Fashion Moment

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.”

For all of Swillingham’s high-mindedness, the new issue was launched at a party in London thrown by Big’s long-term supporter DKNY, one of the very brands that traditional fashion magazines sell to the masses every month. The giant corporation and the Lilliputian magazine make odd bedfellows, and a ménage à trois with Gisele is stranger still. This intercourse between mainstream and marginal demonstrates the rules of attraction operative in today’s fashion world. A decade ago, a supermodel could declare, with tongue only partially in cheek, that she wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day; these days, it seems, a top girl is out of bed, dressed, and ready to give it away to an art-house photographer for no money.

The supers of the late eighties and early nineties, such as Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford, were famous for creating a brand image of themselves and were commercially desirable precisely because of their iconic reliability; on and off camera, they were expected to have shiny manes and cover-girl looks, to be sexy and adorable. For Gisele and her generation, a long life at the top now requires greater versatility, harder work, and a less mercenary sense of what’s worthwhile. During Big’s production last winter, Gisele woke up for next to nothing to shoot at least three stories a day. She has dashed to London from the Paris shows to shoot a fast cover for i-D, continues to walk the runways of smaller designers she identifies as brilliant (Hussein Chalayan for TSE New York), and dreams of collaborating with Nick Knight, the dean of U.K. cutting-edge photography.

What allows a model to “cross over” from the pages of accessibly glamorous books to those with rarefied aesthetic aspirations, and who can do it, is the subject of endless speculation in style circles. Steven Meisel, the photographer most responsible for the cosmetic transformations of many models, sees it as a matter of flexibility rather than of physiognomy: “Gisele is able to change because she wants to – it’s not in her looks; it’s in her mental process. She is malleable and is willing to be a silent screen star because she understands that modeling is acting. What makes a girl last,” he states emphatically, “is wanting to do the job; they have to see it as a profession. A model determines her own longevity.” Ask top fashion folk about the face they will never tire of, and you’ll hear only one answer: Kate Moss (says Sundsbø: “She’ll be interesting in her sixties”). Interview’s Victoria Bartlett understands that La Moss’s appeal is more than skin-deep: “Kate is the most beautiful girl in the world. She arrived at the summit eight years ago with the supermodels but has detached herself from that moniker over the last four years. What’s preserved her allure is her unavailability.” By “unavailability,” Bartlett means Kate’s continuing fluid relationship to the camera. For every defining image of her (cK ads, Vogue covers), there has been an undefining counter-image in a European magazine such as The Face or Dazed & Confused.

Just plain gorgeous doesn’t cut it anymore. These days, photographers and stylists look for a certain narrative quality in their models, and this has its cruel aspect. “I’m only interested in models who are on the way up or who are over,” admits one star snapper. Here, then, is the Catch-22: If you’re at the top – if you’ve plateaued – you’re boring. The same applies for the image-makers, which is why Mario Testino, the arch exponent of glossy pretty pictures, redeems his creative credibility by giving The Face dark, disturbing work. For their part, indie magazines, which normally champion funny faces such as Hannelore and Alissa, more and more toy with and recast the industry’s most conventionally glamorous girls. The May issue of i-D features a winking, swimsuit-clad Heidi Klum on its cover in a sly send-up of men’s magazines. And who would have thought five years ago that Eva Herzigova would find her way into The Face?

At stake in all of these inversions and odd couplings is not just hipness: It’s money. Here’s how it works. Terry Richardson (growing) shoots Gisele (big) for Big (small), and next thing thing you know, they’re collaborating again on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar (big). DKNY (huge) buys the back covers of Big (small) and throws a party, and suddenly the company is deliciously small again to that precious elite for whom size is everything. “The best thing is to be associated with an obscure British fashion magazine, and then all the Americans want to work with you,” observes Swillingham. “The late nineties have all been about buying into some notion of credibility.” It’s a paradoxical state of affairs – the co-opting of the noncommercial for commercial purposes, and vice versa – and it’s one that characterizes every aspect of media culture (just ask the brothers Weinstein and Coen). Even an 18-year-old from remote South America understands instinctively what’s required. “I’m Gisele,” she says. “I’m myself. At the beginning, I was always getting offered the same jobs for the same look. I was like, ‘Why don’t they let me try?’ I just want to be able to try, and then they can judge me how they want; they cannot say that I am only one way.”

Fashion Moment