Hannelore Knuts On Modeling And Mindfulness

“I had no clue what fashion was.”

As one of the most successful and enduring models of a generation, Hannelore Knuts’s appeal has outlasted trends and the fashion industry’s insatiable need for novelty. The reluctant supermodel was doggedly pursued before she relented and agreed to give modeling a try. What chance did she stand against kismet? As a model, artist, and now mindfulness and compassion meditation teacher, Hannelore’s journey through self-discovery encompasses everything she does. I caught up with her via Zoom from her home in Antwerp to reflect on her beginnings, shortcomings of the fashion industry, and what place creativity has in a capitalist society.

Let’s start with how you were discovered.

I was a photography student at the academy where we also have a famous fashion department. I ended up on the catwalk there before anything else. A lot of people kept telling me I had a good face and could have a future in modeling, but I wasn’t interested. A few months later, there was a Post-it note dropped in the mailbox of my student flat—by an ex-student who then worked for Veronique Branquinho, who was having her first show in Paris—looking for models. I was a student who didn’t have any money and they were offering 500 Belgian Francs—which isn’t a lot but as a student it was to me—so I went for it. The bus left the next day and I went to Paris for free and get a free meal, so I thought it was good. In Paris there was an international scout, and a Belgian journalist who both spotted me. The journalist wanted to make a documentary about new models and she wanted to do it on me but I told her I wasn’t interested. Weeks later, she came back and told me she found other models to fill up the documentary but I was the one with the connection to the Parisian scout. I agreed to participate to get her off my back.

Would this have been the era of Anouck and Delfine?

No, that was way before. The documentary still exists somewhere in a far corner on the internet. The Parisian scout immediately saw I wasn’t interested—and to be polite—he suggested I visit an agency in Belgium. On the train homeI asked the documentary makers if we were finished but they insisted I register with a Belgian agency to complete the documentary. The next day I went to an agency and signed with them and went home.  Many weeks later, the agency called and told me they believed in me and that show season was starting soon and asked if I would go. I agreed to give it a try. My first show was Alexander McQueen in London, and then I went to Milan and did one casting and I got an exclusive for Jil Sander. Then boom I was doing seven shows a day. Suddenly I was on this roller coaster and there wasn’t a way to get off.

Were you aware how successful you were at the time?

I had no clue what fashion was.  It was pre-internet so the only way you knew about fashion was if you were really interested, and especially in a small town in Belgium Vogue wasn’t in any news. You had to go to a specific shop to buy it, so it’s not something you came across. The only thing I knew about fashion was Gaultier, because he designed Madonna’s conical bra, and Chanel. My first season was so overwhelming. I remember being angry at my agent and thinking when do we stop and eat? I was doing seven shows a day and then after Fashion Week in Milan and Paris I couldn’t go home because I had to do a photo shoot. At some point—maybe in my second season—I realized I knew Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, and it started to dawn on me at what level I was. During my first shoot with Steven Meisel I didn’t even know who he was. 

He’s so influential in terms of making careers. Do you think it was a blessing you weren’t aware of who he was? Do you think you would have been too self-conscious to perform if you did?

Yeah. Especially in those times I was still figuring out who I was. I already felt like they picked the wrong girl. My insecurity and fear of saying no was bigger than my shyness. I thought I would just do this because I didn’t want to say no. Before I shot with Steven I shot with Inez and Vinoodh. That was a beautiful gift because they were Dutch and spoke Dutch like I do. I still had no clue what I was doing, but it was nice to hear that familiar language. They helped me a lot in finding comfort in front of the lens. They guided me and taught me how to hold my hands and how to point my ankle like this or that. It became very mathematical almost, and they gave me space to translate it into my own. It was really beautiful to have them as my teachers in a way. 

Who were your biggest advocates at the time?

