Mouth closed. Chin down. And think of something smouldery.’ In a Stoke Newington photo studio, model of the moment Alva Claire is giving me a one-to-one ‘smoulder session’. If you know who she is, you’ll understand that is a bit like getting Sergei Rachmaninov to listen to your best ‘Chopsticks’. And if you don’t know, just look at the photographs here. She’s undeniably hot stuff, hot property, a pure smokeshow. ‘That’s it. You’ve got it!’ she says sweetly as I squint awkwardly. Hardly, but bless her.
Appearance was never the focal point of who I was, it was always about what I had to say
Twenty-four hours earlier and Alva is in a less smouldery mode, though still low-key dazzling in a Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra cap, flouncy skirt fashioned from boxer shorts and knee-high DMs (a gift from the designer Matty Bovan). It’s a blustery, almost-spring day and we are sitting in the café in the middle of Brockwell Park — her suggestion — drinking builder’s tea from paper cups. South London born and raised, this is familiar stomping ground for, to use her full name, Alva Claire McKenzie. ‘You’re my first interaction in a while, sorry I’m a bit…’ she says, miming being frazzled. Actually, she’s excellent company: funny, smart, engaging, warm. ‘It’s not difficult to be a kind person. Why would I be any different?’
She’s just returned from a solo trip to the Azores where she celebrated her 31st birthday ‘nattering away to myself, journaling, hiking. As I’ve got older I’ve realised the importance of being someone who can enjoy their own company. It’s f***ing magic,’ she says flashing a gem-encrusted grin. It was a moment of required reset after a busy show season for a woman whose star is on the up. She walked, by my count, 14 shows across New York, London, Milan and Paris fashion weeks, including Altuzarra, 16Arlington, Ester Manas and Nina Ricci. She slips into character with the immersive precision of an actor. I loved her fierce and formidable turn at Dilara Findikoglu, I tell her, where she locked eyes with the audience. ‘I’m so happy you’ve seen me in action,’ she beams. ‘I don’t know where it comes from. It’s like I’m able to connect with who I’m portraying or what I’m doing. I come out of myself for a minute’.
Growing up, Alva’s ‘hippy’ parents — her Jamaican-born graphic designer father, and her mother from Syracuse, New York, who taught at Camberwell College of Art — encouraged her and her older brother ‘to have an opinion on everything. Well, what do you think? Appearance was never the focal point of who we were, it was always about what we had to say. I never thought I was particularly attractive, but I also had such a strong sense of self because of that not being the focus.’
Despite her impressive self-assurance, she didn’t see people who reflected how she looked in the media. So when scouts started noticing her, they were ‘intrigued’ but didn’t know where to place her. ‘I obviously didn’t fit any of the requirements at that time. The magazines I was saving up my coins to buy were exclusively white skinny models cover to cover at that point. And it wasn’t that long ago.’
Nevertheless, she harboured a deep interest in fashion. On the bus across Waterloo Bridge, she’d see Somerset House — then HQ of London Fashion Week — and dream about being in the thick of it. One day she read an article in the now defunct Look magazine about a curve-model agency and decided to give it a shot. Alongside studies at London College of Fashion, she’d book the occasional Asos job, which would help her supplement her work assisting stylists and intern - ing. ‘I’m not from a background where I can work for free forever,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘It was cool, but not a thing.’ Now it definitely is a thing. The shift came in her early 20s when, deeply unhappy in her retail job, she got out of the ‘warm bath’ of home comforts and moved to New York, making the most of her dual citizenship. ‘When I quit my job I did it with such intention. I didn’t fall into this,’ she says. ‘Going into the unknown was really scary. That really transformed me as a person and as a model.’
Career-defining moments came when she was one of the first ‘curve’ models to be cast in a Versace show (SS21) and, then, in Rihanna’s acclaimed Savage Fenty extravaganza at the Barclays Center, which seemed to kill off the homoge - nous Victoria’s Secret look in one fell swoop. ‘It was a feeling of pure adrenaline that I’d never felt before. I grew from that in such a big way’.
Breaking the mould means Alva has talked about her body a lot. But, understandably, she’s bored of discussing it. Why? a) because her work speaks for itself and b) because really, what woman does? ‘If you can get women talking and thinking about their body all the time, then we’re not thinking about other stuff.’
People said I couldn’t do things. I was like, that’s not going to stop me trying
Besides, she’s more than just a face, or a body, she’s a col - laborator. ‘I’m interested. When I’m on set I want to talk to the stylist, I want to talk to the photographer, I want to get to know people. I’ve immersed myself in it.’ What really motivates her is that love of fashion, the transportive nature of clothes. ‘You can move people, make people cry, make people angry, fashion has so much power. People don’t want to think it does. They want to dismiss it, or they think it’s silly. But you can make people feel with art.’
As for what’s next? The wonderful thing, she says, is that she doesn’t feel like any doors are closed — and even if they are, she has a proven track record of smashing them wide open. ‘I still get such a kick out of the fact that there were so many things that hadn’t been done before and a lot of people said I couldn’t do. And I was like, well that’s not going to stop me from trying to do it. And each time you do it, it’s like you’ve got a little Mario kart and zhooop!’ she says, miming lift-off. ‘People can say you can’t do it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t.’