Born January 27th 1988, Lily Donaldson is a very British success on the international modelling circuit. Initially tipped as the epitome of doll-like beauty on her discovery in 2003, seven years later Lily’s success is proving to be made of stronger stuff.
Aged 15, Donaldson was scouted by Select whilst shopping in Camden Town. Just one year later, she became the face of Miss Sixty and scored big with a campaign for Burberry alongside Stella Tennant and Karen Elson. Working with Elson and Tennant on one of Britain’s best-known brands was enough to crown Lily as fashion's newest modelling star.
In February 2004, Lily debuted at Fashion Week, walking for Jil Sander and Rochas, plus names like Chanel, Blumarine, Marni, Stella McCartney and YSL. In April, she landed her first cover of British Vogue, but it wasn’t until September that she officially became fashion’s newest IT girl. Signing up for 68 shows in total, Lily was picked up by major brands like Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein, plus a raft of British talent including Alexander McQueen, Emma Cook, Luella Bartley, Paul Smith and Stella McCartney.
The blockbuster season worked to Lily’s advantage, scoring her contracts with Jil Sander and Lanvin. 2005 was the year Lily became enough of a name to front magazines: in February, it was Japanese Vogue; March was Italian Vogue, June, the cover of Numero, a second Italian Vogue cover in September and another cover of Numero in December.
Lily also landed a profitable campaign with Roberto Cavalli, appearing alongside fellow rising stars Hye Park and Natasha Poly. Donaldson’s campaign count soared in early 2006 when it was announced she would appear in campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana and Mulberry, both photographed by Steven Meisel.
In February, Lily opened and closed the A/W Lanvin show, plus doing runway for 55 other designers including Balenciaga, Chanel, Chloe, Dior, Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, Proenza Schouler, Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Zac Posen. Lily’s bookings represented a cross-section of the best of European and American design talent. But if 2006 sounded good, 2007 would prove to be the year that Donaldson’s achievements would be well and truly put on the map.
Becoming the face of Dior in early 2007, in May she landed a spot on the famous Meisel / US Vogue cover, called ‘The World’s Next Top Models’. Featured absolute centre, Lily shared cover space with models like Chanel Iman, Hilary Rhoda, Jessica Stam and Sasha Pivovarova. Some were fashion superstars-in-waiting; others had careers that were merely a promise fulfilled. Lily was definitely in the latter category.
Lily’s newly-magnified profile upped her game, with contracts from MaxMara (replacing Raquel Zimmermann) and Burberry (replacing Kate Moss). In September, she opened S/S shows for Gianfranco Ferre and Nicole Miller, and closed shows for Temperley and La Perla. With covers and editorials rounding out the year, Lily’s career took a surprising turn in 2008 when it was announced that she would be taking part in the Pirelli calendar, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier. Taking part in the revitalisation of the Pirelli brand, Lily turned to more traditional fashion fare when she renewed her contract with Italian label MaxMara, and undertook a new contract with Dolce & Gabbana, appearing in a campaign with Jessica Stam and fellow Brit, Gemma Ward.
Lily joined Gemma again for the cover of i-D in February, and enjoyed a bustling show season with opening duty for Preen, Temperley, Dolce & Gabbana and Missoni, and closed shows for Derek Lam, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Bottega Veneta and Gucci. It is worth noting that even though Lily was by this stage a familiar name, she was still wanted by up-and-coming designers like Preen and Derek Lam, plus high-status brands like Gucci and Michael Kors.
In autumn, news came that Lily had replaced Natasha Poly as the face of Gucci. Traditionally a brand known for its high-octane sex appeal, it was an unusual casting choice but one that was pivotal to Lily’s career.
During show season, her bookings revealed a definite shift in focus. The bookings for classic American labels and European names were there, but in among them were appearances for Gareth Pugh, Lanvin, Alexander Wang, and of course Gucci. The uber-feminine look that was ‘of the moment’ in 2005-06 had proved sufficient to carry Donaldson through into fashion’s next phase.
