The mother, mogul and mentor reflects on her beloved Malibu and time on fashion’s front line
On the day the Woolsey Fire breached in Malibu, Cindy Crawford woke up alone in the oceanfront house she shares with her husband, Rande Gerber, and their two children. She unlocked her phone, where the message—in fact, a torrent of messages—was clear: Get out. She was, she recalls, dumbstruck. “I’m not one to hang back with a fire hose. You think, what do I need? I grabbed passports and birth certificates, some of my jewelry, a painting that my daughter had just done, and got on PCH. I saw what looked like a tsunami of smoke coming over the mountains. It was ominous.” Six hours later, Crawford arrived at the home she and Gerber purchased recently in Beverly Hills, which typically serves as an in-town crash pad for her kids. The next day she learned that their Malibu home had been spared, and that many of her friends were less lucky. “We know at least 20 people who lost their houses. It’s a close community. Fortunately our friends are safe, and I think it’s a reminder to all of us that you are not the stuff you own. But stuff contains memories—that favorite Christmas dish you don’t know you were missing until you look for it.”
In moments of tumult, there is some comfort to be found in symbols of the enduring. One such symbol may be Crawford herself: There she is on a giant billboard hanging over Sunset Boulevard—in red leather, her chestnut tresses approaching their 1986 bigness—and here she is in person, on the roof of Soho House West Hollywood, where the presence of one of the world’s most recognizable faces creates a teacup-rattling charge in a room full of jaded Angelenos usually more adept at pretending not to notice. No small amount of news has swirled around Crawford of late, though most of it has concerned those proximal to her: last June, Gerber sold the tequila company he founded with George Clooney and real estate heavyweight Mike Meldman for a billion dollars; in the ensuing months, their daughter, Kaia Gerber, 17, became one of the world’s most in-demand models. And now it’s Crawford’s turn (again), in a major campaign for the Swedish label Acne Studios, shot by Sam Abell, who photographed the original Marlboro Man back in the 1980s. She plays a sort of Marlboro woman, replete with cowboy hat and boots—an icon exploring the idea of iconicity.
“Now here’s a place where I asked Kaia for advice,” Crawford says. “I was like, ‘Should I do this? Is it cool?’ She said, ‘Definitely. Do it.’ At my age, I always like to look at the photographer’s lighting to see how they shoot other women. That’s not what Sam does—he’s famous for his work in National Geographic. He only uses natural light, dawn or dusk. I thought, this will be either amazing or a disaster. But it clicked. I love the campaign. And I’m kind of owning it, saying, ‘Hey, I’m a 52-year-old woman, but I can still look and feel a certain way.’” (Kaia evidently approved of the results too, taking to Instagram to comment on the photo, “When your mom is hotter than you.”)
Unlike most of her supermodel peers, Crawford has chosen to live away from the New York-Paris-Milan fashion nexus. She has built two successful brands—Meaningful Beauty, her skincare line that has sold to over 4 million customers, and the Cindy Crawford Home collection, which is available in more than 500 showrooms across the country—that rely on her fashion bona fides but haven’t prevented her from raising her children in Malibu, where the family has lived for the past two decades. Modeling was always a job and never an identity for Crawford, the valedictorian of her high school in DeKalb, Ill., who landed a scholarship to study chemical engineering at Northwestern University before the runway absorbed her. But with Kaia and her 19-year-old brother, Presley, now commanding runways of their own, Crawford’s relationship to fashion is shifting again.
“I’ll say yes to certain things that will put me in the same city as Kaia during fashion week that maybe I would have passed on before,” she says. “Now I’m like, ‘Oh, I can be in Milan while my daughter’s there? Perfect, because then she doesn’t feel like I’m stalking her.’ Even if, secretly—this is what I think—she might like it a little bit.” Crawford wears a white linen Tom Ford tuxedo jacket over jeans. Her intense brown eyes counteract the softness of her voice. “I want to make sure she’s not getting overwhelmed. This wasn’t her first season, where everything’s shiny and new. It does start feeling a little more like work. And I know it can be lonely: there are nights when you don’t have anything to do and you’re sitting in a strange hotel room. I’ll cancel any plans if she wants to hang out with me.”
With the kids launched precociously into the wider world, this is a time of transition for Crawford and her husband. Although Gerber still runs Casamigos, his tequila brand, they sold their house in Cabo San Lucas, where the family has traditionally spent Christmas holidays alongside the Clooneys and other friends. They would celebrate Christmas early, at home in Malibu, so that gifts didn’t have to be hauled on a plane to Mexico. “My mom loved Christmas, and I love Christmas,” Crawford says. “But our life is very different than the life I grew up with, so trying to establish the same kinds of traditions was hard.” They still pick out a tree as a family and decorate the house together. When the kids were small, Crawford would have them set out a beer for Santa Claus, explaining to them that he was probably sick of all that milk. Crawford invariably makes her mother’s monkey bread for the family to eat while opening presents. (Though Gerber was raised Jewish, they don’t celebrate Hanukkah. Passover is a different story, however; Crawford is extremely proud of her brisket.)
