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Natalia Vodianova: From Fashion Fairy Tale to Philanthropic Movement

The Russian supermodel nicknamed ‘Supernova’ for her spectacular rise will receive The Business of Fashion’s GLOBAL VOICES Award 2017 for her philanthropic and advocacy work.
Natalia Vodianova at a brunch hosted by Diane von Furstenberg | Source: Sam Deitch for BFA
  • Osman Ahmed

PARIS, France — Natalia Vodianova is the first to admit that her life took a Disney-worthy twist when she arrived in Paris to pursue a career in modelling. She was a long way from her hometown of Nizhny Novgorod, about 400 kilometres east of Moscow, where she was forced to drop out of school at 11 to sell fruit on the street with her single mother, Larissa. Back home she suffered from the stigma and shame of her family's poverty and local attitudes to the disability of Oksana, her younger sister who has cerebral palsy and severe autism. Like most fairy tales, her story was laced with the bitter taste of pain and hardship yet, unlike others, her route to heroine came by way of making fairy tales a reality for others.

“When I became a successful model, which luckily didn’t require lots of education, I knew I was leaving millions of people behind,” says Vodianova, with the assured light-heartedness that comes from a deep sense of self-awareness. There is a distinctly post-Soviet resilience about her demeanour. Vodianova talks about her past as though time is vertical and, not one to dwell on the gloom of her childhood, uses it as a driving force for affecting change, whether that’s building 186 play parks around Russia for children, addressing the treatment of disabled children in Russian schools, or creating an app that harnesses the power of social media to raise funds for local charities around the world.

When Vodianova arrived in Paris, she was a blank slate, ready for reinvention. She quickly became known as the girl with the icy blue eyes and heart-shaped visage — "like Romy Schneider," as fashion people fondly coo. Still to this day, Vodianova's captivating mix of angelic innocence and animal ferocity teeters the tightrope between girlhood and womanhood. In that sense, she followed in the footsteps of Brooke Shields and Kate Moss, both of whom preceded her as the gamine faces of Calvin Klein.

Natalia Vodianova | Source: Courtesy

At the start of Vodianova’s career, she attended 12 to 15 castings a day. Her agency had arranged for her accommodation and a stipend of $100 a week, which was expected to cover her metro pass and living expenses. She managed to save money and send it back to her family, much to her pride. “I could never say that I would make it big. I just wanted to make a little money and not be a failure and bring safety to my mother and sister.” Her drive, borne from the harsh realities of her youth, soon separated her from the competition. As industry legend has it, Vodianova would arrive at castings and, without the means to speak a word of English or French, try to introduce herself in Russian with physical movements and animated cheerfulness. It was such a contrast to the sulking broodiness of other models that it instantly set her apart.

In the blink of an eye, the young model's stardom ascended so precipitously that it earned her the nickname "Supernova" (today, it's the name of her company). She quickly became the toast of the fashion world; a muse to designers such as Tom Ford and Calvin Klein, a supermodel-maker if there ever was one; a regular Vogue cover girl (in 2007, she became the first non-celebrity to grace the cover of the American edition in a decade); a billboard-sized face with lucrative cosmetics contracts and campaigns.

"How did I make it to this absolute fairy tale?" she gasps, almost in disbelief herself. At 19, she married Justin Portman, a Prince Charming-type who hailed from one of England's wealthiest aristocratic families, and became a mother shortly after, resuming her career so seamlessly that she continued to do it another four times (the father of her youngest two children is LVMH executive Antoine Arnault).

“When I started [having children], it was absolutely seen as complete craziness, but I was very much in love and that seemed to rise above everything else. Of course, I would kill my daughter if she was pregnant at 18! But in my culture and where I had come from, it was absolutely normal to have children at that age — if you don’t have a child at 25, something is wrong with you.”

Elbi is a product of experience and frustration, with the aim to democratise philanthropy.

Although Vodianova still models occasionally — "mainly for being me, which is nice" — she is much more likely to be found in the Paris or London offices of Naked Heart Foundation and Elbi — an app that aims to bridge social media and philanthropy for a digitally-savvy generation — and home by 4pm to see to her five children. When she does dust off her supermodel shoes, it has the air of majestic return, like when she ran the Paris Half Marathon in the morning and walked a Louis Vuitton show the same afternoon in 2013. "I do miss those crazy transformations. These people around me creating something incredibly beautiful, and I would be at the centre of their world. It was inspiring, magical and empowering, and it made me want to give them so much in return."

In 2004 came Vodianova’s higher calling. Armed separatists, mostly Ingush and Chechen, took 1,100 people, including 777 children, hostage for three days in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in the North Caucasus region of Russia. In response, Russian security forces stormed the building with tanks, rockets and other heavy weapons. By the bloody and tragic conclusion of the crisis, 385 hostages were killed, including 186 children. The tragedy triggered Vodianova to give back to the children of her homeland, who were still living a reality she knew all too well.

Vodianova’s mission was to create parks where children can play. “Play is something that I lacked when I was little. For me, the few occasions when I was carefree are the precious moments of having a childhood. It’s a therapeutic process and especially with autism, a lot of learning happens through organised play.”

Each of the 186 parks is equipped with special zones for children with musculoskeletal disorders or specially designed to meet the needs of children with learning disabilities. In 2004, when Vodianova started her foundation, there were only 10 parks in the whole of Russia that were of the standard of the ones she has built. She now builds them in partnership with local governments, who are responsible for the parks’ maintenance and upkeep, and Vodianova intends to build 500 of them.

