In her impressive 11-year career, Karlie Kloss has become that rare anomaly – a global star who has charmed a legion of international fans and designers alike with an image built not on provocation, but an unusually wholesome and only occasionally sexy, girl-next-door vision. Aside from appearing on every runway, billboard and magazine cover imaginable, this part-time NYU student has also launched her Klossy YouTube channel and started Kode With Klossy, a summer-camp tech program to teach girls how to code. As if that were not enough, she is also conquering the small screen, regularly appearing on Netflix’s science-themed chat show Bill Nye Saves the World and hosting Freeform’s Movie Night with Karlie Kloss, a girls’ party of sorts, where she screens her favorite flicks while chatting with famous friends such as Selena Gomez and Ashley Graham. “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it,” she says, on a recent New York morning, quoting none other than Thomas Jefferson. “There’s been a lot of luck and hard work involved to get me to where I am today, and I’m only just scratching the surface.”
It’s no doubt that Kloss, who can pull off being the face of Carolina Herrera and Adidas, has hit that modeling-career sweet spot where she’s fully in the driver’s seat – or close to it. She calls the shots, deciding how blond she can go, whether she’ll sit front row at Calvin Klein or walk in the show, when she’ll hang out with a famous pal or an old school friend. She can be friends with Taylor Swift and still have dinner with Katy Perry. She can pick up her retired Angel wings, and walk once again in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, as she did last year in Shanghai after a two-year break.
This morning, nearly a decade after we first met when I styled and interviewed her for a Teen Vogue story, I feel like a very different, yet at the same time familiar Kloss, is sitting in front of me. We’re in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, where she used to scurry to and from castings and fittings, nervously clutching her portfolio. Now, at 25, Kloss is a business-savvy boss who commands her own operation, which is perched on the top floor of a substantial prewar building. I enter the buzzy, multi-roomed Klossy headquarters, which resembles a cool startup company. Kloss, 6ft 2in, stands in the center of the newsroom-style office. She is somewhere between a flaxen-haired lightening rod and a mother hen surrounded by her young (not far from her own age), stylishly laid-back, mostly female staff. I catch her off-guard as she converses – unrehearsed and fully in her element.
One gets the sense that, in real life, Kloss doesn’t live and die for fashion or the latest trends, but tends to opt for a more timeless simplicity. She’s dressed in a sophisticated but youthful ensemble befitting a young, in-the-know CEO: a black Wolford bodysuit, quilted Frame leather trousers that resemble a Chanel bag, and Versace kitten heels. Kloss and her sensible kicks have managed to merge two contrasting worlds – high fashion and “getting down to business” – into one seamless whole.
“Who’d have thought 10 years ago we’d be here meeting in your office?” I quip, after reminiscing about the many times we met at mine for go-sees, interviews, the occasional Met Gala fitting, and regular old chitchat. “I still pinch myself sometimes,” she says. “Ten years ago I was sitting on an airplane flying back and forth between St. Louis and New York and writing my bucket list dreams in my journal. If you had told me then I would still be in New York 10 years later, I would have found that hard to believe.” She leads me into the sun-drenched corner conference room and sits down at a reclaimed wooden table. “We’re building businesses here and making a real impact in the world. When I started my career, I wanted to just survive another season – I thought of everything in six-month increments. Not to mention I was in high school and my priorities were, ‘How can I still get straight A’s and also do this after-school side hustle called modeling?’”
Kloss was first scouted aged 13 at a charity fashion show by Jeff and Mary Clarke, the husband-and-wife team behind Mother Model Management, who are also responsible for discovering Ashton Kutcher and later Grace Hartzel. Her stratospheric rise began two years later with her New York Fashion Week debut at Calvin Klein. “When I walked that runway, I didn’t know a single person in the audience and I was thinking, ‘OK, I gotta do my chemistry homework,’” recalls Kloss, who’d started high school just a few days earlier. “Every moment of that first trip to New York was a Cinderella experience, and had it not happened, there is a high likelihood I would have taken a very different route and not pursued this in a serious way. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
I had such normal high school experiences, like the awkward first kiss. None of my friends at school understood the magnitude of this other life that I had… I would go to Paris for the weekend”
After that, Kloss began to apply herself to modeling with the same vigor and eagerness as her school studies, learning the ins and outs of working with fashion icons such as Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz and Grace Coddington. “She came from the right family and I don’t mean that in a posh way, I mean that in the opposite way,” says Coddington. “The Kendalls and the Gigis of the world had a lot to live up to because they came from families that were built on wealth and stardom. Karlie didn’t have that, she just had her own ambition and passion and willingness to work.”
