SHANGHAI: Winnie Harlow is nervous. We’re wedged in a little nook inside her dressing room backstage at Tommy Hilfiger’s Fall 2018 fashion spectacle in China – the fifth in the designer’s ‘TommyNow’ juggernaut – mere minutes before the show is to begin.
Harlow’s good friend and fellow face of Hilfiger’s Icons Of Tomorrow collection Hailey Baldwin is also here adjusting a Tommy crop as is the towering Victoria’s Secret supermodels Josephine Skriver and Joan Smalls, the latter lending an aesthetic opinion. Harlow is fixing her lip gloss in the mirror while Skriver is complaining about how icy the air conditioning is. (She’s not wrong. One would be forgiven for assuming we were actually housing polar bears in here.) Harlow doesn’t know it yet, but in a couple of days time, she would receive the news she too will join the generations of wing-clad wunderkinds who have walked the most coveted runway in the world.
While the scale of Hilfiger’s shows are ten-fold, the atmosphere is almost as you’d imagine the back of house at any fashion show to be; publicists with clipboards of organised scribbles are scurrying about, stylists are helping models fix shoes to their feet and green tea cheesecake is being served (OK, the latter isn’t usual). Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton walks by with an entourage to rival Vinnie Chase. (The Brit designed a menswear capsule collection for tonight’s show – TommyXLewis – following Gigi Hadid’s four season reign.)
For 24-year-old Harlow – who at present has a spirited exuberance about her, wrapped up in a toothy smile – surely this is a walk in the park, another stride in her step, normality. “It’s like a doctor doing surgery. Every time they are still scared to cut someone open and accidentally kill them,” Harlow quips. “No matter what your job is, you’re always going to be nervous. I’m excited but this is where I get tense. If we peep through, you see all those people? That is crazy to me.”
What perhaps is more unfathomable is directly after the show, Harlow will head to the airport to board a 15-hour midnight flight back to New York City for Fashion Week. Here, she’ll walk shows back-to-back, accept an award at the Daily Front Rows and receive that phone call. It becomes clearer as the days roll on and the momentum around her name builds that those minutes inside that dressing room in Shanghai was the eye of the Winnie storm. After years of hard work, the model’s “moment” was upon us.
A curtain separates us from the runway and the 1000 guests watching the show. To the left, Shanghai’s iconic skyline is lighting up, the true star of this Tommy season. That word though makes Harlow pause: What does it mean to be an icon? “I’m just so blessed and honoured to be called that,” Harlow says. “When I think of that word, I think of the greats like Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Naomi Campbell – all of these legends – that’s what it is, legendary.”
Hilfiger agrees. “As two of the most sought-after models in the world, Winnie Harlow and Hailey Baldwin are captivating their audience with their powerful drive and inner fire,” he says. “They are leading the way for the next generation of Tommy women, approaching everything with confidence and optimism.”
NEW YORK: Rewind two weeks to our first meeting with the model and we’re on the set of GRAZIA’s cover shoot on 59 9th street in Brooklyn; a seemingly decrepit pocket of town with an average count of three milk bars at every intersection. As Harlow’s car arrives, she winds the backset window down all of 20 centimetres and extends her delicate hand to greet us; some of it brown, some of it white and all of Harlow completely stunning. “Hi, I’m Winnie,” she says warmly, her sunglasses dipped below her deep brown eyes. She greets every crew member, works overtime on a Saturday evening and right until the very last frame.
It’s well documented the Canadian-born model was heavily bullied growing up. At four-year-old, she was diagnosed with vitiligo, an incurable skin condition in which affects the pigmentation and causes colourless patches to develop on the body. Some kids would ‘moo’ at Harlow in the playground because they said she looked like a cow, a story the model has previously shared in the media. Today, she’s a prominent public speaker on self-acceptance and challenges the fashion and beauty industry’s notions of inclusivity.
“This look with this hair is just like, ‘When is daddy coming home?’” Harlow jokes as she gets dressed for the cover shot in Tommy Hilfiger and an “obnoxious” pair of boots. “I want to wear this in life, not just on this shoot. Can we send a picture to Tommy?” Over a venti iced vanilla soy chai latte with no sugar and half ice, Harlow sits down with GRAZIA to toast hard work; and the icons, the bullies, the tastemakers and the rule-breakers who got her here.
GRAZIA: Who is an icon in your life?
HARLOW: “My grandmother. She’s always done whatever she wanted to do based on her perception of herself and not what other people thought of her and that’s something I admire.”
GRAZIA: What your relationship dynamic like with Hailey Baldwin?
HARLOW: “So much fun, that’s my girl. Being on set with her is just like having a chill day. We’ve known each probably like five years now.”
GRAZIA: You are very boldly changing the conversation around beauty. What is your hope for the industry?
