On one series of sublimely honest images, she is stripped naked, her bare body and face captured in unforgiving daguerreotypes by master artist Chuck Close. In a grouping of video stills, she is the ultimate working-class girl next door, flipping burgers and mopping up in Tom Sachs’s ironic reinvention of a McDonald’s. Through the lens of Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, she is transformed into a blushing bride—blushing perhaps because she seems to have misplaced her wedding gown, though she is armed with a strategically held bouquet. And there she is as a nurse, a tomboy, a sex kitten with a pet monkey.
How could one model inspire so many uniquely evocative visions? The most obvious explanation, of course, is that the artists and photographers charged with the task of capturing her have immense creative powers. But there is also a more subtle reason for the strength and variation of the portfolio: The subject is not just any model. She is Kate Moss, the most controversial and, intriguingly, the most enduring model of our era, a human canvas upon which fashion designers, photographers and artists have felt compelled to work. “When she started she was so different from everybody else in terms of size and body shape and attitude,” says van Lamsweerde, a photographer whose work is equally at home in magazines and galleries. “She’s definitely a generation’s muse. I can’t think of anyone else from our generation whom you’d aspire to look like.”
The very notion of a muse is something of a hot button these days. In her book The Lives of the Muses, Francine Prose wrote that “every historical period re-creates the muse in its own image.” But among those represented in this portfolio, few have had what we tend to think of as a muse at all—a subject, invariably female, who, with the divine force of a Greek goddess, inspires an artist to create beyond what his mere mortal powers would allow. The painter Alex Katz has found his muse in his wife, Ada, for some 45 years. On the other hand, the nearest thing Close has to a muse is a 35-year-old photograph of his friend the composer Philip Glass, to which he has returned for paintings and prints again and again. Still, it’s what Close describes as the formal qualities of that picture—“the Medusa-like curls, the wonderful, heavy, druggy eyelids”—and not Glass himself that inspire. For some the very idea of a muse is outmoded, antifeminist even. The painter Lisa Yuskavage undoubtedly speaks for many contemporary artists when she says, “My real muse is me.”
But if W has had a muse these past 10 years or so, she would have to be Kate, who has appeared on 15 covers (prior to the nine separate covers printed for this issue) and in countless fashion shoots, by everyone from Michael Thompson to Bruce Weber. Her long collaborative relationship with W is partly what prompted Creative Director Dennis Freedman to commission this portfolio. “Kate has been our muse—ours and our photographers'—for the simple reason that there are so many aspects to Kate’s personality,” he says. “She’s a woman, she’s a child, she’s a tomboy, she’s very sexual, she’s smart, she’s funny, she’s good, she’s bad."
It’s not just that Kate is beautiful, though one would be hard-pressed to describe that permanent pout of a mouth or those ostentatiously high cheekbones as anything but. “She’s kind of off-beauty,” says photographer Craig McDean. “She’s not a little cookie, but she’s probably the most beautiful girl in the world.” Indeed, her imperfections—the teeth that many an orthodontist would love to fix, the nose that’s just a little broad, the smattering of freckles—somehow enhance her allure. Katz first spotted Kate with her then boyfriend Johnny Depp in a SoHo restaurant years ago and found her, as he did when he painted her for this portfolio, simultaneously plain and mesmerizing. “She’s completely ordinary,” Katz marvels. “That’s what makes her so extraordinary.”
Her peculiar breed of beauty—awakened by the clear presence of a complex inner life—is a perfect fit for W. “We are far less interested in appearances,” Freedman says. “We look for character, and Kate has character.”
Freedman is also of the mind that the primary factor separating a great fashion photograph from a great photograph is the lack of complete control and creative freedom on the part of the fashion photographer, who by definition must collaborate with the stylist, the hairstylist, the makeup artist and the client. Otherwise, he says, "A fashion photograph is a photograph with a fashion credit." When Freedman heard that Kate had sat for the eminent British painter Lucian Freud, whose elegantly sensual nude of Kate is published here for the first time, he decided to invite several artists to take part in the portfolio alongside the fashion photographers who regularly grace our pages.
The artists range in age from thirtysomething (Sachs) to seventysomething (Katz) and are just as varied in terms of favored medium and sensibility. Yuskavage, for instance, made her mark in the Nineties with paintings of the female form that confront sexuality head-on, while Richard Prince, commenting on the pervasiveness of mass media and the blurred line between reality and fiction, has appropriated publicity stills of celebrities and cheekily "autographed" them. He has also painted pithy jokes, such as the one printed on the T-shirt that Kate, standing in front of one of his paintings, wears in his photograph here (I WENT TO SEE A PSYCHIATRIST. HE SAID " TELL ME EVERYTHING." I DID, AND NOW HE'S DOING MY ACT). In Prince's other picture of Kate, in which she is dressed as a nurse and stands beside a painting of one, he toys with the question of who is borrowing from whom: Are we all—artists included—just a part of one endless cultural regurgitation?
