Morwenna Lytton-Cobold

9 November 2007

“The supermodel is dead,” says Morwenna. “Modelling is not a shortcut to fame any more.” She’s talking on the phone from Milan, at the third of the four global fashion weeks that make up the season. “So yeah, nowadays you don’t really get collected from shows in a limo or given expensive goody bags.”

Not that most of us wouldn’t see it as more glamorous than your average part-time job. Morwenna is 18, and started attracting attention when she was chosen as Tatler Babe of the Month in September 2006. Since then she’s modelled for Christopher Kane, Julien MacDonald and Anna Sui, and this autumn she has secured her place as one of the hottest new models around by fronting the Autumn/Winter Burberry campaign. She first started modelling at the age of 16, and has a look that has been described as similar to Coco Rocha but with added quirkiness. As the latest favourite of the fashion industry, Morwenna has seen at first hand the way the world of 21st century style works, been at the heart of the size zero controversy and experienced just what it’s like to be working in the most disposable business on earth.

“In 2008 Kate Moss will have been modelling for 20 years, but nowadays a new model’s shelf life is much shorter. Agyness Deyn is seen as a veteran, but she’s only 21.” Certainly the fashion world is currently obsessed with youth – almost everyone is preoccupied with finding the magical elixir, be it a cream, an injection or a surgical procedure – and it is no surprise that the current fashionable ideal of beauty is synonymous with youth. The Gold Coast Fashion Week in Australia has recently been criticised for using 13 year old Maddison Gabriel in a show, but it is becoming much more common for girls as young as 12 to feature on the catwalks alongside grown women.

Many would argue that this is just another example of fashion’s obsession with what’s new, and with finding the next big thing. However, with the explosion in recent trends for 1930s and 1940s clothing it is not impossible that we are simply seeing a return to the androgynous look characteristic of wartime years, and it has even been said that the trend for the skinny is a celebration of female emancipation rather than an example of the objectification of women. And while Morwenna has, like every model, had her share of criticism of her appearance (“Julien MacDonald said I had broad shoulders, but there’s not much I can do about that…”) she maintains that agencies are trying their hardest to make sure models are healthy and well looked-after.

“Putting weighing scales at the door of every show won’t solve anything. The stylists don’t know you, they can’t tell if you’re eating properly or not – it should be up to the agency.” The agency’s responsibility even extends to supervising a model’s academic life: “When I was at college they turned down anything that would take up too much school time, without even asking me first.” Perhaps because a modern model’s working life is so short, most girls are committed to completing their education, and working towards degrees, in order to pursue separate careers later on, using modelling only to supplement their learning. Morwenna received 3 As and a B in her A Levels this year, and will be starting a degree in Photography at London College of Fashion next month.

Sixth form students may find it easier than younger girls to fit fashion around school. The four fashion weeks (New York, London, Milan and Paris) take place in the first four weeks of the British autumn term, and while some younger models take work set by their schools with them abroad, there is almost no time for study. The other major problem with using young teenage models for shows is the often revealing clothing they are expected to wear. Morwenna agrees that “obviously 12 and 13 year olds shouldn’t be doing some of the things that adult models have to do, but if the agency and the parents are responsible, a model of any age and size can have a stable and healthy career.” But that’s an important if. The BFC in particular is becoming much less willing to endanger young girls (or at least risk criticism for using them in shows), and banned the inclusion of any girls under the age of 16 from this year’s London Fashion Week.

Erin O’Connor (model and Vice-Chair of the event) favours a more holistic approach, and this year set up a “Model Sanctuary” in Covent Garden for stressed models to drop into and receive nutritional advice, life-coaching, massages and plenty of food. Perhaps as a result of the media furore, people are trying to turn things around. The fashion industry is struggling to adapt to the popular modern desire for ethical businesses and consumerism, and making sure their employees are not starving to death is just the beginning.

Lily Cole and Erin O’Connor have both recently refused to model for De Beers, as a result of their policy of evicting native Bushmen in Botswana to make way for future diamond mining, while many other models have famously refused to wear fur. It’s hard to ignore the irony of attempting to be as green and moral as possible in such a disposable business, and short of boycotting the industry altogether, it’s increasingly difficult for models to actively object to what they are being asked to wear. In Morwenna’s experience, it’s “easier to turn down a campaign, because you’ll know in advance if you’re going to be modeling, say, a huge fur coat made from baby squirrels. But in shoots and shows you could get a nasty surprise, and it would make life very difficult for the stylist if you were to refuse to wear what they had prepared. Also, a lot of the time the stylists aren’t sure about the source of the clothes, let alone whether it was ethical or not.”

Doubtless the fashion industry needs a change from the top in order to become more ethically sound, and brands such as People Tree are trying to do this. The “I’m Not A Plastic Bag” bags and organic fair-trade cotton T-Shirts with the slogan “Keep Earth Cool” are all over the high street, but it’s unlikely that the top designers will immediately begin to favour carbon-neutralisation and fairly traded materials over what will look the best on the catwalk. The industry is already undergoing serious changes to its infrastructure – the death of the supermodel being one of them. Gone are the days of “The Big Six” and the clich√© of models refusing to get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day. In May Natalia Vodianova and Johnny Borrell appeared together on the cover of British Vogue, and Morwenna is joined in fronting this season’s Burberry campaign by musicians Patrick Wolf and Ed Larrikin, as well as models Lily Donaldson, Georgia Frost, and Agyness Deyn.

“Actors and singers are definitely far more common on magazine covers than they were in the 90s. There are still popular models, but the overlap in pop culture now means that being a celebrity qualifies you to do everything – act, sing, model. Those who are models first find that it’s more of a day job than a dream career. I once got to wear an amazing Balenciaga dress that cost ¬£20,000, but I wasn’t allowed to sit down for hours and I had really painful shoes on. The fashion industry is much more about the designers and the clothes than the models.” The business is clearly changing, but how long can fashion survive in its current form, merging into other areas of show business and with so many moral inadequacies within it being pounced upon by the media?

Ironically for a business that constantly regenerates, its structure is starting to look dated. The models who so vehemently opposed wearing fur in the 90s have been spotted swathed in it on catwalks in the last two years, and hardly anyone within the industry seems to possess a single coherent ethical standpoint. But really, that has never been fashion’s purpose, and lately it has become even more of an escapist alternative reality, sheltering us from the modern culture of anxiety. From the outside, fashion is a fairytale of beauty without responsibility. Which is, after all, what most of us dream about.