Natalia Vodianova at the Kaliningrad play park opening in 2017 | Source: Courtesy

The funding came from throwing lavish balls that would raise millions — so far, Naked Heart Foundation has fundraised close to $60 million. There's the biennial Love Ball, where starry guests are dressed to the nines in haute couture, and the Fund Fair, an extravagantly themed Victorian fun fair with top-notch prizes and attractions: face painting by Pat McGrath; fortune telling by Kristin Scott Thomas; Karlie Kloss selling cookies; a coconut shy and Hook-a-Duck with couture as prizes, for instance. At Halloween earlier this year, the theme of the Fund Fair was "Jeff Koons," with Vodianova hosting in an inflatable cherry-red Koons creation.

Whereas the Naked Heart Foundation’s primary source of fundraising comes from the ticket price and donations at these events, enabled by Vodianova’s little black book, a new platform that Vodianova has been developing aims to make charity fundraising more accessible to those who can’t afford a $40,000-a-plate gala.

“If you are a regular person and not Bill Gates, if you don’t have much time or know who to give to and how to do it, you wouldn’t know where to donate. Even with very large organisations, if you donate your $5 or $1,000, you never know the impact you create. Elbi is a product of experience and frustration, with the aim to democratise philanthropy.”

Vodianova’s pioneering philanthropy app, Elbi, connects users with small charities around the world. At the click of the “love button” a micro-donation of $1 is made to the charity, with the option to donate more, or to share the charity’s profile and story with friends. Each day, new charities are presented with engaging video and written content.

The idea is for users to accumulate points from donating, which will then be converted into "Elbi coins" which they can spend in the "Elbi LoveShop" which features one-of-a-kind products from brands including Louis Vuitton, Stella McCartney, Christian Louboutin, Berluti and H&M, curated by celebrity stylist Jenke Ahmed-Tailly.

We have to reform normal schools and help them to take on children with special needs.

“In the charity sector, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract a millennial audience,” says Timon Afinsky, Vodianova’s digital media advisor. The solution is harnessing the power of social media, storytelling and partnerships with desirable brands to gamify the experience for a younger digitally-native audience. However, a vital part of the platform is that every penny donated goes towards the charities (administrative costs are covered by the advisory board) and a key element is the feedback that charities give donors to show exactly what the donations have contributed to.

“It is in the charities’ interest to report the money they’ve received so that they can get more money,” adds Vodianova. “We are building a sophisticated rating system and, in the future, this process can be completely automated.”

The project has been four and a half years in the making as Vodianova’s antidote to the exclusivity of the galas she throws to raise money for her foundation. “I had been thinking about it for so long and we finally feel we have something that has legs. Ten years ago, we couldn’t envision eBay and Amazon or Alibaba making it so easy to just order anything online. Why can’t we do the same with philanthropy? Why can’t we fund what we want to fund? Today, young people want some kind of transaction, and for a brand it’s a fantastic way to reward young people [for] doing good. You don’t have a choice because consumers are so aware.”

Meanwhile, in the last year, the modelling world has been shaken by a torrent of accusations and allegations of sexual harassment that reached boiling point following the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment cases. Subsequently, the fashion industry has come under the spotlight for its unregulated working conditions, which can often result in abuses of power by predatory figures, and one wonders what Vodianova — as a model’s model — makes of it all.

Earlier this year, Antoine Arnault, together with François-Henri Pinault of Kering established an unprecedented Model Charter to protect models working for both conglomerates' roster of fashion houses. Vodianova insists she was lucky in her youth.

Natalia Vodianova's Elbi app | Source: Courtesy

“I was treated like a princess. I was lucky to have fallen into the caring of hands of the right agents. If they represent you well, you can pick up the phone and tell them about something and ask them what to do about it. If you feel comfortable to speak to your agents, and you don’t assume that something is normal when it’s not, it’s an important factor for girls feeling safe.”

She’s a vocal supporter of the “Responsible Trust for Models,” a regulation committee led by Elizabeth Peyton-Jones. “Creating a standard for agencies is the first and most important step. [Peyton-Jones] is not asking for the impossible. There should be some kind of governing body that is giving licences to agencies as they are self-governing bodies.”

Vodianova knows a fair thing about the need to regulate autocratic institutions. In 2010, she expanded her foundation’s mission to include “Every Child Deserves a Family,” which provides support to families who have children with special needs, with the aim of reforming the Russian education system. “This is much more profound work, I guess. We are touching a very, very serious issue: children being abandoned into institutions, which often do not have very good specialists. We have to reform normal schools and help them to take on children with special needs.”

The trouble, she explains, is that admissions are often at the discretion of the heads of schools, some of whom are progressive, and others completely intolerant of disability. “We work with local governments to create state-run programmes for children with autism so that they can have all the evidence-based practises and help them become more adapted to society, but we can only suggest.” It doesn’t help that the education and social affairs budgets have been cut in recent years.

Vodianova is a firm believer that fashion can be a platform for social change, especially as the biggest businesses place ever greater emphasis on their corporate social responsibility. “The industry can be tricky — we either love or hate it — but it is incredibly powerful because of [its] financial power, and also because dressing is such an integral part of being human. Another thing is that the first question that young talented [recruits] who come for interviews at a company ask is, “What does this brand give back?”

The Business of Fashion is honoured to present the Global VOICES Award 2017 to Natalia Vodianova for outstanding achievement in fashion and exemplary impact on the wider world. VOICES 2017 takes place from 29 November-2 December in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

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