Katz, who helped usher in a return to figurative painting with his reductive, highly stylized portraits in vivid, almost garish colors, offers a subtle allusion to Kate's job. Long fascinated with billboards, he turned in a portrait showing a blonder, sleeker Kate, seductively staring at the viewer over her bare shoulder, an image ready-made to trumpet shampoo or fragrance in the canyons of Times Square.
Kate's place in our consumer society sparked Sachs's imagination as well. Sachs, whose conceptual sculpture and installation art have played with our quasi-fetishistic worship of status labels (think Prada plungers and Hermès hand grenades), dressed Kate not in couture but in a fast-food uniform. "Her appeal is universal, just like McDonald's," he explains. He is speaking, though, not only about Kate's pleasing aesthetic but about the ubiquity that attractiveness has wrought: "She's one of the highest paid fashion models ever. Of course her face is a brand—she's a commodity."
Sachs’s take is echoed in the words of Takashi Murakami, who rendered a pregnant Kate surrounded by his cartoonish iconography of colorful flying eyeballs. No stranger to the fashion world—his collaboration with Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton on a collection of handbags caused a shopping frenzy that hasn’t been seen since Tickle Me Elmo—Murakami says what interests him about Kate is “the fact that she is able to maintain her value for so long.” As if she were a blue-chip stock.
Her face is so recognizable the world over that Close—who is best known for his monumental paintings of faces—first had the inclination to eliminate it, making a daguerreotype diptych of her nude, headless torso, front and back, in the style that he has photographed dozens of lesser known subjects. He ended up, though, also being drawn to an “over-under” diptych of Kate from the chest up (showing her face) and the waist down. “She no longer has that waiflike body that we remember,” says Close, who spent a good deal of time talking with Kate about her recent pregnancy and delivery. “She seemed to be very happy with the changes that have happened to her body. She’s become a woman, broadened slightly.” At the end of the five-hour session, Kate got dressed and Chuck couldn’t help himself: He shot several compelling, tightly cropped pictures of her face.
Close was disarmed by her willingness to comply, particularly for the documentarylike nudes. “She wore no makeup; she hadn’t combed her hair,” he says, adding that she never even glanced in the mirror. “My daguerreotypes are not flattering—any flaws on one’s complexion are exaggerated wildly—and I thought she might be upset. But she said, ‘I’ve had enough pretty pictures made of me.’ She understood what it is that I do, and she was perfectly willing to provide it.”
That eagerness to get with the program could easily be mistaken for simple professionalism. Photographers who have worked with her consistently over the years, though, say Kate is not a passive mannequin. On the contrary, she is an active partner, essential to the image-making. “We create the thing together,” Juergen Teller says. (In case you’re wondering, the monkey in Teller’s diptych is a reference to his young daughter Lola’s nickname for Kate: Monkey Woman.) Nick Knight recalls a shoot that required Kate to sit on a swing for eight or nine hours, holding each of 50 or so positions but looking as if she were swinging fluidly and happily. “Kate Moss is an extraordinarily good model,” Knight says. “By that I mean she can interpret the clothes and can interpret the story very, very well.” She knows her body, he adds, and how to move. “It’s a very physical job. You should try standing in front of a wind machine for five hours—and looking sexy.”
Being presented with no—well, few—parameters was a rarity for the fashion photographers, who accepted the invitation for experimentation. Knight, for one, played with several ideas. He scanned Kate’s entire body—“all her contours and bumps and lumps”—in 3-D, and also photographed himself holding a gun, making a visual pun on the phrase “Nick Knight shoots Kate Moss,” before settling on a different kind of word play: He superimposed snapshots of Kate and a neon sign blaring ICON over a religious icon. When Steven Klein’s original idea unraveled (“I wanted to tie Kate up,” Klein says. “She was into it. Dennis wasn’t”), he was momentarily stuck. Then he noticed the Polaroids that his 24-year-old studio assistant, Zan Ludlum, had brought from home in the hope she could get her idol to sign them. The shots were of her bedroom walls, covered with glossy pictures of Kate that Zan had been faithfully collecting since she was 13. The effect was something more often associated with serial killers in popcorn movies, but the Polaroids inspired Klein to photograph Zan’s room as a poignant stand-in for the supermodel and her cultural resonance.
Mario Sorrenti, on the other hand, offered a lesson in Fashion Photography 101, putting Kate in a beautiful dress (Lanvin), in a beautiful location (under the azalea bush in his garden), with beautiful lighting. For Sorrenti, the day felt something like a family reunion; he and Kate worked at his home, ate lunch together and talked. “We were just catching up on our lives, how funny it is to be growing up,” he says. The two met and fell in love as teenagers, and their careers soon took off together, he playing out his photographic fantasies with her as his muse.
“It wasn’t something that was conscious,” Sorrenti says, no doubt speaking for many of his peers as well. “I just loved taking pictures of her.”
Kate Moss, photographed by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, in a Martin Margiela’s cotton and mohair coat.