For the most recent issue of the Wall Street Journal Magazine, I profiled cover star Natalia Vodianova. I first met Nata, as she’s often referred to, when I was still a college student, living in the dorms at New York University. (She had slightly nicer digs: She lived in a Tribeca manse with a water feature I once fell into at a masked ball she organized at the house.) So us meeting together again at the Paris apartment she shares with her boyfriend Antoine and her three kids was a full circle moment for me. Her address may have changed, but that’s about it: She is still as sweet, smart, driven and, yes, as beautiful as I always remembered.
DURING FASHION WEEK this past March in Paris, Natalia Vodianova maintained a schedule that would test anyone’s stamina: She was the guest of honor at a surprise party for her 31st birthday, hosted by her boyfriend, Antoine Arnault, son of LVMH founder Bernard Arnault. The next night she hosted a party to launch online retailer Net-a-Porter’s sale of a shoe collection she designed for Russian retailer Centro to benefit her Naked Heart Foundation, a charity she founded a decade ago to help disadvantaged children in her native Russia. That Sunday she woke up at 6 a.m. to run the Paris half-marathon, also in support of the Naked Heart Foundation; did a Givenchy fitting; came home to feed lunch to her three children; and then headed off to get into hair and makeup to close the Givenchy fashion show at 7 p.m. Among the front-row onlookers were Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Jessica Chastain, Arnault, Vodianova’s 11-year-old son, Lucas, and her Russian grandmother, who clapped wildly as she watched her granddaughter sashay down the runway for the first time.
That Vodianova is still landing prime modeling jobs now that she is on the far side of 30 is surprising. That she simultaneously established herself as a philanthropic force even more so. Historically, supermodels have waited until their bookings diminish to turn their efforts to charity and other second careers. Vodianova still has lucrative contracts with Guerlain and French lingerie brand Etam, for which she also designs her own collection. It’s a wave she could ride until she washes up on fashion’s more obscure shores, but instead, Vodianova has always sought to establish herself as someone with interests and ambitions above and beyond the runway—or as her friend designer Stella McCartney puts it, she’s been “well-rounded” from the start.
This spring, her efforts were acknowledged with the Inspiration Award at the annual DVF Awards—an honor that designer Diane von Furstenberg has previously presented to Íngrid Betancourt and Elizabeth Smart, both women who have “demonstrated extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity” and use this “experience and influence to effect positive change.” Von Furstenberg met Vodianova when she was 19 years old, during her first season modeling in New York in 2001, when the designer snapped her up to open and close her catwalk presentation. “I immediately loved her. She was never like a young child, always a grown-up,” says von Furstenberg. “Very early on she took her life in her hands and decided that unless she controlled it, she couldn’t succeed.”
Vodianova’s rags-to-riches life story reads like something only a screenwriter could imagine: One day she was selling oranges at a fruit stand; then she was signing an exclusive multimillion-dollar contract with Calvin Klein. Born in Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial town 260 miles from Moscow, she started skipping school at the age of 11 to help support her single mother, Larissa, and autistic younger half-sister, Oksana. (Vodianova’s father walked out when she was a toddler, leaving her mother to work three jobs, including selling fruit at a local market. At first, Vodianova helped her before taking over the duties completely.) “I used to sell fruit on the street in minus-25-degree Celsius weather, outside in the open air, for 12 hours straight. I would come home and scream in pain as my fingers and my toes were literally defrosting,” says Vodianova, now amid much plusher surroundings in a Paris apartment overlooking the Invalides she shares with Arnault. Resting up the day before the marathon, she’s curled on a couch wearing a cap-sleeved sweater and black-and-white-striped trousers. Flipping open her agenda, she shows me a photograph from her childhood. “I always had big black circles under my eyes, which were swollen. You can literally see that burden in my face.”
