She is one of the most respected names in the modelling industry; but it is extraordinary to think how close Daria Werbowy came to never making it as a model at all.
Born in Poland in 1983, Daria moved to Canada with her family in 1987. Spotted by Toronto agency Susan J. Model and Talent Management in 1997, Daria’s first big break came when she was invited to sign with Elite Model Management in 2001.
Moving to New York, Werbowy began an exhausting round of go-sees with some of the biggest names in the fashion industry. Travelling across Europe, Daria did not find herself being welcomed with open arms. The response to her cool, feline features was lukewarm at best. Her Baltic-blue eyes and spare frame even provoked some to tell her that she would ‘never make it as a model.’
Left devastated by the experience, Daria decided to go home to Canada and rethink her entire career. Not only had the go-sees yielded nothing, but Daria’s first attempt at walking in a runway show came to an abrupt halt too. Her debut was scheduled to take place at New York Fashion Week, September 2001.
The effects of the terrorist attacks on the city are well-documented, and the fashion world was by no means immune. It was as if a switch had been flicked. The way fashion was viewed, and the way it viewed itself, changed overnight.
From that point onwards fashion became a little more considered. What was truly important? What really mattered? True, fashion would never move mountains politically speaking, but that is perhaps somewhat missing the point. Fashion may seem a frivolous exercise in vanity to some, but the importance in carrying on as normal cannot be overestimated. It sends out a message loud and clear: we are not that easily beaten.
Fashion became more balanced in its approach: a little nicer, a little kinder and very gradually, more inclusive. The boundaries of beauty, what was deemed beautiful, were re-classified.
Having just one type of model in favour seemed wasteful and short-sighted. The fashion world took stock: what else was out there? It was this change in thinking that would become crucial to the success of Daria Werbowy.
This willingness to embrace diversity was all Daria needed to succeed. After returning to Canada, Daria rethought her position on modelling. It was too early to throw in the towel. Making the decision to try again, Werbowy made a call to IMG and headed back to New York in 2003.
Three days later, she was walking in a Marc Jacobs show, and just a week after that, Daria found herself doing a shoot for Prada with photographer Steven Meisel. Daria’s moment had arrived. The following years were a whirlwind of runways, editorials, covers and campaigns. To list them all is a dizzying process. It is staggering to think that one person could achieve so much in such a short space of time, but Daria did.
In July, August and October 2003, Daria appeared on the cover of Italian Vogue. The most high-fashion of all the Vogues, landing the cover is the most coveted honour a model can hope for. To land three in one year is simply an extraordinary achievement.
In October 2003, Daria walked in runway shows for designers Jil Sander, Chloe and Alessandro dell’Acqua among others. After many false starts, Werbowy had finally found her stride. The success she encountered over the next few years was carried by its own momentum. In 2004, she renewed her contract with Prada, cementing a connection with the fashion brand that led to her becoming the face of its first ever fragrance.
Shot by Ridley Scott’s daughter Jordan, the television commercial for the fragrance was a landmark in how perfume was marketed. Painstakingly shot across several locations, the advert became a mini-film, watched by thousands on YouTube.
Daria was now the face of Prada perfume. One of the most anticipated beauty launches in modern history, fashion’s worst kept secret was finally out, with Daria’s face on billboards across Europe and America. In December 2004, Daria was put on the cover of ‘W’ magazine, heralded as ‘Fashion’s Newest It Girl’. This wasn’t exactly news for the fashion crowd, but this was Werbowy’s debut, introducing her to the public.
Any hopes of remaining anonymous were quashed in 2005 when Daria was named the face of Missoni and Chanel. Daria was also selected to appear in an YSL campaign, shot by Juergen Teller. These were all big names; any lingering doubts that Werbowy might not have the ‘right look’ for the major players of the fashion world were firmly kicked into touch.