Inez and Vinoodh, for sure, because they booked me for the Yohji Yamamoto campaign and I had a few photos in my portfolio. Obviously Steven Meisel, but there was also Steven Klein, Victoria Bartlett, and Martine Sitbon. As for models there was Stella, Erin, and Kirsten. I always also said to my agent that I wanted my career to be like Kirsten’s career. Stella and Erin were the first ones to approach me backstage.

That’s refreshing because you are all competing against each other to book jobs. Did you experience rivalry?

I never experienced jealousy or nasty behavior among the girls. Of course you’re disappointed if you don’t book a job—I want to pay my bills too or I want to have that job because my ego wants to be on that billboard—but I never experienced nasty behavior toward me. But it is true, that as a model, you do get to deal with rejection and comparison.

I think when you’re young, you try to find your own coping mechanisms.  After a while you realize you have to deal with it. I think that’s what you’re seeing now. It’s really good how girls are doing the work and how it could be a really beautiful example for everybody. We live in a competitive culture, and we think that it’s the best motivator. I hope we soon realize it’s not because you lose so much energy in competing. Sharing your doubts and helping each other grow is much more sustainable.

I read your Instagram post about wage transparency. So let me ask, how do you advocate for yourself? How do you say no I’m not doing that for free, and why speak out now?

Well, first of all, because of my own personal journey, I feel better in my skin. I meditate daily, so I have a clear vision. I am allowed to have a voice and it’s okay if you don’t like it but I’m allowed to have one. I haven’t been working that much—because I’m saying no a lot— and I know that is harmful to my career. You constantly think is this the end of my career? There is no end in a model’s career. If you ask me, then I’m a model again, and if you don’t, then I’m a mom or whatever I’m doing at the moment. I don’t know why I posted it specifically on that day. I had it ready for a long time. I posted it without thinking about what the consequences could have been. Maybe that’s good because things need to change.

It’s not only that my face has proven its worth in sales, but there is a skill to modeling. When I work with young photographers—who only work with young girls—the day goes fast because I know what I’m doing. I deliver more than they ask. It’s not only the profit they’ll make, it’s also the skill that I bring to the table and the added value. I think it’s a shame the craft is being lost. I’m not saying young girls are supposed to know how to do it—they need to grow into it. I look at my early modeling photos and I see a different model than what I am now.

I think people often forget you are somebody earning a living. There’s this perception that if you’re a successful model you should shut up and not complain.

Also, I’m not even getting paid. The things considered perks like going to parties or getting paid in samples doesn’t pay my rent. Everybody thinks I’m rich—and maybe I could have been—if I wasn’t 20 and not knowing how to budget. I had a period of time when I made money and that’s why I am not struggling, but I definitely need to have an income. I plan on living a long time and I don’t have enough money to just go sit on a beach for the rest of my life. 

It doesn’t add up and people try to make you feel guilty. When I moved back to Belgium people expected me to work for free because we were friends. Even if I was rich that doesn’t make me your property and you can’t just use. I wanted to make that clear to people. I’m a business owner and I’m trying to keep my business afloat. And the way it is structured now is not working. Yes, I could choose to go do another job, but that’s also easier said than done, and why should I have to? I actually happen to like this job.

The world is not only nine to five. People who like to paint are just as important as people who like to do plumbing or whatever. That’s another thing we keep forgetting, the value of creativity and the value of expression. It all has gotten down to numbers. It needs to be numbers, numbers, that’s what’s killing it. I hope we find a way and we just all have to wake up a little bit and try to stop this capitalist mindset.

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In Conversation With Rachel Roberts

I’ve always tried to go with the flow

Model and actor Rachel Roberts, the archetypal blonde with the infectious smile, epitomizes the image of the Southern California beach babe. Hailing from Vancouver, Rachel has been a mainstay in the fashion industry since the ’90s. She has graced the covers of countless magazines and her star turn in S1MONE was just the beginning of her pivot into acting. With no signs of slowing down, I caught up with Rachel at her home in California.

