Daria Werbowy, the Ukrainian-Canadian model of scorching sexiness and the su-preme avatar of tawny-limbed fashion desires on the Balmain runway, is standing in her closet, adamantly insisting she's ac-tually a tomboy. "I've got jeans I've been wearing since high school in Toronto in here!" she whoops into her cell phone while rifling through the rocker-grunge treasures archived in the walk-in closet she's recently installed in her New York apartment. "Old Levi's—boys' baggy ones. Vintage ones from Trash and Vaudeville; skinny vintage high-waisted ones from Southpaw. Cutoff shorts I've worn since ninth grade. And a ton of leather jackets. Eeeesh." Hangers are swishing as she counts them out. "Bal-main, Chanel, Balenciaga, Topshop, no-name. And hoodies. I love my hoodies." Interesting, Dania. Be specific. "Plain. Gap. Men's. Always with a double-layered hood." Uh-huh. Why? " 'Cause they stay on your head." A crackle of laughter. "I told you. I'm a tomboy!"
Werbowy is completing a debrief about the story on these pages, in which—instead of dressing models to reflect fashion—Vogue turns the mirror the other way around to acknowledge their influence on designers, the public, and fashion as a whole. The models, for a change, styled themselves. Werbowy—tomboy—picked out a Rag & Bone leather biker jacket and greasy-look Balmain rocker jeans, a sky-blue LNA hoodie, and a scrappy white Market tee. She sat, hair loose and untouched ("I really don't like doing much to it"), makeup-less, and still managed to look 100 percent goddess—in that not-trying-too-hard way that is the attainable/unat-tainable essence Christophe Decarnin decants at Balmain.
Model-as-muse is the traditional as-pect of how this influence plays out. As Decarnin describes it, "It's not conscious Dania will come in looking totally natu-ral in old denim jeans, a worn T-shirt, something 'folk' she bought in Peru. I don't think about that when I design, but it's surprising; when I put the collection on the girls, I see it's connected." Somehow, though, there's a feeling that the time-hallowed "muse" effect is shifting. What's developing now is far less passive: a new cultural focus on the individualist dresser, as herself, in her own clothes. Marc Jacobs (the man who famously named a bag the Stam after the eponymous Jessica as far back as 2005—she picked it out, and it's been a best-seller ever since) intimated as much in his introduction to the Costume Institute's "The Model as Muse" exhibition catalog when he praised the impact of models "on run-ways, in magazines, on movie screens, and beyond." Less than twelve months later, thanks to cell-phone cameras, blogs, and the Internet, we're now fully in that "beyond": moving into a de-cade where models' own creativity as "casual" dressers is starting to rival the overproduced event glamour and red-carpet sterility of the last ten years.
Alexander Wang sees that with com-plete clarity. "I've always felt models are more interesting than celebrities," he says. "Model off-duty is a term I use for developing my aesthetic. I'm just inter-ested in something more spontaneous and authentic. No one really even cares to interview models anymore, like they did in the eighties or nineties. But for me, it's bringing back the inspiration."
Werbowy, Stam, Lily Donaldson, Sasha Pivovarova, Chanel Iman, and Karlie Kloss are all paid-up members of this new young force in fashion: individualists whose unique styles are subjected to daily forensic examination by bloggers, fan sites, and the general Twitterati. WhoWhatWear tags models' street photos with recommendations of how look-alike clothes can be bought; Mama Was a Rolling Stone analyzes street pictures of Donaldson and her possessions; there's even a Dariologist. That attention magnifies these models' influence immeasurably, bouncing it into teenagers' bedrooms and onto the mood boards of mass marketers. The result: What these girls wear of their own accord is becoming almost as cop-ied as what they wear on a runway.
It's the instinctive quirks in the way they put things together that draw the most fascination as these models are tracked loping across the Tuileries on the way to shows in Paris or running to castings in New York—the propensity for unself-conscious pairings of gar-ments that only young girls can pull off. All this came out in the studio. Lily Donaldson, a Camden Town Londoner versed in the language of punk, goth, grunge, and skater street style, arranged herself in a short jacket pulled over a long, sequined Demeulemeester vest, which in turn dangled below the hem of a minute leather skirt. Sasha Pivovarova, the intense Muscovite with an art-school background and a well-documented taste for eccentric head coverings, pulled out a "happy, bright-pink" Vuitton look, put a skirt over shorts, and reached for a head scarf "and a funky Russian hat with big ears." Kloss stuck to her clean, preppy style (including Joan & David loafers and her own Versani gold neck-lace). Chanel Iman demonstrated her love of little printed dresses with boots. Stam did denim shorts and flowered rings from Nina Ricci.
What did they have in common? Noth-ing much, except for lots of leg and a de-fining love of personal detail, their own jewelry, the pieces that make them them-selves. Yet that, in the end, is precisely what defines their influence: the fixation on the "models' own" unidentifiable possessions—a movement that's leading us way beyond the dread obsession with the celebrity carrying the It bag. These girls are fully enjoying the liberation of that. "I'm not big into wearing designer," chirped Chanel Iman. "The most com-pliments I ever get are always when I'm wearing some no-name dress."
"The red carpet is so contrived it has nothing to do with people's reality any-more," laments Vogue's Lauren Santo Domingo. "Today, what's influential is what people are wearing outside the fash-ion shows." She and a bevy of her col-leagues should know, as their style exerts a potent effect on the fashion world. San Francisco–raised stylist Vanessa Traina is equal parts Nob Hill elegante and Haight-Ashbury flower child—with a dash of Castro biker chic thrown in. "When we're drawing a collection, the girl in our heads is an amalgam," says Proenza Schouler's Lazaro Hernandez, "but 50 percent is Nessie. We ask ourselves, 'Would she wear this?' " Joseph Altuzarra adds, "You can get a lot of inspiration from someone who just really loves to wear clothes." Santo Domingo herself is inspired by Giovanna Battaglia, editor of Italian Vogue Gioiello and Vogue Pelle. "Milanese style gives me balance, so I don't go over the top," says Battaglia, who was raised on the Via Montenapoleone. "But a new pair of shoes is like kissing for the first time the love of your life!" –Hamish Bowles