'Just Hire Mannequins': On the Slow Death Of the Runway Walk

Marc Jacobs, 2005. Image via Getty.
Marc Jacobs, 2005. Image via Getty.

Gigi Hadid has a bad runway walk.

“Obviously I’m not the best on the runway, alright I said it!” Gigi Hadid told W in 2016. In Harper’s Bazaar this year she blamed the fact she’s flat-footed (she played volleyball all her life, you see?) One time, on Instagram, she wrote a long diatribe to her haters in which she mentioned her walk. “No, I don’t think I am the best at any given show,” she wrote. “Yes, I want a unique walk but I also know I have to improve.” At one point, Naomi Campbell even had to give Hadid catwalk tips in an Italian hotel.


Naomi, however, has always had a killer walk, now memorialized in carefully curated YouTube montages compiled by stans. She did a lot of double-twirls back in the ’90s, as if she were stopping at the end of the runway, staring into a mirror and saying, who, me?

But it’s been decades since we saw anyone who walked like Naomi at a runway show, consistently, with signatures that transcended the style of the designer and time. Gisele Bundchen’s intense stomp is out of fashion, as is Vlada Roslyakova’s twitchy speed-walk and the way Mariacarla Boscono always managed to deliver a death-stare at the end of the runway walk even when she was wearing a flowery sundress.

If you still watch fashion shows, doing so in 2017 as opposed to watching one even 10 years ago feels completely different. For the past several years, New York Fashion Week has seemed to wither away. The Anna Sui and Betsey Johnson school of runway etiquette (smile, dance, please party) is nearly gone. Theatrical, set-designed shows have been turned into minimalist presentations and designers don’t even follow the traditional spring/summer, fall/winter (deep breath resort and pre-fall) schedule. And models, no matter if you’re Karlie Kloss or Kylie Jenner, all seem to walk the same way, like little stone-faced robots. No twirling, no drama.


“I absolutely think it’s less distinctive for sure,” Alex Borges, agency director for NEXT Model Management says. “Very few girls out there that still have a strut.” When models go through the agency’s “model bootcamp,” Borges says, the time the agency spends with them learning how to walk is now far less than what they would have spent a decade ago. “You want them to be able to walk without tripping, of course.”

What was required of a runway model 20 years ago, according to casting director Andrew Weir, who has booked shows for Viktor & Rolf, Fendi, and Jill Stuart among others, was completely different than it is today. Back then, he says, models looked like Barbies and chiseled, macho male models were their Ken doll counterparts. And when it came to walking in the ’90s and ’00s the move was to go big. “You had to be beautiful and strong and you had to absolutely have a great, powerful walk,” Weir says. “Girls don’t have that full of personality, strong, look out here I come walk now.”

In the television and social media era, one definitive voice on the runway walk has been J Alexander of America’s Next Top Model. He confirms that the showboating of the past is long over for models of today, but says that doesn’t mean models still can’t have a great walk. “[The model] doesn’t have to turn on everything, do it simple, easy, with an attitude and not necessarily hip thrusting, shoulders, turning with the hands on the side.”

One of the reasons that the power-walk of the ’80s and ’90s has cooled is because the girls, who are often just teenagers, are continuously so new to the profession every season. To give some insight into how creepy casting can sometimes be, take Willow Hand, a now 18-year-old runway model who opened for a Prada show when she was 16. But she was technically scouted when she was only 12 years old and working at her family’s shop at the mall; she had to wait until she could legally walk a runway.


When I ask Kristian Lopez, an agent for Wilhelmina, what the average working cycle is for a model who starts at age 16, she says it’s usually until the age of 21 or 22. Compare that to the fact that Cindy Crawford was 25 when she walked in her first runway show. “Some girls are petrified,” Alexander says. “A casting director will tell them to walk naturally but they get confused as to what ‘walk naturally’ means.” According to the casting directors and agents we talked to, the models are getting younger and the turnover is getting higher. “I’ll have a huge casting and go two hours before seeing a girl I know,” Weir says.


The constant search for fresh faces and younger girls leaves a class of runway models who exist in a perpetual state of newness and inexperience, overturning at higher and higher rates. And while casting directors and designers have long been obsessed with finding new girls to idolize, there’s a reason we haven’t had another “supermodel” in the same vein of those in the ’90s, despite the popularity of so-called Instamodels like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner.

Two moments happened in 1990s fashion that changed the way models moved on the runway: Marc Jacobs’s infamous grunge collection for Perry Ellis, and the introduction of Kate Moss. Moss may have been a huge name but her look, skinny and unassuming, would unfortunately never go out of style. And Jacobs’s grunge collection, even though it got him fired from the fashion house, ushered in a new kind of anti-fashion approach that still resonates with young designers today.


Fashion trends of the 1990s began to turn away from the power-suit, costume looks of the 1980s and slowly became more wearable into the 2000s. The colorful, theatrical shows of Versace, Valentino, and Chanel (replete with outfits like hot pink mini skirt-suits that only high-schoolers in Clueless could wear) eventually gave way to brands like Helmut Lang, Calvin Klein, and Prada, who possessed an ethos of comfort, clean design, and wearability. And models didn’t twirl, vogue, or do a cartwheel in a cotton slip dress because the clothes didn’t call for it, nor did the utilitarian designers want it. You walked with your arms down, slowly, as if you were making a leisurely trip to your corner bodega for a pint of milk.

