I’m buddies with Francesco Vezzoli for a few reasons. We find ourselves often in the same cities, the same events, in the same crowds, and we have an ability to endlessly entertain each other with societal observations, which are typically ridiculous and occasionally profane. We have many of the same interests too. What are those, you may ask? In the above trailer that he put together for a retrospective tour of his decade and a half as a working artist (which already opened in Rome, and will travel to MOMA PS1 in Brooklyn and then the MOCA Gallery in California later this year), he sums them up most eloquently in a list: Art, fame, religion, obsession, vanity, sex, divas, celebrity and, lastly, Vezzoli himself.
Thick, strappy sandals at Calvin Klein, left, and at Prada, right
I can remember when I was in sixth grade, Nike debuted some footwear that was part trainer and part strappy sandal. Sort of like a Teva that you could play basketball in. They had mesh netting and a zig zag stripe. Looking back, they were absolutely hideous. I was the only person in the world I ever saw who wore them and it was a very odd misstep in the aesthetic artistic career of the fine folks at Nike. While I regret that one purchase, my attraction to strappy mens footwear has not subsided. I still love a mandal. So it is with excitement and glee that I can report that my favorite shoe trend from the recently wrapped Milan mens shows were butch looking strappy sandals. They were worn with swimsuits, of course, but in shows like Prada and Versace, also pairs with trousers and even brightly colored suits. Be still my heart. And my pedicurist. Because, boys, if you want to step out in a strappy sandal, make sure you attend to those toenails first.
Mandals at Ferragamo, left, and Dolce & Gabbana, right
Looks from Vivienne Westwood, left, and Christopher Kane, right
With additional reporting from Caroline Mason
I’m in an illustrator’s state of mind. And I’m not alone: The editors at V magazine, where I’m the editor at large, decided on an illustration theme for our May issue. (On stands now: Look for Miley Cyrus wearing mens underpants on the cover.) In the magazine we reminisce on the career of influential artist Antonio Lopez, and I did a fabulous story on the illustrator known by only one name: Risko. So when I stumbled across the blog Fashion Cartoonist, which imagines fashion celebrities as ultra glamorous and slightly ridiculous youngsters, I had to meet the person behind it. The one hook: He (or she?) wants to remain anonymous. But I contacted him (or her?) and managed to cull some inspiring information anyway.
Anna Dello Russo as imagined by the Fashion Cartoonist
I think we’re having an illustration renaissance in fashion. Antonio Lopez’s Book definitely had an impact earlier this year, and magazines like Vanity Fair Are turning to illustrators more often, even for their year best dressed lists. So, why do you think we’re seeing this?
I love those graceful and elegant illustrations! I guess in these days of ever present videos and photographs, instantly shared by anybody, a drawing brings a very personal perspective and a certain old school flair. Since mine are focused on achieving a comic effect, I’d call myself a cartoonist more than an illustrator.
When did you start your drawings? How long does it take to do one?
I’ve been drawing since I can remember, but I started the fashion cartoons only last April. I carry around a small sketchbook to jot down ideas when they struck me. I could think of ten all at once. But I could obsess for days over one detail when I’m actually creating the cartoon.
Why did you start doing fashion people? Do you think they are ripe for parody?
My ‘day job’ is in the fashion industry, so inspiration is simply around me every day. Who knows? Maybe if I worked in the food industry I’d be drawing caricatures of famous chefs when they were kids.
You once said Tom Ford was too perfect to draw. Who’s fun to draw? Who else is impossible to draw?
I enjoy drawing Anna Wintour as a kid who would not take off her sunglasses even at bedtime. The difficult ones are those that are hard to imagine when they were kids. For example, how would I do a toddler Waris, when his most recognizable feature is a long beard?! Luckily he also wears a turban, so I might still find a way!
Why are you staying anonymous? In this day of omnipresent bloggers and social media, I didn’t think anyone wanted to anonymous anymore.
