In the fashion world, it's not always easy to keep a sense of proportion. Take the case of 18-year-old Gisele Bundchen, a.k.a. Gisele, fashion's new Über- (not super-) model. Gisele is currently shooting five massive advertising campaigns, starring on the cover of W, and playing the muse to Übersnappers Steven Meisel and Mario Testino. In short, Gisele is huge. And yet, right now you'll find her on every page of a tiny magazine (circulation 32,000) that goes by the name of -- inevitably -- Big. Why a model so successful should shrink herself down to indie level underscores what it takes not just to make it big but to stay on top in today's fashion world.
"Everyone thought that because I was just working for the same photographers -- Mario, Steven -- and, I don't know, because my pictures were very beautiful, very pretty, that I could only be that way. It's very important to show that you can do more," Gisele asserts over a lunch of cheesy pasta and ice cream. "Some people thought I could never be edgy." And this was the challenge taken up by the folks at Big: to "edgify," on every page of the magazine through a portfolio of eccentric and noncommercial images, the industry's most accessibly gorgeous young thing.
No small task. Edgy, fashion's favorite adjective, is hardly what this vision of freckled, tanned beauty brings to mind. For God's sake, she's even busty (naturally!), a detail not lost on the world's top designers, who this season did not send out a V-neck sweater or a button-front shirt without letting Gisele's cleavage do the walking. "Gisele has a fantastic sense of her body," says Donatella Versace. "She is the ideal model for Versace at the moment, because she makes the clothes come to life the way I want them to look: sexy and strong." For W's Joe Zee, who recently styled her for the all-important cover, "she's the most exciting new model. She can make anything look sexy and adorable." "The reason she's extraordinary is all to do with her being Brazilian; Gisele is always funny, always up," says Lucinda Chambers, fashion director of British Vogue. She adds, sotto voce, "I've never known a body that only goes northward -- and it shows no signs of ever going south."
Neither does the body's owner. Raised in a tiny village in southern Brazil, discovered at 14 at a São Paulo shopping center, and currently acquiring a house in Woodstock, Gisele has charted a north-by-northeast career trajectory. Her life story, which she delivers with rapid-fire chattiness and charmingly robust interjections ("You crazy!"), has all the usual markers of a top model's rise -- reluctant, fortuitous collision with the industry (she wanted to be a volleyball player); boyfriendless school days (too tall, too tomboyish); rejection by fashion mediocrities (her first London season, she landed only two shows) but recognition from style gods (one of those shows was Alexander McQueen's, which begat catwalk work in Milan and Paris and a French Vogue shoot with Mario Testino). Now she has a model boyfriend (VH1 Male-Model-of-the-Year winner Scott Barnhill), a model dog (her Yorkie named Vida), and a commercial profile of model enormity. "Gisele's now so hot," enthuses Allure's Polly Allen Mellen, "she's always the first one everyone wants." Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Céline, Ralph Lauren, and Valentino all vie for her time, as do Vogue, W, and Harper's Bazaar.
As did Big, a bi-monthly publication, now in its fifth year, that occupies the same fashion aerie as Dutch, Self Service, Purple, and i-D. Loftily afloat on the breezes of pure "image-making," high above the earthbound organs of retail and rag trade, these quirky, ostensibly noncommercial journals alight on the coffee tables of style-world edginistas. Past issues of Big have centered on intangible themes ("the sublime") or controversial figures (Bob Richardson, the William Burroughs of fashion photography). This month, the magazine has given over its entire issue to images of "sexy and adorable" Gisele shot by London's top edgy photographers and the even edgier newcomers who used to be their assistants. Elaine Constantine snaps her at home with her sisters; Sølve Sundsbø reconstructs her using a 3-D laser scan; John Akehurst takes her to bed. The results are, well, edgy. Conceived by Lee Swillingham, the British art director who has just left The Face (cool) for Dazed & Confused (cooler), this special issue of Big (coolest) was mostly shot on a shoestring over five days last November. "I chose to work with very, very high-fashion photographers, not the people you see in traditional women's magazines," says Swillingham fastidiously, "not people who just shoot for fashion magazines every day of the week. I wanted it to have more of a point of view. It's a strange, high-fashion documentary."