Tell us about your childhood growing up in Vancouver.

It’s a rainforest, so it was very different from the deserts of Southern California. Life doesn’t stop when it rains like it does in LA. I was a latchkey kid with divorced parents who both worked full-time. My father was a dentist from London, and my mother a Canadian hairdresser. I guess I learned to be self-sufficient at an early age. I rode my bike everywhere or took the bus. I had a small group of very close friends—quality over quantity—who were all very colorful and creative types. 

Tell us about how you got into modeling.

My mother Lila modeled briefly in the early ’80s before returning to hairdressing. When I was 15, I was sitting in her hair salon when she asked me what I thought about trying modeling. She brought me to Liz Bell—my mother agent in Vancouver—who introduced me to NEXT in New York. I guess they saw something in me I didn’t see because I had to lose 40 pounds to start modeling. It was quite a leap of faith on everyone’s part, but with three months of daily boot camp and a strict diet I lost the weight and went to Europe.

You’ve spent your entire working life as a model. Why do you think you’ve been so successful in such a fickle industry?

It’s mostly thanks to my parents’ genetics, and luck. It may also help that I have a strong work ethic; I’ve only ever been late for work twice in 27 years. I started in the business in the mid-90s when models, who weren’t necessarily a household name, had amazingly successful careers. Though the industry has evolved in a positive way by finally embracing all ethnicities, ages, and genders, I imagine it’s not easy to start in the business today. Unless you have a social media following it’s hard to get your foot in the door.

At what point did you realize you had made it?

I spent the first three years of my career pounding the pavement in Milan, Paris, and London mostly shooting editorials and barely scraping by. On a trip back to New York I was sent to see Jennifer Starr, who was casting the Pirelli Calendar for Bruce Weber. As the daughter of hippie parents—and growing up going to a nude beach—nudity was never a big deal to me. They took a chance on me as the only new face in the calendar which then led to my first main story with Bruce for Italian Vogue along with campaigns for Ralph Lauren. As you can imagine, those jobs opened a lot more doors for me. 

In addition to your prolific modeling career you also act. Talk to us about the parallels between the two.

Acting was a happy accident for me. I was the only one of my friends who wasn’t trying to become an actor. I was satisfied playing characters in front of a still camera. Though after being cast in my first film S1M0NE I got the bug as they say. There’s nothing like losing all sense of time and space when you are deeply immersed in a scene. Though, if I’m being truly honest, acting will always slightly terrify me. You aren’t just portraying the look of a character but embodying a whole person. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced when you started to pursue acting?

I think it will always be a battle to prove people wrong when they meet a model-turned-actor. They just see a pretty face. Luckily, people like Milla Jovovich, Cameron Diaz, and Charlize Theron broke those stereotypes. S1M0NE was my first audition—I had no formal acting training—and they were looking at unknowns for the role of a computer-generated movie star, so it was a very specific role to study for. It was sort of a learn on the job experience which was terrifying opposite Al Pacino. After that, I had my work cut out for me to really study the craft and show people I could do more than play a robot. 

If you think of your life in chapters what do you want to achieve next?

I try not to look ahead too much. I’ve always tried to just go with the flow. This chapter has been very family focused. I hope the next chapter will be back to traveling the world and working. My husband is a filmmaker and helping him produce his next film is something I want to focus on. 

In retrospect, what has been your proudest achievement in life?

I know it sounds cliché, but my two children are by far my proudest achievements. It’s the job that challenges me to be a better human and rewards me more than anything else I’ve ever done. Helping to raise two human beings that will hopefully help make the world they are inheriting a better place is the biggest, most humbling gift. 

Living through a pandemic has given people time to reflect. What have you discovered about yourself during this past year?

The pandemic has taught me to let go of what I can’t control. To stay in the moment as much as I can and enjoy the little things. I don’t idle well—kind of like my muscle car—but I’m working on patience. None of us knew what would happen and how long life and work would be put on hold. I have so much gratitude for my family and my health. It’s been hard for so many people and I’m very lucky to have my health, a roof over my head, and food on my table.

