Joan Smalls, the world’s number one supermodel, showcases this season’s dramatic new look
Fashion: Alexandra Fullerton
Photography Director: Tom Gormer
Words: Julia Maile
Joan Smalls is plucking grapes from a bunch while perched precariously on a marble balustrade. “I hope you don’t mind that I’m eating the props,” she says, laughing. She’s the world’s number one supermodel, with an envy-inducing beauty that has everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Frida Giannini clamouring to book her. Now Joan has flown from New York to a far-flung London location, on a Sunday, to shoot in the rain and mud just for Stylist. The least we can do is give the girl a grape or two.
Above: Dress, from £5,565, McQ Alexander McQueen; brooch (worn as bracelet), £298, Butler & Wilson; ribbon, £9.95 per metre, VV Rouleaux; shoes, £795, Christian Louboutin Model: Joan Smalls at IMG Hair: Johnnie Sapong at Jed Root Make-up: Maxine Leonard at Jed Root Nails: Marie-Isabel at The Book Agency
The setting for our shoot - Abney Park cemetery in London’s Stoke Newington - is a far cry from the Puerto Rico beaches where the Stylist cover star grew up. Brimming with overgrown gravestones and hidden pathways, with a beautiful but dilapidated 18th-century Gothic funeral chapel in the centre, the setting perfectly encapsulates the essence of the season.
At the start of the shoot, the mood is upbeat: the sun is shining and we’re on schedule, but by mid-morning the sky begins to darken. “Someone’s not happy with you,” Joan jokes as the sound of thunder rolls in, rain begins to fall and we rush to protect her with umbrellas. Joan and I stay in the chapel to look after the precious gowns while the team scouts for shower-proof locations. The weather may be fitting for autumn’s new mood, but it’s also extremely challenging to shoot in.
Not that it bothers Joan. It’s easy to see why she’s heralded as the ‘new face of fashion’. She’s intimidatingly beautiful, with long, lithe limbs, feline eyes and luminous skin. Yet despite being the biggest name in the business (models.com recently declared her the world’s number one model), her defining characteristic is that she’s just so damn nice. She chats excitedly with the crew about her holiday and doesn’t blink an eye at the makeshift hair and make-up department set up in the cemetery’s visitors’ room.
Posing on the grass for our cover shot just as it begins to rain, she makes no diva-like demands whatsoever, gratefully accepting a hot-water bottle between takes. Photographers agree, with Mario Testino saying of her, “She has an amazing soul. She’s pure.”
And there’s no-one better to showcase the sophisticated feel of the new season than Joan, whose career breakthrough came courtesy of Riccardo Tisci, creative director of Givenchy and the designer credited with heralding this season’s vampish, neo-Gothic look. In 2010, Tisci chose Joan as the exclusive model for Givenchy’s spring/summer couture show in Paris. “It’s what put me on the map,” she tells me later. “Riccardo Tisci is a genius at what he does.” Since that defining moment, Joan’s career has skyrocketed; she’s appeared on the runway for countless designers including Prada, Yves Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, and is the face of high-profile ad campaigns for the likes of Gucci, Chanel and Fendi. Appearing on the cover of the world’s top magazines, she’s fashion’s current breakout star.
Above: Top, £1,785 and skirt, £2,569, both Alberta Ferretti; bracelets, £800 each, Lanvin
Speaking to a supermodel is always daunting; part of the allure is their aloofness, hence Arizona Muse, Linda Evangelista and Kate Moss rarely giving interviews. And it’s no different with Joan, as I overhear her telling her agent that she wants to “get to the point where I don’t have to do interviews, like Kate”. But I needn’t have worried; when we sit down for a conversation at the end of a long day of shooting, she is the consummate professional, upbeat and chatty as she grins at the prospect of me hearing her “girly voice” when I replay the tape.
Despite her meteoric rise, there were times when Joan seriously doubted herself. Born in 1988 to a Puerto Rican mother and a father from the US Virgin Islands, she grew up on a farm and started her career doing local modelling competitions. After seeing how beautiful she is in the flesh, it’s hard to believe she lost. “Sometimes being a loser is OK because it shows you need to be really determined to get what you want,” she muses. “When things come too easily, you don’t know what it means to work hard for it.”
This isn’t just rhetoric. After completing her degree in psychology at the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico, she moved in with her aunt in Queens, New York, and did catalogue work for companies such as US department store Nordstrom. It took her two and a half years to get a London agency, investing her own money to travel to the UK when no agency would pay to see her. “I thought there was something wrong with me that I had to change. I was typecast as African American and that was it. But then I met my agent Kyle [Hagler] and he said I needed to explore my Latin side as well. Why should I feel that I’m just one thing? I’m both [Latin and black] and it’s important for everyone to remember that.”
These days, Joan is revered for her unique beauty. She cites being chosen as the first Latina face of Estée Lauder as her greatest career moment. It’s an achievement she hopes will help inspire other young Puerto Rican girls. “I’m showcasing to the world that beauty is everywhere, even if you come from a little island in the Caribbean. We don’t all look the same.” Personally selected and shot by Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi’s autumn campaign, the legendary designer describes her as having “incredible golden, glowing skin that made her look like some Etruscan [ancient Italian civilisation] beauty.”
As we move on to this season’s dramatic new look, she becomes visibly excited. “Erdem, Emilio Pucci, McQueen; I can’t wait to have them all in my closet,” she declares. “What we do in fashion is so creative and it’s great to be a part of it. It’s a show, it’s entertainment and I think it’s great that it gives people the opportunity to imagine.” And what about romance, is that important to her too? “Absolutely,” she says with a grin. “Everyone should be romanced.” Joan’s eyes light up as she tells me about a road trip to an isolated cabin in the woods that her boyfriend, entrepreneur Bernard Smith, 31, organised as a surprise for her. “I also do romantic things for him. Before I go on a trip, I cook food and leave it in his fridge with a note saying ‘I love you. Open the fridge.’”
Above: Dress, £3,075, Salvatore Ferragamo; necklace, £395, Camilla James at Kabiri; ring, £5,820, Armenta at Talisman Gallery at Harvey Nichols. All make-up by Estée Lauder
Our chat continues during the drive back to her suite at London’s Sanderson hotel, and I wonder how she felt about doing a photo shoot in a cemetery. “It was eerie,” she tells me. “It’s a mix of emotions; it’s very serene but there’s also a sadness because it makes you think about how many people had to mourn their loved ones.” At 24, is death something she ever contemplates? “I think we all do,” she admits. “But it’s about the moments that you spend alive and making good use of them. It’s about the legacy that you leave.” What would Joan like to be remembered for? “I want to be one of the greatest at what I do,” she says. “To be influential and inspire girls in a positive way. I’m quite an overachiever; I want to do absolutely everything out there.”
It’s a theme that crops up repeatedly during our conversation. She tells me about graduating from her psychology degree “magna cum laude” (high honours) in two years instead of four, but chastises herself for being a mere two points off achieving the top honour of “summa cum laude”. Rattling off a list of what she still wants to do – more international covers, a fragrance contract, a jewellery campaign – it’s clear that despite her sweet demeanour, she’s one seriously ambitious woman.
Joan’s versatile look means she’s equally at ease with high fashion as she is showing a more sultry side, walking the runway in the legendary Victoria’s Secret show and appearing alongside Kate Moss and Lara Stone in the 2012 Pirelli calendar, shot by Mario Sorrenti. As our car draws up to her hotel signalling the end of the interview, I ask which aspect of the job she enjoys best. Joan replies with the same bubbly enthusiasm that I’ve come to expect from her. “I love it all.”