Paris is a city with particular meaning for Joan Smalls. "It's where I broke through," says the Puerto Rican model, recalling the gig that launched her career: a place in Givenchy's spring 2010 haute couture show. "That was one of the most memorable moments I've ever experienced." It was an opportunity she had to fight for.
"The first time I went to Paris was many years ago, and I had to use my own money to fly out there and put myself up," she says. "No one wanted to represent me [internationally]. I went to open castings in person and was declined by everyone except for one small agency." And while Smalls's fortunes have certainly changed — this past fall her Fashion Month included plum spots on the Boss, Burberry, and Max Mara runways — she's never forgotten how she worked her way to the top.
"Looking back, I appreciate what I have that much more because of what it took to get here," she says. "It wasn't handed to me easily. I had this hunger in me to achieve more and not just settle for what I was given."
Smalls pours that same tenacity into raising awareness for the issues she cares about, including mental wellness (she has a bachelor's degree in psychology and is passionate about the importance of seeking therapy when it's needed) and educating women about reproductive health options (she recently made the decision to freeze her eggs for the second time at age 33).
The model, who donated 50% of her wages to Black Lives Matter efforts in the second half of 2020, also helped launch the new #ChangeFashion initiative in February. Now she's working with the organization on an inclusion rider for the fashion industry, which will act as a contract provision to hold companies accountable for diverse hiring.
"Inclusivity is often seen as the optics of casting a model [of color], but it's not the behind-the-scenes," she explains. "Our goal is to take a 360 approach to everything from production to catering."
Between advocating for industry change and juggling high-profile jobs — her recent campaigns include Ralph Lauren and David Yurman — Smalls is sure to be very busy in 2022. But if there's one part of her jam-packed schedule she'll always look forward to, it's one more trip to Paris. "It has such a special place in my heart," she admits with a smile. "It's like the mecca of fashion."
Lead Image: Louis Vuitton coat. Bettina Vermillon boots.
Photograhy by Chrisean Rose. Styling by Sandy Armeni/Art Department. Hair by Hos/The Wall Group. Makeup by Hila Karmand/CTZN/111skin/One Represents. Manicure by Chloé Desmarchelier/Blend Management. Model: Joan Smalls/IMG. Production by Octopix.
For more stories like this, pick up the December/January 2022 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 19th.
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