With a resume that includes modeling, photography, and seasons upon seasons sitting next to the most recognizable faces in the modeling industry, Nigel Barker is not only one of the premier figures in the fashion industry, he's also one of the nicest! It makes sense that he would write Models of Influence, a book lovingly profiling some of the greatest models of all time, reviewing their strengths and reflecting on the culture that made them the icons they are today. Just before fashion week, Nigel took some time to talk to us about his book, the democratic power of social media, and a few of his favorite things! Check it out!
-by Adam Downer
GGM: Your new book, Models of Influence, is a really stunning work. Not only do you compile a list of some of the most influential models in the 20th and 21st centuries, but you also give them their due with essays on what made each one so special individually. What was the inspiration behind this book? In other words, why this book, right now?
NB: You know, I’ve had over twenty years in the business at this point, and having worked with some of the greatest models, sat beside them on television shows and photographed them. And not just Tyra and Naomi Campbell, but also Christy Turlington, Janice Dickinson, and Twiggy, the list goes on! And then the contemporaries, like Coco Rocha and Carla Delevingne. When you get a chance to see them working firsthand, you get a sense of who they are as people.
The interest in the modeling world is almost at a fever pitch right now. I think social media has turned the industry into a spectacle we’ve never seen before, where we’re really getting a sense of who all these women are and how they’re influencing society. I wanted to write the book to show that it’s not just right now, but that models have always influenced society and pop culture and the face of beauty since the inception of modeling in the 40s! Just as much as activists and entertainers and leaders influence a time, models do exactly that! They personify a moment as well. When you think of the sixties, you think of the Beatles, yes, but you also think of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton in the classic outfits like the miniskirt. It’s all a part of the same story. The book was to piece together people who transcended the business and really became pop culture icons.
GGM: What’s your opinion of celebrity culture beginning to conflate with model culture? Do you think someone like Kim Kardashian qualifies as a model, even though that’s not her “professional title”, but she’s one of the most photographed faces and a huge style icon?
NB: I think titles and names are just that. Being a model is not what Kim does, so to speak. She’s a celebrity, and celebrities have been photographed, put on magazine covers, done fragrance ads for years! There’s nothing new about that. The fact she’s the most photographed woman but not a fashion model indicates how these titles are changing in a good way. I think one of the interesting things about social media—and I know this is a controversial topic because people are upset about people who aren’t “qualified” to be famous—it’s the people, us, who are interested! We’re following, liking, demanding, and all these models and reality stars are being noticed by magazines and fashion lines. They look at the numbers and say these people are popular, so of course let’s do an advertising campaign with them, they’ll post our pictures to social media, and then we can run the pictures that are most popular! It’s a very interesting time, and we the people are making the decisions.
GGM: So, tough choice time: If you had to pick one model you would call the MOST influential of all time, who would you say?
NB: Goodness… It’s a very tough question because different people meant different things at different moments in time, but I’d probably say Christy Turlington. She’s the one model who has really stood the test of time. The reason being is that she came up in the late 80s, early 90s, when modeling was really intoxicating and the word “super” got added into “supermodel.” That was THE supermodel moment, and she was the most influential and prolific model then, and she’s still doing extraordinarily well to this day. I think as a mother of two children, and everything she stands for—back in the day and to this day there’s an emphasis on youth in fashion, and what she does as a woman in her 40s still doing underwear campaigns is very inspirational and a side of modeling we haven’t really seen.
GGM: Same questions, but with models working today?
NB: No doubt about it. Social media tells us! It’s Cara Delevingne. She’s a very hot property, and it doesn’t matter what I have to say about it! There she is! Someone like Coco Rocha paved the way for a girl like her. It’s about taking risks, paving a career with social media as a backbone to who you are as a model. One of the things I wanted to do in the book is showcase people who were the first to do things--not necessarily the most successful, because other people may have taken the same idea and tweaked it to greater success, but people who were trailblazers and mavericks at their time.
GGM: So with so much experience in reality television, what are your favorite reality TV shows?
NB: There aren’t that many reality shows that I watch. I do check in on Project Runway because, you know, it is our business. I know a lot of people on it, and I enjoy what it’s about. But I’m more about reality shows like Bear Grylls' Man Vs. Wild and Top Gear.
GGM: What are some photography books that have inspired you, or that you really admire?
NB: There aren’t any that inspired Models of Influence, because there aren’t any like it, which is why I wrote the book! There are many books out there that I love, though. One of my favorite photographers of all time is Richard Avalon. I own every one of his books. His style of very simple lighting, but encouraging the person to be themselves is beautiful in its honesty. I feel that’s the most iconic look one could ever have is an honest, true, raw look because we can identify with that.
GGM: Are you reading anything right now?
NB: Right in this moment, I’m reading some books for my son! (laughs) Nothing particularly gripping, but I’m reading The Captain’s Verses by Pablo Neruda. It’s dark, but also extraordinary and romantic. Also sometimes painful, because it pricks your heart! But I like things that push boundaries, and I’ve always been fond in poetry. You can read it before bed and just let it sit, and think about what is being said. For me, it’s easier than taking 30 minutes to read a novel.
GGM: Any non-reality shows you keep up with?
NB: Absolutely! 24 was a big one for me. I’m an avid cop/police show watcher. Back in the day in England I used to watch a show called The Bill all the time, and here I watch shows like Blue Bloods and CSI all the time. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a police officer or a detective of some sort. With these shows I can cut out and imagine another life I could’ve lived.
GGM: And favorite movies?
NB: I just went to see Julianne Moore’s new film Still Alice, and she was amazing in that. Her performance in that was simply breathtaking. Also, I’m a bit of sci-fi head, so all the Star Wars and Star Trek movies help me escape.
GGM: Is there any music you’re jamming right now?
NB: I’m a big Led Zeppelin head. I like the older stuff.
GGM: Oo, what’s your favorite Zeppelin?
GGM: What are some of your favorite New York City restaurants?
NB: I’m a big fan of Buddakan, the West Village’s Barbuto. I like a restaurant called Souen. There’s a great bar I love in the East Village called Decibel, a Japanese saki bar. And there’s a great sushi bar called Hasaki.
GGM: And finally, on a night when you need a tuxedo, who do you turn to?
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