“Our family life has never been busier,” she says. “Malibu was such a great place to raise the kids. There are fewer distractions, and it fosters a connection to nature—the sunrises, the sound of the ocean, clean air. For my son, who surfs, it’s a respect for a power greater than yourself. But as the kids have gotten older, it’s started to feel small for them. They’re in and out. Presley’s entrepreneurial, like his father, and he’s working on a couple of ideas. For Kaia I think it’s hard to come home in some ways. She’ll be in Paris for a week on her own, and then she’s back in her old bedroom in Malibu and we’re like, ‘What time are you going to be home tonight?’ I’ll always be a mom, checking in.” Kaia was working in Europe when a man opened fire in a bar in Thousand Oaks, a few miles from the Gerbers’ home, killing 12 people. “I’m so sad for this generation of kids that they have to hear about gun violence on a weekly basis. I can’t imagine how their brains process it. We haven’t sat together yet and discussed it all as a family. It feels weird here—the energy is off in L.A. right now. We need to have that family dinner.”
Someone once told Crawford never to give advice unless it’s asked for, and she has tried to follow this wisdom even though the mothering instinct sometimes contravenes it. “Kaia will get mad if I don’t like her outfit,” Crawford explains. “And I’ll say, ‘You should dress for yourself, honey. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you. And by the way, if I ask you, I would want you to tell me the truth.’” Collectively, Presley and Kaia have enough tattoos to decorate a sailor’s arm, but here Crawford picks her battles. “I’m not sure that when you’re standing up at your own daughter’s wedding in your 50s they’re as cute as they might have been when you’re 17 and everything’s firm and tight,” she says. “But for them it’s a form of self-expression.” Crawford feels that Kaia has entered the modeling arena at a time when the #MeToo movement has made it a safer environment for teenage girls. She was never the victim of any abusive behavior during her own heyday. “I have good boundaries, and if someone said something, I had my own tools to defuse the situation. But I do feel that Kaia won’t even be put in some of the situations that I had to defuse because everyone is much more cognizant. It used to be that backstage, the second the show was over they let everyone in, and we’d be halfway changed, our pants down. Fortunately that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Though Kaia is not dating yet, where Presley is concerned, prospective paramours are welcomed; Crawford believes it’s a mistake to deny her children the dramas of adolescence, to try to save them from every hurt and heartbreak. “Sometimes we learn that lesson the hard way,” she says. “I didn’t get it right the first time. I was married before. I keep reminding Presley that each relationship helps you get closer to what you do want. The only advice I give, really, is that hopefully in a relationship, you’re both bringing each other up, making each other better people. If you can tick that box, you’re in the right place.”
Of course, in the special case of Crawford’s household, career advice is actively sought and duly valued. While Kaia has not yet picked through her mother’s clothing storage (except for an old Alaïa leather jacket she pinched for Paris last fall), she has certainly picked her mother’s brain. “What’s been really fun is your teenage kids are usually like, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, you don’t get it.’ But in this one area they listen to me,” Crawford says. “At the same time, I understand that even though I know a lot, it’s a different business today. The act of modeling isn’t different, but the extra layer of digital and how to navigate that. I have my opinions, but Kaia has a definite opinion of her own about social media and how she wants to portray herself. What’s been interesting to watch is how quick the trajectory is now for someone like her, with that daily exposure through Instagram. If I had a fan and they saw me in Vogue one month, they’d have to wait another month to see me again. Now it’s every day, every second. My concern about that is that the use-up rate is going be faster. So as a mother, I’m asking myself, how do I help Kaia have the option of longevity, if she wants it, when people are like, ‘What’s next?’”
Crawford’s own longevity owes in part to the careful protection of her assets. She was never a party girl. She has recently added Pilates to a fitness regimen that includes a personal trainer and regular hikes with girlfriends. (She does not surf, since one of her requirements for a good workout is never to get hurt.) When it comes to her diet, she is, she says, “80 percent good 80 percent of the time,” notwithstanding two small squares of dark chocolate after dinner. “I’ve never wanted to be that mom who said, ‘No, I can’t have ice cream,’” she explains, “because I wanted Kaia, especially, not to equate being pretty with depriving yourself.” She is a true believer in the products from her Meaningful Beauty line, along with regular facials and microdermabrasion, and when she accepts a fashion job these days it’s because she believes it will support her other businesses. But she admits that one of the joys of her furniture line is that it does not depend upon age-defying sleights of hand: “In my Cindy Crawford Home commercials, I can be the woman who has teenage children,” she says.
Crawford says that for years she has flirted with taking on less. But she knows herself: as soon as she dials something back, she’ll get antsy. Though she and her husband have lately ascended to the ranks of the fabulously wealthy, their life is more or less unchanged. “We were already doing the things we wanted to do,” she says. “We’re not about to run out and buy a boat or a plane. But at the same time, Rande and I are wondering, what are we going to do when the kids really do leave? We don’t know yet.”
In May, they celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Their friend Kid Rock threw a weekend party for them in Nashville, and Gerber and the kids bought Crawford a trio of Harry Winston eternity bands, which she has scarcely taken off since she unwrapped them. There is no need for Christmas presents this year. “I’m so fortunate,” she says, shaking her head gently, as if a part of her still can’t believe it. “I’m afraid to wish for anything.”
Written by ROB HASKELL.
Photography by KURT MARKUS.
Creative and Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND.
Hair by CHRIS McMILLAN at Starworks Artists.
Makeup by JO STRETTELL at Tracey Mattingly.
Manicure by EMI KUDO at Opus Beauty.
Location: Special thanks to DUSTY and JADE RHODES.