Erin Wasson speaks with a slow, gravelly drawl, chewing on her words like sticky pieces of taffy. It’s an unceremonious but deliberate type of speech, with clear roots in her hometown of Dallas, and made all the more prominent by her current lifestyle—she spends most of the year in a Venice, California beach house with a half-pipe in the backyard and surfboards in the garage. Her turns of phrase are that of a 15-year-old boy fond of sneakers—a lot of “fuck, dudes” and “shit, mans,” the sort of sailor-mouth patois that only phenomenally beautiful women and pubescent teens can get away with easily.
“I’m not your cheesy girl that’s going to dress up in a hokey outfit and say all the sound bites that you want me to say.”
Fortunately, Wasson is the former. At almost six feet and with a salty mane of sandy blonde hair, she is both striking and understated—a rare combination of hard edges and smooth lines that pushes a model beyond the runway and into iconic status. She has what Kate Moss has; that barely gritty look that is a little dangerous, a little androgynous, and yet just approachable enough to pop out of the weird-alien tribes of girls that walk the runways and into another level of model-as-tastemaker. Wasson looks at home in a pair of cut-off denim shorts and army boots; she looks almost always as if she has just parked a motorcycle somewhere. At 27, she has already been married and divorced, lived in Brooklyn lofts and beach bungalows, and eschewed the modeling life to start her own jewelry and clothing lines. She has styled shows for designer-darling Alexander Wang, played muse to photographer Terry Richardson, and amassed a huge collection of odd paper mache animal heads that pepper her house like college-mascot costumes. She is crass, dismissive of the fashion industry, and more comfortable in ripped T-shirts than anything with a label on it.
America, meet your next supermodel, your anti-supermodel.
Here’s the thing about Wasson: She’s already a supermodel, at least by fashion-industry standards. She’s been on the cover of French, German, Spanish, and Australian Vogue, Flair, Numero, Allure, Esquire, and Elle. She’s walked for Karl Lagerfeld, Cavalli, Gucci, and Balenciaga. Photographers like Steven Meisel and Mario Testino have been working with her for a decade. She’s been the face of Maybelline and soared over Manhattan in Gap billboards.
And yet, you’ve probably only heard of her in passing, if at all. She’s one of those models who has worked tirelessly and consistently, gaining the respect of designers and obsessive model fangirls. But now, with her own fashion line, she’s taking her career to the next level. “I always knew that I was going to do more than just sit in front of the camera,” she says. “When I started modeling in the late ‘90s, a lot of the girls led these really cool lives. They were all involved in arts and their hometowns, and they all had a lot to say, and they were really educated women. But then I saw these changes happen, and the girls got younger. It was that models were supposed to be seen and not heard, and everything became slightly homogenized. And I was like, fuck Erin, you gotta figure out how to turn this into something else.”
So Wasson quit—or at least slowed down—and focused on her own creative projects. She started a punkish jewelry line called Lowluv, and inked a deal with skate company RVCA to start her own casual line (think grunge and punk colliding into an intensely wearable collection—her 2009 line includes frayed denim shorts, floral bustiers, acid-washed vests, and gin-soaked jeans).
What Wasson has created is a line with a vision—one that says that fashion should be accessible and easy for everyone, with a little bit of rebellion thrown in. It’s the embodiment of her own story, which began in Texas and a chance Polaroid that her father sent into a modeling contest. “Dude, I didn’t think it was in my stars,” she says of her modeling career. “I never even looked at fashion magazines. I was a tomboy girl growing up in Texas. I played AAU basketball every hour of my life. I wanted to go to culinary school. I would obsessively watch the Secrets of the CIA. That is what got me off.”
When she got the call that her photo interested agents in New York, Wasson was less than thrilled. “I was like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to go to New York,’” she says. “And I really came to New York bitching and screaming, as crazy as that sounds. I didn’t have a desire, and I thought, nobody’s going to want me, it’s not going to work out for me, and I’ll be able to get back to my life in Texas.” It didn’t work out that way—Mario Testino picked her for a Vogue shoot within her first month in town from a cheap Xeroxed portfolio she showed him on a whim—but her outsider attitude is what has allowed her to stay sane, and retain a personality, while navigating the fashion world.
“I think most models are victims of entrapment and a hive mind,” she explains. “I just got back from the shows, and it was, like, every girl back stage was rocking their leather leggings, and their oversized white T-shirt, and their leather jacket, with scarves. But when I first started out in the business, girls backstage at the shows are supposed to wear high heels and skirts—you had to be dressed to the nines, wearing an of-the-moment designer piece; Alaia or whatever it was. I’d get complaints about the fact that I’d just wear holey jeans and a wife-beater. Stuff that I was doing eight years ago is embraced now, but I had to really stay true to who I was back then.”
Erin’s early path was made all the more difficult by the fact that she married a 28-year-old artist when she was only 18. “We lived in a big loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” she says. “It was a blessing in disguise. Because I’d come home. It kept me out of all the trouble that I might have gotten into in the beginning.”
But as that relationship fell apart and her career took off, she found that she wanted more than the New York scene could offer. “I bought a truck from a Polish guy for $1,000 cash in Brooklyn, and I just set off on a five-month road trip,” she says. “I remember just rolling up onto Venice Beach, and living in a hostel and hanging out in Venice Beach and I was just like, 'Fuck dude, I need to live here.' And that’s when the light came on.”
It is in her own nomadic way that Wasson stands to become a new sort of fashion icon—the girl who left the high-end rat race to strike out on her own, to live in peace and pursue creative endeavors. In these tough economic times, girls need models like Erin who are role models, who reject both the impenetrable couture world, but also refuse to give up the artistry involved in fashion for reality-TV projects or other mainstream avenues.
“I get approached for a lot of TV projects,” she says.” And I sit in a room with these people and I say ‘You guys realize you’re talking to the wrong girl?’ I’m not your cheesy girl that’s going to dress up in a hokey outfit and say all the sound bites that you want me to say. That’s just not who I am. I’m a total odd bird. I collect prison art and paper mache masks. I keep a journal and rip pages out of books. I think that when you open your mind, you realize there’s art everywhere, there’s art all around us. That’s what keeps the wheels in motion. To create is my ultimate goal. So why would I ever sell out?”
The closest Wasson has come to selling out was a video she made with Justin Timberlake in the fall to promote his clothing line, William Rast. She played “Birdie,” a Southern Bonnie to Timberlake’s Clyde. “I put this real country twang on it,” she laughs. “It's nice to remember that I'm just a girl from Texas.”
She goes on: “Sometimes I just have to touch base with that 27-year-old girl that I am. Yes I'm a model. Yes I'm designing. Yes I do some styling, I got a jewelry line and I know a lot of hats but sometimes I just want to be that girl that wakes up and cooks breakfast and hangs out with her man and hangs out in the backyard and jumps on the bike and goes down to the beach. It's really important to live a simple life sometimes. You know? Back to basics. That’s my mantra these days. Simplicity.”
And in a time when everything is being pared down to its most minimal form, and when style becomes more about the way you inhabit your clothes than the clothes themselves, Erin just might be the poster child for easy, low-threshold cool with high ideals and an artistic spirit. And what could be more fashionable than that?
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.