Universal beauty: How Kate Moss is still queen of the fashion world

Story highlights

  • Kate Moss honored for her 25-year career
  • Photographer says 14-year-old Moss was no diva
  • Model makes even more money after drug scandal

Last night Britain's fashion elite gathered at the London Coliseum for the 2013 British Fashion Awards. Nominees for the prestigious industry awards included models Cara Delevingne and Edie Campbell, and designers Anya Hindmarch and Sarah Burton.

Trends may come and go, but even among this fashion-conscious crowd there was one certainty: all eyes would be on Kate Moss.

The British Fashion Council honored the 39-year-old model with a Special Recognition Award for her 25 years in the industry.

During her glittering career she has appeared on 34 covers of British Vogue. She's fronted campaigns for Burberry and Chanel. And she's remained one of the world's best-paid models, even as twenty-somethings like Hilary Rhoda, Lara Stone and Joan Smalls have stomped onto the catwalk.

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Despite all of those achievements, Moss seemed starstruck as she accepted her trophy from Marc Jacobs. "Oh my god. It's so weird, very very surreal," she said on stage. "Thank you everyone who has worked with and kept booking me. I am really very grateful."

Born to a barmaid and a travel agent in Croydon, south London, modeling was not an obvious career move. But in 1988 Sarah Doukas, the founder of Storm Model Management, spotted Moss at New York's JFK Airport, where Moss was catching a connecting flight home after a family holiday to the Bahamas.

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Standing just 5'7, her waifish look contrasted sharply with the likes of Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, two of the leggy Glamazons who dominated the runways at the time.

David Ross, a London based portrait artist, shot the first professional pictures of Moss later that year. He remembers that she offered something fresh and approachable, underlined by a quiet strength. "She just had a certain edge in her natural expression and there was a look in her eye in her very first pictures that we are still familiar with today," he says.

Modeling came easy to her, and Ross was able to capture a surprisingly large range of expressions for a model so young. She seemed unaware, or at least unmoved, by her prowess, and she lacked the diva qualities so common in aspiring models.

"She wasn't like other girls doing the big 'I AM'," Ross says. "She was young, but she had the perfect balance of being cool and collected and warm towards everyone at the same time, which made her very attractive to work with."

Two years later British photographer Corinne Day shot black-and-white images of Moss for Face magazine. The fashion press went wild and Moss became the poster child of the grunge aesthetic. After years of casting glamor girls on the runway, designers gravitated to Moss' 'anti-model' look.

In subsequent years Moss walked the line between haute and mainstream, appearing in campaigns for a diverse roster of brands including Bulgari, Dolce&Gabbana, Longchamp, and Versace, but also Virgin Mobile and Nikon cameras. In 2003, she even portrayed a pole dancer in the White Stripes' music video "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."

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For reasons photographers, fashionistas and editors do not fully understand, Moss's look translates across all demographics, from the luxury consumer to the high-street shopper. Legendary photographer David Bailey has taken some of the most iconic shots of Moss. As he tells CNN: "Kate has a unique beauty that is totally democratic and has a universal appeal."

That makes her highly bankable. Brands eventually encouraged Moss to leverage her fashion credentials in new areas, and she moved from catwalk to the design chair.

When she designed a collection for Topshop in 2007, the entire range sold out on the first day. She went on to design 14 more collections for the store.

Last July, Moss's range of "fashion tech" accessories for mobile phones became the fastest-ever selling accessory at Carphone Warehouse, a British high street retailer.

Moss's journey from Croydon to the runways of Paris and Milan has not always been easy. High-profile romances—to Johnny Depp, Jefferson Hack and Pete Doherty—fizzled. In 2005, she lost lucrative contracts with Burberry, Chanel and H&M after British tabloids reported allegations of drug abuse. That fall she voluntarily entered a rehabilitation clinic in Arizona.

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Her travails were high-profile, but so was her recovery. Within a year Moss had clawed her way back to the top of the industry, securing a raft of lucrative campaigns.

Her difficulties seemed to endear her to the public even more. After rehab she went on to climb the Forbes magazine list of the world's highest paid models. In an industry defined by physical perfection, vulnerability has its appeal.

Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, views Moss's success in more straightforward terms.

"Kate has had such a long and successful career as a model because she is sensationally good at it," she says. "She understands what it means to model and I think she enjoys the skill she has in this role. I know all my fashion editors and photographers love working with her because of this and also because it's nearly impossible to take a bad picture of her."

In September, Christie's auctioned a series of art works inspired by Kate Moss for more than $2.6 million. A three-foot-high glass figurine of Moss sold for $214,000.

Some might say she is being consigned to history. A more generous interpretation is that collectors understand that her value will continue to soar.

Just ask Topshop. In April Moss will launch her 15th line with the retailer. Don't call it a comeback. As fans of fashion's most enduring face already know, Moss hasn't gone anywhere.

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