Vodianova was determined to make a better life for herself, and in 1999, when she was 17, a boyfriend suggested she attend an open casting call. The model scout immediately recommended her to an agency in Moscow. At first, her mother was reluctant to let her go because she was suspicious of the scout’s intentions and depended on her help at home. According to Vodianova, “We didn’t have the time to dream. I remember having English lessons in school and thinking, Why on Earth would I learn another language?” Yet Vodianova’s grandmother was encouraging, and the family decided she could give it a try.
From Moscow, Vodianova was immediately sent to Paris. Her agency gave her a weekly advance, which she sent to her mother, who by then had a third child, daughter Kristina. “It was quite a lot of money for my family, like a month’s salary,” says Vodianova. It helped her mother come to terms with her daughter’s decision to leave. “She started to realize that this could be good.” Meanwhile, it was the first taste of freedom from an angst-ridden existence for the young Vodianova. “It was such a beautiful time, just having that chance to be a different person. For once, I was a normal girl and completely anonymous in a new place and had an opportunity to start a new life.” That new life began in earnest when she met the Honorable Justin Portman, a dashing English property heir, at a Parisian dinner party. They married in 2001, when she was 19 years old and pregnant with their first son, Lucas.
Her career took off immediately. Among a crop of leggy Russians, Vodianova stood out for her chameleonlike acting abilities, intense work ethic and sense of humor—not to mention her wide-set, expressive eyes, thick brows and pouty lips. Photographer Juergen Teller shot her for a 2001 Marc Jacobs campaign. The following year, Tom Ford cast her in a Gucci campaign. She became a favorite of Vogue, starring in the title role of a now-famous Alice in Wonderland–themed editorial shot by Annie Leibovitz and styled by Grace Coddington in the magazine’s December 2003 issue. And then, at the age of 21, she signed an eight-season, seven-figure contract with Calvin Klein that changed her life.
“When I met her for the first time, she took my breath away. She is beyond superficial beauty. This is a beauty that is from the inside and comes out,” Klein says. Vodianova was the last girl Klein personally put under an exclusive contract before he retired, catapulting her into the ranks of a Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Brooke Shields. “She was very sexual, seductive, she was all those things that I wanted to represent. I used her for everything I could… Too often, models are flat. They have good bodies, but you can see in their faces that there’s not a lot there. But Natalia has such a great spirit.”
A year after her first Calvin Klein ads appeared in 2003, when larger-than-life images of her posing seductively loomed over New York’s SoHo, Vodianova decided she needed to pay back some of the good fortune she was enjoying by forming her own charity. The impetus was the school hostage crisis in the Russian city of Beslan in 2004, which ended with more than 380 dead, many of them children. Vodianova was in Moscow at the time of the crisis and witnessed firsthand how her countrymen were shaken by the tragedy. “It was everywhere. The whole country stopped,” Vodianova remembers. Lucas, her eldest child, was 3 years old at the time—the same age as some of the children who were killed. “I was wrestling with how I went from the bottom of society to the top of financial security. That feeling of unfairness upset me.”
As she struggled to determine what she could do to help, she sought the answer in her own past. “I went back to my childhood and saw myself as a little girl who was very much in a difficult situation, growing up with my disabled sister. My childhood was very abnormal. I missed out on simple things.” Oksana was born with autism and cerebral palsy. “I was attached to her and [therefore] almost disabled myself because I couldn’t play with my own friends.” Vodianova’s eyes tear up as she tries to explain, “I felt ashamed sometimes. We spent all our time walking outside because she loved it, but we were always exposed to people being horrible to us. I remember thinking that what I lacked the most as a child was a place to go where I felt like I belonged.” Vodianova had found her mission: to build playgrounds in underprivileged parts of Russia in order to provide other children with the carefree joy she had missed.
To date, she has built 90 playgrounds in Russia through Naked Heart, and she has expanded her horizons, helping to build three in the U.K. She has hosted fund-raising Love Balls in Moscow, London and outside of Paris, which have raised millions of dollars and attracted the likes of Anne Hathaway, Kate Moss, Mario Testino and Daphne Guinness. This year’s ball, the fourth such extravaganza, will be held on July 27, at the Monaco opera house. Hosted by Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene of Monaco, along with Princess Caroline of Hanover, the event will be Vodianova’s biggest ever: a 550-person sit-down dinner with a 1960s Riviera theme.
