Supermodel Helena Christensen Brings back the 1990s

The ’90s have been storming the catwalks – and who better to showcase that era’s bodycon and biker jackets than legendary supermodel Helena Christensen? Victoria Moss meets the icon.

Helena Christensen

by Grazia |

Helena Christensen, the half-Danish, half-Peruvian supermodel whose face launched a thousand ’90s meme appreciation accounts, is talking to me from New York, where she tells me her pet rabbit (Bono) is reclining under her desk. After a failed attempt at FaceTime we are on an old school phone call. ‘The fact that we call it old-fashioned…’ I can feel her eye-roll from across the Atlantic.

She is part of a privileged coterie of models – including Cindy (Crawford), Naomi (Campbell), Christy (Turlington), Linda (Evangelista), Kate (Moss) – whose first names have become almost cultural bywords for that heady moment in time, art directed by Herb Ritts and Gianni Versace.

Karl Lagerfeld quipped that ‘nobody looks as good as she looks’. Gianni Versace said she had ‘the most beautiful body in the world’. She was an OG Victoria’s Secret angel, the first Prada campaign girl, walked in Versace’s iconic 1992 ‘bondage’ collection (think Liz Hurley’s safety pin dress, before Liz got her hands on it), and has featured in endless Chanel shows, Revlon campaigns and on Vogue covers.

‘We all had that unique trajectory,’ she muses of her fellow fashion, well, muses. ‘We went through the same situation, living a very intense, different life. Leaving your friends back home and going on this strange journey… that will always bind us together. I mean, I still cannot believe it. I wake up and go, “Oh my God, what?!” I will never really understand what happened, it was so fast in a way that it’s still coming back to me.’ That these women are also still very much in demand is testament to their modelling prowess. They are also good friends.

‘I see Cindy quite a lot. Every time she comes to New York, we hang out, and when I go to LA we hang out. I’ve seen Karen [Elson] a bit, Christy a bit.’ She’s happily watched Naomi Campbell embrace motherhood. ‘It’s something she always wanted, to be a mother. She told me backstage at the Michael Kors show about two years ago [that she was having a baby]. The fact that she made the decision and went through with it, and now has her gorgeous little girl. I’m so happy for her.’

In February, Helena, 53, was back on the runway: walking in an emotional Off-White show in Paris that paid tribute to the label’s late creative director, Virgil Abloh. She starred alongside fellow supers Naomi, Cindy and Amber Valletta (as well as Serena Williams and Cindy’s daughter Kaia Gerber). ‘It was beautiful to be part of,’ she says. ‘I’m really happy that I was able to pay that last respect. It was a special time at the show, so many of us were friends and got to hang out again, and hug and talk and laugh.’

And now, in a shrewd move, she’s fronting Karen Millen’s new Icons campaign. The high-street stalwart (online only since it was bought by Boohoo after going into administration in 2019) has capitalised on both its and Helena’s heritage with the shoot featuring bustier dresses and tops, clean black minimal lines and a shot of neon, too, offering a nod to that heyday but with an essential modern relevance.

The return of the ’90s and Y2K mood shows little sign of abating. On Depop, Gen Z’s shopping weapon of choice, trending search items include cargo skirts (up a huge 828% from last year), cargo trousers and corset tops. It’s seen a 38% increase in searches for the ’90s since December. It’s not just the aesthetics that Gen Z is engaging with. ‘We even see sellers adding a “cultural narrative” to items, like “green ’90s jumper similar to one worn by Rachel Green [of Friends]” giving an added value to what could be just seen as a “green jumper”,’ says Peter Semple, chief brand officer.

Those old enough to have seen Clueless first time around will be charmed (or perhaps horrified) that Depop also reports 10K listings for ‘vintage Jane Norman’, 10.8K for ‘vintage Morgan de Toi’ and 2.8K for ‘vintage Kookai’.

On the comeback of her youth for this generation’s youth, Helena is reflective. ‘There’s always been a lot of interest in it because the ’90s were just frickin’ great. I mean, how often do you sit and surf for movies and you’re like, “I just want to watch a great ’90s action movie?” She regularly posts her own throwback images on Instagram, on which she is prolific. ‘I hardly ever look for them. They tag you and then you get all those little cool surprises. It’s crazy, there’s a whole archive of your life there.’

For Helena, the Karen Millen campaign was also personal. ‘I’ve always been a fan of the clothes,’ she enthuses. ‘My sister, mom and niece have all loved the collections for many years. My sister is obsessed with it.’ The shoot afforded her a visit to London, where she hadn’t been for three years; it was also the biggest shoot she’d done in a while, having spent most of the pandemic with friends and her son (Mingus, 22) in her idyllic Catskills bolthole, shooting herself for various other campaigns.

‘It was overwhelming,’ she recalls of the Karen Millen shoot. ‘It was a huge set. I hadn’t done such a big production for a long time. I took a couple of deep breaths and then realised, it’s actually fun to do this again.’ How did it feel to be called an icon in this campaign? She laughs. ‘I mean, that’s obviously a huge compliment and, you know, a lot of pressure when you’re on set. You have to let that icon out! Which obviously is not how one feels these days in the middle of everything that’s going on. That’s like the last thing on your mind.’

It’s a difficult moment to be hung up on fashion trends, but Helena is better placed than most to have a valid opinion on current events. She is an ambassador for the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and has embarked on missions with the organisation for years, including to Ukraine in 2017. ‘To document the damage done by the previous crisis and to help convey stories of the elderly in Ukraine who were still living in shelters with no homes,’ she explains. ‘Those are the ones I think about a lot because they have not even recovered from the last crisis and now, whatever little they had in 2017, they have lost again.’

Her last mission before the pandemic was to Jordan and one of the world’s biggest refugee camps. ‘Once you’ve been to a refugee camp with 600,000 people you can’t even begin to imagine… It’s an entire city, there’s a million people in Copenhagen, and now it’s probably more like 700,000 in the camp I went to. It just doesn’t make sense. This situation in Ukraine has absolutely shed a light on so many other situations that have been ongoing for years.’

We are also in a moment where, mostly due to social media, fashion companies are expected to have a position on political situations – something Helena sees as a positive. ‘The fashion industry has a very big voice in this situation, and I see them step up. It’s hard because when something so gruesome is happening, who gives a shit about fashion, you know? But there is a possibility for the industry to make a huge difference. So I don’t think it’s about shutting it down in moments like these.

It’s about using the tools to raise awareness, raise money, raise whatever is possible.’

As Helena’s in a reflective mood, I ask what the future holds. But serendipity is her default position. ‘I like the randomness of life.’ So how far ahead does she plan? ‘About an hour! It comes from being frustrated that everything will end at some point. So if I don’t plan ahead too far, I keep the future a little bit at bay.’ She adds, seriously I think, ‘It pisses me off no end that I’ll die one day and not experience the future. If a vampire passed by me in the night I would totally give my neck. I’m so ready to live forever.’

The Icons collection is out now; karenmillen.com

Helena wears: leather biker jacket, £348, and leggings, £175, both Karen Millen. Photographer: Zoe McConnell

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