Naty Chabanenko’s face — all angles and cheekbones with wide-set, blue-green eyes that pop from her pale skin — has a doll-like beauty, but it still has a way of transforming from soft and ethereal to, well, fierce. Case in point: The 24-year-old appears equally at home in a catalogue for J. Crew or Anthropologie as she does in a racy campaign for Cushnie et Ochs.
Six years ago, Chabanenko was plucked from the streets of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, at the age of 18 and dropped into the fall 2008 runway season in Milan. She was an exclusive for Prada and Miu Miu, opening and closing for the former. At the time, she had never even heard of Prada. Looking back, she explained: “I think it’s easier when you don’t know what you’re doing. If I knew that I had to do it now, I would be more scared than I was the very first time.”
More recently, Chabanenko, repped by Next, has appeared in editorials for Last Magazine, Elle Russia, Elle Portugal and Elle UK and modeled for Stella McCartney’s resort 2015 presentation. She also collaborated on a “secret” project with Carine Roitfeld to make its debut in the coming months. The chatty, upbeat model swung by WWD’s office on a recent afternoon and filled us in on her twin brother, her past life as an engineering student and the two months she spent working as Prada’s fit model.
WWD: How did you start modeling?
Naty Chabanenko: I was discovered on the street in my hometown of Dnepropetrovsk. It’s one of the biggest cities in Ukraine, but nobody knows the name. When I was first asked to be a model, my friends at home said “No, they’re gonna kidnap you. It’s not real.” Nobody really believed what I was doing. People thought it wasn’t a real [job.]
WWD: What were you doing at the time you were discovered?
N.C.: I finished high school early and went to college. I chose to be an engineer. I might not know anything about it now because I never practiced it. To be an engineer in Ukraine, as a girl my age, I definitely wouldn’t be able to get a job. They only really hire guys. But I was really curious about it, probably because I get along with boys easier than with girls. I grew up with a brother — fighting, climbing trees and stuff.
WWD: And he’s your twin, right?
N.C.: Yes. He has the same face structure, same nose, same eyes and big lips. He’s 15 minutes older than me. I tried to get out first, but he beat me.
WWD: Growing up, did you ever want to be a model or think it was something you could do for a living?
N.C.: I never had any attention from boys while I was a teenager, ever. I was too skinny. I never considered myself to be pretty, but I knew there was something about me. But I never knew there was even such a word as modeling. To me, it seemed like an impossible dream, like another world I would never be in. I didn’t know I would even [be able to] speak another language at that time. I didn’t know I could travel or fly.
WWD: Is your family supportive of your career?
N.C.: As soon as I started, some media would be online and [my mother] would go online and keep track of me on TheFashionSpot.com and Models.com. She would see pictures sometimes before I would see them. I remember that at some point, [after modeling in Italy,] I was feeling — what’s the English word for when your nose is a little up? — oh, snobby [she laughed.] But my mom placed me back where I was. She was like, “Hey, relax, you’re back in Ukraine. And you’ve got to study.”
WWD: What do you like to do in New York?
N.C.: I’ve been living in New York since I was 19. I live in Hell’s Kitchen now. It’s not the most pretty area but it’s amazing during the spring and summer because the West Side Highway is so close and I love riding my bicycle downtown or running. I like to read books — I just read “Tuesdays With Morrie.” I like to play tennis, too, with my friends. Almost every long weekend, we go upstate to this tennis camp. You go for three days and you play tennis for five hours a day. But nobody told me that when you play tennis for five hours, you’re gonna be so sore the next day that you can’t move.
WWD: You worked closely with Prada during the fall 2008 show season. Tell me about that experience.
N.C.: I was an exclusive for them. I was working with them for two months in Milan. The whole collection was made on my body. It wasn’t an easy job to do because I didn’t really speak English, and of course I didn’t speak Italian either. I was working hard but I didn’t really realize what I was doing. I met Miuccia [Prada]. It was a nice energy because they’re really amazing people. It was entertaining and I learned a lot, but I had no idea what Prada was. When we did rehearsals, they loved the way I walked.
WWD: You ended up opening and closing the show, which really put you on the map.
N.C.: When I opened Prada, I was standing in line, the first one, and I said to them, “I don’t want to go first. I don’t want to go first!” So they pushed me onto the catwalk. We had two shows in a row. I was crying [with excitement]. Every girl looked alike to me — it was like, a bunch of us little aliens and we all looked the same. We had a dinner afterward, and somebody said “Natalia, your name is gonna be all over the Internet tomorrow.” The next day I was Googling myself and I was like, “Whoa.” I realized then that it was a big deal.
WWD: Was there ever a moment when you felt like you really made it?
N.C.: It was my friend who said to me, “Before you start to me a model, you have to ask yourself a question: Why do you want to do it?” I said, I want a huge picture of myself in the middle of my city so everybody can see. And you know what? Dreams do come true. A year later, I worked with Steven Meisel and we shot the CK Jeans campaign, and a huge picture of myself was in this big shopping mall in my city. Everybody was going there and taking pictures of me. They were like, “Oh my God, look, it’s Natalia!”
WWD: Have you ever felt a sense of competition with other models?
N.C.: When I started, one of my friends said to me, “Naty, look: in this business, there are gonna be a lot of girls. They’re gonna take jobs from you and you’re gonna take jobs from them.” It’s not about the competition; it’s about the look the client needs.
WWD: Can you remember one of the weirder things you’ve had to do on a photo shoot?
N.C.: The idea was to have me lay down in milk. Basically, they created a little swimming pool and they filled it up with cold water and cold milk. These were beauty shots of my face, so I didn’t quite understand why my body had to be in the milk. It was wintertime, and I had to lay in a bath of cold milk. But have you heard about taking a milk bath? It was my first time, and you know what? Your skin feels so amazing afterwards. It was like a free spa treatment — and amazing pictures.
WWD: When do you feel the most beautiful?
N.C.: That would be in the morning when you wake up with somebody and you’re loved.
WWD: What’s the most difficult part of this career?
N.C.: The hardest part is to not be lonely and stressed. Besides modeling, you have to do something else to build yourself as a personality and to grow. When you have many goals, that helps you. It is difficult some days, when you cannot join your family or you wanna go back home. But some days are just amazing and you realize what a happy, beautiful life you’re living.
WWD: What do you think you’ve gained the most from your experiences?
N.C.: I built a family here [in New York]. At the end of the day, you work, you study, and this stuff matters, but when you have people who love you and friends by your side, this is really important. I’m lucky because I’ve got this little family of friends here who will support me in whatever I do, wherever I am.