Britain's Next Top Model: Alva Claire

·14-min read
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

Words: Sara McAlpine | Photography: Danny Kasirye | Styling: Aurelia Donaldson

A park bench on a verdant hilltop, overlooking the most picturesque parts of South London, is not where you’d expect to find the biggest breakout model of 2021 crying. But Alva Claire, the British 29-year-old who made headlines walking for Versace’s SS21 show – following in the footsteps of Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell – and appeared alongside the world’s top stars to model underwear for Rihanna, has shattered expectations from the very beginning of her career. In more ways than one.

When the tears brim, they come with disbelieving laughter as Alva reflects on the highs and the lows of the 10-year journey leading up to this point – and the steps necessary to make it as a model whose measurements defy fashion industry norms. We pause – or I certainly do, to tiptoe around the term ‘curve’. Despite being the subject of headlines everywhere from the Daily Mail to Dazed because of her body (‘Three plus-size models just made fashion history at Versace’ and ‘Versace [chooses] THREE larger women for the first time ever’), it feels reductive to focus on her shape. It’s her fixing gaze (warm, with a cheeky, conspiratorial glimmer) and drive (pushing her forward throughout a decade of personal and professional knockbacks) that leaves such an impression, both on the industry and, as we speak – laughing and crying, well beyond the hour her publicist had agreed to – on me. But yes, she is also, by any measure, beautiful.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

Alva Claire McKenzie, known in the fashion industry by her forenames, immediately stands out amid the throngs of suburban parents wearing North Face gilets walking sausage dogs in Horniman Gardens, where we meet (a stone’s throw from where she grew up in London’s Herne Hill). At 5ft 8in, with a seductive, heavy-lidded gaze, she cuts a striking figure. Even more so when wearing a denim minidress, leather jacket and knee-high Prada bovver boots, with a clutch of chains layered at her chest, engraved with her initials. We laugh as a nearby child falls over himself as he cuts across our path, momentarily distracted by her and her crop of buoyant curls.

Last year was stellar for Alva, despite the odds being firmly stacked against her due to Covid-19. In the summer, amid a global shutdown, she fronted a worldwide campaign for MAC, before being snapped up by IMG (with Gigi Hadid, Joan Smalls and Kate Moss also on their roster). In September, she confidently stormed the runway for Versace during Milan Fashion Week, wearing a slinky yellow plissé dress (making those headlines along with models Precious Lee and Jill Kortleve). Weeks later, she made her second appearance in Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty Amazon-streamed spectacular, in nothing but lacy lingerie, latex boots and a crystal choker, alongside Cara Delevingne, Bella Hadid and Demi Moore. Add to that a slew of glossy editorials and campaigns. It’s been a string of successive hits – especially for a model once led to believe that she would never make it.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

Just a few years ago, Alva was working down the road from where we’re sitting (selling jar candles in a local shop called Bunka), struggling to find success after nearly 10 years of pursuing a career as a model. It had been an active pursuit, too, buoyed by a real love of fashion. ‘I always loved it; I was so interested in magazines as this world of fantasy, imagination and expression,’ she says, animated by the memory of getting lost in them as a teen. ‘Modelling and magazines seemed like a portal to the world I wanted to be in.’ That’s why at age 17, having spotted the phone number for a modelling agency in a magazine, she called it. And it worked. She was signed. She enrolled on a foundation course at the London College of Fashion, also interested in a career as a stylist – a two-pronged approach to getting involved in those escapist shoots.

Was she a beauty, I ask. Was a career in front of the camera an obvious route? Her eyes widen as if to say, Of course not! ‘I was not a babe,’ she laughs, remembering a ‘weird’ phase of wearing a school skirt covered in badges on weekends, paired with sparkly Dr. Martens: ‘I wasn’t quite a misfit, but I wasn’t exactly cool.’ She laughs often, seeking to lighten the mood for my comfort when we stray towards more difficult topics, reserving her biggest smiles for the delivery of self-effacing wisecracks. ‘I did not feel good about myself,’ she admits, soberly. ‘I wasn’t popular at school. I didn’t feel as if I was very attractive. But I remember stopping and saying, “But that’s OK.” It was always OK. My parents always made me believe there was so much more to me, walking me around exhibitions at the V&A, getting me to ask questions and explore my interests; encouraging me to be independent. Being myself was always OK.’

