Even via a computer screen, Alva Claire is luminous. Her skin has the sheen and glow of someone with a diet rich in omegas and antioxidants, her smile is campaign-ready, her cleavage, cartoonishly framed by a tight, black peekaboo top, is magnificent and cheering on a dull autumn afternoon in my kitchen. I’m pretty confident Claire won’t mind me saying that. Not only is the London-born 30-year-old model in possession of a wicked sense of humour and a contagious cackle, she knows the power clothes have to attract and provoke. “We tell stories when we get dressed in the morning,” she says later. “Whether you like it or not, we’re all telling a story.”
It is mid-October and Claire is in her apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives when she’s not in London. She’s been in town for a week, the longest she’s been in one spot since the summer. Fashion month happened in September; Claire walked in 14 shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris. “I feel like I’ve been on tour,” she says, “but without the lovely singing voice.”
Claire may not yet have reached Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell levels of household name recognition, but give her a minute. She laughs off the idea of being famous, but to those who follow fashion or models, Alva Claire McKenzie is a rock star. In the past few years she’s been the face of MAC cosmetics and of Rimmel London. She’s starred in a campaign for Beyoncé’s sportswear brand, Ivy Park. All after coming to global attention in 2020, when she walked the catwalk for Savage x Fenty, Rihanna’s underwear brand, wearing lacy lingerie and latex boots. Just days before she had been one of the first “plus-size” models to walk on a Versace catwalk, alongside Jill Kortleve and Precious Lee. While some raised eyebrows at the fact it took the brand so long to employ plus-sized models, Claire has only positive things to say. “There’s a feeling when you put Versace on. That’s what I projected when I went out there, feeling super-strong, super-powerful.” She goes on, “As a model I see myself as embodying a character. I love shoots or shows when there’s a challenge to present a different kind of imagery. I suppose it’s seeing myself and my body in places I haven’t seen it before. Where I’ve not seen anyone like me do that before.”
In November, Claire took part in the fourth riotous Savage x Fenty fashion show. When Rihanna first launched these loud and proud catwalk shows – now streamed annually on Amazon Prime – with a cast of diverse models embracing a multitude of ethnicities and body shapes – it changed the conversation around women’s lingerie. Savage upturned the dominant years of the Victoria’s Secret annual catwalk shows, which defined the female body ideal as mostly white, thin, pneumatically breasted and as approved by the A-list men who always sat in the front row critically assessing the… outfits? In contrast, the women in Rihanna’s shows seem to enjoy and embrace their own idea of sexy, not someone else’s. It changed the experience of women who had previously felt alienated by fashion shows and by underwear.
“It makes me really happy whenever anyone tells me how the show made them feel, because it shows that fashion and art can really change things,” Claire says. “It’s amazing to see the power that gets instilled in people when they start to recognise themselves in different places in society. When I realised that it was like, ‘OK, this is pretty strong. I feel quite proud.’”
Growing up, Claire didn’t have that experience. An avid collector of fashion magazines (“i-D, Dazed, Vogue… I used to spend ages deciding which one I was going to buy because when you’re spending £4 on a magazine it’s not a joke, is it?”), she recently did a bit of a cull of her collection. “It was interesting when I went back through them how many of those magazines were just cover-to-cover white models. And it wasn’t even that long ago,” she says. “I thought how odd it was that I grew up with that.”
What was it then that she found so compelling in them? “Oh, the creativity, the photographers. Being able to go off in your imagination or romanticise or dream about something. That’s what a good fashion editorial does. It creates a world that you can enter. That’s what I was taking from it. It definitely wasn’t, ‘Oh wow, that looks like me!’” She laughs again. “It was not like that.”
Five foot eight and leggy, with full lips and a hooded gaze that can be fierce or dreamy or come-hither, Claire was told, for years, that she should try modelling. As a teenager she was approached by several scouts and was signed to an agency when she was 18. But while visual imagery was a major preoccupation in her family, it was creating it rather than being in it that took priority. “No one talked about appearance. It was more like: what’s going on in your head? What are you up to?” Her Jamaican father, Everal, is a graphic designer who had a hand in the titles for the BBC’s Top of the Pops. Her American mother, Susan, a book artist, taught at Camberwell College of Arts. “They had their work but they also had their own practice. There was this whole idea: go off and do your own thing, focus on multiple projects. People were always creating art. I’m grateful for that, because it helps me approach things in an open way. I’m not really afraid of walking into a situation and being creative with people I don’t know that well.”
