Happy Holidays

J. Crew Model Armando Cabral: Fashion’s Exotic Boy-Next-Door

J. Crew model and shoe designer Armando Cabral is the fashion industry’s new exotic boy-next-door.

As the holiday season brings an avalanche of catalogues to mailboxes across the land, the J. Crew shopping books will include one particularly distinctive face. The brand’s menswear catalogue will be filled with images of model Armando Cabral with his mega-watt smile.

Cabral, 30, has an almost perfectly balanced face with a broad forehead, an impeccable complexion, dark-brown skin, buzz cut hair and Barack Obama ears. His look is at once clean-cut and dramatic. In the parlance of fashion aesthetics and casting directors, he can be described as both exotic and boy-next-door.

He stands out. Few male models do. In the universe of fashion, male models are typically good-looking but forgettable young men who happen to fit the suit silhouette of the moment.

Cabral invites a second glance, in part, because he is black in a field where that remains a rarity—particularly in the menswear part of the industry. He also lacks the hyper-masculine, athletic physique that has often defined those men-of-color who do rise in the profession, such as the former Ralph Lauren model Tyson Beckford. Cabral doesn’t have the hungry, gaunt look that has been favored by high-end designers—most memorably by Hedi Slimane when he was menswear designer at Dior Homme—who are attracted to the male equivalent of the emaciated female archetype. He also doesn’t look like a 12-year-old boy. He is not party to a Peter Pan complex that dominated the American menswear industry for no short amount of time.

Cabral doesn’t fit any particular category, which is one of the most arresting aspects of his looks. And so he is able to bounce from the pages of independent magazines and runway shows— that all aim to startle their audience—to mass market catalogues that try to reassure them.

J. Crew, where Cabral has worked for three years, straddles the worlds of fashion and familiarity. The company attracts both the discerning consumer of trends as well as the Middle American shopper who simply wants to look relevant. According to the company’s 2009 annual report—the last that offered statistics on its direct mail offerings—J. Crew’s 20 different catalogue editions have a combined circulation of 44 million copies. Cabral’s face would seem to validate the brand’s bona fides with that wildly divergent audience.

“Armando has a masculine elegance, impeccable style and is great to work with,” says Jack O’Connor, J. Crew men’s style director.

In order to make a visual argument that the brand can speak to such various tastes, the models have fashion swagger without being off-putting. They are super slim; they have a quirky attractiveness. But they do not brood or scowl. Instead, they smile.

Cabral smiles really, really well.

Indeed, in a dispassionate assessment of his professional talents, Cabral lists: “The cheekbones, the smile.”

“I always smile,” he says with a chuckle, “even when they don’t ask me to smile, I smile.”

Cabral was born in Portugal and has been modeling for more than 10 years. His career began by happenstance, as is so often the case. His sister was a model and she pushed him to give it a try. At 17, he accompanied her to a runway class and the organizers encouraged him to stay. “I didn’t know if they were pushing me so I could pay or if I had potential,” he recalls.

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As it happens, a week later he left for England and university. He studied business administration, but he also took his early steps into modeling. He was first embraced in Europe by brands such as Dries Van Noten and Louis Vuitton. By 2009, he’d crossed the pond and become a regular on the runway for designers such as Michael Kors. In his shows, Cabral’s long, angular physique typically was swaddled in cashmere; yet, it was always distinctive.

“In my early days in modeling in London, there were all these Africans and they were muscular. I’ve always been a skinny guy,” he says. In Paris he was the skinny one, too. And in New York, he did not fit the athletic standard. But then the standard shifted. “You had these very skinny guys who used to do New York,” he says. “I was always balanced, in the middle.”

He has watched his colleagues bulk up when the preferred silhouette was more muscular. And he’s watched them diet when fashion demanded a scrawnier physique. He has held steady. The pressure to fit a mold is omnipresent, but is not nearly as oppressive as it is for women, he says. And in matters of racial diversity, the industry can be limited in its thinking. Fashion tends to settle on a definitive look and find one black guy and one black woman for the moment. “I think it’s changing,” he adds.

In 2009, even though his face was now in the millions of homes that receive the J. Crew catalogue, he began looking to a career beyond modeling and launched his own shoe collection. Why shoes? “They say find that one thing that you love. I love shoes,” he says. “For me to do what I love besides modeling, it’s shoes.”

The footwear, which bears his name, is now sold in 12 countries through stores such as Steven Allan and Dover Street Market, along with the website Mr. Porter. They retail for $275-$500. And he presented them to media and retailers during fashion week in New York last month. “I’m looking at myself as more of a business man now than a model,” he says.

Nonetheless, he remains his own best advertising.