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

As well as equipping her to see past setbacks, she credits her artist parents for her interest in fashion and creativity. Her Jamaican father Everal worked as a graphic designer (‘He worked on the graphics for Top of the Pops!’), and her American mother Susan (‘Good ol’ Sue!’) is a former book artist and lecturer at Camberwell College of Art. ‘We were so free; we were allowed to draw on the walls if we wanted to,’ she remembers. (She’s the youngest of two: her brother Jasper works as a speech therapist for the NHS.) But modelling, as she discovered, was not quite as freeing as she’d expected from her hours leafing through the pages of Dazed and i-D, drawn in by the creativity of their fantastical fashion shoots.

‘I didn’t want to do catalogue work,’ she says, talking of the disappointment of being signed to a run-of-the-mill, suburban agency. ‘I wanted to try pushing boundaries. But ASOS was the only brand that would book me. Even then, I think I worked for them once in a year. I remember being so upset that I couldn’t even get a Sainsbury’s Tu campaign. I always needed another job alongside modelling to make money.’ So, between 2013 and 2017, there was a stint on the shop floor at Urban Outfitters, an internship on the digital styling team at Browns and a full-time gig as a personal stylist at ‘the big Topshop’ on London’s Oxford Street. Not to mention the candle shop. The lack of modelling work was a combination of her agency targeting high-street rather than luxury brands, and ‘not putting me out there’, she explains. ‘I just knew it wasn’t right for me.’

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

The issue with Alva’s lack of work went beyond her first agency. It extended to the wider fashion industry. At that time, there were very few examples of successful mixed-race, UK size 14-16 women on the runways of luxury labels (she recalls ‘bigger bodies’ in the shows of Mark Fast and Alexander McQueen making an impact in the early 2000s, but they were still a rarity, and all-white). ‘I couldn’t see myself anywhere. I couldn’t be myself, either,’ she says, explaining that she was expected to turn up to castings in the standard ‘blank slate’ model uniform of skinny jeans and a white tank top. ‘And padding, at one point. I was asked to appear bigger than I was.’ Unable to stifle my ‘What?’ she looks at me, and we let a What the…? hang in the air, before she nods and adds matter-of-factly, ‘I know. If you didn’t fit one [conventionally slim] mould, you were expected to fit the other.’ Meaning the polar opposite, rather than a middling, UK average size 14. But that was about to change.

In the summer of 2017, she was out drinking in Hoxton ‘and someone in the bathroom was looking at me. I remember thinking, I really need a piss, what’s wrong?’ she laughs. The woman intercepting her loo trip was someone she’d known while working at Topshop, who had graduated to a full-time job at internationally renowned agency Wilhelmina Models (behind some of the most recognisable faces in culture, not just fashion: Beverly Johnson, Iman, Janice Dickinson and Jerry Hall). ‘When she scouted me, they were just launching a Curve board. I was the first girl to be signed. Of course, that didn’t work either,’ she adds, throwing her hands in the air.’ Even with the might of a major agency behind her, London was lagging behind when it came to representation of different ethnicities, body types, ages and genders. The demand for other models wasn’t there.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

‘I almost quit several times. I was so unhappy,’ she says, looking thoughtfully across the view of London. It’s at this point that Alva becomes reflective and emotional (in fact, we both do, my own eyes well up in response to her unguarded emotion – which we laugh off as a shared Pisces trait). ‘Money dried up. I’d just gone through a bad breakup. I was working in the candle shop,’ she reels off, comically fanning away the tears for light relief. ‘Rejection is hard. Especially when your work is your body, and you feel like no one believes in you. But I knew giving up was a thought that came from a complete lack of representation in everything I was absorbing.’

It takes resilience to keep going after years of knockbacks. Why didn’t she give up? ‘I’ve been rejected so many times. But it’s important that rejection is seen as a positive thing. It’s not a failure.’ Then, coyly raising a brow, she adds: ‘I’ve also realised in modelling, and in the fashion industry, when someone says “no”, I don’t have to accept it. And if something isn’t working, I can ask to figure out the problem, and fix it.’

In August 2018, Alva Claire did just that. ‘You know when you have nothing left to lose? I knew nothing was happening for me in London; I knew I needed to be in New York. So I moved.’ In New York, a new crop of models were making space for themselves, gaining visibility and fans on social media, including Barbie Ferreira, Precious Lee and Paloma Elsesser. They were bigger-bodied, mixed-race, Black, half-Brazilian. Their success wasn’t limited to Instagram, either; the fashion industry was taking note, booking them for major campaigns and shows. ‘I started to see that things were changing over there. I became really aware of these incredible girls in New York, seeing them on Instagram just being themselves, not giving a f*ck. Being like, Yes, I’m wearing this, and I’m bigger, and I look great, and I don’t care what you have to say about it,’ she says, increasingly animated and showcasing the drive that emboldened her to make the move across the Atlantic. ‘That energy really seeped into my life, and it felt good to have that running through me,’ she adds, hand on heart, smiling. ‘That was a big turning point.’

