When Calvin Klein launched his first campaign with Kate Moss, who turns 50 today, the Croydon-born model acquired icon status almost overnight. She was just 17. Not only did the images end up plastered across every teenager’s bedroom, but they also became synonymous with the look of an era: a pared-back, democratic aesthetic that young people could aspire to from both sides of the class divide. However, the imagery – shot by Herb Ritts, and later Mario Sorrenti and Steven Klein – was also a lightning rod for red-top papers and trade magazines keen to weigh in on “heroin chic”, a byword for gaunt, waif-thin models. Think dark circles under the eyes, a cigarette hung from the lips, skimpy getups. Moss, naturally skinny and mixing with the proverbial wrong crowd since she was 13, was an easy target.
Of course, it was a two-sided battle. Like many pop cultural moments, her stardom came from a perfect storm. Despite her demonisation, Moss was also the appointed face of Cool Britannia, standing as a cornerstone for nineties poptimism and a riposte to the glamazons of Eighties fashion. She was a supermodel – up there with the Vogue favourites – but she also offered a rawer, more relatable attitude, primed with less-than-perfect gnashers and a characteristically British awkwardness that dissolved only when she stepped onto the runway. As such, her Klein contract also marked the moment that Britishness became a global export, that indescribable “cheek” brought to the States and beyond.
You can see this shift bubbling away in the background of Moss’s story. So it goes, a 14-year-old Moss was flying back from the Bahamas with her father, a travel agent, when she was scouted by the brother of casting director Sarah Doukas. From there, Moss spent a good two years grafting her way through “go-sees”, industry speak for meetings with agencies and potential clients. Then, at just 16 in 1990, she would front the cover of youth culture magazine, The Face, shot by her friend Corinne Day.
Titled The 3rd Summer of Love, the shoot saw Moss posing with a scrunched face – Day had instructed her to snort like pig – and frolicking across the British seaside of Camber Sands. Honest and gritty, it foreshadowed her less-is-more appeal. “Besides her inexplicable beauty, Moss in her teens still looks like a girl you could’ve gone to school with or seen out shopping on the high street,” says The Face’s style and culture editor, TJ Sidhu. “Here was a normal character, who wouldn’t look out of place drinking a pint down at the local with a group of mates.”
Forming a full editorial, the Face shoot was also Moss’s introduction to the sometimes invasive nature of the industry. Indeed, Moss has recounted on several occasions crying on set and being pushed by Day to go topless – a perennial request from designers and photographers throughout her career. As such, the shoot is a conflicted milestone for Moss, especially as it largely influenced Klein to cast her for his suggestive “My Calvins” series. Whether she was emotionally or physically ready, Moss was on the New York fashion radar. And so, by the time photographer Patrick Demarchelier recommended her to Klein, it was a done deal.
The Herb Ritts campaign arrived in 1992, and Moss was shot with Mark Wahlberg, then a braggadocious and explicitly chauvinist rapper known as Marky Mark. The shoot was a cool, black-and-white story – Wahlberg, topless and clad only in his Calvins and jeans, embraces Moss, also in just Calvins. Accompanied by shots of Moss sitting on top of him, as well as a solo portrait of Wahlberg grabbing his package, the campaign was also filmed. “Oh, she got freckles,” Wahlberg says in the clip, inspecting Moss’s body while she poses in silence.
Although it makes for uncomfortable viewing – we now know Moss thought Wahlberg was a bit of a jerk and had spent weeks in bed with anxiety before the shoot – it undoubtedly skyrocketed her fame. By titillating viewers, Klein had found a way to make what was the most mundane of fashion feel like the height of fashion. Want to look hot and sexy? Simple. Make like Moss. “There was a connection with the consumer,” says Joseph Kocharian, Rolling Stone and Attitude’s fashion and beauty director. “Everyone can go out and buy jeans and a T-shirt. Even if it isn’t Calvin Klein, you can go to the high street, which is sort of the opposite to Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, with her blow-dried hair.”
It makes sense, too. Klein has long been lauded as one of the most business-savvy designers, knowing how to mass market without destroying his label’s designer credentials. “His magic came from his ability to capture the cool of the moment and then sell it back to us,” says fashion writer Richard Gray. “ââThat relationship magnified Moss and Klein quite literally.”
This was especially clear when Moss and Sorrenti, her then boyfriend, tag-teamed the next major campaign for Klein in 1993. Tapping into the fragrance market – a cash cow for many fashion houses – Klein enlisted the pair for a breathy, sex-sells campaign. Sorrenti was already shooting Moss obsessively, and so the aptly titled fragrance Obsession was a breeze for him to visualise.
With wet hair, razored cheekbones and a childlike frame, Moss poses with a camisole half undone, or topless in a foetal slumber, showcasing what Sorrenti dubbed a “primitive beauty”. Again, in black and white, it’s a cold and haunting campaign, fetishising her fragility and youth as the pinnacle of beauty. Klein addressed this bluntly in the 1998 documentary Beautopia, describing Moss’s young looks as edgy and stimulating for men, an admission that further muddies this treasured moment in fashion history.
Nonetheless, this very fetishisation of youth, albeit problematic, also read as relatability. Moss shared a lot in common with her fans – both in being young and uniquely familiar – and the West at large was undergoing a youthquake. Moss was the down-to-earth girl we needed. Squeaky voiced, with a penchant for dancing and an exceptionally plain vocabulary, the Estuary English-speaking, lower-middle-class model was likeable in a way that an otherwise haughty supermodel like Naomi Campbell wasn’t.
As such, by the time Steven Meisel’s Calvin Klein Jeans campaign came along in 1995, Moss had already become a voice for everyone’s naughtier side, excusing our glottal stops and weekend habits. Meisel, normally a bastion of polish, opted for a rough-and-ready shoot, in which a tank-topped Moss posed before a pine curtain, half leant on a ladder. It smacks of “porn studio casting couch”, and this smutty spin was felt especially in the campaign’s behind-the-scenes film. Klein can be heard instructing Moss to undo her jeans and edge them down her waist, while she responds coyly. Again, it’s an enticingly screw-it, DIY attitude, marred by the seedy undertone.
So, what to make of these enduring but equally troubling campaigns as Moss approaches 50? After all, she’s come a long way from her heady past, having shaken off every character assassination from “Cocaine Kate” to being the scapegoat for anorexia. Yes, she’s still the same toast-eating, tea-slurping girl we loved then. She still smokes too much and remains criminally inarticulate. But her rebrand as a meditating, mindful gardener out in the sleepy Cotswolds deserves some respect. That said, this doesn’t mean writing off her Calvin Klein era. It just means reframing it. Both the start of something special and also a time machine to another cultural climate, it’s the antithesis to political correctness, closely controlled “optics” and media training. It’s also seminal. And that deserves a page in history.