But while her foundation has grown exponentially, Vodianova faced a personal hurdle of her own: a separation and divorce from Portman. They were together for nine years and, after Lucas, had a second son, Viktor, 7, and a daughter, Neva, 5. The couple separated in 2011, and she soon met Arnault, now the CEO of Berluti, at a fund-raiser for her charity at the designer Valentino’s estate outside Paris, and began a new chapter. They now live together with Vodianova’s three children, and she has immersed herself in Parisian life, even taking French lessons. “I am very happy now,” she says of her love life, trying but failing to hide a smile.
It’s easy to refer to her life as a modern-day fairy tale, but for Vodianova, it’s a bittersweet comparison. “On the one hand, I don’t like it because my story was not defined by who I am dating, by some prince charming,” she asserts. “I married for love. I work hard on being a good mother, and a good partner and in my profession. Those successes cannot be attributed to chance.” But there is one fairy tale that she’s happy to be associated with: Alice in Wonderland. “She took what was given to her and went with it. Go down the rabbit hole and see what life gives you. I can definitely relate to that!” she says. “Besides, I never wanted to be Cinderella. I’d rather be Alice, and I’m happy I found my wonderland.”
Photograph by Alasdair McLellan; Styling by Anastasia Barbieri. Below, images from my archives:
I was a very lucky boy to be back in Venice for a second time in less than a month, this time for the Venice Biennale, the arts fair extravaganza that takes over the sinking city every two years. (I was in Venice a few weeks back with Louis Vuitton, which you can read about here.) But before anyone begrudges my fortunate travel plans, at least allow me to say that it was chilly and rainy nearly every day I was there. Though, as I tweeted, even when it’s cold and wet, Venice is still the most magical city in the world.
I was at the Biennale this year for a few reasons. The first is that my friends Milla Jovovich and Tara Subkoff had collaborated for a piece they called ‘Failure to Connect,’ which was inspired by Herbert Marcuse’s quote: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” So, for six hours, Milla sat in a glass house that Urs Fischer had constructed in a small garden on the Grand Canal and ordered more and more materiaslic commodities, which were dumped on her. By the end of the installation, she was literally drowning in her purchases. “For me Milla embodies the ‘future’ as a woman who understands technology and the cyber world. This was a hugely important factor in this work as it is a depiction of the not so distant future,” Tara explained. “This was a dream of what the future might look like if we only live inside our glass house ordering online and having our lives turn into one big long live feed of what we are ordering. And advertising. Even advertising ourselves through tweeting and Instagraming. There may be no more authentic experiences.”
The other reasons for a Venice excursion? Well, I was already in Europe after the Cannes film festival and an opening for Francesco Vezzoli at the Maxxi Museum in Rome. I was excited for the Biennale, though I didn’t get to spend as much time there as I had hoped because it kept raining on me. (And there’s only one thing to do when it rains in Venice: Find the nearest café and eat some carbs.) I will say the most widely discussed piece at the Biennale was Ragnar Kjartansson´s S.S. Hangover, which consisted of a four piece marching band blasting jazz tunes on the back of a boat stuck in the Giardini at the Arsenale. Perhaps my favorite thing at this year’s Biennale wasn’t even part of the Biennale. Édouard Manet’s Olympia was back in Olympia, hanging next to Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which inspired the work. The Manet show was sensational. The Financial Times had a brilliant piece on the show, and seeing it in the flesh didn’t disappoint. And lastly, it’s Venice. Who really needs an excuse to go there?