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

When she landed in New York, still signed to Wilhelmina, she booked her first big job for Rimmel. ‘Ironically, it took me moving to Brooklyn to “get the London look”. That’s when I started to feel like it was working. They seemed more open to different girls there.’ Then came the bigger fashion jobs: Rihanna’s first Savage x Fenty show in 2019; the Vogue shoots with Elsesser and Ashley Graham; the global recognition; and the moment she made headlines walking for Versace. ‘She’s strong and powerful – a real Versace woman,’ says Piergiorgio Del Moro, co-owner of DM Casting, who has worked closely with the brand for a number of years. ‘I think everyone hopes for more inclusivity across fashion, and it’s our job, as casting directors, to keep pushing for that. But know that it’s her energy and her excitement that made her right for the show.’

How did it feel to be part of a supermodel line-up, in the presence of Donatella Versace – a designer irrefutably regarded as an icon, whose influence extends far beyond fashion? She leans towards me, grips my knee, looks me straight in the eyes and says: ‘She. Is. Amazing. She’s amazing. When I met her, I thought, You are exactly how I imagined. But more sweet, funny, self-aware than anyone could know. And consistent,’ she adds, seriously. ‘It’s easy to be cynical and think that casting bigger models is done for attention or press. But with Versace – and other shows with Jill [Kortleve] and Precious [Lee] – it’s not just one [bigger] model, it’s not just one show.’ She also points out that there’s a real camaraderie among this generation of models. ‘It felt incredible to share that moment. And we go for dinner, calling each other up, like, “I’m in Milan, I’m in New York, are you here?!” There is so much empathy, encouragement and warmth.’

Alva still feels like she’s just getting started (‘I’m always learning’) and of modelling for Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line, she admits, ‘I was so nervous. But seeing a Black businesswoman in entertainment, fashion, film, beauty and music just… conquering. We’ve never seen that. To be there – shaking with nerves next to DJ Khaled! – working with her felt inspirational on another level.’

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

There are still setbacks today. ‘I’m used to arriving at work knowing that not everything will fit me,’ she explains. ‘There are times I get angry, like when I see rails and rails of amazing clothes for other models, and this much for the curve model,’ she says, squinting through a minuscule gap between her thumb and forefinger. ‘When you have to wear a dress that is cut up at the back because it doesn’t fit you, and your arse is hanging out… I think it’s important to recognise what that does to a person.’

Alva recognises now, though, that the fault is not with her, but with the wider world and its standardised idea of beauty. ‘I think it goes back to the conversations with my parents as a kid. It was never enough to say that I liked something. They always encouraged me to ask why I liked it, what did I feel? Developing the habit of questioning things.’ And also, when she’s led to believe she can’t do something, asking: ‘Well, why not?’ That is why she is here, seeing success after a decade of persisting, despite knockbacks, and continuing to put herself forward.

Photo credit: Danny Kasirye
Photo credit: Danny Kasirye

She has since been made the face of a Calvin Klein underwear campaign and, soon, Alva will head back to the brownstone in Brooklyn she shares with her housemate, a nanny she met through a mutual friend. ‘I love my life in New York; it feels so freeing. I’ve even met friends from London there, like… I somehow feel more open to things there,’ she explains. As for her career? ‘I’m not ruling anything out.’ Reconnecting with her other first love, styling, with a focus on vintage fashion, is an option– something she has started to explore with H&M, as the presenter of their video series on circular fashion.

Whatever Alva commits to, she clearly has the tenacity – and heart – to succeed. Leaving her (she offers to wait the 13 minutes it takes for my Uber to arrive, before seeing me safely into the car) feels like leaving a cathartic, inspiring conversation with a friend. She asks as many questions about my thoughts and feelings as I ask her. ‘I used to be quite shy. But recently, I’ve found I’m less afraid,’ she says, looking sympathetically at a cyclist struggling up the hill she once regularly climbed, wondering if we should help him. ‘So, I’m ready to try anything.’

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

The July issue of ELLE hits newsstands on June 9, 2021

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