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Rose Van Bosstraeten on Slow Consumerism and Her Boutique Sway

“I have no idea how I’ve lasted so long”

The industry veteran, and long-time favorite of Nicolas Ghesquiere, reflects on two decades in fashion and co-founding Sway, a boutique of sustainable and fair made goods.

Talk to us about your childhood.

I had a happy childhood—there were five children; three girls and two boys—and we lived in a big house in the countryside near Brussels. We always had friends and family stay with us during the holidays, and with five kids it was never boring. I took ballet, but honestly, I was more interested in playing soccer, which I did in school. I also sang in our school chorus and we made it on TV, which was a big deal in the early nineties. Around the age of 13, my father abandoned us—those were rough times— and then I started modeling around the age of 14.

You’ve had the type of career longevity aspiring models dream about. Why do you think you’ve lasted so long in such a fickle industry?

Thank you. I have no idea why or how I’ve lasted so long. When I started modeling in the late nineties, we thought it would only last for a few years. In the end, I’ve been doing this for over two decades. At the time I knew there was a limited time to work as a model. Luckily, views on beauty and style have evolved and wrinkles and different body sizes are no longer taboo. In my case, I was at the right age when that evolution started and that’s probably why I’ve worked longer than usual. About seven years ago it started to be cool to call back older models on the runway. I’m glad because the fashion industry needed this. When you look at the diverse group of models on the runway now, it’s absolutely amazing!

Talk to us about the genesis of Sway.

My younger sister and I own Sway, a boutique of sustainable and fair made goods. All of our items are organic or recycled and meet fair working standards. It all started in 2017 when our friends sold their sustainable shop in a great location. We both jumped at the opportunity because it was still a niche at the time. We wanted to break down all the negative perceptions about eco-friendly clothes and make more people aware of what they buy and where their clothes are made. We adapted the style and renamed it Sway. Since then we can happily say a lot more brands work sustainably. It is our job to filter through the greenwashing and choose the best brands for our customers.

For those who don’t know, tell us about what slow consumerism is and why it’s important to you.

Slow consumerism is an alternative to fast fashion. For the consumer, it is a way of investing and taking care of built-to-last items. It promotes a more sustainable way of living and consuming. It’s about respecting ethics and the environment, and not buying an item that will last one wear and then end up in the landfill. It actually influences a big range of your everyday habits—which is a good thing—and is necessary to save our planet and ourselves. 

What are the core tenets of Sway?

Every item we sell must meet fair wage standards for everyone involved in the process of making the clothes and fabrics. Many of our brands are members of the Fair Wear Foundation, and most of our brands are made in Europe. We also sell goods from artisans in Belgium. Another tenet is that every item must be recycled or organically grown. It should have the lowest possible impact on the environment, and on the people who make the clothes. We don’t aim for high fashion at Sway; everyone should be able to afford sustainable clothing. 

How do you decide what brands you want to collaborate with?

The collaboration depends on the tenets above, and if the brand’s style matches what we believe our customers are looking for. 

How has your business pivoted during the pandemic?

At first, we were really shocked and we thought how could you not be open?! This had never happened before to any business. Luckily, we invested in a brand new website in 2019 and we focused on our social media presence. We shot our collections, wrote blog articles, and stayed positive. After all, the world was on hold, so why panic? Our customers didn’t mind our approach, and the pandemic offered an opportunity to reflect. Conscious consumerism is a part of it. We’ve met many people who’ve decided not to buy fast fashion anymore.

What are your plans once travel is a reality again?