I simply thought it would be more fun this way! I want the focus to be on my drawings, not on me. Now I will need to stay anonymous until I find a good enough excuse to come out. Maybe a book signing one day?
Can you at least give me some basic bio information: Male or female? 20’s or 30’s? Are you a vegan?
Fine: I eat everything. The natural curiosity that helps me find ideas for my cartoons extends also to my relationship with food.
I guess that’s all I’m going to get. I know your blog plays into the humorous side of the early development stages of these major personalities, but it got me thinking: Do you think that a inherent trait like personal style starts to form at that stage? Like, do you think Andre Leon Talley really did wrap himself in carpets as a predecessor to the cape?
The cartoons purposefully distort and exaggerate the behaviors I imagine, but in some cases I have a feeling I may not be too far from the truth! When people have such creativity, genius and of course attitude – I really believe it must have appeared in some way when they were kids too.
Let’s talk about the blog. Is it a hobby, or one day a commercial venture? Do you plan on selling prints?
It definitely started as a hobby. But it is getting more attention than I ever thought, so who knows? Would you buy a print?
Absolutely! OK, last question: Which is your favorite illustration?
That’s difficult to answer. Most of the time my favorite is my latest one. So right now I would have to say the one with baby Anna Dello Russo. But the one I day after that one will probably be my favorite.
Who will that be?
I’m not telling.
The US Ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, started three days of an American-French arts alliance celebration with a heady question: “Can art help you live?” He didn’t answer his question, but if he had asked me I would have said that art may not make you live longer, but it certainly makes life better. That’s why I traveled to Paris last weekend, along with a hodge podge of other Americans, mainly from Texas, mainly with big hair and big diamonds, for the ‘Liaisons au Louvre.’ Becca Cason Thrash is a force to be reckoned with. She has single-handledly made this event a powerhouse of arts fundraising. This year, the third installment, festivities lasted three days and included a dinner at the US Embassy; a private tour of the Palais du Luxembourg, where the French Senate meets; a tour of the Louvre when the museum is closed to the public; and then a gala dinner. Oh yea, and a performance from the legendary Diana Ross. Thrash, along with her friend Kip Forbes, have raised millions of dollars for the Louvre. And seemed to have fun doing it.
The first night’s inaugural dinner was held at the private residence of the Ambassador, and it made me feel super nationalistic and proud to be an American. (Feeling chic as an American is hard in this town.) Two long banquette tables with simple white and silver tablescaping decorated an evening which was catered by the Ritz Paris. Just because the hotel is closed for renovations doesn’t mean the chefs can’t ship up something special, apparently. The second night was feted with a dinner in the Palais du Luxembourg after a tour of the French Senate. The Senate was marvelous, gilded and divine. Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes smiled that it was camp in the best way possible. Dinner ended with table hopping requests from The Gypsy Queens.
The third and final day was the most decadent. It started with a morning tour of the Louvre on a day when it’s normally closed. That means we had the entire museum to ourselves, which was great. It also meant that they were running fire alarms and evacuation drills, which was amusing because know I know how to say, ‘Please calmly and evacuate the museum’ in about eight different languages. Aesthetic highlights for me were the two modernist ceilings, one by George Braques and installed in 2002, and the other by Cy Twombly, the most recent addition to the museum, which was installed in 2010. It’s an uncommon work for Twombly, full of planets and celestial shapes and not a single squiggly line. We also spent some time taking in the Islamic wing of the museum, recently opened in 2012. The Islamic artifacts were splendid, but I was more inspired by the gallery itself. It was half submerged under the museum, and topped by a roof of waving gold, a triumph from the architect Rudy Ricciotti.