The sharper lines and challenging ideas posed by designers like Gareth Pugh and Alexander Wang seem at odds with Lily’s English Rose beauty, but the calling card of a great model is the ability to move with the times. Not only could Lily carry off the new, tougher aesthetic – she was going toe-to-toe with the newer modelling talent and still winning those prestige campaigns and runway spots.
In October, Lily featured in a US Vogue editorial with Coco Rocha and Anna Jagodzinska, and in the same month, landed the cover of Japanese Vogue. As if to prove a point about Lily’s wide-ranging appeal, she landed an Italian Vogue editorial in November with photographer Corrine Day, and modelled for the Gap Xmas campaign, with her younger brother Jesse. You couldn’t find two assignments more different, but Lily handled both with aplomb.
In January 2009, Donaldson opened the S/S couture shows for Armani Prive and Elie Saab, and renewed her contracts with Burberry and Gucci. Lily’s show season in February featured appearances for designers like Alberta Ferretti, Versace, Isabel Marant, Nina Ricci, Valentino and Dior. With the year ending in a flurry of work, including editorials for French, British and American Vogue, and a cover for Chinese Vogue, the next decade looks set to continue in the same vein as Lily has just completed a couture editorial for May’s issue of French Vogue, paying tribute to Alexander McQueen.
Six years on from her discovery at Camden Town, Lily is still proving to be a must-hire draw for top designers and editors. Sourcing new talent is something the British modelling industry seems to be particularly good at: aside from the obvious examples of Kate Moss and Twiggy, the UK has produced glamazons capable of transforming the industry (Naomi Campbell, Jourdan Dunn) and edgier talent that has driven fashion forward, especially in the 1990’s when fashion needed to distance itself from the excess of the Eighties. The aesthetic of new models like Stella Tennant and Karen Elson was pitch-perfect: absolutely no frills and quintessentially modern.
This decade, Britain lead the way again. Referencing Victorian art, we produced models that represented a fashion take on virginal modesty (Lily Donaldson and Gemma Ward), and a blend of Pre-Raphaelite innocence and sensuality (Lily Cole). It was borrowed straight from art history, but the world’s designers couldn’t get enough of Lily Donaldson’s look that was neither glamazon nor aesthete. Britain’s manufacturing industry may have seen better days, but when it comes to design and style – we’re world leaders.
What is intriguing about Donaldson is her longevity over a particularly volatile stretch of fashion history. From 2005 to now, the fashion landscape is barely recognisable. Five years ago, the IT bag reigned supreme, fashion was very much in touch with its feminine side, and no-one had even heard of the term ‘credit crunch’.
As a rule, ‘IT’ models tend to have a fairly short shelf-life: a model who defines an entire movement tends to get lost in that association when fashion gets bored and moves on. But Lily is unique in that her look has been able to move into the harder side of fashion which has come to the fore during recent years. The urban warrior look (stud detailing, exposed zips and acres of black) wasn’t just a trend; it was a reading of how we were all feeling. Tough times require tough fashion, and we all dressed accordingly.
Lily’s genius was to recognise this sea-change and market herself not only as someone who could take the more directional looks, but someone who could embrace them. Modelling, at the very highest level, requires more than knowledge about angles and lighting.
Selling a brand isn’t just about product placement (how a dress looks); it’s about selling an entire ethos (how that dress makes you feel). Fashion’s often accused of being skin-deep, but the truth of the matter is if the model’s not feeling it neither are we.
Modelling and acting are not so very far apart, and if you can’t connect the feeling of dress-induced euphoria to something real, it’s hopeless. That’s why the top models like Lily endure: it’s about more than genetic good fortune; it’s about what you bring to the table. Experiences and memories can help an actor be a better artist, and knowing how to harness yours can make you a better model.
Lily’s ability to adapt is why she has endured as long as she has. Luck plays its part: Lily’s look definitely slotted her into the fashion industry at the right time, but staying at the top requires skill, fortitude and determination – and plenty of it.
It is why Christy Turlington and Claudia Schiffer continue to find work, and it’s why Lily’s career has the potential to extend indefinitely. If there was ever a safe bet on who will still be making waves in 20 years’ time, it’s Lily Donaldson.