- Words by Mr Richard Benson, author and editor of The Face
between 1995 and 1998
When Ms Kate Moss began appearing on magazine covers, she announced an incipient revolution in British popular culture. The July 1990 issue of The Face, her second cover for the magazine following her May debut, was a declamatory guide to the "the third Summer of Love", essentially a continuation of the psychedelic, egalitarian and hedonistic attitudes that had characterised Britain's new acid house clubs and outdoor raves in 1988. Inside there were surveys of the movement's new bands and fashions, and stories celebrating "the street-level reaction against the self-consciousness of the 'cool' designer 1980s", as the December 1989 issue of the magazine described it.
There was also Ms Corinne Day's famous shoot, from which the cover image was taken, of Ms Moss at Camber Sands in East Sussex. Fifteen, crooked-toothed and Croydon-insouciant, she seemed the antithesis of the 1980s supermodels. To me, reading the magazine in my early twenties, the pictures, like the rest of the editorial, felt like the start of something new - and they were; they represented the assertion of an ordinary, modern Britishness that would go on to influence all areas of culture and, in the end, some of the thinking of the New Labour government.
Ms Moss' image was locked into this zeitgeist at the beginning, and her character and style have ensured she remains relevant. These attributes are on display this month in a Christie's auction of artworks depicting her. Art collector Mr Gert Elfering has curated a set of new and old photographs, paintings, sculptures, collages and, indeed, a tapestry, that includes work by Messrs Juergen Teller, Allen Jones, Nick Knight, Mario Sorrenti, Chuck Close, Ms Sam Taylor-Wood and Sir Peter Blake. The cumulative effect reminds us of the extraordinary hold this "ultimate modern muse", as Mr Elfering describes her, has on the public and artistic imaginations. Other models (well, Ms Gisele Bündchen) may earn more, and others may have successfully changed careers, but none have combined fashion, advertising and fine art as Ms Moss has done, and it is difficult to imagine anyone doing it again.
No other model has combined
fashion, advertising and fine art as
Ms Moss has done, and it is difficult to
imagine anyone doing it again
Why is this? Photographers and artists credit - besides her beauty and photogeneity - her energy, charisma, irreverence, individuality and vulnerability, coupled with a lack of self-consciousness and aloofness. One gets the idea here, but there is no consensus except that she is highly resourceful and professional when working. Journalists and intellectuals have theorised her appeal, but rarely with much éclaircissement; in the London Review of Books, Mr Kevin Kopelson recently likened her ability to embody contradictions to that of the model in the "Mona Lisa". Meanwhile, Ms Moss herself dislikes the question "why?", and in the notoriously few interviews she has given, offers no answers. "Never complain, never explain", her ex-boyfriend Mr Johnny Depp once told her, and she has remembered the lesson.
It is probably fair to suggest that her looks dovetailed with several zeitgeists, in some ways. Certainly her slim body and narrow hips fitted in with the period when androgyny became more acceptable and gender more fluid, as Mr Calvin Klein intuited when he used her in his ad campaigns. Her relative shortness, uncorrected teeth and un-manicured hands also endear her to many women who feel wearied by perfect-looking models, and have played well in an era when directional photographers included imperfections and frailties in their pictures. But the convincing arguments for the enduring interest in her are simpler.
Firstly, she has a sense of style whose populism, irony, playfulness, eclecticism and referentiality (the intellectual phrase would be "postmodernism") suits the way fashionable women now dress. To the interested observer, her highly copied Glastonbury outfit of denim shorts and green Wellington boots captured a moment when stylish young urbanites were beginning to enjoy festivals and a sort of Mr Nick Jones-inspired idea of the British countryside that stemmed from his Babington House club. Unusually for someone in the fashion world, it has to be said, she knows how to use humour to be both pretty and witty. When newspaper journalists were criticising Burberry for its popularity with so-called "chavs", Ms Moss turned up at a show decked out in the brand's signature check.
Secondly, there is her personal life. The contemporary celebrities who compel public interest beyond their work are those whose lives acquire a soap opera-like quality or sense of narrative, and this is certainly true of Ms Moss. She embodies modern myths like a sort of urban fairy-tale figure: the poor girl who becomes impossibly rich and famous, for example, or the ingénue led astray (by Mr Pete Doherty), or the outsider persecuted by the hypocritical authorities (for alleged drug use, supposed anorexia and corruption of young women). Her fans - certainly those of my generation - find that her humour, her lack of pretension and her background (she is the daughter of a suburban barmaid and travel agent who divorced when she was 13) led them to sympathise and identify with her, which is largely why the drug allegations strengthened, rather than reduced, her following.
In short, she is successful and glamorous but appears to live, flawed, like the rest of us; this is one definition of a hero, and it may be the most important thing about her. Well, that and the fact that she looks pretty good, too.
Auction takes place at 6pm on 25 September, with the collection available to view between 21 and 25 September, Christie's Saleroom, King Street, London. christies.com
Mr Benson's new book, The Valley: 100 Years in the Life of a Family (Bloomsbury) is due out in spring 2014