To tell the story of Karlie Kloss is to tell the tale of two citiestwo worlds, really. Having grown accustomed to flitting between high school in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves and the spotlight of fashions every international capital (she calls New York City her second home), hers is a for-real double life that may only bear likeness to that of a caped comic book hero. It seems “supermodel” has never been more fitting.
“I know what kind everybody likes. Anna likes the toffee, Grace likes the chocolate chip; I know who likes the chocolate with peanut butter…”
It’s a blistering Friday morning in late July, and I’m sitting in a Clayton coffee shop across from Karlie Kloss—who has treated me to breakfast and ample time to discuss the goings-on in her world since our last official Q&A in 2008. Talk has swiftly turned from what’s on the menu to her widely-publicized hobby of baking, which has led to mention of members of her current inner circle—and, suddenly, I feel inclined to turn off “gal pal” and switch to “serious journalist.” By “Anna,” she means Anna Wintour—the editor-in-chief of American “Vogue,” who is widely regarded as the most powerful woman in fashion. And “Grace,” I confirm, is Grace Coddington—”Vogue’s” legendary creative director, and one of several industry veterans (along with “Vogue” Fashion Director Tonne Goodman and models Carolina Trentini and Coco Rocha) Kloss credits with looking out for her like family. “I just do it for the people who really mean a lot to me,” Kloss says of her famous hand-delivered cookies with a secret ingredient. “It’s a silly little token, but it’s a way I can show my gratitude and appreciation.”
Considering the overarching theme of the next two hours of discussion, it’s a fitting calling card. Rather than catch me up on her latest campaign work (which includes Bally and Oscar de la Renta for Fall 2011) or dish on her impressive September issue stats (a cover for “Harper’s Bazaar” Australia and a hefty spread for “Vogue” Japan have already been released, and—based on her reputation as the publication’s darling—I assume an American “Vogue” editorial is soon to follow), Kloss barely wavers from her concentration on the “village” that makes “the crazy insanity”—aka, her mega-successful modeling career (she currently ranks No. 4 on models.com’s list of Top 50 Working Models)—possible. Peppered with “fortunate,” “blessed,” “thankful,” “lucky” and the like, her conversation teeters on gushing over those who have encouraged her and helped her maintain a state of “grounded”: her “support system” sisters, her values-instilling parents, her “normal” Webster Groves High School, “community”-defined St. Louis, her “amazing” booker (NEXT New York’s Stephen Lee, whose couch she has admittedly crashed on repeatedly) and her ever-present mother agents, Jeff and Mary Clarke of Mother Model Management. “I have no doubt that I would not be where I am today if not for those two,” Kloss insists. “It’s unique that a model has her agents with her every season in every city; I have dragged them to more shows…”
It’s days from the start of a rare four-week calm for Kloss—smartly slated before the biannual storm she and the Clarkes know all too well: Fashion Month (during which she has walked upwards of 60 shows), starting in New York on Sept. 8 and wrapping in Paris in early October. Within hours, she’s jetting off to the Hamptons for a business meeting of sorts (shopping celeb-studded Super Saturday, a charity event co-founded by NEXT Model Management founder Faith Kates, at which designers sell pieces for 10 cents on the dollar). Then she’s “home free”—back to her New York City apartment, that is, to enjoy the final week or so with her summer live-in; one of her three sisters, Kristine, has been staying there since the start of her semester-long internship with “Teen Vogue’s” Jane Keltner de Valle. Additional plans for her time off are scarce, aside from spending her 19th birthday—which she has been dreading a bit—”with family and friends.”
“Fashion years are like dog years,” Kloss theorizes—considering both the rapidly-evolving nature of the industry and her pending celebration. “One season is like a couple of years, so—when you stick around for more than a season—you start to develop some very strong relationships. After four years, at age 19, I’m like an old lady. I really am.”
While our paths have crossed repeatedly over the past few years—everywhere from Columbia, MO (where we were fellow judges of students’ fashion designs this past spring) to backstage at New York Fashion Week—we were long overdue for something on the record. Apparently on a mission to document “The Rise of a Supermodel,” it was three years—almost to the day—from the time of my second interview with Kloss. She was 15 and fresh from her first show season (Spring 2008) when we first met; when we next reconvened, just days from her 16th birthday, conversation was centered on the excitement of her first magazine cover (“Teen Vogue,” February 2008). “If you had told me that we would be sitting here, and about all the things that were going to happen in the next three years, I don’t think I would have believed it for a second,” Kloss admits, shaking her head and staring off in utter amazement, as though imagining a miracle.
While her résumé, no doubt, reads more impressive than ever, what is perhaps more miraculous is that Kloss has managed to remain grounded. She’s quick to call herself “a normal St. Louis girl” whose norm (which, these days, includes “showing up for an American ‘Vogue’ shoot and working with incredible icons in the field like Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour”) is far from it. Still, she recognizes the “surreal” when it shows up on her calendar. “I don’t understand my life some days,” she laughs. “I just went to my prom a few weeks ago, and then, a couple of days after that, I went to the Met Ball…” (which has become known as fashion’s Oscars). Practically a resident
of the fashion house, she wore Dior to both events.
