As Kirsten Owen, Coco Rocha, Jessica Stam, Irina Lăzăreanu and Winnie Harlow trickle into a Brooklyn studio for FASHION’s September cover shoot, it’s clear that this is going to be no ordinary day on-set. “It’s been so long!” Lăzăreanu exclaims as she throws her arms around Rocha. “I’m having a flashback,” Stam muses as she, Rocha and Lăzăreanu sit for hair and makeup. For many years, the trio were “like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—always doing the same shows, the same shoots together,” explains Lăzăreanu, who was born in Romania and grew up in Montreal. “We would have a whole floor at the Principe hotel in Milan and leave our doors open and wake one another up for shows. It was a challenging time. We used to do 75, 88, 97 shows a season. But we got through it together.” As the blow-dryers buzz, there are shared recollections of good times, and bad, from over the years.
Owen, Rocha, Stam, Lăzăreanu and Harlow have each walked the most prestigious runways, starred in the biggest ad campaigns and graced countless magazine covers. They all have the height, bone structure and temperament that the industry favours. And they are all Canadian. But it’s their differences that set them apart—not only from one another but also from other stars of the modelling world.
At 53, Owen is the eldest of the bunch. Born in Montreal, she was 16 and busing tables at a nightclub in Toronto when she was discovered by legendary agent Judy Welch. Within the year, she was sent off to Paris, where the style of catwalking at the time was sexy and high energy with lots of smiles and twirls. Grunge before grunge, Owen was a misfit with her solemn, androgynous strut. But she quickly became a darling of avant-garde designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Her loping stride put more emphasis on the clothes than the personality in them. And then, recalls Owen, “one Fendi show, Karl Lagerfeld told all the models to walk like me.” Suddenly, bouncy, bubbly runway romps seemed out of date. Owen’s uniqueness and air of nonchalance have made her one of the coolest models ever, and she still travels between Toronto, her blueberry farm and jobs around the globe.
Lăzăreanu’s path has been a bit more colourful. It was Lagerfeld who plucked her out of obscurity and set her career in high gear. As she chronicles in her book, Runway Bird (Flammarion), released last year, Lăzăreanu mixed modelling with rock ’n’ roll escapades of epic proportions. She was engaged to Pete Doherty of Babyshambles and the Libertines, collaborated with Sean Lennon, partied with Kate Moss and even woke up in a trashed hotel room—in Claridge’s no less. “I was very different from the other models and would get in trouble for being wild,” Lăzăreanu admits. “There would be some story about me in the press, and my agent would call and say ‘You can’t do that.’ But Karl had my back, and I was always so grateful for that.” These days, Lăzăreanu’s life is much calmer. She lives with her son in her cottage in the Laurentians in Quebec and, in addition to jetting around for work, is executive deputy director of the action group No More Plastic.
Rocha, who was raised in Richmond, B.C., came to modelling as a Jehovah’s Witness. From early on, she has adhered to its core beliefs, such as no nudity or even partial nudity. But her faith has never been an obstacle, and Rocha quickly became lauded for her theatrical style of movement in front of the camera. Her strength of character extended to her off-hours as well. Rocha was among the first models to embrace social media (even her three young children have accounts); she is an owner of Nomad Management, with her husband/manager, artist James Conran; and she has passed on her knowledge of posing, runways, branding, contracts, agencies, accounting and social media to more than 4,000 students through the Coco Rocha Model Camp. But the thing she is most proud of, she says, is her involvement in pushing for legislation changes in New York state for models under the age of 18. “There were no laws protecting against sexual harassment and abuse or ensuring that models received payment or even meal breaks—nothing,” says Rocha, who began her career around age 15.
“You’re a baby working with grown-ups,” points out Stam, who was discovered by a modelling agent at age 16 in a Tim Hortons. Stam, who grew up on a farm with six brothers outside Kincardine, Ont., advises newbies to learn about money matters and keep an eye on what’s going on. “There are, unfortunately, a lot of bad people who will try to take advantage of your finances because they know you’re a child and don’t know what you’re doing.” She now has two young children of her own and lives with them and her husband, screenwriter Brahman Turner, in Hawaii. Two of her most recent career highlights are the reissuing of Marc Jacobs’s Stam bag, named after her in 2005, this spring and walking the red carpet at the AmfAR Gala Cannes during the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
L.A.-based Harlow also attended the AmfAR Gala Cannes, along with her boyfriend, NBA star Kyle Kuzma. Harlow, who hails from Mississauga, Ont., is the newcomer in FASHION’s September cover crew, having started in 2014 with an appearance on America’s Next Top Model. Despite having been discouraged from modelling due to her skin condition, vitiligo, she persisted, and in addition to her many cover, runway and campaign achievements, she brought her suncare line, Cay Skin, to Canadian Sephora stores—one of which turned her down when she once applied for a job. She also just launched her very first Puma collaboration—fully designed by Harlow herself. Watching our cover stars in front of the camera, I’m struck by their athleticism, lack of inhibition, understanding of how to “work” the garments and ability to silently improvise with one another. I sit down with them between shots to discuss their profession, their highs and lows and their views on the industry.
