“It sounds a bit name-droppy to say I was booked by Prada at 16, but at that time I didn’t even know what Prada was…” It’s fair to say that British supermodel Jade Parfitt’s modelling career not only took off at a very young age but that she entered what can be an unforgiving world at the very top level.
However at 6ft 1in in her bare feet and with her elegant, striking features, it’s pretty obvious why she made such an impression on the industry as soon as she arrived in it (which she did when she won a modelling contract at the age of 15 after her mum entered her into a competition on the This Morning TV show without telling her). But her longevity and success have also been down her steeliness, level-headedness and professionalism.
Speaking at The Industry‘s London Fashion Week networking event at the Grooming Room at Soho’s Century Club on Monday 20 February, Parfitt told interviewer and fashion broadcaster Scott Wimsett that designer Jean-Paul Gaultier trusted her to be the bride (the highest honour) at his couture shows three times, because the first time out she not only did it in vertiginous heels and wearing a long train but also carrying a baby. Which, incidentally, had spent the entire show backstage screaming only to calm down the moment Parfitt walked onto the catwalk with it in her arms.
“I think he thought after that, ‘OK she can cope’,” she says. She and Gaultier remain friends to this day. He wasn’t the only one to challenge her. Alexander McQueen’s early shows were always an experience, she recalls. “You’d do it for £100 with one eye blind and in five-inch heels; you really had to earn that £100!” But, she says, in fashion you have to do jobs “half for cred and half for bread” and McQueen catwalks fell into the “cred” category.
She admits she misses the days (in this case the 90s) when the shows were real extravanganzas but today they are more commercial affairs and the crazy budgets are no longer there. At that time Parfitt formed part of a new wave of British models who dominated in the mid-90s, such as Kate Moss (who was already established by then), Karen Elson, Jacquetta Wheeler and Stella Tennant. They arrived on the scene just after the era of the supermodel, which included the likes of Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford.
However those glamorous figures were still very much around when Parfitt arrived (and indeed are enjoying something of a resurgence today). She may not really have been aware of who Prada was when she first walked in one of its catwalk shows, but when she looked around backstage she knew who she was surrounded by. “Even I, who was just a girl from Devon, could name them all,” she says of the “supers” who were the first models to really become household names since the era of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton in the 60s.
But while there was more money and, perhaps, more glamour at that time. Fashion was a relatively small community back then whereas today there are so many more models (the industry’s thirst for newness means streams of new girls every season) and the skills that are valued and required are very different from those in the past.
Being able to hold your body, walk with elegance and confidence and interpret the story of the clothes (or be “a silent actress” as her friend Erin O’Connor puts it) is of less concern these days than how many followers a model might have on Instagram. While in the Q&A with the audience Parfitt admitted it was sad models don’t get the time or training to nail their walks and photographic styles these days, and some great models who aren’t as social media-savvy could be losing out, she accepts we’re in a new era with new demands.
“It’s just such a different time right now. Brands are looking to those models as people who can support them in a different way,” she says. “What’s great about it is that people can be proactive in their careers but at the same time it’s a lot of pressure. You have to be a brilliant photographer, a brilliant make-up artist and really clever with what you write.”
She also accepts that the more successful models these days may not be models in the purest sense but rather reality TV stars or the offspring of famous parents. In fact, she says, it has always been the case (if to a lesser extent). “Look at the aristocratic models and the ‘it’ girls. Fashion always loves that edge of glamour,” she argues.
However she is critical of the industry’s position on diversity, which has improved greatly since she started but nowhere near enough, she says. “We’re not as diverse as we should be. We have waves of remembering we need diversity. The Asian market is so important and that is much better represented but there are not enough black girls.”
The industry has, though, started using more older models but Parfitt has always worked and, in any case, modelling is not the only string to her bow. For 10 years now she has been presenting and began exploring the idea when did some early online reporting for Vogue.co.uk.
Now, she also works for brands and has her own Youtube channel Fashion Blonde, a project she started because she wasn’t seeing enough fashion on TV (beyond make-over shows). She modestly describes it as “a place to create a bit of content” but it’s clear she is as much of a natural interviewing backstage as she is walking down the runway. (And indeed she and Wimsett have created a behind the scenes video on London Fashion Week for The Industry, which will be revealed soon!)
“I’m really lucky,” she says of the support she still receives from the industry she has pretty much grown up in. “You pick up friends on the way and people know they can rely on you to bring something to the table.” And to carry babies down runways in five-inch heels with one eye blind…