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Nigel Barker on His New Book and the Ever-Evolving World of Modelling

Nigel Barker is one of the most recognizable faces in fashion television, having served as a judge and photographer on TV shows like America’s Next Top Model and more recently, as a host on The Face. After many years as a fashion photographer and having previously modelled himself, Barker knows a thing or two about the industry. In a new book, he traces the evolution of modelling throughout the twentieth century, profiling 50 of the most influential models of our time.

Here, he discusses his inspiration behind the book and what he predicts for the modelling industry’s future.

Nigel Barker. Photo by Marcus Brooks.
Nigel Barker. Photo by Marcus Brooks.

S/: What inspired you to write this book? 

Nigel Barker: Politics, war, religion and social movements have profound impacts on our world, but it’s the individuals who breathe life into mass events. Like world leaders, activists and entertainers, models have stood as personifications and symbols of their times, avatars of the zeitgeist in which they work. Sometimes they have been the shapers of it, too. I wanted to write Models of Influence to take a closer look at fifty of the most influential and impactful women in the history of the fashion business from the 1940s to the present. It profiles those models whose creativity, talent and ability to tell a story without words have pushed society and its standards of beauty ever forward. None of these standards changed because someone decided it would be nice; at every step of the way, models were at the vanguard, putting themselves on the line, where, more often than not, they were mocked, insulted, exploited, or downright rejected before ultimately prevailing, connecting with their clients and, in many cases, the world at large.

How did you go about selecting the 50 women you included?

It was very hard to narrow down the list to just 50 women but ultimately I was looking for women who were pioneers and trail blazers in the worlds of fashion and beauty. My initial list included over 200 successful models from the turn of the century to now but by strictly looking for women that influenced the world at large and helped shape the way we see beauty I was able to short list the top 50.

This book traces the most influential models from the 1940s till now. How has a model’s job changed since then?

Models have moved us over the years to think and see the world differently. They hold up a mirror to society and show us where we are and where we still have room to grow. What is considered beautiful evolves, but it’s very often through models and fashion that we come to understand beauty in the context of our time and, by extension, within ourselves. Models back in the Golden Age of modeling were transitioning from standing for artists as illustrations that were used to sell a product, to actually having their photos taken instead. In many respects the job of models has always been to sell products, be they couture gowns or dish soap. Even back in the 1940s models like Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn was able to category jump and sell just about everything to anyone making her possibly the first “supermodel.” Of course, today there are many more photographers, designers and magazines, not to mention television and the internet for a model to contend with. All these things have made the world much smaller with international travel very much a part of a working model’s everyday life. The career of a successful model also has more longevity which we see with many of the legends like Lauren Hutton, Iman, Christie Brinkley and Christy Turlington to name but a few who are still working successfully.

From Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion by Nigel Barker; photograph of Bettina Graziani by Georges Dambier, 1953. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; © 2015 by Nigel Barker.
From Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion by Nigel Barker; photograph of Bettina Graziani by Georges Dambier, 1953. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; © 2015 by Nigel Barker.

Do you think a model’s online presence is a necessity in this day and age? Why?

Alluring images still sell products in ad campaigns and make for intriguing editorials, but today models with an instinct and talent for self-expression as well as the energy to share digital self-portraits on Instagram and Tumblr around the clock have a very big edge over models who don’t. Though professional photographers can still be crucial for getting the up-and-coming girls important bookings, the models themselves have partially wrestled that power away from them. In addition, magazines and designers have a newfound respect for crowd sourcing, seeking out models with a built-in following on social media.

In what ways have shows like America’s Next Top Model and The Face changed the world of fashion and modelling?

When ANTM first came around it was ridiculed by the fashion business as being an exaggeration of what the business was truly like. Regardless, the world at large was hungry for any and all information about the fashion and modelling industries and coupled with the opportunity to win a chance to participate, these shows became international cult phenomenons.

What do you think makes a model truly stand out?

The confidence, compassion, motivation, energy, sense of humor, attitude (good or bad) and ultimately their ability to surprise me with their free spirit.

Canada may not be considered the centre of the fashion world, but we are known to have some amazing models like Linda Evangelista and Coco Rocha—both of whom you selected to be in your book. Is there something unique that Canadian models bring to the table? 

Absolutely. All countries have many special and uniques things about them that often times rub off on an individual’s personality making them quintessentially from that place. With Canadian models there are definitely a few things that come straight to mind like their strong work ethic, and their willingness to push the boundaries and take things to the extreme. Both Coco and Linda are not your conventional beauties but stunning inspirational muses they are nonetheless. If you were to name two of the best movers and posers in the history of fashion these two ladies would be at the top of the list.

From Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion by Nigel Barker; photograph of Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey, British Vogue, 1965. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; © 2015 by Nigel Barker.
From Models of Influence: 50 Women Who Reset the Course of Fashion by Nigel Barker; photograph of Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey, British Vogue, 1965. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers; © 2015 by Nigel Barker.

Diversity in the modelling world has been a hot topic for what seems like forever. Have we made true progress yet?

Yes, absolutely. That’s not to say we don’t still have a long way to go but there have never been more models of differing ethnicity, shape, size and culture as you see working today.

You’ve sectioned this book by each cultural trend in the modelling world very well, from the “golden age,” to the “supermodel era,” and all the way into today’s social media-savvy celebrity “contemporaries.” What do you think is next for the modelling world?

Thank you! And if I knew the answer to that I would be very clever! I would guess though that we are moving into a time where the will of the people holds more weight than the whim of an editor or photographer, and will be how we decide who and what will represent us on the pages of a magazine, website or Youtube video.

Your resume is so diverse. You’re a photographer, a TV personality, a filmmaker and now an author. What’s next for you?

My dream is to have the opportunity to direct a feature film. It’s a large endeavour indeed, but I have been working on a screenplay on the life and times of the famous political human rights activist David Mixner, with the hopes of turning it into a movie. Stay tuned!

Cover

Models of Influence by Nigel Barker (Harper Collins) is available now.