She’s most recently employed that talent in a design collaboration for a new collection with the Danish womenswear brand OperaSPORTlaunched in a catwalk show Claire modelled in at Copenhagen fashion week last year. Founders Stephanie Gundelach and Awa Malina Stelter liked her attitude and her personal style, which has always included a lot of vintage. “It’s how I expressed myself when I was younger. I remember being actively annoyed when the girls at school all wore the same thing,” she says. “I liked that I was wearing something no one else would find anywhere. I appreciate old things. I love trawling through charity shops. Anywhere I go I try and make time to do that.”
She took that as her inspiration for her collection, which she calls “essentials with little quirks”, and includes stretch ribbed dresses, logo T-shirts, a vegan leather coat and a retro-style tracksuit. A slick leather suit jacket is based on a find from a Vancouver thrift store. “I’ve worn the original so much it’s literally falling apart now.” She often wears menswear items, describing herself as “bopping around south London like a teenage boy in my hoodie” when she’s back at home.
On paper Claire’s story might sound entirely predictable – beautiful young woman, arty parents, model, oh, and now a designer, blah blah blah – but it’s not really like that. It wasn’t long ago (and let’s not pretend the problem is fixed) that the fashion world outright rejected black and curvier women. That’s why despite being scouted, despite being signed, Claire didn’t make it at 18. She didn’t even make a living from modelling during her early 20s, the years when a model is usually at her busiest. At that point she was mainly working in the background, in retail or as a styling assistant. “People don’t see the journey behind what someone’s done,” she says. “We live in a culture now where it appears that success is almost instant, but there’s always a story behind it.”
She doesn’t label herself a plus-size model; she uses “curve”, a word used by model agencies, only once in our conversation. I can understand why. When beauty is categorised, entire communities get other-ed. “I feel passionate about what I do,” she says. “Like, I love my job, but in a way where I don’t need to be screaming from the rooftops about all these different things. It’s more about just me being myself and not fitting into a certain…” Perception? “Being a model is an art form and I’m so interested in that. It’s kind of odd to constantly be asked if I think things need to change. I think I’m [demonstrating that] with my work, so just look at my work.”
If there’s anything that does partly define Claire, it’s her persistence. She wanted to be a model, she believed she could be a great model, so she kept going despite the lack of enthusiasm she was experiencing in London. In 2018, when she saw that models such as Precious Lee and Paloma Elsesser – women who looked more like her – were getting major bookings for commercials in New York, she decided to make the most of her dual citizenship, quit her job at “a yummy mummy candle shop” in the UK and moved to NYC.
“It was weird. It was a bit bizarre at 25 to quit a full-time job and go to live in a model apartment with, like, a load of 18-year-olds in bunk beds,” she says. “Because the apartment was so depressing I’d be out all the time walking. But it forced me to be more open. I was literally asking people, ‘Do you want to hang out?’ It forced me to be proactive.” Even so, at first it didn’t work out. The work didn’t come like she’d hoped. “But I always had this belief,” she says. “So even when I get a ‘no’, in the back of my mind I’m going, ‘Yes!’. I’ll hear a no but I don’t absorb a no” Which sounds like an exceptionally useful life skill.
She was working on the second Savage x Fenty show as a styling assistant when she was cast. Finally, a breakthrough at 28, I say. “Well, I mean I suppose a breakthrough could be lots of different things – just personal things like I pushed through something or my confidence grew,” she says sensibly, “but yeah, that was my first New York fashion week show. And that was huge for me. It was at the Barclays Centerit was going to be filmed. My family was like, you don’t do things by halves do you?”
What she loves about Rihanna’s brand is that there’s no song and dance about inclusivity. “Well,” she retracts, “there’s actually a lot of song and dance! But what I mean is, it shows that it’s not difficult to create a brand and an environment where everybody feels as if they have a place. And it’s interesting, because then you observe other brands making such a big deal of these decisions. It’s so hard for them to discuss. All these people trying to decide: is this right? It’s like, you know, it’s not that hard. Just stand behind your brand and your ethos and say this is what we do.”
Claire seems so at ease with herself at this point in her life that I wonder if she’s in any way relieved her success came to her later rather than as a teenager. Once again she gently steers me away from a simplified take. “I think it’s important to see women of different ages doing things that we often associate with a certain age group. Models are often associated with being really young, so I’m happy it’s worked out this way,” she says. “But it’s interesting, I suppose I couldn’t have done it when I was younger because the industry didn’t exist like this then. I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg, but for whatever reason it’s all happening at this point in my life.” She beams beautifully. “So, I’ll just take care of my skin and it’s all good.” ■
Alva Claire x OpéraSPORT is available now on operasport.net