Posted by Irene Ojo-Felix | July 20th, 2021
The Ascent and Return of Lindsey Wixson
When Lindsey Wixson-Young first appeared on Steven Meisel‘s computer screen via video shared on Models.com it was as a whimsical 15-year-old new face, with her signature bee-stung lips, dimples, and a gap-toothed smile on full display. That video changed her career trajectory from a Midwest darling in the Los Angeles commercial market to a swiftly rising rookie, destined for editorial greatness with a debut shoot in Vogue Italia. Since then, the doll face muse has been consistently seen on the runways of Prada, Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu, Versace, and Chanel appearing in billboards for luxury and beauty clients alike before it all came to a halt.
Feeling pressured by the physical demands of modeling and a painful foot injury, Wixson was pushed to announce an early retirement in 2017 while she recalibrated to figure out what was important. Now with growth, perspective, and a pandemic year behind her, she dials up her call for environmental justice, imploring fashion to become more sustainable before it’s too late. With lively portraits shot by photographer Hao Zeng, she discusses her return to the runway, the fight to eliminate plastics and synthetics in fashion, and how developing her green thumb gave her solace during isolation.
I didn’t know this until one of our senior members highlighted it, but one of your first opportunities working with a photographer was with Steven Meisel when he discovered you on Models.com. Did you know who he was and do you remember your experience when you first worked with him?
Yes, I was pretty young — 15 and was traveling to LA with my mom to do test shoots with Vision LA. Three years prior, I was really studying fashion and learning about different people in the industry — models, photographers, makeup artists, hairstylists so basically I was ecstatic. I was so elated because I knew that this was my big break. Even getting to the point where I was recognized by models.com and then on top of that being seen by one of the biggest fashion photographers and namely most iconic.
From what I hear he very much is a master of movement in the sense of, he likes models and wants to teach them how to flow in front of the camera. How was the experience when you first worked with him?
It was pretty natural. I had mastered my angles and I was ready to go be a New York model. I was just there soaking it all up — I remember the big studio and the models that I was working with during the shoot. I had already known who they were and knew who the hair and makeup artist lead was.
You talk about being a teenager and kind of stumbling into this industry, did you always want to model? Did someone find you or how did you first get scouted?
I always wanted to be a model and I was always playing in front of the camera with my mom. She would do little disposable film shoots where I would be in summer clothes on the carpet and picked up pretty young that I was photogenic. I was always playing dress-up with my sister growing up. We would rummage through a large box of secondhand women’s dresses that we had slightly altered and pinned to play in. When I was 12, I started to study the industry and discover my angles. My sister, who was four years older, was really into art, international fashion, and the music scene, specifically in Germany. She told me that my teeth were great for high fashion.
She could tell that I was kind of ethereal and she was really excited because she could take pictures of me for her art projects and that was my first modeling — for my sister in high school. I think that I knew I was a New York model and that’s where I ultimately wanted to be, even though I started in LA. I knew I had to get to New York and I remember saying at 15 that’s what I want to do and I wanted to sign with IMG. Then I realized that to start at IMG I would have to have some pretty serious work because otherwise I could get kind of lost. I decided to go with Marilyn in New York and I met with them right after I shot with Steven. My scout, who found me in Kansas, was there at the meeting and so was my mom. I was in finger waves done by Julien d’Ys and I had makeup by Pat McGrath, and I walk in and I remember one of the agents saying, “I thought you were Charlize Theron”. That was my first experience in New York.
Since then you have worked with names like Meisel, of course, Craig McDean, Karl Lagerfeld, Emma Summerton — these big photographers. Do you have things that you’ve pulled from working with all these different fashion personalities?
I feel like I stayed grounded because I would go back to Kansas. That was what kept me able to maintain the person who I am because honestly it really did happen very quickly when I was young. I just had to stay almost detached from it to remain fresh every time I would come back and do a shoot. I would always have moments that I would remember from each experience and take away from what I learned from, not only the photographer but stylist, stylist assistant, who are picking up a lot of weight in the industry. Just being grateful for each interaction and learning from all of that.
Are there any favorite moments that stand out in your career? Major milestones that you were like, this took me to the next level?
I feel like there were different chapters of my career, but definitely getting to work with Tim Walker, who does amazing elaborate set designs. That would really stand out because he would commission his own art for those big projects. With Tim Walker, the shoot I did for Vogue Italia was one of Karl Lagerfeld’s favorite shoots and what got his attention. Obviously, the first shoot that I did with Steven got the attention of casting director Russell Marsh for Prada. Today, I have just tried to focus on keeping my head to the ground and also listening to newer designers, sort of pivoting from just high fashion to also sustainability.
