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How a Breakout Model Builds on a Debut Runway Season's Success

Hot off a Balenciaga exclusive and Gucci campaign, Peyton Knight approached her second runway season a little differently.
Peyton Knight outside Coach's fall 2016 show. Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Peyton Knight outside Coach's fall 2016 show. Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Among the breakout models of fashion week last September was a pale, petite 17-year-old from St. Louis named Peyton Knight, who captured the industry's attention when she happily agreed to snip her long hair into a shaggy bob with heavy bangs for Alexander Wang's show, her runway debut. Knight is not particularly tall, nor is her face easily characterized, with bone structure that simultaneously seems dainty and strong. That unplaceable element, along with her unusual haircut, might be why Knight charmed so many of fashion's high profile designers in the following weeks, booking shows for Marc Jacobs, Miuccia Prada, Karl Lagerfeld and Gucci's Alessandro Michele.

Still, one fantastic show season doesn't guarantee future success. Knight's manager at IMG Models, Bradley Davis, reminded me of this when we met in a conference room at the agency's New York offices a week before January's couture shows. I'd come in to hear about his work with Knight, who was in Europe at the time, and to ask how they planned to parlay September's wins into her second runway season — a step forward in the uncertain path from one-hit wonder to established industry player.

The short answer, as anyone who's taken even a passing interest in the modeling business might guess, is that you can't really plan around the whims of a creative, hype-obsessed field. But you can set goals, and Davis typically has a number of them for models' early careers. In the weeks before a young woman makes her fashion week debut, the goal is tweaks: cutting her hair, revamping her wardrobe slightly, making sure she can hit the runway with self-assurance. Between the experience she's already racked up and these final preparations, the larger aim is for her to hold her own in the working world. "If someone talks to you, you have to be able to converse and be witty and fun and someone you want to work with," Davis explained.

Looking ahead to Knight's second season, Davis said the objective was for her to build on the personal relationships she formed through runway work, editorials and campaigns. 'The ultimate goal for her is to be a muse," Davis added.

"I'm excited to walk in knowing what it's like," Knight said of the fall 2016 season, a few weeks after I spoke with Davis. "This time I don't have to worry about: is my walk that good? Am I prepared? Who are these people? I already know so many of them that I can walk in like, 'Hey, it's so good to see you again.' It's business, but it's personal, and I feel like at this point they're trying to get to know me rather than [learning] what I look like."

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When we met up — in another IMG conference room, this one glossier than the first — Knight was wearing a bright silver jacket from Opening Ceremony and carrying a new Gucci backpack. She and Davis had gone on a pre-fashion week shopping spree three days earlier to pick up some essentials for castings, which were already getting underway, and a few statement pieces. It's one of the perks of the job. Before a model's first season, her agent will outfit her with basic heels and clothing; if she does well, the two will invest in a great bag, shoes and clothes the second time around. Like everyone else in the industry, Knight and Davis were shopping with an eye to getting papped by street style photographers. But crucially, clothes also help distinguish a model's personality to clients.

"I think that's the fun part of it," Knight said. "You're supposed to inspire people by what you're wearing and being very different."

The short haircut Knight took on for Alexander Wang last season had that effect, too, helping her land appearances in Gucci's runway show, lookbook and spring campaign. It gelled vibrantly with Alessandro Michele's quirky aesthetic; in his team's hands, Knight's hairstyle became a bowl cut so smooth that people asked her whether it was a wig.

"Guido came up with this brilliant idea, and then everybody was like, 'Whoa, eyes over there, look at that, that is interesting. Why don't we use that and see what we can do with that?'" Knight said of the cut, administered by hairstylist Guido Palau.

Knight in the Gucci spring 2016 campaign. Photo: Glen Luchford

Knight in the Gucci spring 2016 campaign. Photo: Glen Luchford

Knight lit up while describing the frantic experience of running from show to show during her first season, recalling how thrilled she was that the fashion week frenzy she'd heard so much about was happening to her. Her childhood taste in clothes skewed avant-garde, she said, and she took fashion classes in high school. In those moments the unfettered excitement you'd expect from a 17-year-old broke through; Knight speaks in a way that's measured and, if not impenetrably rehearsed, considered. When I ran into her backstage at Public School last week, she stayed quiet on the details of Alexander Wang's forthcoming spring campaign, in which she'd been cast as a member of the "Wang Squad," but told me to stay tuned for the results, noting in the positive but vague way of the professionally press trained: "I think everyone will be surprised and delighted to see the campaign, because it's like nothing else."

This week, Knight walked shows like Rodarte, Coach and Sies Marjan, and acquired a new haircut at Alexander Wang — a crop with baby bangs that brings her look to the edgier side of elfin. She's hoping to meet and work with more Parisian designers in a few weeks time, having taken an exclusive with Balenciaga on that leg of the European circuit in September. As Davis said, a model's first two or three seasons are all about building relationships with clients. Nothing's guaranteed, sure, but there's plenty of space for goals.