Dinner that night was the finale of the Liaisons, a black-tie dinner in one of the halls of the Louvre. My favorite dresses: Bianca Brandolini’s lace-ed and rosette-ed Alto Moda couture and Milla Jovovich’s shimmering Saint Laurent column dress, the latter of which weighed, oh, about 60 pounds. Following dinner, there was a live auction, officiated by Becca, of course. Becca wore Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture, but don’t be fooled by a lady in a fancy dress: she is ballsy and aggressive and fabulous. She knew every single bidder and would drop bon mots on the audience like, ‘Oh, it’s only money, who will give me another few thousand?’ I love ‘em from Texas. After she raided her hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Louvre, another diva took the stage: Diana Ross. Bianca, Milla, Giambattista Valli and Hamish Bowles all charged the stage – video proof included below – for a still fabulous performance from Ms. Ross. (She even gave us a little “I Will Survive.”) Her ensemble was my favorite: All Ross, all the time. Big wig, bedazzled red dress and a gilded platform. I loved it so much, I think I may have found my Halloween costume.
Dr. Thomas B. Ferguson, in his office circa 1980′s
Dr. Thomas B Ferguson, who went to the spiritual hospital in the sky last month at the age of 90, was a big deal in the world of thoracic surgery. Not that I would know. I know about as much of the world of thoracic surgery as Dr. Ferguson knew about the world of high fashion. (But my mother explained it this way: Uncle Tom, as I called him when I was a little boy, was the Tom Ford of heart surgery. Does that clarify it for you?) The reason why I was so moved by his recent passing, however, had nothing to do with his highly decorated, internationally acclaimed career. The reason was that I would not be doing what I’m doing today, I would not be living in New York, chasing my dreams around the world, surrounding myself with creative people – I would not be the person I am today without him. And I don’t know if I ever told him that.
A bit of biography on TBF: He was born on May 6th, 1923 in Oklahoma City, OK. His interest in medicine was sparked by a grandfather who was a horse and buggy doctor in Boggy Depot, OK, at the turn of the century. He attended Duke University and Duke University School of Medicine. At Duke, he met Elizabeth Shanley; they were married in 1948, and stayed married for 65 years.
My mother worked in various capacities for Dr. Ferguson for 42 years. She started a young lady as his secretary and ended a grandmother as his managing editor at a series of medical journals. I didn’t see much of him when I was little, but because of his relationship with my mother we always spoke of him, we always sought his approval, and I was always told to be on my best behavior when he was around. (I never did. Which is why I think he liked me.) When I moved to New York, he always asked after me, always checked in on me. He would write me motivational emails when I felt things weren’t going my way, he always told me I could do whatever I wanted. I knew he was in my corner and I never wanted to disappoint him.
Polaroids of Dr. Ferguson and my mother, early in their professional relationship
The last time I saw Dr. Ferguson was three weeks ago in New York. I had flown back for a few days amid the middle of the Cannes film festival and he was in town for a heart valve procedure. My parents were in town from St. Louis too, and so was his son, Dr. Bruce Ferguson, another cardiothoracic surgeon. The five of us met for dinner the evening before he was admitted to the hospital. It turned out to be one of his last meals. Thinking back on that meal is surreal and bittersweet. Dr. Ferguson didn’t order the steak that night because he thought it was too expensive, which I remember poignantly because it was the last time he ever ordered a meal. (Let that be a lesson for us: Get the steak if we want it.) At dinner I asked him about hiring my mother and what she was like as a young person, and I’m happy I did. It was the first time, as an adult with pasts of our own, we could talk about adult things. He teased my mom for being pushy and bullheaded, and she loved every minute of it.
What will stick with me forever about that dinner was when he said how proud he was of me for moving to a city where I knew no one and carving out a life for myself. I had earned his approval. It was something. I didn’t tell him at the time, which I will always regret, but it was his encouragement — both to me and my parents — that convinced me to move to New York and chase my dreams. Like most overly confident people, beneath my exterior of ambition lies a deep core of insecurity. I wasn’t sure about moving to New York, and neither were my parents. It was Dr. Ferguson who told me I could do it, and told my parents to let me. And I will be thankful for that for the rest of my life.
