Among the 80s and 90s top models, the Dutch model Marpessa plays a particular role, thanks to her extrovert personality and her unusual beauty If it is true that the name of a person holds part of his destiny, then to be called Marpessa, like the nymph disputed between the god Apollo and the warrior Idas, or like the Afro-American actress turned by Marcel Camus into the carioca Eurydice of the Black Orpheus, means having an aura of beauty that is almost mythic. This is the case of Marpessa Hennink, which entered the Olympus of the top models between the middle 80s and the early 90s. She was born in Amsterdam from Dutch parents, and her father had origins from Suriname; at 16 years old she decided to begin her career as a model. Her strong will and her daredevil personality, that mirrored her unique way of walking, don’t let her give up when Eileen Ford, pioneer of the model management that passed by the Dutch city for some castings, rejects her.
Before there was Cindy and Christy and Naomi – and for a while, during – there was Marpessa. An olive-eyed, gravel-voiced Amsterdammer whose mixed-race lineage left her feeling an outsider among her strapping, fair classmates but also made her endlessly versatile for fashion shoots, and one of the great catwalk prowlers. “Modelling made me so much happier about myself. Before that, I was like a black sheep and then all of a sudden in Milan it was ‘Ooh bella’.” For a time, she was ubiquitous.
Then, in 1993, she bowed out. “Grunge killed it for me,” she says, waving her cigarette as if to brush away a pesky fly. “I wanted to be in fashion to be beautiful and elegant, not to walk around looking like a junkie.
“ You can feel her agent’s anguish even now – walking away just as the big money began to cascade down the model chain. “Don’t worry, I made plenty,” she cackles.
I get the impression she made plenty more “in retirement” in Ibiza, where she had her daughter Ariel, now 10, and established an idyllic-sounding life of haute hippiedom and lucrative property development.
Doing up homes for affluent would-be bohos is sweet revenge for a model who for 12 years never had time to unpack, let alone hang a picture. Her life seems to have been a constant process of balancing and amendments. “My mum was quite a hippie and into sewing things and studying homoeopathy – and this was Holland in the Seventies, we weren’t exactly at the vanguard of fashion. So when I got to Paris I really went for it, clothes-wise.
“ She reckons she was the first model to dress the part off duty. Not that they were ever really off. By the late Eighties the supermodel culture was fomenting nicely; theirs was the fame that only requires a first name. She and Linda (Evangelista) were fashion-obsessed, trotting around in their Alaïa leggings and Chanel jackets. “We wanted to look as good off the catwalk as we did on. Before us models didn’t dress nicely at all,” she reports disapprovingly. “It’s not supporting the business is it? I won’t mention names but some, especially the American girls, wore the ugliest cotton knickers even to their fittings.
“ Marpessa, for the record, wore La Perla and Hermès. “I invented the It bag,” she laughs. She almost had an Hermès bag named after her – there was a collaboration in the offing but Ibiza got in the way.
She is an intriguing contradiction of laid-back and fastidious. But so is her parentage: her mother, the world’s “strictest hippie”, her father, a tailor “who used to go mad if he saw me up a ladder paint-stripping a wall in a Chanel jacket”.
Which would have been quite likely. She has around 17, at least two couture. She had “a particular relationship with Karl” when she was modelling. She doesn’t mean anything romantic, unless you count the creative connection that flourished between the big models of the Eighties and Nineties and the designers. She was in at the beginning, when Versace escalated the fee wars by paying models $50,000 to do one show and Dolce & Gabbana paid the models in clothes. “Models had much more input then than now,” she says. “The designers would listen to what we had to say during the fittings and sometimes they’d change the clothes because of it.” And sometimes they wouldn’t. “Then you’d have to wear something hideous on the catwalk and just pretend it was fabulous.
“ Apart from her hair, which she says she can never get right herself, she’s abnormally low-maintenance – no exercise, no special beauty tips, apart from total sunblock 364 days a year and one intriguing exercise she shows me to lift your boobs (smile downwards, flex your cheeks upwards, ladies, and feel the burn). She’s a compelling argument for not messing around with injectibles. In Ibiza she floated around in sun dresses (by her friend Yvonne Sporre who also decamped to the island) and lots of antique gold jewellery.
She’s wonderful at making things look effortless and as if they don’t matter very much – it’s the Chanel jacket-up-a-ladder philosophy. Secretly I think she worked quite hard in Ibiza, buying and selling real estate, as she calls it, engaging in the odd spot of modelling (she’s been in Vogue more this year than at any other time in her career) and ensuring friends like Valentino and Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana had a good time whenever they came to visit.
And then, last year, when Dolce & Gabbana launched its Alta Moda (haute couture) line, it offered her a job in Milan. When I ask her title she looks at me pityingly. “We don’t have titles.” If they did, hers would be something like “Person Who Takes Care Of Clients And Makes Wearing Alta Moda Look Easy”. Because amazingly, wearing lace dresses worth tens of thousands of pounds without looking like a museum piece can be quite tricky. So can those clients, even though she diplomatically insists they’re a breeze. Perhaps they’re simply in awe.
(By Lisa Armstrong | 06 August 2013)
Collaboration with Ferdinando Scianna and Dolce & Gabbana
The long collaboration with Magnum photographer Ferdinando Scianna, with whom she shot the first D&G catalogues and campaigns and various editorial spreads, resulted in the publication of the book Marpessa, in 1993.
The first time Ferdinando Scianna has seen the top-model Marpessa, it was in photography, a small photography issued from the collection fall-winter 87, showed by the two italian designers Dolce & Gabbana. They asked him to work for them. Scianna knew nothing about fashion. It was his first experience. Like Scianna, Domenico Dolce was born in Sicilia. And for this collection, the clothes were inspired by Sicilia. As a photographer, Scianna was looking for the virtue of his earlier books on Sicilia to shoot Marpessa. The book surpasses the classic definition of fashion photographs. It’s simply like an sensual italian movie in black & white, as a long time ago…
Young Dolce & Gabbana waiting in a car during the photo shoot on Sicilia
(all pictures above by Ferdinando Scianna)
DOLCE AND GABBANA ALTA MODA
April 27, 2013
Marpessa’s elegance and charme, as well as that glint in her eye make her a truly unique beauty, at any age. Muse to Dolce&Gabbana and queen on the runway and advertisement campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, Marpessa was a different kind of super model.
Today her innate elegance make her relevant and still a muse to Dolce&Gabbana, to their Alta Moda Collection in particular, where know how, quiet luxury and attention to detail are key.
Vogue Spain Photographer: Giampaolo Sgura, stylist: Sara Fernandéz