OWEN “It was horrible when I first started. I hated it and felt really uncomfortable. I was 17, and I had just arrived in Paris; I had never seen so much beautiful food, and I wanted to eat everything. People in the business were telling me I was too fat, and I felt like they wanted to change me. The hair and makeup didn’t feel like me at all. The style of runway walking was very coquettish. I could only walk the way I felt comfortable, which was my normal way of walking—really fast, with large steps. Some people wanted me to walk differently, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it.”
LĂZĂREANU “My first big show was a Chanel couture show in either 2004 or 2005. I wasn’t doing much work as a model. I was doing go-sees, but it wasn’t really working out. My agency sent me to this Chanel casting, and there were like 300 girls. I walked in wearing a long gypsy skirt and Tibetan boots; everyone else was in tank tops and high heels. Karl [Lagerfeld] passed through the corridor; he stopped and looked at me and then kept walking. And then the casting director came out and said, ‘Karl wants to see you.’ I was like, ‘Me?’ So I went in, and they changed me into a little black dress. And they said, ‘Don’t talk to him.’ But I talk a lot, and when I’m nervous, I talk even more. So he asked me a question and I started talking. I had a really strong French-Canadian accent, and that made him laugh. I did that show, and then I worked with him for 10 or 12 years.”
HARLOW “In Toronto, friends would ask me to model things they were selling and post the images. It was the beginning of social media. Anna Trevelyan, the stylist, saw me on Twitter. She showed Nick Knight images of me and he was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, amazing—reach out to her.’ They asked me to come to London to shoot. I had no idea who anyone was. So I did my research and showed my mom and I was like, ‘Can I go?’ She said: ‘Let’s hit up your family in London. Make sure that you’re safe.’ I didn’t have an agent for a very long time. I picked a manager in Toronto because I was getting a lot of emails. I got a lawyer, and I was my own agency.”
STAM “I didn’t know anything about modelling. Before my first fashion week, somebody taught me how to walk in heels because I had never walked in heels before. But as far as modelling, posing and all that goes, I sort of learned as I went. And I learned from photographers like Steven Meisel. I met him when I was 16 or 17 and still living in Canada. He shot me for a Versus Versace eyewear campaign the day I met him. He put me on an exclusive with him for seven or eight months. It was like going to school—the Steven Meisel School. He taught me how to position my face toward the light, find my pose and relax into it and then have fun and play. Last year, we shot a Zara campaign. Now when he shoots, he has a mirror on-set so you can perform a bit more and see how you look.”
ROCHA “I used to be an Irish dancer; this kind of dancing is rigid up top with the bottom moving fast, so nothing about it is practical for modelling. I went to Taipei to do catalogue work; it was hours upon hours of shooting every day, and it’s where I learned the basics of quick posing. These catalogue models move very quickly, and I truthfully thought that’s how you model. A few years later, I worked with Steven Meisel, who loved this quirky, weird thing I was doing. He was like, ‘That’s so weird and strange—keep doing it.’ So I was allowed from day one to perform the way I wanted because he gave me that approval, which, in turn, led to the industry saying ‘Well, if he says it’s OK, I guess we should let her do it the way she wants to do it.’”
On Steven Meisel and Learning How to Model
“One of my first jobs with Steven Meisel was for Vogue Italia. It was a very long editorial—70 pages—so we shot for almost three weeks. Camilla Nickerson was styling, and Pat McGrath and Guido [Palau] were on makeup and hair. I had to be different characters; one was a marionette, and I had to do these crazy jumps for about an hour straight. Steven would say ‘Do it again, but your hand should be here, your pinky should be there.’ And we did it again and again and again. I really believe that Steven is the absolute best teacher. He trains you how to move, how to understand images and lighting and how clothes move on you.”
LĂZĂREANU “When I started my career, nobody understood my look; nobody knew what to do with me. I was considered edgy and different looking; I would go to casting after casting and people would throw my book away. This is when we used to do castings on foot and go around the city with a little map. It was 10 castings a day and 10 noes a day. And I thought, ‘OK, well, I’m going to go through photography books and learn about lighting and Irving Penn and study images and be productive to prepare, so when I get a job, I’m going to be the best model I can be.’”
