ROSIE HUNTINGTON-WHITELEY: FROM TALENT TO BRAND
Make a Venn diagram with circles for high-end, high-street, beauty, lingerie, women’s glossies, lads’ mags (forgive the eye-rolling term), tabloids, and Hollywood action movies (2011’s Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon), and the name Rosie Huntington-Whitely will sit neatly in the middle.
One of the few women the almost satirically deranged Daily Mail is nice about – an achievement bordering on the miraculous – Huntington-Whiteley grew up on a farm near Tavistock in Devon. It was an upbringing perfectly in keeping with the idea of an English rose, albeit one who’s taken the same gentle manners with her to Los Angeles, where she now resides. This rose can ramp it up though – fewer look better in a thigh-grazing Balmain mini of an evening than this model, an eternity away from her rural beginnings and early catalogue jobs. She’s done catwalk for Rousteing, too, as well as Prada’s AW10 collection (with Miranda Kerr and Alessandra Ambrosio) and Giles, she’s Burberry’s beauty archetype for their Body fragrance and, of course, she has cameoed in the mythical Pirelli calendar too.
Huntington-Whiteley is a convincing case study for that elusive, preternatural creature: a woman girls want to be (for the highly ambitious), be friends with (the slightly more grounded) and men want to be with full-stop (in your dreams). Thanks to her warm character, she’s uncommonly easy to relate to, rendering her perfect for the art of collaboration and brand-building. Having spent a portion of her career selling underwear for others as a Victoria’s Secret angel – the body really does punctuate her career, and we’re not talking the fragrance this time – in 2012 she put her name to Rosie for Autograph, a Marks and Spencer lingerie range that reaches towns other brands don’t, sharing the dream with women who appreciate it most. Since she approached M&S (rather than the other way round), she’s sold over half a million silk bras in over 200 stores, and totes the honour of being the shop’s best-selling collection, and has racked up 1,677,537 Instagram followers and counting. Now is the perfect time to build her brand.
Dean Mayo Davies: How did your journey begin? How were you scouted as a model?
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley: I grew up in the south of England on a farm. When we were 15, everybody in my year group at school had to do work experience for a week at various different places – places you thought you wanted to work. I always wanted to work in fashion, it was something I was really interested in. My bedroom at home was full of beautiful images, torn from magazines, I was obsessed with what went into making and creating a beautiful image, photoshoots. I wrote off to a few different companies in London – I think we’d just gotten the internet at home – and one of them happened to be a model agency. I expected to be going on photoshoots and being on the creative side, not realising that an agency consisted of a few agents sat round a table, leaning into computers all day. [Laughs]. I was slightly taken aback that I was in an office, making cups of tea and doing photocopying, sending faxes out, doing errands around London. But I loved it. I loved being in London and I knew that’s where I wanted to be. During the week, an agent pulled me aside and said, ‘Maybe when you get a bit older you could do some modelling.’ I didn’t think much of it: I thought she was joking, really. Ten months later, after I’d finished my studies, when I went back to London, my mum said: ‘Make sure you pop into the agency, it’s important to keep your contacts.’ There was a new agent, she was signing new faces and asked if I’d like to give it a go. I had my whole summer holidays in front of me and I thought, ‘Why not?’ Here’s my opportunity to finally get on a photoshoot.’ I didn’t think it would last. I thought I’d be doing it for a few weeks. Eleven years later I’m still here.
DMD: Does anything stand out as your ‘big break’?
RH-W: Very early on, I got a phone call for a job that was going to pay me £250. I was in a car with all my schoolfriend, we were driving somewhere and I remember being like, ‘Oh my God guys, I’m gonna make £250!’ Literally freaking out about it. Two months later it was a bit more money and then a Japanese Vogue story – it built quite quickly. Then I was doing Teen Vogue, shooting Tommy Hilfiger, French Connection in the UK. I was working consistently and quite fast. I made the decision to go full-time with modelling at 17.
