With long, teal fingerless gloves, a miniature feathered top hat and big, blue eyes poking out from beneath a pair of oversize sunglasses, Esmeralda Seay-Reynolds made quite the entrance into WWD’s Bryant Park offices. “Today I was feeling kooky and Tim Burton-esque,” explained the Next-repped model of her style. “But tomorrow I might be feeling Diana-Rigg-Sixties-Mod. It kind of bounces all over the place. I like extremes. Anything with a strong aesthetic; as long as it’s powerful. It makes [fashion] more fun.”
With less than two years on the modeling circuit, Seay-Reynolds has already walked all the top runways — Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Saint Laurent, to name a few — and graced the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, i-D and W. Scoring such high-profile gigs would be a thrill for any new girl, but Seay-Reynolds seems to get more excited about what’s happening behind the scenes. She may have been raised in rural Pennsylvania, but the 17-year-old model is no typical small-town girl. Having grown up in a creative, fashion-loving family, Seay-Reynolds took fashion classes at Parsons The New School for Design while in middle school and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the industry. “It’s nice because I can come home and tell my mom, ‘I just met Karl Lagerfeld’s cat,’ and my mom will scream because she knows all about that stuff,” she said. “What I’m interested in is creativity and though I like a lot of other models, most of them don’t really appreciate fashion. But that’s my whole thing.”
WWD: How did you start modeling?
Esmeralda Seay-Reynolds: I grew up loving fashion and art. When I was younger, I wanted to be a designer. I used to design clothes for my Barbies and dolls. My mom would teach me how to sew and give me little projects. And then I started taking classes at Parsons in middle school. When I came up to New York [for the classes], everyone would be like, “Are you a model? You’re so tall. Oh my God, you need to model.” I had never considered it, partly because I was SO not the pretty girl in school. It just never occurred to me, even though I loved fashion.
WWD: And then you decided to pursue it?
E.S.R.: Yeah. It occurred to me, “Why don’t I try this? I could potentially meet all these amazing people that I love… like Tim Walker, Steven Meisel.” I have a gigantic fashion library; stacks and stacks of books. I was very much aware of all those things. Grace Coddington was, like, my icon. So I started sending my photos online to different agencies, but it took me a year and a half to get signed. Everyone was like, “Oh, you have big eyes…You’re not the right thing. We’re looking for more androgynous girls.” That was when I turned 15.
WWD: But eventually someone saw something in you.
E.S.R.: Right after I turned 16, I went to an open call at Next Management and they offered me a contract that day. So I always try to be really grateful towards my bookers…because I really had to work for it. I appreciate that they believed in me and gave me that shot.
WWD: Tell me more about growing up.
E.S.R.: I’m from Pennsylvania, but I went to school in Princeton. My parents are extremely liberal. My dad works in New York…He is this gigantic Viking with long blonde hair. That’s where I get my height from, and I have naturally golden-blonde hair with Shirley Temple curls. My mom worked in fashion; she wanted to be a designer. We were always raised with fashion and art. The Met exhibit was the best part of the summer, and Bergdorf Goodman’s Christmas windows were the best part of the holidays. We were fashion babies.
WWD: So your parents must be pretty proud of your achievements thus far.
E.S.R.: They hoard photos of me. When you go into my house, there are photos of me everywhere. I feel like I died in a car crash and they’re not moving on.
WWD: You closed the Marc Jacobs show in your first season. What was that like?
E.S.R.: I had no idea that I was even doing the Marc Jacobs show until hours before showtime. I got called into the fitting at 2 a.m., and was confirmed an hour before the show. I was actually in FIT’s art museum when I got the phone call from my booker. I went running outside and I actually got hit by a bicycle. All I could think was, “Do my legs work?” Luckily, I was fine. I had a bruise for like, a week. But from then on, things really took off.
WWD: Was it hard to balance runway season with high school at first?
E.S.R.: I had no idea I was going to go to Europe my first season, and I disappeared from school for a month. When I got back, everyone was like, “Were you in rehab?” I’m home-schooled now. Last year, because this came out of nowhere, my school and I worked together, and I would cram with my teachers individually and do four hours of tutoring at once. I had really great teachers.
WWD: Were your friends at home supportive?
E.S.R.: There were definitely people at school who did not get what I was doing. I think there’s a cliché about the model who was the ugly girl in school. I wasn’t exactly the girl from “Never Been Kissed”-levels of awkward, but I was not the pretty girl in high school, so people were definitely surprised. My really good friends were all supportive and happy for me. There were some people — the majority of them girls — who were mean. But girls will be girls. It didn’t really bother me. It’s very obvious. Anytime anyone says, “Oh, you’re too ugly to be a model,” they might as well just say they’re jealous.
WWD: So this is a new hair color for you, right?
E.S.R.: This season, I walked into Marc Jacobs and Katie Grand was like, “How do you feel about going black?” It seemed like, sure, why not? As you know, in fashion everyone likes extremes. That’s what photographs well; girls with really light hair or really dark hair. I like it. The black hair really opened me up to a lot of new clients. My eyes are kind of my thing because they’re so huge and this color makes them pop. Plus, I’ve always wanted to look like Arwen from “Lord of the Rings.” I always wanted to have black hair as a child.
WWD: Any highlights from the past runway season?
E.S.R.: I loved walking Saint Laurent in Paris. I absolutely loved the collection. I love the idea of a leather tailcoat; I wore it with this little leather bra and a choker. It was so cool. And it was such a production. The music was pumping and the clothes were rocking. You got to really strut. Hedi Slimane — he’s another designer who will actually talk to the models. My fitting took five hours but we talked the whole time. He always remembers that I’m from Pennsylvania. That was nice.
WWD: How about your all-time favorite fashion moment?
E.S.R.: My favorite moment ever would probably be my first season, when Marc Jacobs introduced me to Anna Wintour. She said that I inspired her. I almost peed myself at that moment. I could not believe it. And I remember, as I shook her hand, that I had been sketching and I had graphite on my hand. All I could think was: “Please, God, please don’t get graphite on Anna Wintour’s hand.” I also worked with Grace Coddington and Tim Walker. I have all of Tim’s books, so I almost cried. It was very embarrassing and he had to put his hand on me; I was having trouble speaking. I’d worked with him three times before and then I finally got the courage to go up and tell him.
WWD: Do you have a lot of model friends?
E.S.R.: It’s difficult. It’s kind of like that scene in “Mean Girls” in the lunch room where there are all the different cliques. It can be broken down by country: the Polish girls will just speak Polish; the Russian girls will just speak Russian. I’m good friends with Anna Cleveland. She’s really into fashion and she’s very theatrical and she always dresses out of a film noir. We get along really well; we can go on and on together. I really like her a lot.
WWD: What are your long-term goals?
E.S.R.: I’m interested in fashion and art…I’ve done some creative projects with people. I really like acting. I’d love to be in a movie. I love Tim Burton and everybody says I look like one of his characters. I’m working on it. As a model, one thing on my bucket list would be to work with Steven Meisel. I know that’s the corniest thing I could say. But he could work with me and throw away the pictures afterwards and I’d be fine with it. His work is so intelligent and uses fashion as a medium. It shows that fashion isn’t just about looking pretty; fashion is about conveying ideas. It’s an art form that can show what you stand for. He’s brilliant in the way that he’s able to connect those things.