I was at a fashion show recently when—amid the million open tabs that make up my brain at any given moment—Matthew McConaughey’s molasses drawl rose to the surface: “I get older, and they stay the same age.” No question, there’s long been a disconnect between the very young age of the models who populate the runway and the not young age of a significant chunk of people who follow fashion (and buy clothes and are also alive).
But change is afoot because there’s been an invasion of 40-something models on the runways recently. I first noticed it in March of last year, when I saw Delfine Bafort, my favorite model from the aughts, quietly padding her way through the many rooms that made up the runway at The Row’s resort show in Paris. Now 43, Bafort’s signature white-blonde shag was unchanged after all these years. It was a real treat—like seeing your favorite actor make an unexpected cameo in a movie. And it made sense to me that of course Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen would cast the Belgian model in their shows; they were likely just as obsessed with her back in the day as I was. Bafort was a favorite of Nicolas Ghesquière and appeared in the iconic Balenciaga spring 2001 campaign, the one with doodles courtesy of M/M Paris.
Then February came around, and there was Bafort once again, walking Proenza Schouler in New York, No. 21 and Del Core in Milan, and at The Row, Balenciaga, and Isabel Marant in Paris. But she wasn’t a lone ranger; the season was full of Y2K stars. At The Row, she was joined by Maggie Rizer, 45 (who also walked the recent Fear of God show in LA), Emma Balfour, 53 (also seen on Matthieu Blazy’s Bottega Veneta runways), and Malgosia Bela, 45, who also walked Isabel Marant along with Liya Kebede, 45. The Marant show was notable because there was an incredible cast of other It models in their mid to late 30s: Suvi! Kasia Struss! Jessica Stam! Irina! Aymeline! Caroline Trentini! Sasha Pivovarova! Julia Stegner! Natasha Poly! There was Christina Kruse, 44, Hannelore Knuts, 45, and Waris Dirie, 57, at Marine Serre, who has long championed a multigenerational runway. Meanwhile at the Gucci show, the talk postshow was about the return of Amy Wesson, 45, Liisa Winkler, 42, and Guinevere Van Seenus, 47.
“The backstage now is a little more healthy, which is a good thing because I am much healthier than when I was younger,” Bafort shared recently on a Zoom from her home in Belgium. “There’s a lot more diversity of ethnicity and a lot of different generations. There was a little bit [of that] back then, but it was more like the supermodels; now you have more ages, more curvy people, which is so good.” At 38, I agree; this development is very good.
It used to be that models had very short careers that began when they were teenagers and were done by the time they hit their 20s. Every few years a generation would disappear and a new one would take its place. This is necessary, of course; you need new girls that inhabit the zeitgeist, that reflect new designers’ new visions, but you still miss some of them every once in a while. Bring up Daria Werbowy to anyone in fashion, and the likely response will be, “Oh, I miss her!”
For fashion obsessives, models are not unlike actors: You’re excited to see them embody new characters, and for those whose obsessions began at a young age, you also look up to them. “Nowadays so many people in my everyday life come up [because] they recognize me. They have their very personal stories with a certain image or a certain show [I did], and it’s really amazing and heartwarming,” Carmen Kass, 44, recalled on a recent phone call. This season she opened and closed the Antonio Marras show in Milan, and last season she walked the Michael Kors show in New York. “To have had such a long career and still be taken seriously, still be appreciated and still actually fit into this world, I’m extremely thankful.”
Backstage at the shows, the model mix engenders in Rizer a similar sense of nostalgia. “Seeing these young girls, it’s really amazing because not only am I impressed by them, but it also gives me a little bit of hope in myself that maybe surrounding myself in the fashion industry [wasn’t so bad],” she relates from her home in San Francisco. “When I started working in fashion, all my friends were going to frat parties and doing keg stands, and I was like, flying on the Concorde going to dinner with Karl Lagerfeld.” She laughs. “It’s a lot to take on as a young girl.”
When I was 10 or 11, it was Kristen McMenamy’s weirdness that appealed to me as an example of what I could be like when I grew up. When I started college, it was Bafort’s version of cool that I tried to emulate when I went out. That 2001 Balenciaga campaign she starred in hung on the walls of my freshman dorm. Which is why it was so exciting to see her—and the rest of her generational cohorts—this season; it was like the fashion fantasy had come full circle. My McConaughey brain moment was accompanied by the thought, This collection would make a lot more sense if actual women were wearing the clothes—and now here they were, grown-ass women wearing great clothes! “I like [working] much more than before because I’m older and I’m more at ease and I don’t have to prove anything—because I’m my age, I can’t be young again, I will never be young again, so there’s no urge to look like that anymore,” Bafort explained. “I’m happy that I can travel and I can work, and then I miss my children in a different way.” She laughs. “It’s like a little working vacation.”
It’s cool that now in fashion you can get older, have kids, and still be able to walk the runway—do your job!—the way you’ve always done. Well, sort of. “My God, my kids do not think I’m cool. When I get dressed they’re like, ‘Mom, don’t walk me up to school, don’t give me a kiss, just go!’” Rizer adds, laughing. “And I try to be like, ‘No, you don’t understand, I’m actually really cool, and this is a great outfit!’”
This article was originally published on Vogue.