How does a short, flat-chested, bandy-legged schoolgirl (who buys her clothes for 10p at jumble sales) become lauded as the most stylish woman on the planet? A fascinating new book reveals how Kate Moss became an accidental icon
Many extraordinary stories have ordinary beginnings. And life doesn’t get more ordinary than British suburbia. Croydon, in South London, is a bleak concrete tangle of tower blocks, grey office complexes, shopping centres and endless roundabouts. Not exactly the natural environment in which to nurture a world-class style icon. But it was here that Katherine Ann Moss was born on 16 January 1974.
Of course, everything about Kate Moss defies logic: the global trendsetter who stays at the cutting edge of fashion by wearing vintage clothes from decades ago; the style icon as revered for her scruffy 'undone glamour' as she is for her red carpet sophistication; the short, flat-chested, gawky schoolgirl with bandy legs and jagged teeth who became more sought-after than the ultra-beautiful, curvaceous supermodels.
Yet, according to Kate, Croydon, where she grew up on a leafy street of pretty semi-detached houses, was the perfect place to become style-savvy: 'That’s the way suburban people are; they’re more fashion-conscious, and they’re more trendy,' she once said. For the affluent, middle-class teenagers growing up in boom-time 1980s Britain, the ultimate look to aspire to was flashy designer labels – and in Croydon, one label in particular: Vivienne Westwood.
Label-obsessed, but with a teenager’s clothing allowance, Kate was too skint to buy more than the odd designer piece: 'I was always the one in Croydon walking down the street with bags full of Oxfam clothes for 10p. I could always find more than everyone else.'
Kate’s style ideas were inspired by the older kids at school – and one, in particular, would play a key part in influencing her look, working alongside her in her career and becoming a best friend throughout her life.
Hair stylist James Brown’s younger sister Marina was in Kate’s class at Riddlesdown High School – and even at school James recalls that Kate stood out. 'Kate hung out with the coolest kids.'
Kate’s parents, Linda and Peter, split when she was in her early teens and Kate went to live with her mother, while her brother, Nick, went to live with their father. After that, everything changed. 'Literally, my parents let me do whatever I wanted. I was smoking when I was thirteen in front of my parents, and drinking,' says Kate. 'I’d have parties where I’d come in at three in the morning.'
Kate was also better travelled than her peers, thanks to her father’s job as a travel executive. And it was in the States, in the summer of 1988, that something happened which would change Kate’s life forever – and the course of fashion history.
It’s now become legend that London model scout Sarah Doukas, who had recently started a new agency, Storm, spotted Kate sitting on her suitcase at JFK airport, while returning from a Caribbean trip with her father and brother. They made an appointment to meet the following week in London, and Kate was signed on the spot.
Kate had not been on the books of Storm for long when she met model-turned photographer Corinne Day, who was trying to establish her credentials as a photographer shooting fashion in a younger, simpler way, and who also had a mania for collecting second-hand clothes.
Needing to shoot fashion for The Face, but not having many contacts to borrow the necessary samples, Day improvised: 'We’d go to markets and second-hand shops and we’d just make up fashion that we liked.'
The pair teemed up with a stylist called Melanie Ward, and quickly they all became close friends.
'Second hand clothes were a very critical thing for them,' says designer Liza Bruce, who worked with the three women in the early 1990s. 'The thing about thrift shops is that you see everything jumbled together, and it’s that juxtaposition (that is so inspiring); you see things that are hidden, that jump out at you. Those are very stimulating things.'
'It wasn’t about (new) designer clothes in those days because they weren’t really making things that we wanted to wear,' says Melanie Ward. But at the time, Portobello market, one of their hunting grounds, had a treasure chest all of its own in terms of clothes by 1960s designers Biba or Ossie Clark.
And because the clothes were easy come, easy go, the girls developed a carefree attitude to grooming – and a healthy disrespect and spontaneity towards the clothes.
'We weren’t afraid to just chop at things with scissors,' says Ward, referring to their endless efforts at customising. 'Our look was always effortless: a little bit “she’s come undone”. There were no boundaries between day and night or expensive and cheap.'
Kate learned that it was cooler by far to be the real deal; to be the girl in the original 1970s tour band T-shirt, found screwed up in a cardboard box of stuff on a stall, that a great wardrobe didn’t need to cost a fortune, but that it did need to be hunted down. None of her new friends shopped on the high street – and despite the hours spent trawling the market stalls, none wanted to look like they were trying too hard.
Although this was the age when supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington reigned supreme, some designers like Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana were searching for a fresher image – and found it in Kate, still only seventeen with a tiny UK size 6 frame.
She did a shoot with Steven Meisel for Dolce & Gabbana – and it opened the whole world of designer clothes to her.
