NEW YORK — Among the more avant-garde looks shown on the runways of New York, London, Paris and Milan was one that seems ho-hum in real life: gray hair.
More mature models – some even in their, gasp, 40s – were stars at the previews of fall styles. And in the fashion world, that's a radical turn from the use of models not old enough to drive a car, let alone wield a credit card.
"I wanted something different," said Francisco Costa, creative director for the Calvin Klein Collection. "I wanted a cast that really represented a customer I design for, and that's not really a 16-year-old."
Costa hired gray-haired Kristen McMenamy, who also appeared at Viktor & Rolf, as well as '90s sensations – and now mothers – Stella Tennant and Kirsty Hume.
Marc Jacobs, widely considered the most influential American designer, cast 47-year-old Elle Macpherson in his Louis Vuitton show, along with Bar Refaeli and Alessandra Ambrosio. Trendsetting Miuccia Prada used Ambrosio, Isabeli Fontana, Doutzen Kroes and Miranda Kerr – all best known as voluptuous Victoria's Secret models and all in their mid-20s, a relatively advanced age for runway models.
It's a smart move by the fashion industry to make itself more relatable to consumers. Costa acknowledges that the tough retail climate has helped force design houses to speak more directly to their customers.
"The woman who puts my clothes on needs a certain level of sophistication," says Costa. "We wanted to acknowledge women who have always worn our clothes, women with their own identities, have full lives, have kids."
It also may help counter perennial complaints about skinny models. It's said that age brings wisdom; it also usually brings curves.
The more mature look was on-trend with the chic, retro styles shown for fall, so helping models' health may be icing on the maybe-not-entirely-fat-free cake.
Still, Nian Fish, creative director at fashion-show powerhouse producer KCD, says designers, stylists, casting agents and modeling agents all collectively heeded the call to put forth a healthier image.
"This is fashion coupled with compassion," says Fish, who helped the Council of Fashion Designers of America launch its health initiative back in 2007. "But I think the compassion came first, and then the fashion suited these bodies. I loved seeing these bodies in Prada. We're always looking for trends at Prada, and seeing Victoria's Secret girls on the Prada runway woke up a lot of people about what a women should look like."
Older models have had far more success in print, where 41-year-old Christy Turlington and 39-year-old Claudia Schiffer, for example, still star in top-tier campaigns. But while ads have always been specifically crafted to sell something, the runway had been about fantasy.
The reaction to Costa's more womanly look – a shift from the house's usual almost androgynous muse – has been very positive, he notes. "You can see a Kristen McMenamy wearing the clothes. You can see a woman who's so cool, but her hair is so real – it's amazing," he says.
"These runways looked great," agrees Fish. "Our eyes adjusted very quickly because we wanted it to. Everything looked fresh and new. Seeing clothes on post-pubescent bodies didn't look fresh."
The current controversy about models' weight actually goes back to the early '90s and the days of Kate Moss, her waif body and a look dubbed "heroin chic." But the conversation turned to age at a panel discussion earlier this year where Kroes, 25, and Coco Rocha, all of 21, both said they weren't getting much runway work because of their age and curvier figures.
"I had been away from fashion shows seven or eight years, other than Victoria's Secret," says Ambrosio, who also walked for Giles Deacon. "It was really nice to participate. It was surprising because, for such a long time, designers were only using girls that weren't so sexy, whose bodies were less curvy."
It was a coup for her to be cast, she says, but it also helped score public interest in the shows.
"People were interested in the known faces on the runway," she says. "We've all been working for such a long time, and the more you walk, the more you work, the more confidence you have. You can relax, smile more, add personality. You walk the way the clothes need to be shown."
Ed Razek, president of Victoria's Secret, is amused that the fashion world is rediscovering boldface models, who, naturally, have to have a few years under her belt to become famous.
The first time he met Chanel Iman, she was already considered an It Girl in the fashion world, starting on the runways at 15. But she was too scrawny and young, Razek recalls. Now at age 20 she has a lucrative Victoria's Secret contract.
"She promised in the next year, she'd grow curves – and she did," Razek says.
This season, girls of 13 or 14 were told this season to come back when they were a bit older, says KCD's Fish. And other models who looked unhealthy were advised to take the season off but with an open pledge to embrace them when they return after getting treatment.
The CFDA's voluntary wellness guidelines link age and health, even if they don't set specific standards, says Steven Kolb, the organization's executive director. There are standing recommendations that models under 16 not be hired and those under 18 not work past midnight and have supervision, rest and regular meals.
"The age and thinness thing go hand-in-hand," Kolb says.
Fish says she hopes the younger girls do come back – with many more years of work in front of them. "This is all going to snowball now. Once these few key designers do this, it snowballs and it makes it OK for everyone else to do."
Will McMenamy and her gray hair be back, too?
Costa won't commit, saying he does embrace newness. But, he adds, that doesn't have to be synonymous with youth.
"Kate Moss has grown up," he says. "Now she's the woman I wish to wear my clothes."