“I think it was really a time to speak to that younger generation who was listening to that type of music and designers wanted to get their attention again and have their attention first,” Borges says of the era. “At the time there were these super girls who were demanding a lot of money and a lot of attention and the whole movement drew away from that. There were less models sashaying down the runway and were playful because the clothes just didn’t call for it.”


And this is still a mindset that designers have when it comes to casting shows. “Girls, to get the shows at one point, needed to have that personality. They needed to have all that extra stuff to get them in,” Alexander says. “But my experience watching people cast shows is if a girl comes in doing all that extra stuff you think she may overdo it in the show and then she doesn’t get in.”

“We’ll have a girl come in and do a strong walk similar to one of the ’90s girls and I’m like she was pretty great and [the designers] are like: no,” Weir says, though he notes that many designers do still want models to bring their clothing to life with a lot of personality. The difference is that models just aren’t known for their walks anymore. “It used to be girls would ask do you want me to do the Linda or do the Christy and now it’s how do you want me? It’s their way of saying, if you want a bunch of ambiguous unidentifiable carbon copy girls I’ll give you that.


There’s also the issue of “Instagram models,” which usually refers to models who are cast because they’re very popular on social media (think Hailey Baldwin). Lopez and Weir say that girls cast from Instagram are more for print than runway. But it does affect the way models become famous as many are urged to keep up a social media presence and build a brand there.


“Social media has definitely replaced the walk,” Lopez tells me. “In the past when they booked a model, they booked her because she could show off an item. It’s the same thing just a different platform.” Some designers, when casting print campaigns, will reportedly ask for a model’s “numbers” right next her name and instead of her measurements they now mean her social media followers. But whether or not someone wants to cast a girl with a large social following depends on the designer.

“Look I can’t stop anyone from making a dollar, baby! Make your dollar! But it can be annoying for the girls who’ve paid their dues, the girls who were out there beating the pavement and going on castings,” Alexander says. “We have these celebrity girls, the Kendalls and Gigis, and because of who they are, with a little bit of talent they got ahead of the game. And good for them! As long as you got pushed forward and you did the job I’m all for it.”


“Some of our models that do have a huge social following have clashed with designers, because at the end of the day the people that are showing up outside screaming for these kids are there for the models and not the designers,” Borges says.

Aside from the Gigis and Kendalls of the world, designers now want models on the runway to be anonymous and to tread lightly, literally. You’re supposed to be a living, breathing mannequin, which isn’t exactly a new trend. When the first fashion shows emerged in the mid-19th century in Europe, clothes modeling wasn’t exactly a profession yet. In fact the job was dubbed “live mannequin” by English designer Charles-Frédéric Worth, the first person to reportedly show his fashion collections on real people (usually his employees). According to Ashley Mears’s book Pricing Beauty: the Making of a Fashion Model, at the time modeling—which included stiffly walking around the showroom and posing a bit in the clothes—was not a particularly admirable profession since models were considered to be displaying their bodies for money (not unlike sex workers).


For the most part, early fashion shows were a bore. There were a few exceptions: in the early 1900s Lady Duff Gordon (who designed as Lucile) gave ordinary girls she scouted names like “Hebe” and “Dinarzade” and had them walk a “slithering” signature Lucile walk. Christian Dior’s early shows in the 1940s reportedly had attendees weeping as girls twirled their skirts so hard they knocked over ashtray stands in the audience—quite different than the cold, prim and proper vibe of most shows at the time. But mainly shows were for buyers, privileging stillness and the ability to see the clothes, rather than the women wearing them.

“For the first several decades of its existence, the fashion show, or ‘parade’ as it was called at the time, was an exercise in regal glamour, a sober affair in which models struck dramatic poses and walked sedately, reflecting the social status of their clientele,” Elizabeth Wissinger wrote in her book This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour. It wasn’t until the 1960s—when Mary Quant sent models down the runway really moving, dancing and even cartwheeling—that the catwalk became a setting where clothes moved as they would in real life.

But for the past several years the runway show has been in a state of transition (or full-on decay, depending on which trend piece you read), returning to a iteration of the industry’s early days. In addition to the fact that many models may be young, petrified teenagers who are only going to be doing this job for a few years, designers are cutting back on the over-the-top spectacle of fashion week. The mounting prices of throwing regular fashion shows, let alone those that reach the same heights as old-school Galliano or Jean Paul Gaultier productions, is weighing on designers.


Several of them, like Diane von Furstenberg, J. Mendel, and Tom Ford, have begun to do smaller, more intimate presentations that aren’t so different from the early days of fashion show history. Where once fashion shows ran 35 to 40 minutes, now they run closer to 15 to 30. And with all this shrinkage, and designers pinching pennies when it comes to presenting collections, the casual model is back in style just as she was in the first half of the 20th century and a signature walk doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s how a model like Gigi Hadid can be successful in 2017 without having a stellar walk.

I ask Miss J if fashion, and the way models move within it, will ever swing back to theater.


“You know, I think we’ll want more presence than theatrics,” he says. (I should note that Alexander has said the word “presence” several times during our conversation.) If designers had the money, he says, then they’d return to fantasy. But the stiff presentations of today, where models are just standing there, aren’t for him.

“What I call a presentation, that’s not a static standing in the spot. A lot of times standing up like that the girls shoulders sink, their head, face, and shoulders look exhausted, its probably fucking hot as hell, they’re thirsty,” he says. “The fact is if someone wants a show like that, just get mannequins then. Clothes need human personality.

Hazel Cills is the Pop Culture Reporter at Jezebel. Her writing has been published by outlets including The Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, and more.



Karlie Kloss has the best walk among these batch. I guess she’s the only one that really was a model from the start.