As a model, I’ve traveled the world, and it has taught me a lot. I would love it if my daughter could see the world as I did. We’re not making too many plans now for long-distance travel. For our next family trip, we’ve decided to take more road trips or travel by train and less by plane. It’s less exotic to stay in Europe, but it has so many aspects and exciting places to offer. We are visiting France this summer if it is OK to travel.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I’ve always been a tomboy and I guess I still am a bit. I love gardening—I’m a nature lover—and I couldn’t live in a city. Probably not too many people know this about me. 

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Se Oh on Feeling Vulnerable in America and Our Nation’s Reckoning With Race

“Being creative makes me feel grounded”

As America faces a wave of anti-Asian violence with Stop AAPI Hate reporting 3,795 incidents between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021, I spoke to Se Oh about how he’s feeling during this time, and how he balances modeling with his passion for set design.

This is a particularly terrifying time for the Asian community in America. How are you feeling in this current climate?

I feel vulnerable like everyone else. What worries me more is how the news further objectifies us rather than humanizes us. 

What actionable steps can someone reading this take to be an ally?

I think the perception of Asians must change first—and soon—stereotypes and all. Assess your own perception of Asians first, then be keen to see how Asians are portrayed in the media. Are we empowered or muted? Celebrated or fetishized? Bring your observations to the table when there’s a discussion pertaining to the issue. I’m a firm believer of how these conversations within communities—small and big—can ultimately influence the collective conscience of a nation.

In addition to modeling you’re also a set designer. Do you identify with one career more than the other, and how so?

If there’s one thing I know—without a doubt in my mind—it’s that I love making things. Being creative makes me feel grounded.

How did you get into set design?

I started working in theatre when I was a senior in high school for the missing credit in extracurricular activities. It literally changed my life because I felt like I found a place where all my interests—building, painting, drawing, music, and performance art—intersect. I felt right at home.

How has your background influenced your approach to design?

I understand things through imagery much better than literal definitions by nature. I think that does affect the way I design because I get bored quickly with hyper realistic sets. I’d either pitch for an abstract direction from the start, or I’d try to instill some sort of emotional statement in what initially appears to be a harmless kitchen set.

How much of your method is instinctual versus technical?

I like to think with my hands. Either I’m doodling, or I move on to making crude sketch models to turn my ideas into a tangible form. I try hard to not worry too much about the machinery; there are technicians capable of figuring that out for designers anyway. The biggest challenge for me when I’m designing is to ignore the pesky rules, like gravity. 

Where do you source your ideas, and what inspires you?

I love so many things, music, architecture, fine arts, even pretty birds. I also love listening to other creative people speak in interviews. I think I watched i-D’s The Fifth Sense episode on Es Devlin at least 100 times on YouTube.

When you’re commissioned to work on a project how much autonomy are you granted and what is your methodology?

It’s important to me that the process is kept fluid and conversational, like dancing. I can present to the director what makes my heartbeat faster, but if the director doesn’t respond the same way, then it’s crucial for me to pull back. Otherwise the dance is spoiled, and that’s not fun for anyone.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

I’m more familiar with people’s ignorance than their misconception about what I do; which is fine. Maybe more people will become interested in live performances after having been confined at home for so long.

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Introducing Hannah Matheny

North Carolina native Hannah Matheny may be a newbie on the block, but her dedication and discipline—rooted in her love of dance—will stand her in good stead. After laying the foundation with The Model Coaches, Hannah signed with Muse’s Curve division—home to activist and body positivity champion Charli Howard.

Tell us about what your childhood was like.

I grew up in North Carolina and spent most of my time in school and the dance studio. I was very busy throughout my adolescence, as I was also involved in various clubs, volunteer experiences, weekend dance competitions, and I worked as a cashier in a grocery store. I started dancing when I was four and it helped me develop discipline, an appreciation for the arts, and a foundation for my future modeling career. At the same time, dance also initiated habits of disordered eating, and body image issues that I continue to work on to this day—especially remaining in an industry plagued with similar ideas. I left the South when I was 17 to attend college, and I found independence and opportunity in New York City.

Talk to us about how you were discovered.

