The origins of Linda Evangelista are what you would expect from any good fashion story. Born in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, the teenage beauty queen was plucked from obscurity by a fashion scout before moving to the Big Apple in 1984. The rest of course, is history. Countless haircuts matched only by countless magazine covers culminated in a legendary career that spanned over two decades. Quiet in recent years – having made her last major runway appearance for Christian Dior A/W 07 couture – it would be a CoolSculpting nightmare that would throw her back into the spotlight. But with a single Instagram post in July 2022, the supermodel who launched over 700 magazine covers flipped the script on a harrowing story of plastic surgery gone wrong, and showed the world a legacy like hers can’t be ignored. Earlier this week came a British Vogue cover, backended by countless think pieces on the fashion industry's history of pushing unattainable beauty standards. Still, for any true fashion fanatic, this debacle would only be a blip in the model’s legendary career. Drowning out the noise of current Evangelista discourse, it's important to understand why, after all these years, the supermodel supreme continues to captivate.
Some fashion moments belong in the history books. As part of the Tumblr generation, one such moment for this writer is Versace’s S/S 18 runway show. With my formative years spent endlessly scrolling through images of legendary runway moments and grainy clips of the supermodels showing the world what super really means, suddenly the stuff of fashion legend had been brought to life. And I'm not just talking about the house’s archival prints swathed on the new crop of it-girls like Kaia Gerber and the Hadids. The history-making finale saw some of the industry's greatest faces make their runway return.
As the curtain lifted, fashion show attendees, and myself watching the livestream from the comforts of bed (pyjamas and all) were graced with the presence of some of fashion’s most legendary faces. Like the pediment of the Parthenon stood some of the greatest glamazons to ever walk the runway – in coordinating chainmail dresses no less. Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Helena Christensen were frozen in time before Donatella Versace led them down in a royal guard's procession to make her final bow. But there was one glaring omission in this nostalgia trip. The absence of Linda Evangelista.
Along with Naomi and Christy Turlington, these women made up ‘the trinity’ and defined the era of the supermodel. With Turlington making up for her absence by starring in the tribute collection’s campaign months later, it would only further highlight the absence of Evangelista. After all, she was the Versace girl. A muse to Gianni Versace, she was the face of countless campaigns lensed by Herb Ritts and Richard Avedon, not forgetting her starring role in one of the 90's most iconic fashion moments when she lip-synced George Michael’s Freedom ‘90 at the A/W 91 finale. Together, this trio would come to signify a golden age of fashion defined as the perfect storm of glamour, beauty, and power. After all, they had all crossed over into full-blown celebrities becoming household names that lasted longer than any of their predecessors.
It's no secret that we live in nostalgia-heavy times. A powerful tool that the industry has never been shy of utilising, that pulls on our heartstrings for an era gone by. But when Evangelista soft-launched her return to fashion with Fendi’s announcement of a special September show in New York on Instagram last month, it felt like more than just another attention-grabbing ploy. And while it might not have been the Versace-laden return many of us could have hoped for (and the triple-stacked Fendi satin caps were certainly a choice), it still created a palpable excitement that could only be generated by one of the greatest models the world has ever seen.
Sure, I could wax poetically about Evangelista’s face card, but haven't there been countless feline faces that have paraded down the runway? A career like hers has to do with so much more than her otherworldly good looks. Part of her longevity comes from the relationships she’s built throughout her career. As a muse to some of fashion’s greatest talents like Karl Lagerfeld, as well as her longstanding friendship with photographer Steven Meisel, Evangelista’s power came from her transformative prowess. Dubbed a fashion chameleon in the press, journalist supreme Tim Blanks labelled her as ‘fashion’s great actress’. This incomparable ability to embody the clothes she modelled saw her go from biker-bride vixen at Chanel A/W 91, to a sugary-sweet coquette for Anna Sui S/S 94. Versatility was one of the defining factors of her career.
‘I change all the time, that’s why I am interesting’, Evangelista told Macleans in 1995. Any talk of Evangelista’s legacy wouldn’t be complete without mentioning her affinity for changing hairstyles. In a time when models were booked for their distinct image or archetype, she dared to keep the industry on its toes by frequently altering her appearance. Her hair journey began in 1988 when Peter Lindbergh documented hairstylist Julien d’Ys giving Evangelista her signature short crop. From platinum blonde to technicolour red courtesy of Oribe, there was a fearlessness in her ability to adapt. ‘Hair is the greatest thing to experiment with because it's not permanent. If I didn't like my colour, I'd just change it,’ she said in an interview with the Guardian in 2005.
Having worked with Evangelista numerous times throughout her career (and having hundreds of Vogue covers under his own belt), who better to explain the model’s lasting appeal than hairstylist Sam McKnight? ‘She was never the same person, but she was always Linda. Now that's really clever', he tells me over the phone. In contrast to the idea of models as blank canvases to be made up by the creatives around them, McKnight recalls how intrinsic Evangelista was to the process. ‘In the dressing room, it was building a character with her involvement. It wasn’t just throwing a look on her and there you go. It was all about Linda. She had to know who that character was and why she was there.’
When speaking about his experience working with the IRL goddess, he paints a picture of a composite professional with an unwavering devotion to their craft. Recounting a shoot in Italy where Evangelista was chased by a group of Doberman Pinschers, he explains ‘She didn’t bat an eyelid. She jumped down those stairs, gave a little Linda leap and a smile and everything was fine. I wouldn’t have been able to do that, but Linda carried it off magnificently.’ While it was Evangelista’s face that opened the door to fashion, it wasn’t the defining feature of her success. ‘She wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. But she knew how to work every cell in her body to get the best image,’ McKnight says. ‘She wasn’t finished until the shot they got was the best it could possibly be. She really wanted to push the envelope.’ To McKnight, this reverence for Evangelista by him and many of his peers is no exaggeration. ‘I’m not saying this to fluff your piece up, she was extraordinary. The movements. It was extraordinary to watch her dance for the camera.’
The word icon has virtually lost all meaning in fashion discourse at this point, but when looking back at the career of Linda Evangelista no other word feels appropriate. At the height of her career, she was the face of an entire industry. With the rise of the supermodels, fashion became ingrained into popular culture ushering in no shortage of parodies and criticism of its inherent vanity and materialism. There's a reason Evangelista’s most infamous quote ‘we don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day’ (referring to her and fellow supermodel Christy Turlington), continues to stick with her to this day. Of course, that’s mere pennies now when compared to the paychecks Instamodels and influencers cash for peddling gummy vitamins today.
Evangelista’s reemergence in the industry following her CoolSculpting revelation has spawned endless articles about her appearance, once again using her as a conduit for criticism on fashion’s unwavering obsession with youth and beauty. The problem with that is how much it discredits the work she’s created. Close-knit collaborations with some of the industry’s greatest talents, and a dedication to embodying characters has resulted in an evocative body of work that, quite frankly, belongs in the fashion history books. ‘I’ll do anything for fashion,’ quips Evangelista at the end of her recent ‘My Life In Looks’ video for British Vogue. A sentiment echoed by those she’s worked with. It’s precisely this unwavering devotion to fashion that’s at the core of Evangelista’s story. And that’s exactly what makes Evangelista the supermodel of the world. Sorry, RuPaul.