When somebody recognizes me, I’m always a little shocked—like, Wait, really?” Karlie Kloss says. “Hang on…me?” But the girl, it must be said, is noticeable, waving animatedly from a stool at One Lucky Duck, a raw-food shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, all six feet one inch of her unfolding like an elongated, enchanting dragonfly. Kloss and Joan Smalls have spent the day across the street being photographed by Steven Meisel, and you get the feeling that the two cover models, who together represent the new face of fashion, may just have to get used to being recognized.
Marc Jacobs has named a bag for Kloss. Smalls’s feline frame was immortalized in this year’s Pirelli calendar and in yellow jeans on a giant Calvin Klein billboard above Manhattan’s Houston Street. These are the signs of certified critical-mass appeal, and yet to each, in her own way, it’s all still somehow unexpected.
“Let’s be honest,” says Kloss. “I think it’s the fact that I’m eight inches above the average person walking down the street. I’m somewhat in my own cloud.” At 19, she already knows how to be disarmingly self-deprecating, but yes, let’s be honest, it’s not just her meteorological height that attracts attention. Kloss also happens to have the face of a fairy, with a small constellation of freckles on her right cheek, and the kinetic effervescence of a sprite.
When Kloss was growing up in St. Louis, the discipline of ballet training provided a positive charge for her lightning-bolt limbs. “You learn to control every aspect of your muscles, your face, your toes, your fingernails,” she says. “And that is how you tell a story, through movement.” Her first shoot in New York, at 14, was with Arthur Elgort, who photographed her doing a split on a ballet bar.
She might look like a living line drawing—one encased in custom-made 3x1 pants, the first jeans she’s ever had that actually touch the ground—but it took Kloss a long time to “own it,” she says. “My sisters have always been these gorgeous glamazons, and I’m, like, this tall skinny stick in the family. And I still am the tall girl, even on the runways. Every time I see Karl Lagerfeld, he’s always, like”—she puts on a German accent—“ ‘Karlie, have you stopped growing yet? Are you taller?’ ” She laughs loudly. “It used to be something that I really disliked about myself, being tall and lanky, but it turned out to be the greatest asset I have—how uniquely weird I am.”
Anyone who has seen Joan Smalls stalk the runway like a warrior goddess might not think that she ever needed any kind of encouragement—but what she did need was the chance to convince others. “When I first started,” Smalls says, “it never picked up for me, doing shows.” That changed when Riccardo Tisci booked her to walk the Givenchy Couture runway exclusively at the 2010 fall collections. “He saw my potential,” she says. “And it changed people’s perspective.”
She’s now so well known for that regal mien that it’s almost a surprise to discover just how playful she can be. After the shoot, when she’s leaving the set, rocker-chic in a baseball jacket and Helmut Lang leather pants, Smalls rides down in the elevator with the assistants. Holding the door for them, she snaps her fingers, teasingly telling them to “C’mon, hurry, hurry, hurry!” before falling into a gale of giggles.
“People don’t expect me to have a girly voice when they see me walk like that. They might not think that I’m funny,” Smalls remarks. She pulls off the false eyelashes that were applied for the shoot and says, laughing, “I feel much better.” But with her tilted, seductive eyes, she looks as though she’s still wearing the fake lashes. Smalls, who grew up in the countryside of Puerto Rico, gets the “What is she?” question a lot. She takes out her iPhone to show the spectrum of skin shades in her family. (Her mother is a fair Puerto Rican; her father is black, from St. Thomas.) “I’m a little bit of everything,” she says. “Sometimes people think I’m not Puerto Rican, because my name doesn’t sound Spanish.”
But as if there were any doubt, the 23-year-old boricua proved her birthright on the shoot. “They put on Hector Lavoe, the famous Puerto Rican salsa singer, and I started dancing in my six-inch stilettos,” she explains. “They had me jumping, I was dropping it to the floor, I was whipping the jacket in the air. But you have to have coordination, to know where the camera is, to make sure you give a good angle, because sometimes you do weird faces when you dance”—she illustrates, biting her lips and scrunching up her nose—“and you have to realize you’re still working!”
For both Kloss and Smalls, making that kind of effort look perfectly effortless is all in a day’s work. “I just have something to prove,” Smalls says. “I know I’m representing a group—black, Latin, whatever you want to put me with—and I want to show that they are beautiful the way they are. I think that’s really important for our youth to see. Fashion is part of our culture,” she says. “And it’s about more than just a pretty dress.”
Hair by Oribe for Oribe Hair Care; hair color by Anthony Palermo for Anthonyleonardsalon.com; makeup by Pat McGrath for Cover Girl; manicure by Jin Soon Choi for Jin Soon Natural Hand and Foot Spa. Models: Joan Smalls at IMG; Karlie Kloss at Next Model Management. Produced by Steven Dam for PRODn at Art + Commerce. Digital capture: Dtouch. Photography assistants: Stanislav Komarovski, Christian MacDonald, Victor Gutierrez. Fashion assistants: Felicia Garcia-Rivera, Caroline Grosso. Jewelry assistant: Tina Huynh.