Born in Puerto Rico in 1988, Joan Smalls began her career by signing with Elite Model Management in 2007.
Her career started off modestly, but soon developed, scoring a campaign for Liz Claiborne and catalogue work for U.S department store Nordstrom.
Many models struggle with the gap between being approachable but still high-fashion, but Joan’s early experiences of modelling provided her with the skills that would prove to be an excellent grounding for future campaigns.
Between 2007 and 2008, Smalls racked up catwalk credits with L’Wren Scott, Diane Von Furstenberg, Sass & Bide and Benjamin Cho. But her decision to leave Elite and sign with IMG in 2009 was a pivotal moment in Joan’s career. IMG Models, forming part of the huge global company IMG, is an agency that manages names such as Daria Werbowy and Gemma Ward, whilst housing newer talent such as Emily Di Donato and Barbara Palvin. What IMG is famous for, and it’s a strategy now used by many agencies, is applying the lessons it learnt from music and sports management and applying them to the world of fashion. It’s a smart way of extending the shelf-life of a model’s career, taking them from runway to celebrity.
Joan’s breakthrough came in January 2010. She was asked to walk in the Givenchy Couture show as an exclusive. The world of haute couture has often been criticised for being one-dimensional when it came to featuring models from different ethnic backgrounds. But Givenchy’s decision to hire Smalls as an exclusive was a signal, loud and clear, that times weren’t changing – they had already changed.
The ripple effect from the Givenchy show trickled down into Joan’s ready-to-wear bookings. Signing up to walk in 45 shows, Smalls appeared for designers such as Alexander Wang, Burberry, Jason Wu, Marc Jacobs, Prada, Stella McCartney and Valentino.
Joan’s moment as fashion’s latest ‘it girl’ continued when she appeared in her first editorial for Italian Vogue. Working alongside models such as Lara Stone, Amber Valletta and Angela Lindvall, the editorial, ‘Shrink to Fit’, was a quirky take on cropped tailoring and high hemlines. Joan’s performance in the shoot was astonishing; calm, confident and assured.
In June, Joan was featured in American Vogue as a rising star. Selected by Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley, Smalls’ reputation as the next big thing was now established, with the nod from American Vogue being enough to catapult Smalls into campaign territory. In summer 2010, it was announced that Joan would be one of the new faces of Gucci.
It was a massively important signing. Gucci eclipses even Prada as the most famous label in fashion. Its reputation is the same the world over, a byword for luxury and glamour. To hire a non-Caucasian model to be one of the campaign headliners indicates just how far fashion has come in terms of embracing all kinds of beauty.
Silencing any doubters, when the campaign was unveiled, it was clear that Joan’s presence wasn’t a cynical attempt to appeal to the widest demographic possible. Gucci is the type of brand that doesn’t have to pander to anyone in order to get its goods off the shelves – the Gucci name sells itself. Working sophistication and sex appeal in equal measure, it was clear that Joan got the job because she embodied the Gucci brand from head to toe.
Following that Gucci ad, Joan could now add Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier to her couture CV, walking for both labels in July. Also appearing in back-to-back editorials for French and American Vogue, Joan took Fashion Week by storm when she opened shows for YSL and Jason Wu and closed the show for Dior. Appearing in a total of 41 shows, Joan was visibly moving up the ranks.
As much as Joan charmed the international runway crowd, she positively enamoured American Vogue. Her barn-storming performance at the world’s best runway shows, got her not just one editorial in their September issue, but four. Traditionally the best-selling issue of the year, Joan’s inclusion was not about special treatment, but equal treatment. It was a genuine coup.
Joan started off 2011 by renewing her contract with Gucci, also signing up to appear in campaigns for Roberto Cavalli and Stella McCartney. A month later, she appeared in two simultaneous Spring / Summer preview editorials for French and American Vogue.
In a surprising move, Joan also elected to appear in an all-black editorial for Italian Vogue. Dubbed ‘The Black Allure’, Smalls appeared with Chanel Iman, Sessilee Lopez, Arlenis Sosa and Aminata Niaria. The shoot referenced flapper glamour of the 1920’s, in particular, dancer and actress Josephine Baker. Of her time, Baker was extraordinary, and it is due to her efforts in getting diversity recognised that fashion more clearly represents the way we look now.
In March came the announcement that Joan was to join Liu Wen and Constance Jablonski in Estee Lauder’s new international beauty campaign. It was a brave move from Lauder because while they are widely known within the fashion industry, they are not the immediately recognisable faces normally associated with the brand, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Elizabeth Hurley.
But hiring three relative unknowns put Estee Lauder in a strong position because without the baggage of celebrity, these models could quite literally be ‘everywoman’. There’s no bad film or questionable album release to hide – models tend to be the best hires for selling products because they come to a project as a blank canvas.
The signing of Smalls, along with Wen and Jablonski, created a great deal of excitement and rightly so – with this campaign, Estee Lauder effectively announced to the world that it is a global brand, inside and out.
Joan continues to be a prolific presence in 2011, with an A/W runway season totalling over 40 appearances, plus editorial work for American Vogue. Appearing in the April edition, Joan featured in ‘Bodies of Work’ with some pretty illustrious company. Raquel Zimmermann, Gisele Bundchen, Daria Werbowy, Lara Stone and Natalia Vodianova all signed on to take part.
The newest name among some seriously big hitters, Joan features in a simple body-con fashion shoot, channelling clean lines and athleticism mixed with a dose of glamour – just what American Vogue does best.
This type of shoot could also signal a change in Joan’s career, taking her from strictly runway to Victoria’s Secret and beyond. Having a marketable face is one thing, but a body that can transform from ultra-minimal tailoring to sexy body-con puts you in another league altogether. Being paired with Raquel Zimmermann, Lara Stone and Gisele Bundchen is no accident either. If American Vogue sees Joan as belonging to this group (and indeed she performs on a par with the more experienced names), then Smalls’ career could have a longevity far beyond the catwalk.
Of course, no model works alone – literally or metaphorically. A part of Joan’s success (and that of her peers) can be attributed to models like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Yasmin Warsame and Alek Wek who made black models a legitimate choice for high fashion. From Yasmin’s delicate beauty to Alek’s all-conquering smile, the faces may not be as numerous as we would like, but that is visibly changing. Joan’s signing with Stella McCartney is the type of booking that her generation are coming to realise is theirs for the taking. Joan may look good in strong colours and exotic prints (an asset using to particularly striking effect in the Gucci campaign), but her range of bookings cover every aspect of global fashion.
The virtue of being an all-rounder is obvious, but what makes Smalls a particularly exciting prospect is that she hasn’t even realised her full potential yet. Her affiliation with labels like Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Roberto Cavalli is a sign of things to come. To go from virtual unknown to Gucci girl in less than three years is an indication of a model that can go the distance, in an industry where models’ careers are often short-lived.
But better still, what Joan has to offer (not just now but to future generations of models), is a career where nothing is off-limits. The idea of possibility is one that will ultimately transform the landscape of fashion, building an industry where beauty is made not only possible, but achievable, for every kind of woman.