The two of us created an interesting paradox, an unlikely relationship: He didn’t understand my world and I certainly didn’t know much about his. But I’d like to think there was mutual respect and admiration. He was a great doctor, but more importantly he was a wonderful man.
My mother, flanked by Dr. Ferguson, Sr., and his son, Dr. Ferguson, Jr., the last time I saw him, at dinner in New York City in 2013
I have subscribed to a bunch of fashion blogs. And I have unsubscribed to a bunch of fashion blogs. But one that I have been a loyal supporter of, one who has a newsletter that doesn’t go immediately to my SPAM box is WhoWhatWear.com. They give me what I want: Basically, who wore what fabulously. The two lovely ladies behind that site, Katherine Power and Hilary Kerr, seem to be building an empire as their stylish online tentacles have recently spread into the interiors realm with their site Domaine. On a recent trip to LA (did I mention I had a birthday recently, har har har?), I sat down with them to talk about Domaine.
So the Who What Wear empire expands: Tell me about Domaine. When did the idea pop into your head?
Shelter magazines and interior design are two of our long-standing obsessions, so creating a site dedicated to home decor and stylish living was always in the back of our minds. Plus, we felt like our WhoWhatWear.com readers were ready for it. We’re lucky enough to have a very long-time, loyal following, and our readership has really grown up with us.
People like me!
We hope so. Now they’re at the point where they are buying their first homes, or moving into their first adult apartments, and are interested in creating a living space that’s just as stylish as their closets.
When I was young I was always sort of embarrassed about the way I lived: I would put so much time and effort into an outfit, but my place looked like a college dorm. Total mess. Nothing on a hanger. My mother would have died. What do you think is the relationship between fashion and decoration?
Home decor matters so much less when you are younger—figuring out your personal style is usually more of a priority—but once you’ve mastered your wardrobe, it’s the next area people tend to focus on because it’s another way of expressing yourself. Just like your outfit communicates who you are, the space that you live in should really reflect your aesthetic and sensibilities. Plus, it’s important to get it right; your home is where you should feel happiest and most content! Now, more than ever, it’s easy to find incredible decor inspiration (Pinterest! Instagram! Shelter blogs!) and execute your own take on those looks with affordable, on-trend stores like West Elm and CB2. In many ways, the changes going on in home space is exactly like what we saw with fashion seven or eight years ago.
I never thought about it like that, but you’re right: Years ago people would go on street style blogs to hone in on their wardrobe choices, and now people are doing that for their home styles.
Today, no matter where you live, you have access to these beautiful images and trends, and you can shop from anywhere. Domaine is just another way to bring great style and access to anyone, anywhere.
How long did it take you to put it together?
It probably took us about six months to staff up and get the site up. We looked long and hard for the right person to run it, and ended up finding a genius Editorial Director in Mat Sanders (formerly of Domino and Apartment Therapy). He is truly a perfect fit and is doing an amazing job. It’s not easy to execute magazine quality content on a daily basis for the internet; it takes the right recipe, but we found all of the key ingredients.
Was there someone that was really helpful, or was there someone you HAD to have as your first feature?
We brought on the incredible celebrity stylist and interior decorator Estee Stanley as our contributing editor-at-large early on, and started coming up with a list of homes to feature. She introduced us to Lea Michele, and Estee and Mat did a makeover on Lea’s home in just two days! Also, Jessica Alba was our first celebrity shoot and we thought it was interesting that she did her house completely by herself, with most items from Craigslist or vintage items she refurbished herself.
Recent features: Lea Michelle and Jessica Alba
The site isn’t just for observers, though. I’m obsessed with the wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and here on the site it says where I can get it. Is that something you learned from Who What Wear: Being able to like and then buy it is important?