Hairstylist Michael Boadi recalls bumping into Kate in the west London neighbourhood where both then lived: 'She was like, “I did the Dolce campaign, and there was this genius pair of shoes and I’m gonna get them and I’m going to put them with this and that...” And that’s how it started; that’s when the (designer) labels kicked in. That’s when she started getting into dressing up; proper high fashion.'
By now, Kate’s vintage tastes were heading up-market, with help from some of the best vintage dealers in the business, like Steinberg & Tolkein, who opened their legendary King’s Road store in 1992.
Virginia Bates, of Virginia Vintage Clothing, London, says: 'Kate wore the cream slip dress, before she really got into “vintage” as I call it… It looked quite unusual at the time. Now you can buy these little slips from Topshop or wherever, but nobody else was doing it back then. It was quite outrageous really...'
One of the most famous images of Kate from this era is wearing a silver transparent slip dress to the Elite Model Agency Party for the Look of the Year contest in 1993. It was in many ways a perfect amalgam of many influences in her life then.
According to Liza Bruce, who designed the dress, Melanie Ward had originally asked her to make it copying an antique gold fabric she’d discovered. Then Corinne Day had asked her to copy it in silver for a shoot with Linda Evangelista in British Vogue. At the time, Corinne, Melanie and Kate were girlfriends sharing a flat – and each other’s wardrobes. So Kate wore the dress to the party before it was eventually returned to Liza Bruce.
'Underwear as outerwear was the mood of the moment,' recalls Liza Bruce. 'The dress did come out more transparent in the picture (than in reality), which is maybe why she had the confidence to wear it… It wasn’t a come on… it was just “this is me”. Her body language was so much like a kid’s'.
Kate’s love of dressing up found a whole new showcase when she met actor Johnny Depp in Manhattan in February 1994. The poster-girl for grunge developed a taste for luxury.
She was also now becoming part of a different scene: a roll-call of beautiful people that had included Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
For her red-carpet wardrobe, Kate went straight to the source of Tinseltown’s glamour heyday, the vintage dealers of New York and LA, who understood about fashion that stands the test of time.
Rita Watnik, the formidable owner of Los Angeles vintage store Lie et Cie, would pay a key role in Kate’s Hollywood transformation. And it would be Watnik who, years later, would present Kate with one of her most iconic dresses: the frothy lemon-yellow prom dress.
'I got more glamorous and a bit more sophisticated,' says Kate of her time with Depp, 'but I wanted to dress up anyway. I liked dressing up before that, but I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I didn’t go to premieres then.'
Her new look was in evidence when she hit the red carpet for the Ed Wood Premiere in New York in September 1994, every inch the young starlet in a silver beaded vintage flapper’s dress once owned by Errol Flynn’s wife silent movie star Lily Damita.
Kate wore the Hollywood heirloom with a light touch; her hair casually pulled back, carrying a tiny purse on a chain, with white Manolo Blahnik Mary Janes and a Tiffany diamond necklace Johnny had given her.
The couple seemed to lead a fairytale existence, holidaying in the Caribbean and Aspen. Kate, now in her twenties, didn’t have an official stylist, but she did have help.
James Brown, now living in New York, was not only styling Kate’s hair, he was also trawling the vintage shops looking for clothes for her.
Later, too, some of her favourite vintage dealers would also keep their eyes open for clothes she would love – at one stage Steven Phillips of Rellick was sending over a bag of clothes a week for her to peruse.
As her fame grew and her confidence expanded on the red carpet, so her look became more pared down.
In 1997, she appeared at the Cannes Film Festival in a simple pale grey Cerruti shift dress among a sea of glitz. The grey dress was a seminal example of what would become one of Kate’s most distinctive style quirks, 'going the other way,' by subtly rebelling against the expected dress code.
According to Lori Goldstein, who styled the Cerruti advertising campaign shoot on which Kate discovered the dress, the dress also betrayed unshakeable confidence. 'That’s Kate’s style; she doesn’t need to wear anything more than that,' says Goldstein. The outfit catapulted Kate onto Best Dressed lists worldwide.
The end of her relationship with Depp marked the beginning of a new era for Kate. Back in London, she found herself in the midst of the ‘Cool Britannia’ years, friends with a mixture of rock royalty like the Rolling Stones, Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull, the McCartney family and the Gallaghers, plus new designers like Matthew Williamson.
There was much clothes-swapping with her new girlfriends –and Anita Pallenberg in particular proved a great friend and mentor, on one occasion passing on her original Biba playsuit, knowing how much Kate would appreciate it.
Kate’s understanding of the importance of fit played a key role in the confident appearance of her many looks. Her trademark tight-to-the-torso silhouette was a simple but effective way she managed always to look as if clothes were made for her.
