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How Race Imboden Went from Olympic Fencing to Modeling for Rag & Bone

Yes, it's normal.
Imboden, center, at Rag & Bone's fall 2015 show. Photo: Getty Images

Imboden, center, at Rag & Bone's fall 2015 show. Photo: Getty Images

We're used to multi-hyphenates around these parts. Model-slash-actresses (Cara Delevingne, Abbey Lee Kershaw), "It" girl-slash-DJs (Leigh Lezark, Harley Viera-Newton), rock-n-roll-progeny-slash-models (too many to name), etc. Throw any string of occupations together into a hazy mass, and there's some messy-haired lass or lad who does it. (Her name is probably Alexa Chung.)

That said, some sets of job titles are more unique than others, and on that front, Race Imboden has most Fashion Week mainstays beat. Better known to the non-fashion world as an Olympic fencer — he went to the 2012 Summer Games in London at age 19 — he's also a model with Wilhelmina, having initially signed with Re:Quest after getting scouted while fencing. While plenty of male athletes do modeling work, like that guy David Beckham with his underwear ads, Imboden has racked up a solid portfolio of top-tier gigs, appearing in that Rag & Bone video featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov last fall, in J.Crew catalogues and on the runway for Louis Vuitton.

It's legit. In the interest of figuring out how one goes about building a career like this by the advanced age of 22, we gave Imboden a call to chat about two-a-day workouts, scheduling and hanging with Baryshnikov.

Before we get into talking about modeling, what does your fencing training schedule look like right now? 

I usually train two to three times a day. I work out in the morning and have a one-on-one technical lesson, then rest for lunch and sneak in some castings. [Laughs] Then I have another session from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. I’m just getting back into it for preseason camp. The season really gets going in October.

Did you do New York Fashion Week: Men's?

I didn't, because we had world championships. I missed out. I'm not complaining about it, though.

So, the inevitable question is: How do you model and carry out such an intense fencing schedule? 

I grew up trying to do a lot of stuff. I went to school and trained and practiced a lot, and I made the Olympic team right out of high school. I see it as any athlete does: You surround yourself with people who help you manage it all. It’s the ability to say no. There's stuff that I won't be able to do [because of fencing]. I've had to pick and choose; I definitely like doing the fashion stuff, but it's all about playing your hand and knowing what time is the right time for a job. 

But there's no direct answer because you're never really prepared [in advance]. One week it's nothing but fencing; the next week I have four jobs and fencing.

How far out do you know what jobs you'll be working?

I'm with Wilhelmina, and they're really good about keeping our communication flowing. You don't really know you're locked into your job until a couple days out, or a week out. You have to go by your options — I have to mark that day, and if it doesn't happen, so be it.

Photo: Cyrill Matter/Essential Homme

Photo: Cyrill Matter/Essential Homme

You mentioned that it helps to have a team supporting you when you're doing all these things. What does that support system look like exactly?

I have a PR person — she's fantastic. And then my agents are really amazing. There are a few other people here and there, and then obviously I have different people for the fencing side of things. 

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Going back in time a bit, how did you get scouted?

I was on television at the Olympic games and a now-friend of mine saw me on TV and scouted me for an agency in New York. They said, "Come on in." I said, Sure, I'll come in and see what's up, and the next thing I knew I was walking the runway.

People had tried to scout me before, and I'd always been like, "I don't have time for this." When I got back from the games, I had built up a little press around myself. Things were starting to take shape, and I was able to fence full-time. Fencing doesn't have the publicity that modeling does, but by modeling I get publicity for my fencing as well because my stuff is either [framed in the context of] me as an athlete or they look me up. I let them bounce off each other.

I was going to ask you about that. How else have the two informed each other?

I think the thing for me was getting in front of the cameras. Modeling helps you come into your own. If you're not really sure of who you are, you freak out and become a different person. I knew who I was — I always knew I was an athlete, and that's what I wanted to be. For me, I just stuck to the idea that I'm an athlete; if I was in football, I would have to go do sponsorships, too. [Modeling is] taking time out to make my money.

What are the conversations with your agent, like when you're figuring out what sort of jobs you should be going for?

It's changed as I've gotten older because my body's changed. When I came right out of the games, I was barely 19. I had just shot up and I was super skinny; now I'm a little more filled out. I’m getting some different jobs. You kind of play the market.

It seems like work has skewed very high fashion, which is different from the sort of modeling work that other male athletes do.

I was young [when I started], and you don't see many of the older guys doing high-fashion stuff. Most of those guys are younger. Now I'm doing more J.Crew, Club Monaco, Levi's. It wasn't something we talked about. [High fashion] was the option for me when I started.

To what extent do clients want to cast you because you're an athlete and make use of that in shoots? 

I think it depends on the job. Sometimes I get cast just as being the face of something, being the guy wearing the clothes. Sometimes I'm a fencer. It comes back to what you said before — how they play off each other. There's stuff I wouldn't have gotten if I wasn't an athlete. It's more, I think, that having a personality and being known for something else helps you. In the day and age of social media, the more you're seen, the better it is for everything.

I found it interesting that when you appeared in the Rag & Bone video with Baryshnikov, which had a lot of dance and movement in it, you were one of the models who walked a bit but otherwise stayed still. 

It was really funny because it was the first time I was on a job like, "I wish I could go out there and do what I do." There's a time and a place for everything, and it wasn't that job. But the funny thing is that he wouldn't stop talking to me about his fencing. Someone mentioned that I was a fencer and we talked the entire time. He understood that passion.

So how many jobs are you doing a month at this point?

I'll change that question to how many jobs am I doing when I'm not away. There are times that I'm away for two weeks and home for two weeks, and I'll do a couple jobs in there. This month I'll probably do five or six jobs. That sounds about right. Some of them can be two days long, some are different. It's all based on my availability. If I'm not in wherever-the-hell-I-am. I've also finished competitions in Paris and then done a job there.