As for the realm of less formal outings, the contrast between home and away is only slightly less blatant. When in St. Louis, she and longtime gal pals might stop at the Saint Louis Galleria or hit Ted Drewes for hot fudge sundaes. In NYC, it’s dinner with designer friend Jason Wu, bowling with fellow model Jourdan Dunn (whose son is Kloss’ godson) or a get-together at the home of Shrewsbury-bred fashion journalist Derek Blasberg; at his recent barbecue, Kloss found herself mingling with Kirsten Dunst and Daphne Guinness. “She really has been able to live in and navigate two worlds,” her agent Mary Clarke recognizes, having watched Kloss adapt to life on the East Coast. She’s also watched Kloss lug her backpack full of textbooks through international airports and travel home repeatedly, even when her plans permit just a half-day of school, determined to make it all work. “It takes a special girl to be able to do that.”
Lucky for Kloss, her efforts paid off this summer, when—despite her odd means (a combination of online classes, independent study and in-classroom courses) and unique obstacles (namely, her schedule)—she was granted a Webster Groves High School diploma. “I am so proud that I was able to achieve that goal and complete that part of my life; I’ve been so fortunate in that, from the time I started [modeling], I haven’t had to sacrifice anything,” Kloss says.
The Clarkes first met Kloss at a local model search for Threads for Hope—a charity fashion show they were organizing to benefit the family of one of their male models, Michael Hope. At the time, she was 13 years old, 5’6″ and a budding ballerina—”wearing a denim skirt, a little top and Birkenstocks,” Clarke laughs. “Jeff and I were sitting there, and there was Karlie. At first, both of us were going, ‘What is this walk? It’s so cool!’ It was just as distinct then as it is now—and we had a conversation about it, on Day One. I remember saying, ‘We’re not going to tell her to change it.'”
“I really don’t get it,” Kloss shrugs, in response to the overwhelming attention her natural runway stride continues to attract. “I don’t know what it is that I do differently than anybody else.” And it’s possible nobody has really pinpointed it; there’s a slink, there’s a stare, it’s a difficult-to-describe combo—but it’s what first made me realize the extent of her star status. Up until the show, New York Fashion Week Fall 2010 was abuzz with anticipation over Alexander Wang’s collection; after its debut, fashion editors were talking as much about Kloss’ dramatic entrance as they were about the clothes.
“I think people mainly just notice me because of my height,” Kloss claims. As she does, indeed, stand at 6′, such may be the case. More likely, however, they recognize Kloss (her photograph is, of course, plastered all over most every major glossy)—or are checking out what she’s wearing, which today is perfectly “effortless” (using Clarke’s description): a ’40s look sundress from Forever 21, $5 sunnies from New York’s Chinatown, one sister’s shoes, another sister’s bracelet (as she’s been “living out of a suitcase,” she explains) and a ponytail. She has been the subject of many a street style blog post, thanks to her knack for making simple, classic pieces look amazing—a practice she claims to have adopted from her sisters and style icon Christy Turlington (“From what she’s wearing to what’s on the inside, she is somebody I really look up to,” Kloss reveals). I spot several customers eying her up and down. A mix of men and women, I decide some simply like looking at pretty ladies; others know who she is.
“I’m very flattered anytime anyone recognizes me, or knows my name. It’s a very humbling experience,” Kloss says—though you’d think she’d have grown tired of it by now. According to Clarke, a fellow Mother model and her mom decided to play “Count the Karlies” on a recent trip to Paris, after spotting her face on a few billboards. After two days, and sightings galore, they gave up—and decided it would have been easier for the city to have just erected a statue in her honor. Kloss, however, would rather have a star in The Loop; in fact, it’s on her “bucket list.” “We dream big,” she says. “Someday, before I die, I want to make it big enough that I can have a star in The Loop. I know I have to earn it, but—if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last four years, it’s that truly anything is possible. It may be crazy, but I believe that if you can dream it, you can do it.”
One dream Kloss is more immediately fulfilling is SHINE, a benefit fashion show she’s producing in collaboration with Mother Model Management here in St. Louis. Featuring aspiring models discovered on model searches throughout the US, the affair, planned for early 2012, is set to bring a bit of the very fashion world Kloss knows and loves to the Heartland of America. “This is the community that I’ve grown up in; it’s a special place in my heart, and it always will be,” Kloss explains. “My career started here, and I’ve always played with the idea of bringing it back—sort of full circle. It’s going to be amazing.” The first annual runway show will benefit local children, teens and families in need. “This is something that really means a lot to me; I’m excited that, hopefully, I will be able to bring something very positive to St. Louis,” she adds.
To those who know her well, the fact that she’s spearheading the event comes as no surprise. “The thing that I tell people is that she is the role model you’d want your daughter to emulate—and that’s the truth, on every level,” Clarke says. “She’s thoughtful, she’s sincere, she’s dedicated, she’s appreciative…In this industry, it’s easy to grow an ego; it’s rare to see someone on ‘the inside’ remain the same person as when she started out. Karlie has, and people see it. People love her, and it’s not because she looks beautiful in a Dior ad campaign. She is going to impact people on such a great level—because of who she is, not what she does.”
“I have so many things that I still want to do,” Kloss discloses, keeping it vague, as though avoiding a jinx. “This is only the beginning.”
Photo credit: Photos by Beau Grealy