DMD: You’ve also worked with photographers like Bruce Weber, Mario Testino…
RH-W: Bruce Weber was one of my first big shoots, for Abercrombie. That was… Gosh, I mean that was so, so long ago. [Laughs]. At the time I don’t think it meant much because I didn’t really know who he was; looking back now I feel very lucky I got to shoot with him. I always put Carter Smith down as the photographer that launched my career, because he shot me for Japanese Vogue on one of my first big jobs, a group story. Then he cast me to shoot Teen Vogue in the Caribbean, my first trip abroad. He also cast me for Tommy Hilfiger. He broke me in to the American market in many ways. Of course Testing choosing me for the Burberry campaign when I was 20 too… I’ve shot with a lot of different people over the years. I say I’ve shot with the best – and the worst. Some models immediately, within six months, are working with the best people and only the best. I’ve definitely seen the industry in all different forms, it’s not just been Vogue pages and high-fashion campaigns. I did a lot of catalogue for many years – which I had a lot of fun doing, travelling the world – and I also did editorials for magazines people probably haven’t even heard of.
DMD: You do have a unique place in the industry – you’ve done high-end, high-street, you’ve loved by women and men equally, women’s glossies, selected style press. What about your transition into lingerie? Was that something you always wanted to do?
RH-W: It’s funny because when I was waning to work in fashion, design was something I was exploring. I thought I was going to go to London College of Fashion and study design, or styling. The interest has been there since I was very young. I’ve always loved clothes and everything that involves luxury and opulence. Lingerie just made sense to me after a few years of modelling: I modelled for Victoria’s Secret for years. I was always cast for lingerie shoots by lingerie clients, I have a real love for it, for everything vintage – beautiful silk slips and pyjamas, loungewear. It felt like a really natural fit.
DMD: Did modelling help you learn what works for a woman’s body?
RH-W: Yeah, 100 per cent. I’ve worn so much of it. [Laughs]. On many different shoots for different clients of different nationalities. You see what flatters the body, what women want, how you feel in lingerie, what make you feel amazing, what sells, what doesn’t sell. That’s what’s been really fun for me to bring to the table with my designs. With clothing, the amount of fittings I’ve been in where I’ve seen designers alter things by the tiniest stitch, seamstresses changing things… You learn, standing there, picking up all the tricks of the trade – taking something in here and nipping it in there will completely change the way a woman can look and how she feels. That’s really exciting to share.
DMD: What has influenced your collections?
RH-W: I’ve loved vintage for as long as I can remember. Before I could afford to buy designer clothes I would shop vintage and be traipsing around Portobello Road, East London and New York for all the great finds. That’s been a huge influence. With vintage comes women like Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly, Guy Bourdin photographs, really beautiful, feminine and gorgeous women. Sophia Loren. They’re all iconic sex-symbols.
DMD: How involved are you in the design process? It’s more than just putting your name on the label, isn’t it?
RH-W: I actually approached Marks and Spencer to do the line; it wasn’t a case of them coming to me and asking for my name. Like I’ve said, I’ve wanted to do this for many, many years – Marks and Spencer felt like an incredible fit as they’re iconic in the UK for being one of the biggest lingerie retailers in the high-street market. That was really special for me. I said to them, ‘I don’t just want to put my name on something, I want to be involved.’ Obviously I didn’t go to design school, and I’m not going to pretend I did. It’s so exciting to bring my ideas and sit with the designers, looking over everything and being part of the creative process. I’m incredibly hands on; I try everything on, I look at every reference, we talk about what’s going on on the catwalks, we do mood boards, we shoot emails back and forth, I’m in the headquarters every time I’m in London. It’s fabulous, it’s really, really, really fulfilling.
DMD: How many collections a year are you doing?
RH-W: We do five drops a year; Spring, Summer, High Summer, Autumn and another drop for Christmas. It’s a lot. It started out with around 33 items and now it’s triple that. We introduced sleepwear in the second year an that includes a lot of beautiful cashmere items and pyjamas, that whole dream of having beautiful loungewear whilst at home and whilst travelling, keeping that luxury in every area of your life. The lingerie is growing and growing every season – we’re introducing another line in September, which I can’t tell you about at the moment, but that’s going to be exicitng. And there’s going to be more next year.
DMD: What’s the response been like?
