for number of Vogue Italia covers, received unprecedented six-figure paychecks for runway walks and was handed a multi-million dollar contract with Clairol. One thing’s for sure, she meant it when she said “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 per day.”

When it comes to an athletic build, all-American looks and ridiculous sensuality, it can really only be one person: Cindy Crawford. Her power to influence the women of the day was totally unmatched. From the countless girls who drew a mole on their face when she became the spokesperson for Revlon, to successfully making cut-off shorts a “thing” when she wore them in her Pepsi commercial, to the red Versace dress she wore to the 63rd Academy Awards, which was reproduced in almost every way possible, she was a true trend-creator.

The notoriously highly-strung Naomi Campbell was introduced to the industry by her friend Christy Turlington, who brought her to the attention of photographer Steven Meisel. When he went on to shoot them both alongside Linda Evangelista, the original supermodel trio was born (dubbed “The Trinity”). Naomi was the first black model to appear on the cover of TIME, French Vogue and Russian Vogue, and her Jamaican, African and Chinese roots were the most powerful signifier of beauty through diversity the catwalks had ever known. 

If you can recall the early ’90s, then you’ll remember it was a time when the navel piercing was completely, un-ironically in vogue – and that’s all down to Christy Turlington, who basically introduced it into popular culture at the end of the ’80s. While the jury’s out on how much we should thank her for that, this stunning American beauty was nevertheless declared the “Face of the 20th Century” by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and her place at the heart of Calvin Klein from 1987 to 2007 made her a bona-fide household icon.

Since flying to Paris for a trial photo shoot in 1989, Claudia Schiffer has never left the fashion scene. That’s over 25 years in the industry and she’s still going strong. As the quintessential blonde bombshell she became one of the most successful models on Earth, able to enhance the image of seemingly anything she attached herself to – from high-street chains to high-fashion houses, cosmetics and consumer goods. Having graduated from GUESS ads to appear on the pages of almost every fashion and lifestyle publication imaginable, she became the byword for beauty among everyone from high-school kids to middle-class moms, and was loved by almost everyone.

A Touch of Moss

The Big Five were a force like no other, reaching genuine rockstar status in the 1990s. Not only were their looks in high demand across the fashion world, they themselves represented a new kind of independent, empowered woman, able to operate as both a muse and a successful entrepreneur. When Gianni Versace closed his infamous Fall 1991 catwalk show with Naomi, Linda, Christy and Cindy mouthing along to the words of George Michael’s “Freedom ’90” – a move that mimicked the video they themselves had starred in – their place at the very pinnacle of popular culture was set in stone. Vanity Fair even went on to dub it “the ultimate supermodel moment.”

Then, like a bolt from the blue, a new face arrived on the scene – one that would arguably go on to be the biggest of them all – and just like that, the Big Five became Six. While Kate Moss was discovered at JFK Airport in 1988 aged just 14, by the 1990s this fragile English rose was ready to take the whole world on –and the world was only too happy to have her.

The burgeoning grunge movement of the ’90s fit Moss’ look like a tattered fingerless glove. Although her waif-like, size zero appearance caused some controversy (being part of what the media dubbed “heroin chic”) Kate’s elfin features carried an irresistible allure, and there wasn’t a single corner of the fashion industry that was immune to their charms. At a time when “Britpop” was taking over the music world, she was the perfect cultural counterpart and her look was hugely instrumental in shifting the paradigm away from the bronzed goddesses of the ’80s towards a pale, pallid look that seemed positively ghost-like in comparison.

By the end of the ’90s, the dominant aesthetic had become minimal, austere and stick thin – everything the Big Five were not. Young, frail models from Russia and Ukraine were filling their place – their anonymity almost a part of their appeal – and only Kate Moss could straddle the divide between the supermodel image and this cold, sober new world. With the traditional safe havens of cosmetics and product sponsorship being eroded by actresses and musicians, most of the classic supermodels transitioned away from modeling into other areas of work. Yet Kate clung on; stripped of her competition, she was free to rule the roost.

The golden age of the supermodel was over, but her star shone brighter than ever before.

The Last of a Dying Breed

In the early years of the new millennium, several new models emerged with supermodel potential: Gisele Bündchen, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Alessandra Ambrosio, Adriana Lima – all exhibited traits the Big Five had made their own over a decade earlier.

From that group, however, only Gisele is considered to have really broken through and earned the official badge itself. Tall, blonde, tanned and curvaceous, she was credited with ending the “heroin chic” era and ushering in a new age of more traditional looks to the catwalk. With a proud and fierce attitude, Gisele was the face of Dolce & Gabbana for 11 straight campaigns, and was the most in-demand cover girl of her generation. She even dethroned the mighty Kate Moss on home soil, gaining more than 10 covers of British Vogue in less than 4 years. In fact, her business prowess went on to surpass that of all others, and these days she qualifies for genuine tycoon status thanks to a recorded income of $47 million last year.

Almost as if Gisele weren’t enough of a presence on her own, several aspiring models were touted as having reached “Supermodel Status” by the fashion press over the course of the decade. From Dutch charmer Doutzen Kroes, to the Queen of posing Coco Rocha, edgy Abbey Lee, Anja Rubik and Freha Beha… the list could go on. None of them, however, could muster the cross-generational pull or cultural influence of the real supermodels. In fact, only one name has come close to achieving this status in recent years…

With her distinctive bone structure, unmistakable eyebrows and carefree, laissez-faire attitude, Cara Delevingne is the closest the world has come to a modern day supermodel, in that she has an appeal that transcends far beyond the catwalk. It’s this appeal, however, which may have put an end to her modeling career for good. Having reportedly cut all ties with her agency Storm Models in recent weeks, it seems that the acting bug has bitten Cara hard and she’s decided to turn her back on fashion to pursue other interests.

Did the pressure of acting as heiress to Kate Moss’ illustrious throne prove too much to handle? We guess we’ll never know.

The Age of the Instamodel?

Even though there are a handful of names causing a sensation on social media right now – everyone from Kendall Jenner to Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss – it’s hard to see them as anything other than “models of the moment.” What these individuals may or may not realize is that society has become addicted to newness, and the enduring presence and influence enjoyed by the supermodels of old just doesn’t seem to have such a place in the fickle, impatient culture of the modern day. While standout newcomers with singular looks like Binx Walton, Anna Ewers or Chantelle Winnie may prove to have a unique staying power, the notion of the supermodel seems increasingly outdated, and with every new face discovered on Instagram that era seems ever more distant.

Words by Maria Paula Fernandez and AJ Gwilliam for Highsnobiety.com

Words by Staff