Coddington vividly recalls styling a pre-fame Kloss on a Leibovitz shoot where, after a full day’s work, the model ended up as a, more or less, blurry piece of background scenery. “The other girls got progressively grumpy while Karlie remained totally positive and tuned in. She was really happy for that opportunity and was quick to tell me she felt honored to be there, even out of focus! She wasn’t being smarmy, she was being honest. She’s very smart.”
This professionalism has undoubtedly contributed to her longevity in an industry built on obsolescence. Kloss cites opening for John Galliano at Dior and dancing down the runway at a Jean Paul Gaultier show in Paris as longstanding career highlights. She jokes that her life has always seemed to mimic the fictional Disney show Hannah Montana, in which Miley Cyrus portrayed a girl with “the best of both worlds” – typical teen by day, international pop star by night. “I had such normal high school experiences, like the awkward first kiss. None of my friends at school understood the magnitude of this other life that I had,” she says, as an assistant pops in and hands us each a smoothie with coordinating striped straws. “I would go to Paris for the weekend, that was the kind of double life I had for those high school years and I loved it. I don’t know if that exists for girls who are working today.”
Despite retaining a modicum of typical teenage life, Kloss spent much of her coming-of-age years in the spotlight, shape-shifting into different roles for editorials and campaigns at a time when most young people are trying to figure out who they are. Instead of having an identity crisis, Kloss both embraced it and took it with a grain of salt. “I had ballet training growing up and I saw modeling through that lens, as this new character to take on. I never associated it with my personality and my taste as an individual.”
As her confidence grew she matured from a sprite, ethereal waif to confident vixen strutting down international catwalks. “I have a different body today than I did when I first started this career,” she says, admitting that she felt freakishly tall in her youth. “I’ve had to grow into my own skin in a lot of ways and there was a shift in my head where I was like, ‘I don’t want to be skinny. I want to be strong.’ I feel better in my own skin when I am like that. It’s how I take care of my body, what I eat. Not to an excessive point where I’m scared to gain a pound, but I have a long list of things that I want to accomplish and I need strength and energy to do that.”
Conversely, starting to model in her teens actually saved Kloss from being self-conscious. “There’s connectivity within our industry. In my experience, it’s been like a giant family,” she says, explaining that her experience was informed by mentors like Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington. And, in turn, she is paying back the compliment by helping the next generation. “Kaia is very fortunate she has Karlie as a fashion-business big sister,” says Cindy Crawford, who I catch up with on the phone. “She understands what it’s like to be in Kaia’s shoes and sometimes it’s easier for Kaia to hear the same advice from someone other than her mother! I also know that Karlie is keeping an eye out for Kaia and that gives me comfort as I can’t be there every minute.”
Kloss and I discuss the recent industry-wide model guidelines, such as Condé Nast’s new 18-and-over model age limit. While she has been fortunate enough not to have fallen victim to negative behavior or harassment, she understands the immediate importance for the industry to evolve and change. “I had a unique situation because my family was so involved,” she says. “I can only speak to my experience, and I have had nothing but mostly positive experiences. However, I think the industry has a responsibility to protect individuals who aren’t so lucky.”
Our conversation naturally turns to the #MeToo movement sweeping across Hollywood and now the fashion industry – most notably the implications regarding photographers Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, Patrick Demarchelier and Terry Richardson, although ever the politician, she avoids saying anything controversial. “My experiences have been incredibly positive, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t dark corners of the industry and dark things that have happened,” she says. “The fact that everything is surfacing in this moment and that light is being brought to these stories is not only incredibly important for the awareness of those truths, but will actually lead to ongoing conversation and future change.”
Kloss, a self-confessed old soul, believes the lack of social media and smartphones during her early years gave her an invaluable firsthand understanding of the inner workings of the industry. “I didn’t feel nervous or scared. I was always very calm. I feel like for the first half of my career I was the fly on the wall, watching and absorbing everything that was happening around me – I still try to keep my eyes and ears open to everything.” I’ve witnessed her engagement on set many times. She has never been the sort to sit alone in a bathrobe in the corner. She is always present, quizzing those around her, such as the photographer, assistants, and even the caterer. “I’ve been in the most extraordinary and intimate settings with the best in our business. I’ve watched designers make couture gowns around every inch of my body, and I’ve always tried to understand what really happens behind the scenes.”