Beyond the art, there is the social element of the Biennale. There are parties in nearly every palazzo, which can be fun but also overwhelming. Believe me, if my oft partners in crime Petey and Harry Brant think there’s too much going on, there’s just too much going on. Which isn’t to say we didn’t have fun. Francois Pinault did his annual dinner on the small island of San Giorgio Maggiore, which was decadent and surreal. And Purple Magazine had a party at a teeny, tiny palazzo near the train station. The highlight of that party? When Gavin Brown did his own mini-installation and stood up on a table and threw his plate of race across the room, smashing it against a wall. (See, packed schedules make people hostile.) However, when I wasn’t socializing or getting my art on, I spent a few hours at my favorite place in the world: The Cipriani’s Hotel in Venice. It’s a little slice of paradise.
The Manet exhibit is up until August 18th, and the Venice Biennale’s exhibitions will be on display until November 24th. (The New York Times did a fabulous review of this year’s Biennale, which you can see here.)
Captions, from top: In a shower of rose petals on the Grand Canal; Marc Quinn’s work on San Giorgio Maggiore, where the Pinault dinner was held; Harry and Milla at Tara’s dinner; Tara and Urs, new crushes; Lola Schnabel and Ginevra Elkann at Tara’s installation; Petey in repose; me and Chris Brenner; the ultimate host with the most, Chris Bollen serving drinks; Milla in her installation; a expectedly unexpected art piece in the street; my purchase in Venice: a gondolier’s hat, which I love; not quite clear skies, but still gorgeous; a Venetian traffic jam; Princess Gloria von Thurn and Taxis; me and Margherita Missoni; a couple of cute locals, Enrico and Mattia; Venice gives good ceilings; Manet’s ‘Olympia’; Purple’s Olivier Zahm; me with Milla’s daughter Ever, who was the most gorgeous work of art in all of Venice.
Hard to believe it’s already time for another best dressed list. But, hey, time flies when you’re judging what everyone is wearing! In the June issue of Harper’s Bazaar, I start by having two very nostalgic moments. The first is when I follow Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent show into my childhood fascination of grunge (which was followed by Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton), and then I have a flashback to the 1997 Golden Globe Awards when Kim Basinger wore a cropped full skirt to accept her award for LA Confidential, which is a silhouette we’ve seen more recently on the likes of Adele, Alexa Chung and Leelee Sobieski. And finally, I present to you my newest fashion crush: The Kosovo-born, London-based sensational Pop star in the making, Rita Ora.
PS. I’m working on next month’s column now, so leave any favorite fashionable moments in the COMMENTS! And to read my weekly Mr. Blasberg’s Best Dressed list, go to www.harpersbazaar.com/bestdressed
I’ve actually never been to the Oscars ceremony in LA, but I’m pretty sure it’s not as fun as the Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards here in New York. (And if you don’t believe me, you can ask the lovely and amazing Jessica Chaistain, who said as much last night.) Yet, that’s what the CFDA’s are called: The East Coast Oscars. They’re the most prestigious award in the fashion industry, which drew the big wigs out last night: Jessica presented Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy with the International Award, Linda Evangelista gave my former Style.com buddy Tim Blanks the Media Award for excellence in journalism (and it was clear to see how wonderful a writer he is with his touching speech), Ethan Hawke gave costume designer Colleen Atwood the Board of Director’s Tribute and none other than Ralph Lauren presented Vera Wang with the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. But truly, the highlight was seeing Hilary Clinton take the stage to present Oscar de la Renta the Founders Award. I’ve never considered myself a die hard Hilary Clinton fan, but my opinion was tipped last night. She was self effacing and composed. She made jokes about her penchant for pantsuits, even suggesting a reality show called ‘Project Pantsuit.’ And when Oscar took the stage to say that she would be our president in 2016, she stood there graciously and with such composure I thought to myself that, yeah, I’d probably vote for her too.