HARLOW “I went to an agency when I was maybe 16. They said that if I wanted to be in the fashion industry, I should try to be a makeup artist. But I just thought, ‘You know what, that’s your opinion.’”
LĂZĂREANU “Kate Moss was a mentor to me when I started my career, and she taught me a lot. She said: ‘This job is not about you looking pretty. And it’s not about you. You’re a canvas and you’re part of a team, and together you’re going to build a concept and tell a story. So the faster you understand that as a model, the better you’ll be at your job.’”
OWEN “When I started, I thought modelling was incredibly boring, and I hated that. Everyone else got to be creative. The photographer was creative. Everyone was creative, but the model was like a puppet. I decided that it was not working for me, and I wanted to try to find a way that I could have fun with it, too. I had to come out of my shell and use my imagination to create a scenario and play and be able to make it work. It took years to finally realize what I had to do to make it fun for myself and make it work for other people. Then Paolo Roversi said to me, ‘Kirsten, modelling is an art and you are an artist,’ and that was like—wow, I was touched.”
On the Role of a Model
“The whole purpose of any artist is to make people feel something. Actors, dancers, singers, performers—they all understand that. But if you say a model’s job is to make people feel something, you get a giggle. Fashion is a multi-trillion-dollar industry where you are trying to sell something or at least get someone to feel something. My goal on-set is that the room should applaud. They should be excited by what they just saw.”
ROCHA “I remember Liya [Kebede] being backstage and saying ‘I’m the only Black woman.’ And we would be like, ‘Yeah, you are.’ But it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, shoot, what are we going to do about that?’ Looking back now, how did the world not see this as an issue? The industry shifted, for sure, but it shifted because the public said ‘Where am I? Where is my skin colour? Where is my body size?’ That only happened when social media came around.”
HARLOW “The true meaning of being a trailblazer is not just walking the path; it’s making that path easier for others to walk. I remember the first time I saw a model with vitiligo get a job after I had pretty much been the only one. In the comments, people were saying ‘Winnie Harlow, watch your back’ or ‘This girl is coming for your job.’ But the whole point of me doing what I do is so that I can cry tears of joy to see someone who looks like me. One of the first big covers I did was in Saudi Arabia, and there was a girl there who was a fan of mine and DMing me. I asked the magazine to have her with me on the cover. Being that representation that I never had is my proudest achievement.”
ROCHA “I find it funny that in acting or singing, you don’t see ‘curve singer’ or ‘curve actress.’ For some reason, models are put in tiny boxes.”
“I don’t call myself a spokesmodel for vitiligo. I don’t want to make another box for everyone to fit into, like ‘vitiligo models’ or ‘plus-size models.’ There shouldn’t be a mould in the first place. Let’s break it completely.”
LĂZĂREANU “We need to talk about general respect and work conditions for models. We all have war stories about how fashion week is and how the lifestyle is—it’s not the healthiest environment for a young woman.”
ROCHA “I’ve had an equal amount of frustrating moments with both sexes in my career. I think it’s fascinating when you find yourself in a sticky situation with a woman and you’re thinking ‘Is this even possible?’ Recently I worked with a new designer I’d never worked with before. I don’t give names because I believe people have the right to change. In the fitting, she spoke to me as if she were saying ‘I own you because I paid for you to be here.’ She never said it in those words, but it felt like that because of the way she was talking to me and even looking at me. All of it was such an awkward experience. And I thought: ‘Here we are in 2022, and your behaviour is so shocking. Women shouldn’t be doing this to other women.’ I left thinking ‘What is happening?’ James saw me cave in and cry; it was that bad. I think I was also in shock because there I was, trying to be technical and kind and respectful. But this woman was just not having it, and I said, ‘James, I can’t do it’ and he said, ‘I agree—we’re cancelling.’ This person’s team was very sweet and said, ‘Can we double the amount?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ Any designer who thinks that treating someone like that can be fixed with money will never learn. She was not happy. She told my team I was disrespectful and a diva. A few days later, she tried to get herself in front of me, but I have a husband who is my bodyguard, my everything, and he wouldn’t let her come near.”