I know sustainability is a huge platform for you, something you’re very passionate about. When were you first aware of fashion’s input into the global sustainability crisis? How did you first inform yourself and start taking up your own personal lifestyle changes?
I’ve been thinking about sustainability since 2014 and then when it comes to taking action, I’ve been trying to be pretty outspoken since 2016 or 2017. I would say that working with certain brands has been hard because I have to pay bills and that’s the dilemma. Fast fashion, it has been a very recent time where I just think, “I can’t work with this brand anymore.” It’s hard because that’s the difference between maybe not having that paycheck. It’s made me question whether I should be a model or if I should be a creative director because I don’t feel like putting my face on something I don’t believe in.
There’s this reconciliation between what this industry stands for and the larger global issues at hand. As fashion takes up the sustainability challenge, do you have a perspective on the current swing toward sustainability and green-washing? Is it something we have to all take up to the challenge, or is there a right way of going about things?
Yes, we all have a part to play but it is also about these big companies taking a holistic approach and measuring their carbon then budgeting. In the corporate world, there’s the supply chain — it’s how you get clothes from point A to point B and how much carbon is being spent. That has to happen from the top and then work its way through the whole economy of the business. Some people will try to make the change, but unless corporations try to make it happen as quickly as possible, I just don’t see sincerity. I think measuring carbon is number one, then getting that company to be localized to wherever their markets are. That’s kind of impossible, that’s like asking you to make all textiles in Europe or the United States, and that’s where the polluting happens. To become zero emissions, a lot of things have to be reconsidered and basically be picked apart, and then put back together. Then, natural textiles and innovative textiles that are using less water, move away from cotton and look towards hemp or some type of natural fiber that we can be happy about that’s not plastic that’s polluting a lot.
Then, upcycling what you can with the waste, but then you have to have a backup plan because when you wash everything and you dry everything, you have to put enough to contain the fiber waste. As far as companies that are doing it, I would say it’s hard to even do sustainability individually, but there are ways. Washing your clothes on cold, putting it in a Guppy bag knowing that it’s synthetic, you put it in the bag, you wash it and hopefully, you have a place to hang it up and dry it in the air. There’s a website called goodonyou.eco, and they have a rating system where they basically see if the textile is GOTS, Global Organic Textile Standard, if it’s eco-friendly, or if they’re adopting Fair Wear Foundation code of conduct. Different acronyms help to certify that the textile is good, protect workers, and sustain humanity. I would say my biggest thing about looking into brands is generally if it’s a fast-fashion brand, they are blanketing statements about reducing, reduction, but it doesn’t really help because there’s still a very large demand. Also, people aren’t getting fair wages on the other end. It’s unfortunate, and I hope that they realize that consumers really care about this, we care about human life and sustaining the planet.
What was your biggest hope in regards to climate change and fashion’s part in it? Do you have any things that you want to see fashion maybe continue to improve on, in terms of sustainability?
If a brand is using synthetics, it’s really bad. Just stop doing it. Try to use something new, innovate a new type of fabric, look at what you’re using and understand that it can also have a big play in the quality of what you’re creating, too, and if it will last.
What are the things that you do in your day to day to be sustainable?
Turning off things in the apartment constantly. I use cloth hand towels, bring my reusable water bottle everywhere, then filter drinking water with a Berkey filter. I stash food cutlery for shoots I’m on. I recycle boxes, paper, cans, and compost. I use the Guppy bag for washing, anything synthetic, and always hang dry. That’s some of the sustainability, and then breathing, remembering to breathe, going for walks.
With all the stress that comes with modeling, it’s good to hear you do practices that not only sustain and help the earth but also yourself.
Yes, and gardening has been big for me. I planted trees in April because I’d been wanting to plant more so in total, 65 or so trees. They were just baby sapling trees that we got from the Kansas Forestry Service. I think most states might have it where you can buy bulk little sapling trees. It actually takes a lot of the work out because they’re smaller root systems. Got to learn about soil and regenerative agriculture.
Going back to your career, you suffered an injury in your foot and took a break from modeling. How did you first deal with the industry hiatus and what brought you back?
During my hiatus, I didn’t know if my feet would recover from the injury, commonly known as turf toe, where there were some partially torn parts of my big toe. I had to step away fully to become still and without pressure from the temptation of working. Also, the model work ethic had me working pretty rapidly and intensely. I blamed my tomboyish nature for being rough on my feet. I feel like I have a natural athletic tendency, and I used to play soccer as a kid. In my adolescence and modeling, my feet gained a whole size bigger. I was commonly given a smaller shoe because of this. At my final runway show, I was given a French size 38.5 while I wear a French 40, and the runway had sharp gravel with an open-toe shoe. I knew it would be my last runway for the brand I was walking for.