Those awards were given to people who knew they were getting them, but there were some competition awards too. I was beaming from ear to ear when Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez from Proenza Schouler, a couple of boys I’ve known for more than a decade now (scary! We’re old!), took home the top prize for womenswear. Thom Browne won the menswear prize, and accepted the award in a pair of tuxedo shorts, which is a look I was rocking with Louis Vuitton in Shanghai last summer. (Just sayin’, Thom! Haha!) Phillip Lim took home the award for accessories, and then the Swarovski newcomer awards went to Erin Beatty and Max Osterweis of Suno for womenswear, Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School for menswear and Pamela Love for accessories.
I will say this about the CFDA Awards: They are a marathon and not a sprint. Actually, in my case, since I had just gotten off a plane from London, it was more of an Iron Man. You have to be dressed and pressed at 630pm, and this year there were three post events. First was Vera Wang, who was nice enough to give us some food, in the Pool Room of the Four Seasons restaurant on 52nd Street. It’s one of the most marvelous rooms in New York, which couldn’t have been more different from the vibe at the Westway, a former strip club turned sort-of-still-strip club on the Westside Highway, where Riccardo was having his after party. In between that was the obligatory cameo at the Boom Boom Room. Clearly. There were drinks and dancing and merriment. Because, as I said before, if there’s one thing that fashion people know how to do, it’s have fun. Jeez, you still don’t believe me? Check out some of this pictures:
Captions, from the top: Riccardo with Jessica, Marina Abramovic and Lauren Santo Domingo; Vera and Bee Schaffer; Jen Meyer and Nicole Richie; some handsome fellows, Dan Stevens, Andy Cohen and Douglas Booth (you can read my cover story on Douglas Booth from an issue of VMAN here); Michael Kors with his dates for the night, Karolina Kurkova and Cody Horn; Lauren, Lazaro and Jack; Tim and his partner Jeff; Hilary Clinton on stage with Oscar de la Renta; Adriana Lima not having it; Candice and Prabal; Lily and Alessandra; Erin Wasson and Alexander Wang; TeenVogue’s Amy Astley with J Crew’s Jenna Lyons; Cynthia Rowley with Lindsey Vohn; Tory Burch and Kristina O’Neill; Ladyfag and a bunch of boys outside Westway; Vogue’s cover girl Kate Upton and Riccardo; me and Jessica; the best posers of the past two decades: Linda Evangelista and Karlie Kloss.
“God saved my soul – you save the fucking rain forest.” Yes, I was listening to Kid Rock recently, which is where this lyric comes from. That line stuck with me, and I was thinking about it again yesterday when I came upon this video of the world’s largest ‘ice calving’ ever caught on tape. (And then I had to look up ‘ice calving,’ which I would have assumed had something to do with very cold baby cows. But it actually is the term applied to chunks of glaciers falling off and into the ocean.) The video is beautiful, a real spectacle of natural beauty: We see a chunk of ice the size of Lower Manhattan crack, splinter, shoot up more than 600 feet in the air, and then is carried away into a blustering, freezing abyss. Sick, right?
When the arctic action finishes, some academic type comes on the video to say how this particular slide has been dangerously, frighteningly accelerated. “It’s a miracle and horror,” he says. In the past 10 years it retreated more than it had in the previous century, apparently. That stuck with me too. Look, I’m one of the last people to talk about environmental issues. I’m a lazy conservationist. I was born on April 22nd, which is Earth Day, so I’ve always felt an obligation to Mother Nature and do my best to recycle and reuse. But I’ve been naughty. I print more things off than I need to and waste paper. I’m always bound to leave a TV on or the lights on when I leave. When I’m home i Missouri, I go on joy rides with friends and waste gas. Let’s just say I feel my Earth Day guilt often, like when I use my aerosol hairspray.
These habits are hard to break. (One of the things I miss most about living in New York is car culture.) But Kid Rock and this video have stuck with me, and I hope they stick with you too. I know the video is long; at nearly 5 minutes it might as well be an internet eternity. But it’s a work of beauty, and a work of greater conscious. And if we all start being just a little more considerate about our waste and the world’s depleting resources, I’ll feel like this ice didn’t calve for nothing. And for the record, even Kid Rock started recycling.