In February 2005, Daria became a record-breaker, setting a new world record for opening and closing the most runway shows in one season. This was an incredible accomplishment. Daria’s ultra-blendable look, the thing that had refused her entry into the fashion just three years earlier, was now allowing her to set the standard for everyone else. Opening and closing 12 shows, Daria was now the face of the moment. Her delicate, Eastern-European face worked so well for any look a design house might require, she found herself in constant demand.
In November, she signed a contract with French beauty brand Lancome, an affiliation that continues to this day. In 2006, she renewed her contracts with Chanel and Missoni, and in 2007, became the face of Lancome’s fragrance ‘Hypnose’. All this work made Daria a very rich girl. In July 2007, she was named the 9th highest-earning model, with an estimated income of $3.5 million. In April 2008, that figure rose to $3.8 million.
In late 2007, Werbowy became the face for prestige labels Valentino and Hermes. With both labels possessing an extraordinary pedigree, this seal of approval from the more conservative end of the fashion spectrum meant a great deal. Daria was no longer just a fashion face. She was part of the establishment.
Nearly seven years into her career, Daria can still beat newcomers to those lucrative contracts and editorials, which pays testament to her enduring appeal. She is not a big name; ‘Werbowy’ lacks the instant kudos of a Deyn or a Moss. But that doesn’t matter. Every success she has attained, every editorial, cover and campaign, has been on the strength of her modelling alone.
That strikingly-original face has made her both rich and respected – not a bad combination. In the modelling world, her enviable career is the pinnacle every new model aspires to. For a girl who was once told she’d never make it in the industry, Daria has proven herself to be one of the most consistent talents working today.
What Daria’s incredible career tells us is the importance of timing. The rejection she experienced in 2001 was not wholly personal, but simply a reflection of what was happening at the time, both in fashion and the world beyond it.
By making the choice to give modelling another shot, Daria was returning to a very different fashion world than the one she left. Everything post 9/11 had changed, and priorities shifted. Fashion was opening up to the idea of new possibilities, and Daria was absolutely in the right place at the right time.
Hard work and persistence certainly play their part in making a great model, but where Daria succeeded was her realisation that while rejection is never easy, it is rarely personal. Daria wasn’t turned down because she wasn’t good enough (she has ample evidence to the contrary), but because the fashion world wasn’t ready for her yet.
Success is a thing that can be measured, but failure is more of a relative term. By that I mean that failure is only failing to the point where you allow it to defeat you. There is no shame in losing out – Daria’s career hit the skids in 2001 and by 2004, she had appeared on three Italian Vogue covers: in modelling terms, the very definition of success.
Her subtle, Polish features which were once so out of step are now a perfect fit. But Daria’s success can be pinned down to something more tangible than plain good luck. She is in fact a model who is solidly tutored in the basics of modelling. She has learned the hard way not to rely on her looks alone. Werbowy has cultivated a signature runway walk that is distinctive but not obtrusive. She has an instinctive empathy with designers, moulding herself to their vision.
She may no longer have to prove herself, but Daria is consistent in producing beautiful, striking images and a runway presence that doubles as a masterclass. She is more involved in being a model, than acting the part for the tabloids. For Daria, the work is the motivation. She came so close to not making it, that slacking simply isn’t her style.
Werbowy is the best kind of role model the modelling industry currently has. Focused, dependable and hard-working, these are not bad things to be. The cover tries, the unbroken runway record, the amazing rota of photographers Daria now counts as friends. None of this would have happened without Daria’s own determination to succeed. That drive to succeed and flourish, more than anything else, is the single most important attribute a model can possess. Forget the face, the body or the walk. Without self-belief, it all counts for nothing.
Sometimes the fashion industry does get it wrong. Daria didn’t experience immediate career gratification on her signing with Elite, and that failure is what has moulded her character on and off the runway. It was failure that sent her back to Canada, which compelled her to return to New York two years later, and it is that failure that has created one of the most successful and enduring careers in modelling history.