Off the catwalk, Kate invariably wore monochrome clothes. But, like Anita Pallenberg, the friend she named as a fashion icon, she did love experimenting with prints.
These were eventful years – bringing spells in rehab, a flirtation with a gamine hair crop, a stable relationship with Dazed and Confused magazine’s co-founder Jefferson Hack, the birth of a baby daughter, Lila Grace in September 2002, and a well-publicised romance with Babyshambles singer Pete Doherty.
But her life was increasingly under public scrutiny – and her wardrobe ever more widely copied.
Years later, Kate would claim that there had never been a moment when she realised women were trying to dress like her. But the earliest example of Kate’s personal style causing a fashion storm was the moment in January 2000 when she wore a vintage pair of battered, buckled, slouchy Vivienne Westwood boots from the designer’s 1981 Pirate collection to a Santana concert in London.
'If people had told me a girl could create a stir like this over a pair of bloody boots, I would never have believed them,' says Steven Phillips of Rellick who had found the boots for Kate.
Cheap Date magazine editor Kira Joliffe remembers bumping into Kate at a party and talking about the boots: 'I had two pairs and (I told her) the cobbler who made them was closing. Kate knew about the guy who made them (because) Bella Freud was really into them because she had worked at Vivienne Westwood.
'You could tell she was taking in what was being said about these shoes. It wasn’t because someone had given her these boots and said they were cool; she was engaged with the history and the background.'
The boots fitted perfectly with Kate’s new look; that of a nonchalant, London girl with a pseudo-skint scruffiness and fitted perfectly with her gig-going, chain-smoking and unapologetically louche return to the party circuit.
As Pop editor Katie Grand observed: 'I don’t really think Kate is that bothered about what people think of her.'
Suddenly, Rellick was receiving 200 calls a month about the pirate boots and they were selling for a fortune on e-Bay. High street stores started making their own versions and within the year Westwood herself put the original boots back into production. It was the beginning of the emergence of Kate as a global style icon.
Post-baby, Kate emerged at the height of her powers as a style icon, wearing roman sandals, 1950s prom dresses, ballet pumps – and single-handedly kicking off the skinny jeans fad. She turned successive Glastonbury festivals into a walking fashion show of shorts, hunter wellies and kaftan dresses paired with black fringed lace-up hippy boots.
In an age when celebrity stylists were becoming commonplace, Kate’s passion for shopping was starting to seem idiosyncratic. 'She’s risen above that whole thing of other people doing things for her. I don’t think anyone else (celebrity) does that' says Charlie Brear, stylist for Kate’s Rimmel advertising. 'She’s in there, sourcing from source, like a stylist.'
It was no surprise, then, that the outfit Kate chose for her 30th birthday in 2004, with the theme The Beautiful and the Damned, after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s1922 morality tale about the destructiveness of beauty and moneyed decadence, was a complete one-off.
She appeared in a floor-length midnight-blue sequinned gown, an original from the period, which she wore with her hair in loose curls, and her eyes smoky with dark eyeshadow like a singer from a jazz club.
The dress had previously been owned by Britt Ekland, who bought it from a vintage shop for the premiere of The Man with the Golden Gun, in 1973.
'I doubt she could have found anything like that anywhere else… they don’t make dresses that spectacular any more,' said Britt. Yet, barely a month after the party, Gucci presented a midnight-blue sequinned floor-length dress on its catwalk. Pure Kate.
Soon, Kate herself would see the merits of sharing in her own powerful influence on consumers by designing her own collection for Topshop. 'I think they (Topshop) kind of copy me sometimes, so I said, “I could give you my stamp and you could get it direct.”'
Aware of her uncanny knack of predicting the next big thing, she used it to design a phenomenally successful collection, which was effectively a snapshot of her life so far.
'I see things other people don’t sometimes,' she explained. 'It’s very random but I have this… radar. I’ll think, “Mmm I fancy wearing a legging” and then, all of a sudden, on the runways it’s all leggings. And it’s not like we’ve talked. It’s like a collective consciousness. It’s weird.'
And still, despite two decades in fashion and becoming a mother, Kate shows no signs of wanting to slow down. Just a year after populising the Nico heavy fringe, prompting a wave of imitations worldwide, Kate has just unveiled yet another radical look, a tousled bob.
'She’s sexy but she’s never really changed into a proper woman,' says designer Liza Bruce. 'She doesn’t ever seem to be tired or want to go home.'
'Years and years from now, when you look back on pictures of Kate, you’ll get an idea of what our time was about,' says stylist Brana Wolf. 'You’ll understand where fashion was at that time, because they all want to wear what Kate Moss wears.'