In an era when famous models tend to be omnipresent, Daria Werbowy remains elusive, preferring to escape to the wild coast of Ireland to sail or surf in freedom. Yet, as an independent-minded feminist, she is more in demand than ever before. By Avril Mair
Daria. Darrrri ... ah. Her name says it all: a perfect purr of a girl. Was there ever a beauty like this? So careless of her genetic gift, so resistant to celebrity, so reluctant to embrace success, so comfortable in her own skin. Feminist, artist, tomboy, adventurer: this 32-year-old Canadian-Ukrainian may still be one of the world’s top models —an ambassador for Lancôme since 2005 and the face of their revolutionary new skincare range Énergie de Vie, a star of catwalk and campaigns, now styling and photographing her own ad shoots for select fashion brands—but she’s also an explorer, a free spirit, a restless soul. “I have always been a seeker,” she says. “I’ve always been looking for something. When my career got good, I was like, ‘Is that it?’ Your dreams have come true, you can’t buy anything else to make you happy, so then you think: what else is there? There has to be more. After you’re materially successful and secure, you start trying to figure out what it’s about. But all that really matters is that you’re doing want you want to be doing.”
She arrives late to our shoot in a Barcelona studio, tanned and lean, tattooed with talismanic symbols (including two anchors to commemorate sailing across the Atlantic with her father), toting a nylon rucksack, casually dressed in jeans and a hoodie with a bruised lip and unbrushed hair, but compelling and sensuous nonetheless; a charismatic force, formidably physical at 5’11”, unashamedly vocal, completely irresistible. If Daria Werbowy is doing anything, it’s exactly what she wants—even being here with a hangover, having stayed up most of the night before to drink beer and watch Madonna perform live. She throws herself into the day with commitment and a calm energy—as you think she must with the rest of her life— collaborative, laid-back, but focused, checking the photographer’s digital monitor to see if her angles could be improved, yet otherwise not much bothered by vanity. “I lose context of what I look like in pictures,” she says at one point. “I feel totally detached. The person in them is completely foreign to me. It’s very strange.” She moves unselfconsciously to the music that plays in the background (a mix of reggae, relaxed house, and soft ’70s rock; her choice). Her armpits are unshaven, her fingers raw from sea salt. It only adds to the considerable allure.
This is the thing about Daria: she does everything on her own terms. Catapulted to stardom in 2003 thanks to a Prada show and Steven Meisel campaign, hitting the Forbes rich list shortly afterwards, still holding the record for opening and closing the most shows in one season, she suddenly left the industry in 2008, without fanfare or farewell. “I was comfortable with being a model for so long,” she says. “I didn’t understand why I was doing it, because it didn’t make me feel good. I had everything I could want but I was still insecure. Physically and mentally, I couldn’t handle it anymore.” She laughs, arches one of those iconic eyebrows. “I’m fine now. I am super happy to be alive and to be able to experience life. That wasn’t always the case. I think it’s something that comes with age.”
During her self-imposed exile, she went sailing, started surfing, got into yoga (she credits that lithe body to daily ashtanga practice), helped build a school in Peru, backpacked across continents, then finally, found a home on the southwest coast of Ireland with her carpenter boyfriend. “It’s magical,” she says. “I feel very connected with the landscape; it’s almost as though I knew it when I first arrived. I’d rather be there than anywhere. I like feeling a part of the world because this life just isn’t normal.” Having somehow come to terms with the fashion industry, in part due to her own improved sense of self, Werbowy started modelling again. “I always regarded myself as a feminist, even as a kid,” she says. “I was always trying to break the boundaries of what it is to be feminine, what it means to be a girl. When I started working, I definitely saw it as an opportunity to break those stereotypes and be a voice for women. It’s an interesting dichotomy being involved in fashion, while also having certain views about femininity and womanhood. It’s quite ironic doing this job with some of the beliefs that I have. Now, I just try to follow my heart—as much of a cliché as that is—and do what feels the most truthful and honest.”
She spends a couple of months shooting each year in New York —“I work hard, do everything back to back, then I’m off. I feel more present that way. I like to go as far away as possible as often as I can”— and last appeared in a show in September 2013, for Balenciaga. Her elusiveness is part of her appeal, of course: she selects work carefully, elegantly. “There’s such a huge world out there, so for me to just lock myself into one job for the rest of my life seems very small, in a weird way,” she reasons. Celiné campaigns, shot by Juergen Teller, were a constant for a few years; mostly captured without make-up, staring straight at the camera, she offered a modern, off beat beauty that defined the brand’s identity under its designer Phoebe Philo (“The Celiné lady is not me,” Werbowy asserts. “But she’s a good lady and I like her!”). Nowadays, she works with the French shirt company Equipment, taking self-portraits for its promotional imagery— most recently, a provocative series of herself naked with Kate Moss. Photography is a passion, though she says she couldn’t do it full-time; her Instagram account, @dotwillow, is the opposite of most highprofile social media models’s and tends to feature landscapes, dogs, and the details of her travels. “I only started it because my family wanted to know where I was,” she says.
Hers is the kind of schedule only afforded to the most successful models; that is, those with beauty contracts to fall back on. “I was signed up by Lancôme quite early in my career,” she says. “They have been incredibly supportive of me as an individual—not just as a model, but as a person. I don’t think I’d have lasted as long otherwise. I probably would have crumbled.”
She wouldn’t, though; for she is defined as much by her impressive willpower and determination as her beauty. “I sound like a masochist,” she says. “But I like to be challenged. I want to put myself in situations where I feel as though I’m not completely out of touch. I want to know that I’m not just self-obsessed. From the start, I always understood that modelling was just a way for me to get out into the world.”
Embroidered crepon dress, Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini. Earrings (worn throughout), Daria’s own.