HARLOW “I’ve endured a lot of hair damage backstage and during photo shoots when there haven’t been people behind the scenes who are well educated in Black hair. Those are the times when I feel the most discrimination. For one cover shoot, I came on-set with my natural ’fro. I’d worked on it all night, putting curl-rod sets into it, and it was really beautiful. When I got on-set, they said they wanted my hair bigger, so they decided to add water. If you know Black hair, you know that water makes it smaller, not bigger. And so I ended up with a really wet, soggy hairdo. And then they asked me to put it back to what it was before. It had taken me all night to create the hair that they had just ruined, and I couldn’t get it back to what they wanted. That was disheartening because I had spoken up for myself, saying ‘It gets smaller if you wet it, not bigger,’ but I wasn’t heard.”
ROCHA “What have I not done for a shot? I’ve stood on the edge of a skyscraper without any sort of safety net. I have been in rooms that were on fire and worked with animals from elephants to camels. I had a black snake in my mouth for eight hours for photos by Steven Klein that never got published because American Vogue said they were a little too editorial—I would love to find those photos.”
LĂZĂREANU “We were shooting a Puma campaign with Ryan McGinley at the Serpentine in London. We had the museum to ourselves, and at the very top there was a swing that was attached to the ceiling seven storeys up. Ryan said, ‘Why don’t you jump from the balcony onto the swing?’ Obviously, the production team was against it. So during the lunch hour, Ryan and I ran away, and I jumped from the balcony onto the swing and we got the shot. And then we didn’t know how to get back. It took about an hour and a lot of people to get me off that thing.”
On Going to Extremes to Get the Shot
“I did a shoot 18 years ago with Charlotte Stockdale for British Vogue. We were on a cruise ship in Alaska for eight days. For one of the shots, we took a helicopter to an iceberg, and they dropped me off and shot me from the helicopter. So I was all alone on this iceberg. They were like, ‘Don’t move around too much because we don’t know if it’s OK.’ One of my favourite things is getting in a harness and doing flying shots. There was a Nina Ricci fragrance campaign where I was like Catwoman running across the rooftops they had built on a set. And I recently did a Vogue Italia shoot where I was climbing on furniture. I like doing flips and stuff when I’m not supposed to; it’s really fun.”
STAM “Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui used to have these giant rooms full of samples, and they would give you a shopping bag and say ‘You can fill up the shopping bag—that’s your payment for doing the show.’ So I have a ton of Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui and Thom Browne, from when he first launched his womenswear. He’s also one of my favourite designers.”
LĂZĂREANU “I have a 1992 Westwood tweed jacket that Vivienne gave me that I cherish because she was such an inspiration to me and to so many people around the world. She really was the embodiment of punk and such a trailblazer. And I have an Alexander McQueen coat that he gave me. I love it very much because I loved him very much. He was an incredible designer, a master tailor and a very sweet human being.”
OWEN “My two kids and I have these beautiful cashmere Louis Vuitton blankets that Marc Jacobs gave us when he was there. He’s so lovely to work with—incredibly cool, accepting and easy. He doesn’t put pressure on you or judge you. He’s so easy to be around.”
LĂZĂREANU “Karl was a perfectionist. He worked a lot. He was very demanding, but he also gave a lot to people. I would spend time with him at the studio, and he would draw while I would do my journals and my poetry, and he would lend me books to read.
“Once, I was doing the cover of Visionaire, and at the time I was flying back and forth from New York to Paris like four times a week. I got off the plane in Paris and went straight to the set. It was a night shoot, and I was exhausted. I remember having tears in my eyes. Karl saw me. He didn’t say anything, but he took me outside and said: ‘Let it out. If you’re going to cry, you do it now.’ So I was crying, and then he said, ‘Don’t ever let them see you cry.’ And it’s really kind of crazy because everybody in the studio would always say ‘Don’t show emotion; don’t let him see you cry.’ When he cared about you, he was very loving. It was a human moment.”
ROCHA “Some models look at new girls and think ‘You’re going to be my replacement. Why would I ever want to help you? It just means I’ll lose my job quicker.’ But in reality, we’re going to be replaced. It’s an industry that still has a warped belief that beauty is young. So why not help someone?”
On Staying in the Game
“I have a very simple regimen: I run through the woods barefoot and then jump in my pond. I run for about 45 minutes, three or four times a week. It makes me feel happy and grounded. It’s not about looking youthful. It’s about feeling alive.
“How long will I keep modelling? I don’t know. Probably forever. [Laughs] I’m sure that I’ll still be doing pictures when I’m in my 90s.”
Our group discussion ends with a rousing chorus of Canada’s national anthem (in both official languages!) and agreement that one of the bonuses of the day was getting to see respected colleagues at work. “We never get to watch each other perform,” explains Rocha. “That’s when you think ‘I know why you’re so good, I understand why you keep working and I know why everyone loves you.’ It was really special today to watch everyone.” It’s also a privilege that I will never forget.