RH-W: I get tweets every single day from women sending me pictures of themselves in their lingerie, their Rosie for Autograph, telling me how their experience was purchasing it and how special they feel in it and how comfortable it is. It’s been overwhelmingly positive and very humbling for me – you set out to do something and to make a great product but when the response is that you’re made somebody’s day special because they went and bought something nice for themselves that’s really lovely. I love making something for women. I love women. I’m a real girls’ girl and I think lingerie is such a fun part of a woman’s wardrobe: it can change your mood in such an intimate and sensual way.
DMD: Do your friends wear your designs?
RH-W: I love to give a lot of my girlfriends and my family pieces of the collection. I want their feedback! It’s really important to me. They love getting their little presents in the post.
DMD: How about your journey as a businesswoman – has it been intuitive? You’ve made it seem almost effortless…
RH-W: You know, anything you do in this business is strategic. You have to have goals and I’ve always been somebody that’s very focused on my career. I see my career as work, I don’t see it as a lifestyle. I realised early on that nothing lasts forever, especially as a model – you have to build something for yourself from it. Looks go and you fade. Modelling is short lived. I wanted something for when I want to take a back seat. There’ll be a brand that I’ll be sitting at the helm of and enjoying. This is really the start of something I see as a long-term thing.
DMD: What makes your brand unique?
RH-W: I was just talking to my manager before I got on the phone with you and I was turning down a job because it didn’t make sense for me. Whatever you do in business and when you become a brand it really is important that you keep your integrity. Everything has to tell an honest story with me. That’s really important. Whatever projects I chose, it has to be real, it has to be authentic, it has to be me. It has to feel it comes from inside.
DMD: You don’t do many interviews. The way you express yourself is very personal, through social media…
RH-W: I’ve always felt less is more and it’s really important with the level of noise and eyes that come on to anything I do now. Interviews are something that can be really beneficial but they can also be detrimental to you – people can misquote you and things can be taken out of context. I guess you protect yourself, you know? I think there’s a lot of people out there that think I’m aloof and very serious and that I don’t smile enough and I may be stuck up… It’s funny to me as I know I’m not. [Laughs]. Some people are surprised when they meet me. They go, ‘You’re actually really nice. [Laughs.] I thought you were gonna be a real bitch!’ I am quite a private person and I guess I’ve put barriers up in the past to protect myself, out of my own nerves and being unconfident at certain times in my life. They’re starting to break down and that’s why I love social media, because it gives me the opportunity to really let people in on the truth rather than some bullshit that’s been written in the tabloids or some nasty review or interview. It’s quite hard to win people’s hearts over sometimes.
DMD: You always look so chic at the airport. Do you feel pressure to?
RH-W: I know when I get to the airport they’ll be a pack of 15 photographers and when I land it’s gonna be the same – it certainly makes you realise you can’t rock up in sweatpants. [Laughs]. Sweatpants, trainers and a hoodie – think those days are over now. It definitely makes you make more of an effort, which is a good thing, I think.
DMD: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given so far?
RH-W: My mum’s always been my rock throughout my career and my life. She always says, ‘Stay true to yourself and take the classy, high road. Do what makes you happy, if it doesn’t make you happy then don’t do it.’ I think when you’re a young model you can get bullied into doing things, get stuck in a vicious cycle of feeling like you’re servicing a job for everybody else – I’ve definitely been there in my career where you feel like you’re going to work and you’re not doing it for you. Things are different now and I’m able to pick and choose my projects more carefully. There’s definitely things I won’t do anymore because they don’t make me happy or I don’t want to work in that environment. I try to wake up every day and think, ‘What can I do today that I’m going to have the best time doing?’ That for me is what life is about trying to have a great time every moment of it – even a great time when it’s not great! I want to feel something every day, I want my emotions to be enhanced every day.
DMD: What’s next in terms of the bigger picture? Are you interested in projects beyond lingerie?
RH-W: Yeah. Right now I feel like my lingerie collection is at the very beginning. It’s just going to continue to grow and being a part of that is really exciting, it’s really where my head is focused. I’m enjoying my modelling at the moment as I spent a couple of years really focused on film, which was an interesting, explorative time for me. I’ve just returned from Berlin where I shot a commercial with Wim Wenders which was amazing. Now it’s about doing interesting projects with fun people and building it all out. Being a model has always been the trunk of my brand and everything else branches off that.
INTERVIEW DEAN MAYO DAVIES
PORTRAIT CAMILLA ÅKRANS