The moment I reached 5’10”, classmates, friends, and even strangers on the street began to comment on how my height could easily lead me into modeling. I did not give their suggestions a second thought until I moved to Manhattan to attend college. After hearing further comments from my new friends—and living in a prime location—I finally looked into it. That’s when I found Trudi Tapscott. After attending a live coaching event held by The Model Coaches I signed on, making them my mother agency, and my journey began.

You worked with The Model Coaches before being signed to an agency. Talk to us about how that prepared you for modeling.

Anyone who shows curiosity about my modeling journey in the hope of beginning their own career knows that the first thing I will recommend is a mother agency. The Model Coaches specifically prepared me with resources that I would never have considered on my own. I had very little experience before I signed on with Trudi and The Model Coaches; however—within a few months—I learned the basics of shooting with a photographer, preparing digitals and a portfolio, interviewing with agencies, rehearsing a runway walk, and finding authenticity in everything that I present. After just those few months with The Model Coaches, I was fully prepared to sign with Muse Curve in New York City.

Before signing with Muse’s Curve division did you feel pressure to conform to a “straight” size?

I knew it was going to be a challenge being an “in-between” or midsize model from the get-go. I questioned where I fit into the modeling world. In the past, because of pressure I felt from society and myself, I had tried to work toward that smaller size, but I found that it was essentially impossible. I am not built to be a “straight” size model. After finding an agency who never expects me to change my body, and continuously provides me with equally welcoming clients and jobs, it was much easier to accept that myself. All that said, the modeling industry does still have some growing to do.

What misconceptions did you have about modeling when you started this journey?

The biggest misconception I had before entering the industry was that modeling was easy. I find a lot of people—even those who speak to me about it now—believe that. Just standing in front of a camera and smiling, right? In reality it’s much more difficult than it looks. Practicing poses, speaking to the camera, training for the runway, spending entire days on set beginning at the crack of dawn, going to castings daily just to face rejection, and waking up sore from a photoshoot were all things I had not previously thought about. After my first few shoots, interviews, and castings, my respect for people in this industry grew so much.

Who are your role models and what about them has inspired you?

I was lucky enough to grow up with a family that encouraged me to discover my passions and run with them no matter how risky or non-traditional they were. My entire family is inspiring to me, always demonstrating that you can do anything and everything that you want. I was fortunate enough to enter the modeling industry after necessary changes to diversify began. Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), and plus-sized models have paved the way for people of all races, sizes, and abilities to gain visibility on social media and in fashion. Seeing people that look like you and who are proud of their bodies—as well as their character—is so important. Charli Howard, an English curve model, is one of those people for me.

What do you hope to get out of your career? 

I have so many dream modeling jobs that include walking for various designers, shooting covers for magazines, and appearing on billboards. It is a dream being able to continue to create art with my body, like I once did with dance. I never want to leave the world of creatives. Models, photographers, agents, and casting directors are some of the most innovative, artistic, kind, and compassionate people I have ever met. I am already beginning to feel the impact of my modeling career, despite the fact that I am still beginning my journey.

What are your goals for the future?

As a person with far too many interests to choose, I can only hope to do a bit of everything that I love during my lifetime. Modeling is the main priority at the moment; however, as I work full-time, I also attend an online university part-time studying Psychology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as well as intern for a relationship, sex, and mental health therapist. A dream would be to incorporate my interests, potentially gaining a platform where I can speak on my mental health, queerness, and body acceptance journey, and be a role model to anyone who may relate to my experiences.

What would people be surprised to discover about you?

I am vegan and I have been for a little over four years, and I care a lot about sustainability. I typically thrift my clothes and shop from sustainable small businesses when it’s possible. As for my groceries, I try to buy in bulk when I can and carry all my reusable jars and bags to a food co-op store in Union Square to fill them up. I also love to cook. Right now I am obsessed with making vegan penne alla vodka, various curries, and a chili my dad curated a recipe for.

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