UNTIL recently, a fashion model and a carton of skim milk had a lot in common -- not enough fat and a short shelf life. The average model's career typically expired at the age of 25. And, really, did anyone cry over such gorgeous spoiled milk?
But a funny thing happened on the way to the model retirement home. Laugh lines became commodities.
"The market for older models has exploded," says Ginni Conquest, co-director of the sophisticated women's division at Wilhelmina Models in New York. (Models who are 25 and older are often referred to as "classic" or "sophisticated.") "It's our fastest-growing area, and it's a first for the industry."
Companies didn't suddenly become smitten with stretch marks. The trend is driven by the $2-trillion spending power of baby boomers -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- who make up 26% of the population. After all, what middle-aged woman wants to buy moisturizer from a model who's too young to order a martini?
Or a cashmere cardigan from a coed? In September, J.Crew will introduce an online section within its Web catalog that features 58-year-old Los Angeles model Pia Gronning. The sundresses will be the same, but the styling will be more age-appropriate and sophisticated.
"We kept hearing women say, 'I'm not 25. I can't wear your clothes,' " says the preppy retailer's creative director, Jenna Lyons. "We did it for the women who wanted to see someone they relate to."
J.Crew's mature model, a Danish stunner with a 27-inch waist, returned to modeling full time four years ago with L.A. Models as her booking agency. She had been working as a successful interior designer, collaborating with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and other notables.
"I was seeing girls that I used to work with, and so I got back into it," says Gronning, who was discovered by Eileen Ford in 1974. "I am much more relaxed about it now, and I am doing amazingly well."
Using models with some existential mileage makes sense for a few reasons. Baby boomers and thirtysomething Gen Xers see the best physical examples of their peers and glean hope that they, too, can age as well. They also covet the good life experiences that often come with good looks.
"The aspiration in these ads has shifted to having a full, rich life. Open up any Vogue and you'll see models over 35," says John Caplan, president of Ford Models. "In the Rolex ad, you have Carmen Dell'Orefice, and she's in her 70s."
Of course, it helps to have a fulfilled life and exquisite bone structure too. This fall, you won't be able to flip a dozen ad pages in a fashion magazine without glimpsing a 35-plus supermodel. Nearly every '90s glamazon immortalized in George Michael's "Freedom" video has a campaign to her name. Linda Evangelista, 42, pouts for Prada, while 38-year-old Claudia Schiffer smirks for Chanel and Ferragamo. Christy Turlington, 39, models for Escada. Naomi Campbell, 38, just replaced the 34-year-old Kate Moss as the face of Yves Saint Laurent's fall print ads.
Could America's next top model be addicted to multivitamins? TV Land sure hopes so. Earlier this month, the cable network -- along with Wilhelmina Models as a partner -- debuted "She's Got the Look," a search for a 35-plus supermodel. Host Kim Alexis, 47, who graced 500 magazine covers in the '80s, plays the ax model with the not-so-catchy dismissal: "You're off the board."
"The expression 'well-preserved' has become a compliment," Alexis says. "And unlike the 20-year-old girls on 'America's Next Top Model,' these women are more well-rounded and confident."
Perhaps. But that doesn't mean that they don't bicker like hungry chinchillas and bemoan their thighs and midriffs. Still, Keith Cox, TV Land exec and the show's creator, thinks the winner will have a better shot at landing campaigns than a dewy twentysomething model: "It's a different market, and it's less competitive," he says.
Lara Harris hopes so. The 35-plus model who was one of the faces of Giorgio Armani in the '90s left L.A. last month for New York to reignite her career. Her agency, Wilhelmina, lured her out with the promise of work. "It's more viable for me as a model than I ever anticipated," says Harris, who just completed a graduate degree in psychology and has decided to put off practicing psychotherapy. "I'm at an audition right now."
Still, this trend that appears to be one giant leap for modelkind doesn't apply to the runway -- which is still strictly for kittens.
"If I submitted a 45-year-old model for a runway show, the designer would laugh at me," says Crista Klayman, director of runway at L.A. Models. "They still want the 18-year-old."
In other words, got milk?