HARLOW: “Thank you! I hope the conversation around beauty continues to be more and more inclusive. I’m glad that I’m contributing to that, but I feel as if there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.”
GRAZIA: You famously said in your TED talk “make your own mould for what beauty is.” To you, what is beauty? And how did you arrive at finding yours?
HARLOW: “Beauty starts with self-acceptance. Just like everyone else, I have days where I feel more confident than others, but I arrived at finding my mould of beauty when I started to accept things as they are, and most importantly, love who I am.
“No one was born perfect, and you can’t put off liking yourself until you achieve an idea of ‘perfection’.”
GRAZIA: One scroll of your Instagram shows you are a woman who really celebrates other women’s achievements. You recently posted a post about Kim Kardashian West at the CDFA Awards where you thanked her for being unapologetically herself in an industry that didn’t initially accept her. You allude to the notion you too didn’t originally feel accepted by the fashion industry, can you tell me a little bit about that?
HARLOW: “I respect Kim for not trying to be someone who she’s not in order to make others happy. It’s tough to always be that headstrong, and to break through the clutter. I didn’t always feel accepted but I’m glad things are changing. I think staying true to myself has been my guiding light so far.”
GRAZIA: At what stage did you begin to accept yourself as you were and not worry about what other people think? Was there a moment?
HARLOW: “Self-acceptance is a process. There was no singular moment that pivoted how I felt about myself. It’s just been a journey, and as I do more work that I feel proud of, it gets easier.”
GRAZIA: At what point in your career have you felt the strongest?
HARLOW: “Right now! Experience in this industry helps you grow. It’s not easy, but the more you work, the more confidence you gain and the stronger you become.”
GRAZIA: How do you define success?
HARLOW: “Achieving your goals and not giving up while staying true to yourself despite the naysayers and challenges you may face along the way.”
GRAZIA: To look back at when you first started out as a model and your time on America’s Next Top Model, how have you evolved as a woman?
HARLOW: “Both professionally and personally, I’ve grown a lot. When you enter this industry, you don’t really know what’s ahead of you, but I’ve managed to get a grasp on handling it all!”
GRAZIA: What’s a hard lesson you’ve learnt during your career?
“Persevere. You have to always keep going. You’re not going to get every job or be casted for every show, but you have to keep it moving and look ahead. It’s hard. But it’s essential.”
GRAZIA: You have fostered relationships with some incredibly strong and intelligent women, is it true that you are the company you keep?
HARLOW: “Yes, 100%. Your friends say a lot about you.”
GRAZIA: You do reply to some comments and fans on social media. Have you ever suffered from anxiety after posting or been hurt my online comments?
HARLOW: “Sometimes, but every day I try to rise above it. For every negative comment, there are a lot of positive ones as well. You can’t let the words of nasty people get to you. It’s not worth the energy.”
GRAZIA: You are one of the most recognisable faces on the international catwalk. You have recounted how you were bullied when you were younger. If one of those kids who made cruel jokes to you was in front of you right now, what would you say to them?
HARLOW: “I think I’d just laugh at this point. I’m so far removed for the little girl who was bullied as a child. I’m not vengeful or out to hurt anyone, even if they’ve hurt me in the past. Not worth the energy.”
GRAZIA: When someone has been brought down by another person, bullied or teased, what is your advice for resetting their mindset into a positive one?
HARLOW: “Every dog has their day. Stay strong and rise above it. It can be so hard when you’re in the situation, trust me I remember, but sooner than later, it’ll get better if you stay true to yourself and persevere.”
GRAZIA: You’ve spoken about a really interesting notion; the fashion industry is finally diversifying. But, in doing so, booking the “different” model in some cases is “trendy”. In your opinion is the industry moving progressively forward or going backwards?
HARLOW: “Overall it’s moving forward, but yes, the “different” model seems to be trendy right now. Hopefully it’s just an imprint of good things to come.”
GRAZIA: You were told by a model agency as a 16-year-old that you wouldn’t make it as a model. What drives you? What propelled you forward?
HARLOW: “That was tough but I’m glad I kept trying. You can’t stop when people tell you no. People are always going to say no and you have to be stronger and tell yourself yes. Believing in myself has always kept me driven and now, when I meet a young girl who tells me that I helped them feel good, I know this was all worth it!”
GRAZIA: Something that is so striking about you is your confidence and message to be at peace with yourself. Why is this message so important for women in 2018?
HARLOW: “It’s always been important for women, not just in 2018! It’s just that today, people are finally talking about it. You have to accept yourself, and nourish yourself with love. If you’re not at peace with who you are, nothing else will work out. It’s the most important thing to try and find self-confidence.”
GRAZIA: Red carpets. Tell us something we don’t know about this experience.
HARLOW: “That it’s more than just having the right outfit! You have to talk to so many people and keep your cool.”