Yes! Everything on Domaine is shoppable, from the exact item featured to something similar, and often more accessible or affordable. If we didn’t give that to our readers, it wouldn’t make sense to us. Our stories are as much about service—finding the perfect resources, explaining how to do so something, giving alternative ideas—as they are inspiration.
How do you find spaces to feature on the site?
Primarily through our own contacts and social circles at first—happily we know a lot of people with good taste!—but the Domaine team brings a whole other perspective and group of people to the table. We are always looking for interesting spaces, all over the world to shoot. So if you know of anyone, send them our way.
Sadly, my house isn’t ready yet. Soon, though, I hope it will be. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, let us know how the Beverly Hills Hotel wallpaper works out.
The Beverly Hills Wallpaper, as seen on the Domaine website. (Click here to be directed to the story featuring the Beverly Hills Hotel decor.)
For me, Old Navy will always be an American institution. In fact, I can’t think of my high school wardrobe without some of my Old Navy classics. (Let me remind you I went to a public high school in Missouri, where khakis were worn to formals and I rented a tuxedo for prom.) Old Navy launched their active wear line recently, and they asked me to help them show off some of their chic, affordably priced gym gear. So, we figured, what else is an American institution? Boxing. Me and my buddy Jessica Hart got our punch on in Tompkins Square Park in New York City’s East Village with fitnessman extraordinaire Eric Kelly. The lesson I learned right from the start? It’s almost impossible to fix one’s hair whilst wearing boxing gloves. Check out our video above.
They say New York is the city that never sleeps for a reason. I took solace in knowing that on any given evening in this town, there’s an open bar somewhere. Last night was a doozy. It was one of those times when, as the party gods would have it, everyone picked the same time to do their thing. Perhaps there are just too many fabulous people in New York doing fabulous things? Case in point: This was a random Tuesday and my schedule included a 7pm dinner celebrating Chloe’s new store and designer Clare Waight Keller in Tribeca, then the launch of a denim line from my good buddy Karlie Kloss in the Village, a 10 year anniversary dinner for those great guys Jack and Lazaro from Proenza Schouler, and finally an after party for Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring.
I’m an ambitious young man, so I tried to do it all. How did I fare? Well, I was the first person to the Chloe dinner. The room was almost empty when I got there, which was good because I didn’t have to wait at the bar for a drink. (Only Diet Coke’s though, to start the evening. The trick is to pace yourself.) I sat with my pal Dree and her boyfriend and we had a giggle, and then it was off to Karlie’s dinner, which was feting her new Forever Karlie jeans line, which is in collaboration with Swedish denim giant Frame. Things were in full swing when I got there, but I was happy to sit down and have some food. (That’s my second tip: You can’t forget to actually eat at these things.) I was sat next to Karlie, so I knew that when I snuck out with Giovanna my seat wouldn’t be empty for long.
We hurried up to Mark Lee’s house for the Proenza Schouler anniversary party. (Mark Lee, the CEO of Barney’s, lives in a penthouse in my favorite building in Chelsea. Every time I go there for a party, I wonder why I didn’t work in retail.) I’ve known Jack and Lazaro for years, and it’s hard to believe their company is 10 years old. But then, it’s also hard to believe they are opening stores, have accessories lines, and built an entire empire for themselves. (So, if the retail didn’t work out, maybe I should have been a designer?) I’m happy for those guys. Good things happen to good people. And finally, we tried to swing by the Bling Ring party at the Jane Hotel, which was hosted by Louis Vuitton and Vanity Fair. But when we got there, I found a Sofia. But it was Sofia Sanchez. Not Coppola. But she was at the bar, which made everything better.
Samantha Boardman is the absolute chicest. I say that because not only is she fabulously dressed, but because she’s also fabulously educated and informed. A born and bred Upper East Sider, she avoided becoming merely a lady who lunches in favor of a psychiatrist who scrutinizes. (Though, she does the occasional lunch too. I’ve been to them. They’re divine.) With already one MD degree and a job as a psychiatrist at Cornell Medical College, this year she received another master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. All that, and a closet full of Giambattista Valli. Recently, she launched a website called PositivePrescription.com, which is a wonderful resource for those of us intrigued and inspired by scientific breakthroughs. We sat down to talk about mental health (which is, as I discovered, much different than mental illness) and all the cool things that she is packing into her new site.
