Today pop culture and high fashion feel inseparable, but in 1990, a music video by the pop star George Michael made an indelible impression by bringing the two together.
Michael, who died on Dec. 25 at the age of 53, featured several of the top models of the time in the video for his song “Freedom ’90”: Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Tatjana Patitz, all lip-syncing Michael’s lyrics. The video was directed by David Fincher, who was still unknown in Hollywood but had directed a number of music videos through the 1980s, including Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”
The timing could hardly have been better. Only a year earlier, MTV premiered a show hosted by Crawford called House of Style, that opened up the cloisters of high fashion to a truly mainstream audience, and the public fascination with the so-called “supermodel” was growing. That glamorous world was a perfect setting for the hyper-sexualized masculine identity Michael had created for himself, and he cleverly brought fashion further into the pop-culture fold with his video—which along with his catchy, uptempo song, produced a massive hit.
It was probably the fashion moment Michael will be most remembered for, but it was far from the only one for an artist who constantly reinvented himself and his look. He belongs to the category and generation of artists, including his fellow 1980s and 1990s pop star Madonna, who recognized fashion’s power as entertainment, and found new ways to put it to use.
He memorably opened his 1984 hit with Wham!, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” dancing in a white t-shirt with “Choose Life” printed across the front. Today that shirt remains one of the best-known pieces by designer Katharine Hamnett—an influence on Kanye West—who that same year shocked Margaret Thatcher when she turned up to a meeting with the British Prime Minister wearing a t-shirt protesting nuclear weapons. (Through much of the rest of the video, Michael and his bandmates are unforgettably clad in another 1980s favorite, neon.)
In 1987 came the George Michael of “Faith,” which established the distinctive look that would become a shorthand for his idiosyncratically masculine persona. Michael, his beard cropped close, appeared in mirrored aviators, fingerless gloves, and a leather jacket with the sleeves pushed up. He sported a similar look in his video for “Father Figure” that year—which follows a successful model as she prepares for a runway show, works a photo shoot, and spends time locking lips with Michael (who hadn’t yet come out as gay).
The allure and sexual overtones of fashion clearly held an appeal for Michael, who played up those qualities in his own public image over the decades, even as his own wardrobe grew more sophisticated and he traded the leather jacket and jeans for a suit. He made good use of them in “Father Figure” and again in his 1992 video for “Too Funky,” which returned to the runway for its setting. This time Michael enlisted lauded fashion designer Thierry Mugler, who brought a dramatic flare to his clothes and shows, to direct the video. It was over-the-top in just about every way conceivable.
“All of that supermodel glamour…it was a fashion show on steroids,” the video’s hair stylist, Danilo, told Vogue last year. “Moulin Rouge meets Vegas meets this level of chic sophistication.”
Earlier this year, Vogue recreated the video for “Freedom ’90” with a new generation of supermodels, including Adriana Lima and Joan Smalls. Several of the models in the original also memorialized Michael on social media after news of his death spread.