IN PICTURES | SA's Josie Borain on life as a sought-after supermodel in the '80s

SA supermodel Josie Borain’s coffee-table book, 'Josie You & Me', is packed with personal snapshots that captures the excitement of the fashion industry

01 February 2019 - 13:03 By Nothemba Mkhondo
Josie Borain's self-portrait with Gonna, her rat, at Studio 1205, Carnegie Hall.
Josie Borain's self-portrait with Gonna, her rat, at Studio 1205, Carnegie Hall.
Image: Josie Borain

Not everyone can say they’ve been captured by the lens of fashion photography greats such as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Steven Meisel, or that they considered designer Calvin Klein a great friend and collaborator. But for South African-born model Josie Borain, who made it big on the international scene in the 1980s, it was all a magnificent reality.

“I don’t believe in luck, but it was pure luck. I’m not a babe; I’m not particularly beautiful; I’m not all the things that society assumes are, like, ‘It’. I’m not ‘It’, but I managed somehow — not because of my own will, but because of the way things fell into place — to be quite successful and, frankly, to have a fucking awesome life,” she fondly recalls.

Moving from Johannesburg to Cape Town, then Paris and later New York, Borain went from being what she describes as a “very shy and very insecure and normal little girl” to being a highly sought-after, short-haired, androgynous model walking in shows and shooting campaigns with the top names on the international stage.

Josie Borain's triple self-portrait in Mexico.
Josie Borain's triple self-portrait in Mexico.
Image: Josie Borain

“Basically I just hit the market at such a good stage, because I was long and skinny, and I had short hair, and I had this whole androgynous vibe going on, and people were just like, ‘Ah, she’s perfect,’” she says.

By the early ’80s, Borain’s career was soaring. She became one of the first models to be put on contract, when Calvin Klein offered her $1-million to work with him for 100 days a year for three years running.

Donna Karan and her designer Eddie Wilkerson, with models including Gail Elliot, Veronica Webb, and Ariane Koizumi.
Donna Karan and her designer Eddie Wilkerson, with models including Gail Elliot, Veronica Webb, and Ariane Koizumi.
Image: Josie Borain
Josie Borain's self-portrait taken in Paris.
Josie Borain's self-portrait taken in Paris.
Image: Josie Borain

She has many memories, and those of Klein are a highlight. “Calvin used to get a lot of inspiration from me, for whatever reason, and he was really generous, and he really liked me. Before my first show with Calvin Klein, after we signed, he very generously sent me and my husband Pierre on his jet to Key West, so I could go and get a suntan,” she laughs.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LENS

Just as modelling found Borain when she thought herself to be its least likely candidate, so too did photography, when she found herself with a camera in her hands while backstage.

“When I was a model I used to take photographs. Some girls would sit around and do their makeup, and other girls would smoke cigarettes — I wasn’t either of those girls, so I just used to walk around with a camera,” she says. “I wasn’t creating perfect images, I was just snapping life — my life.”

Model Iman and Hamid.
Model Iman and Hamid.
Image: Josie Borain
Josie Borain's self-portrait with Antoine Verglas.
Josie Borain's self-portrait with Antoine Verglas.
Image: Josie Borain

She learnt a lot from the masters, of course. “Guys like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn. I love Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh — I worked with some amazing photographers and, in retrospect, I’m very honoured to have worked with them,” she says.

“There’s a connection within the lens when you photograph somebody and they’re looking at you through the lens and you’re looking at them. There’s something… It’s exciting.”

A portrait by Pierre Houles, Josie Borain's first husband in Antibes.
A portrait by Pierre Houles, Josie Borain's first husband in Antibes.
Image: Pierre Houles

Josie You & Me, her self-published coffee-table book, gives a sneak peek into this chapter of her life. With boxes full of photographs from her days as a supermodel, Borain’s memories are vivid, frozen in frame, and preserved, even now, years on, when her life looks vastly different.

“I don’t consider myself a fashion photographer. I really consider myself a reportage photographer, if you really have to label me. I love my book; it’s like a retrospective of part of my life.”

• 'Josie You & Me' by Josie Borain is available for R450 (excluding shipping) from josieborain.com

• This article was originally published in The Edit, a standalone fashion magazine sent to select Sunday Times print subscribers. Subscribe now.


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