Samantha Boardman and her husband Aby Rosen in St. Barth’s and, below, the homepage of her new website.
Let’s start with how you came up with this site. When did the idea come to you, why did you think it was important to spread the good word on mental issues?
As a psychiatrist, I used to spend the majority of my time focusing on mental illness. But in recent years, I have become increasingly interested in mental health.
Oh, I’ve never heard someone make that distinction. That’s interesting.
I care about the simple tweaks and changes that can make a big difference and PositivePrescription.com is a way for me to share information that may be of interest or relevant to those who care about their well-being. It’s so easy to get lost in our crazy, busy lives that we literally forget to look up. I think of PositivePrescription.com as a “To Remind” card to slow down and to reconnect with the things that matter. There are fascinating studies in science journals about behavior that is directly relevant to our lives but they’re accumulating dust on the shelves of a library. Unless you are an avid reader of The Scientific American Mind, chances are you might miss them.
I like that. I like knowing I’ve got someone scanning the science glossies on my behalf. And don’t worry: I’m reading UsWeekly for you.
Many of the posts on my site are based on these studies and why they matter. I am especially interested in the way psychology, fashion, appearance and style collide, so there are a lot of posts on that type of thing. How we choose to present ourselves to the world is the most intimate form of self-expression and as studies illustrate, how we dress really does affect the way we feel. And as tempting as it is, I promise to resist my inner nerd impulse to share algorithms or boring data.
Talk to me about being a psychiatrist. What drew you to that field?
My favorite part of medical school was getting to know patients and listening to their stories. It’s one of the reasons I chose to specialize in Psychiatry. Psychiatry, however, focuses mostly on mental illness and on what’s wrong with someone. I felt like I was missing an important piece of the puzzle—an approach predicated on mental health. I then learned about the field of Positive Psychology, which focuses on human strengths and well-being. I spent this past year getting a masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
What I love about some of the observations that you’ve passed on to me is that while they’re medically involved, they’re interesting to someone outside your professional community. Like that study you sent me that found that dudes who carry guitars getting more numbers from ladies than dudes who didn’t. Can you recall any other studies like that which have such a broad appeal?
Like the one about how wearing certain colors impacts the way we feel? That study found that red boosts confidence and blue has a calming effect. Or the one about how posture affects stress levels and helps put things in perspective? My favorite: Staring down at your cellphone can give you what plastic surgeons call “Smartphone Face.” It isn’t pretty!
What’s a particular case that has blown your mind?
I love the one about how volunteering or doing things for others expands our sense of time, which you can read here. Who knew that by giving away time we actually gain time?
I love that. Sometimes, working in fashion, I think I’m a part time shrink myself. Are there any tips or suggestions you have for someone who works in a stressful environment?
If you work in a stressful environment, make sure you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day. Shape your job around your talents and implement ways to use your strengths on the job. This is an important predictor of health and well being in the long run.
As a friend, you’ve given me some fabulous advice when faced with a crisis. (I guess I’m considered your pro bono work.) Is there one piece of advice you find that you are giving people often?
Excellent question. “We all admire the wisdom of those who come to us for advice” is one of my favorite quotations. I would say that the single most important thing to keep in mind is that other people matter. But that doesn’t mean sacrificing one’s own well-being. On the contrary, it is predicated on taking care of oneself. Well-being is a verb. Don’t wait for weekends or vacations. Be actively engaged in taking care of yourself every single day. It’s the little things that can make a big difference.
Samantha with the artist Francesco Vezzoli and, below, her friend and the iconic writer Bob Colacello.
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: