Elizabeth Paton (The New York Times)
PARIS – When the last model stepped off the runway at Louis Vuitton and the fall 2020 shows drew to a close last week, it was clear that diversity on the catwalks had become a genuine reality and not just a seasonal trend – at least as far as race was concerned. But in show after show, from New York to London to Milan to Paris over the past month, diversity of another kind also took a step forward.
Designers, it seems, have realized women exist past the age of 25.
In fact, sightings of 30- and 40-something models became so frequent that they almost started to feel like the norm. This was not the token one white-haired exception of occasional shows past. This was Freja Beha, 32, opening and closing for Michael Kors. And Natalia Vodianova, 38, walking at Tory Burch in New York.
It was Naomi Campbell, 49, Erin O’Connor, 42 and Karen Elson, 41, all cast in Tommy Hilfiger’s #TommyNow show in London. Natasha Poly, 34, making a surprise appearance at Versace in Milan, along with Anja Rubik, 36; Irina Shayk, 34; and Mariacarla Boscono, 39 – who also later walked at Bottega Veneta, Fendi and Tod’s.
It was Alek Wek, 42; Maggie Rizer, 42; and Anne-Catherine Lacroix, 42, at Lanvin in Paris. Also Amber Valletta, 46, and Doutzen Kroes, 35, at Isabel Marant. And for Olivier Rousteing’s all-star finale at Balmain: Erin Wasson, 38; Helena Christensen, 51; Esther Cañadas, 43; and Liya Kebede, 42, among others. Dutch model Lara Stone, 36, walked for Valentino alongside Boscono, Shayk and Poly.
“It is the first time I have ever been cast for Valentino, so I am delighted,” Stone said as teenage models who hadn’t been born when she started her career pulled on their clothes around her. “Even better, I get to see some of my old friends from my original runway days well over a decade ago.”
The craze among brands for cross-generational show casting is not entirely new. But it gained momentum in 2017, when Donatella Versace reunited a gold chainmail-clad quintet of the original Supers – Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Campbell, Christensen and Cindy Crawford – to close a Versace show in homage to her brother, Gianni, and ignited an Instagram frenzy.
And according to the fashion search engine Tagwalk, this season has seen the greatest number of older models cast in shows yet; 42 had walked for the fall 2020 collections by the final few days of Paris Fashion Week, versus 30 for the spring 2020 collections and 31 for the fall 2019 season a year ago. With eight older models walking at Off-White, including Carolyn Murphy, 45 and Isabeli Fontana, 36, Virgil Abloh had the largest number of runway veterans in a single show.
“I don’t feel like I’ve ever stopped modeling, but I have noticed that booking requests for runway shows have really gone up lately,” said Boscono, the Italian model and muse to Riccardo Tisci, the creative director at Burberry, where she also appeared this season (bringing her total bookings this season to eight).
For her, the shift toward incorporating older models in the lineup makes both creative and commercial sense.
“Mixing up ages on the runway is very important,” she said. “For one thing, a design can look very different on a woman of 40 compared to a girl of 16 or 20. Then there is the fact that there are many more women of 40 buying designer coats than there are teenagers who can afford Burberry or Valentino. Women seeing other women at their stage of life helps them feel like they belong.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that for fashion, age has become the next major frontier after race. Last week, Forbes introduced a “50 Over 50” list dedicated to women “who have achieved significant success later in life.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 79, is going toe-to-toe with President Donald Trump, 73, while Christine Lagarde, 64, is president of the European Central Bank, and the new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is 61.
The ranks of women in the workforce only keep growing, and that is shifting the ground for brands when it comes to the identity and the values they need to project to these consumers.
But while representation of all kinds is important to Rousteing, the Balmain creative director, for him the renaissance of older models is also rooted in another factor: Nostalgia. Many of the comeback characters this season were never part of the anonymous 1990s waif wave. Instead, many of these women, with their athleticism, natural beauty and distinctive personalities, shaped his earliest sense of powerful femininity.
“I think we are living in a moment where we need to push examples of strong women to the front of the pack,” Rousteing said in an interview. “There is something wonderful about putting models of different ages and from different eras who previously defined runway fashion up alongside the younger girls today who are half their age. I wanted to pay homage to these older women and the influence they have had.”
Besides, he continued, “in an industry where there is a lot of change and uncertainty, it is nice to surprise people with a bit of continuity.”