She was also clever enough to observe the peer group who had come before her and how they harnessed their status to develop ancillary careers. Christy Turlington’s successful leverage to launch her Every Mother Counts charity was a particular “aha!” moment for Kloss and it informed her next move. Just before New York Fashion Week in 2014, inspired by tech entrepreneurs such as her friend, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom (“Karlie’s made coding and technology appeal to young women and girls around the world”), she opted not for a beach vacation but a boot camp at NYC’s Flatiron School, to learn how tech is built. “I really love understanding big, abstract ideas and the idea of building an app or software,” she says. “You can literally learn this in a relatively short amount of time and it can completely transform the way that you see how this” – she holds up her smartphone – “works and why. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, why do more people not know this? It’s running our lives and it’s only going to continue to do so.’” One of her early successes was building a drone from scratch that delivered Karlie’s Kookies – the vegan, gluten-free cookies that she launched with Momofuku Milk Bar in 2012, benefiting FEED Projects – from one end of the room to the other on set.
The fact that #MeToo is surfacing in this moment…is not only incredibly important for the awareness of those truths, but will actually lead to ongoing conversation and future change”
By 2016, Kloss’ budding tech interest had spawned the launch of Kode with Klossy, a charitable organization that hosts coding summer camps for girls, awards career scholarships to young female developers, and has quickly re-energized women’s roles in tech. “Long before I really understood fashion, I always had a knack for business and was excited by the idea of being an entrepreneur,” says Kloss.
A map of the United States peppered with strategic pushpins and Polaroids of coding campers hangs behind us. Now in its second year, the tech program has expanded from three to 12 coding camps around the country to over 430 girls. “I’m really passionate about girls. I grew up in a house full of girls, and so many of the people who have been supportive of me throughout my career have been young women. I’ve wanted to give something back in a way, and coding has made a huge difference in my life.”
She is fully aware that young women today have grown up in a world where technology runs their lives, yet are conversely lacking in math or science skills. In her new role as tech godmother, she hopes to close the large gap between the men and women who work in tech. “Not everybody loves math or science and that’s totally ok. I’m not trying to force every girl to become an engineer,” she says, explaining how she continues to hone her own computer science skills by taking classes whenever she can. “It’s more that I have sincere passions and curiosities in understanding how the world around me works, and math and science ultimately can explain why and how.”
Much of Kloss’ success relies on her being a true girls’ girl at heart. Growing up with three sisters, all of whom she is close to, not only grounded her but also seems to have set the tone for how highly she regards female friendships. “I’ve built really amazing friendships – some that last, some that don’t,” she says, elliptically. “A couple have become some of the most important relationships in my life, in particular those I’ve been in the trenches with, such as Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, Toni Garrn and Lily Aldridge. We started as girls and we’ve grown up together, and I know if I need anything, I can call them up and they will be there for me, just like my friends from kindergarten.”
Though she is still extremely close with her hometown friends, Kloss appears just as comfortable hanging out on a super yacht in the Mediterranean with an elite crowd, people like David Geffen, Dasha Zhukova, Wendi Murdoch, and WSJ Magazine editor Kristina O’Neill to name a few. She also has that very public friendship with Taylor Swift (they appeared on the March 2015 cover of Vogue together), though many speculate it’s on the decline. But she refuses to be drawn on the subject, and is similarly tight-lipped about her long-term relationship with tech entrepreneur Joshua Kushner, brother of Trump’s closest aide, and son-in-law, Jared. “It’s not like I’ve ever wanted to be so secretive about my private life,” she says, in response. “Carolina Herrera always says, ‘A woman who’s an open book is boring.’ There’s no mystery anymore. I know in my life what really matters to me. I’m not trying to hide that from the world; I just really like having a more private private life.” She pauses. “I’ve got nothing to hide, though!”
Considering her level of success, Kloss could have easily turned out differently. But she is rarely sarcastic and never boastful, proving that it’s possible to be equal parts supermodel and Midwesterner. While her glass always seems half full and she believes “anything is possible”, you find yourself not rolling your eyes at such earnestness. In fact, it might be the secret to her success. She is confident and poised without trying too hard to be either, often declaring herself “a normal girl from St. Louis”.
“I have this extraordinary life, but also this very normal life,” she says, as we say goodbye. “I think I’m totally normal and boring in a lot of ways. Maybe I’m way off base, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
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