I moved away from New York, started a relationship, and moved to Seattle. It wasn’t until then that I realized I didn’t know if I could walk in fashion shows anymore. I later moved back to Kansas when I was 75% recovered, and I had to work again so I found a job at a brewery in my hometown. I worked there for four months, taking weekend part-time busing, food running, bar backing, and at the end of the four months I worked there, I started making salads in the kitchen. I would later become a weekend closer and help mop the kitchen. I worked up to five to seven-hour shifts and I was barely making enough money to pay for an apartment so commuting was not possible after working. That led me to get back on my feet and get the scar tissue in my feet to the point where I was able to complete a day’s work. After four months, I was ready to start modeling again. I contacted my close friend and owner of Vision LA, we spoke about meeting and she decided to bring me to LA to talk face to face. I eased back into modeling in high heels and made sure my agents knew I couldn’t do high heels anymore, and the size had to be my correct size in my contract.
How was that for your mental space? You mentioned leaving New York, going back home to Kansas, taking a hiatus after what many would say is a traumatic experience. I know it’s your job and models are supposed to just suck it up, but you’d already had the injury and you’re now inflicting even more issues with that last show. I imagine that having to make that very hard decision for yourself wasn’t easy, but necessary. Was it a helpful experience to be able to take that time off?
I had to. I couldn’t walk. I had to listen to my body. Also, I did a lot of reflecting on everything that I had achieved, and how it was so hard to socialize with people outside the industry because I had to grow up and it was hard to talk to normal people. I didn’t know how to relate. I had been living this really fantastic life and it was my normal lifestyle, then I humbled myself and went to do a job that I had never done before but committed myself and was like, “Maybe this is it, this is my moment to get back on my feet.” It enabled me to be able to be confident in my feet again.
When it comes to diversity compared to when you started, have things have been improved in terms of visibility for models of color?
I notice magazines doing well to show representation like British Vogue. Brands and retailers continue to publicize their diversity and inclusion-focused efforts while models aren’t receiving fair wages. I’m still critical of brands’ efforts, as profits are still more important over environmental and social responsibility as they neglect justice and equity in the labor sector from factory suppliers.
As far as your perspective, has social media been an asset as far as explaining your platform and getting issues out on sustainability?
I think in a small way I’ve had an impact and that’s great. I’m grateful for that. If I can have maybe a slight encouragement for people to care too, look at their own self and check, see what can happen. It’s always good. It’s always good to grow. Yet, social media is weird because there’s an algorithm and I think it is biased. In that way, I think social media can be really bad for mental health that way.
Turning to this past year of quarantine and isolation, how was the experience for you? How were you able to balance working just during the pandemic, and how was your mental space throughout?
Well, I’m married, so my husband and I realized this was probably going to be a pretty long thing, the last year. We left in March and I just came back from doing fashion shows in Europe. I was really scared, but I knew we were both creative and we’ve both been working in the industry for a decade. Him as a set designer, me as a model. We both were under the impression we need to get a nice, large format digital camera, then we let my agents know and that’s when we were able to receive jobs, create. Honestly, those were the highlights because even though it was stressful and hard to create with your loved one, it was such a growing and learning experience. I’m really glad we did it because it gave us something to do and kept our minds off of fear or all the emotions.
Looking back and reflecting on your illustrious career, if you could give your 15-year-old self advice, what things would you tell her to maybe watch out for in the industry or things that she should be aware of?
Be aware of finding a good agent because that’s where it all begins. They can put you in really bad situations if you’re not careful. Also, listen to your intuition if you maybe had a bad experience working with somebody. Try to avoid that bad experience again, learn from your experiences, know that you have a voice and you can put your foot down. Also, put insoles in your shoes and say no to high heels, heavy strappy platforms, long dresses not altered to the right length. Make sure to charge your phone at night and wear sunscreen and reapply every two hours.
Were there any moments where you had reached another level within your career with a job?
I would have shoots where I would go, maybe it would be a client and they would have references, and it would already be from a shoot I did. There were other instances where somebody from the crew, maybe the makeup artist or the hairstylist or even the photographer, would say that they really liked me or they saw a shoot I did and they really liked it. Those were instances where it was like, great, I’m doing it. I’m doing great.
Looking ahead to the future, what’s next on the horizon for you? You’ve been in the business for over a decade, is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t done or clients that you want to work with? I imagine there’s no one left.
There is Jacquemus. Valentino. Gabriela Hearst. I am keeping my ear to the ground to what they’re doing. I’ve always loved Valentino and it’s kind of on my fashion bucket list. As far as creatives, I’m actually really excited about Raisa Flowers. I actually got to work with her for AREA, and we had fun. She liked my skin stuff and the Ilia foundation I brought. Also, I really want to work with Tyler Mitchell. He brings nature into the landscapes. His photos are just graphically beautiful.