NEW YORK -- Fashionistas know that everything old becomes new again, and this year's comeback is straight from the catwalk: the model.
The pretty faces who largely had been reduced to the background of the fashion scene as designers and magazine editors courted celebrities to be their walking billboards suddenly are back in vogue - literally.
After featuring stars such as Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and their Hollywood peers exclusively on its covers all of 2003 and through August of this year, Vogue, Conde Nast's fashion flagship publication, has put not one but nine models on the front of its September issue, the year's most important.
But unlike the heyday when Cindy, Christy, Linda and Naomi ruled, most of today's top models (except maybe Victoria's Secret star Gisele Bundchen) aren't known by their first name. Further, to most people outside the industry, they aren't known at all.
That's the way these women want it, says Sally Singer, Vogue's fashion news director whose article "The State of the Model" appears alongside profiles of cover girls Bundchen, Daria Werbowy, Natalia Vodianova, Isabeli Fontana, Karolina Kurkova, Liya Kibede, Hana Soukupova, Gemma Ward and Karen Elson.
"In this post-supermodel, post-superdesigner world, the very top people in fashion have their lives, go to work and go home. It's cooler to walk down the street and have only the people who should know you know you. It makes you part of this supercool club," Singer says.
Part of this craving for anonymity is a backlash against a culture seemingly obsessed with celebrities.
"Fashion is always slightly ahead of the curve culturally, and people are tiring of celebrities. Reality TV and the Internet has cheapened being a 'celebrity.' To be famous now is to be Paris Hilton," says Singer.
Kim France, editor in chief of Lucky, argues the other side - sort of.
When the shopping magazine started in December 2000, France pledged not to use celebrities on the cover because she wanted the focus to be on the clothes; the whole idea was to be "accessible," she says.
But Lucky languished on the newsstand.
"We started out using models but that was tough. Unlike in the late '80s and '90s, when there were a dozen models who could carry a cover, now there are one or two, and we're not going to get them," France says. "We were in a tough position. We had a name that didn't mean fashion and faces no one recognized."
Lucky makes an effort mostly to use starlets who are "recognizable but fresh" instead of full-fledged stars who are already flirting with overexposure.
"We're not going for the super-duper celebrity who everyone is duking it out over to get on the cover," France says.
For the past few years, it seems as if Kidman, Paltrow, Hudson, Julianne Moore and Jennifer Lopez were playing a game of musical magazines, simply rotating outfits and mastheads. (Moore is on the front of September's W, Lopez on the new Marie Claire.)
Sarah Jessica Parker, now Gap's spokesmodel, was eagerly embraced by the fashion industry because of her uniqueness, says Tom Julian of ad agency Fallon Worldwide.
Parker let her passion for designers, clothes and shoes dictate her style, he says. And because of her rather un-Hollywood look and her willingness to take risks to move fashion forward, Parker is more like a model than a star.
"There was a moment 10 years ago when models were the celebrities associated with fashion, but now celebrities are the celebrities associated with fashion," Vogue's Singer says.
One reason, she explains, is that "supermodels trained actresses to think of fashion as an exciting terrain worth their effort and participation."
And models didn't help themselves by exhibiting divalike behavior - behavior no longer tolerated by the industry or touted by the new faces who embrace a healthier lifestyle, Singer maintains.
Aerin Lauder, senior vice president of global creative directions at Estee Lauder, which uses the lesser known Carolyn Murphy and Kibede as spokesmodels in addition to Elizabeth Hurley, says it's often easier for photographers and companies looking to sell their wares to use a professional.
"Flawless skin is a requirement for being a model, it's not for celebrities. Celebrities don't wear dramatic makeup, but models can wear the funkiest eyeshadow and the craziest lipstick," Lauder says.
Unlike movie stars, models such as Murphy and Kibede know to show up at a photo shoot with a clean face and pulled-back hair and an otherwise blank canvass, Lauder says, all good things since an advertisement is supposed to be about a product, not a personality.
"Models know how to help the right thing click into place," agrees Michael Kors spokeswoman Anne Waterman. "Forget about the pure aesthetic, standing and turning is a job, and for the models who are great, there's a reason they are great. ... They pay attention, and they want the picture at the end of the runway to look perfect. It's what they are hired to do."
Kors' fall ad campaign has two components: The ads for his prestige collection show model Erin Wasson leading a glamorous, jet-set life, while ads for department store-friendly Michael Michael Kors feature models-turned-actors Molly Sims and Jason Lewis.
Kors' clothes suit the lifestyle of someone who's active and chic and loves more than a little luxury, and the models have to personify that, Waterman explains.
This season's styles are so strong, it's the right time to get away from celebrity spokesmodels and back to the fashions, says trend analyst Julian.
"I think it's a marketing decision that brings the industry back into itself. It's not good or bad, but for magazines that are truly about fashion, it's a good time to separate themselves from the celebrity magazines," he says.