The second-youngest daughter of the Kardashian/Jenner clan, 18-year-old Kendall grew up in the full glare of reality TV, but fans of Keeping Up with the Kardashians will know that, instead of following her older sisters Kim, Khloé and Kourtney around shopping malls, she preferred to go paddle-boarding with her brother Brody or take her horse over a few jumps. She was a sporty, outdoorsy kid, rather than a spoilt LA mall rat, but she loved looking at pictures of supermodels in her sisters’ glossy magazines. So much so, she now wants to conquer fashion. “I only knew certain names, like Naomi and Gisele,” she says. “They were superheroes to me, and I wanted to be that to some little girl reading a magazine or looking online.”
But you can’t just waltz in and call yourself a supermodel. Fashion is notoriously snooty, especially about reality-TV stars. Witness the reaction to her big sister Kim’s American Vogue cover. Naomi Campbell laughed at it on live TV, James Franco and Seth Rogen released a hilarious spoof of it, and the Muppets parodied it with Kermit as Kanye and Miss Piggy as Kim. “Honestly,” she says, in her sweet Californian drawl, “I think it’s amazing. I think she proved herself, and if Anna Wintour wants her, it’s a big ‘Screw you’ to everybody who said she couldn’t do it.”
People said that Jenner couldn’t do it either — when you live in the Kardashian orbit, the haters are never far behind the lovers. When she first attempted to get into high fashion at the beginning of 2014, the tabloid factor got in the way. Nobody wanted to book her for fear that her celebrity would bring the wrong kind of attention. “The first couple of castings I went on, people were, like, ‘Is this real? I don’t get it.’ People would be, like, ‘I don’t know if we want to deal with her because we don’t know if this is serious.’ ” Marc Jacobs had no doubts, though, casting her for his New York AW14 show. Kim wanted to cheer her sister on from the front row, but Kendall asked her not to. “I’m doing this for me, on my own. God, I love my family, but this is my thing, it’s me.” With her hair covered in a blunt, bobbed wig and her eyebrows bleached, she was just another model in the line-up. “I was like, ‘Thank you. Please don’t recognise me.’ ”
Jenner’s strategy of dialing down her fame is a clever one, says the Love Magazine editor-in-chief, Katie Grand. “She is unique in wanting to turn her back on her celebrity when it comes to modeling. She wants to be taken seriously as a model, just like the rest of them.”
In her Hudson biker jeans and headphones (listening to Tuesday by ILoveMakonnen featuring Drake), she looks like any other aspiring model. But Jenner is different. She has inherited the cool, strategic mind of her “momager”, Kris, combined with the drive and determination of her Olympian father, Bruce. Add to that, the lean, athletic body of a 1990s supermodel and features so insanely symmetrical, it’s almost impossible to take an ugly picture of her. Her social life is out of this world, too — she has partied with Justin Bieber in Ibiza and even snagged Harry Styles (they started dating last November but split up early this year).
She should be fashion’s biggest brat. Instead, she arrived 30 minutes early for our shoot, and has been so focused that she hasn’t even replied to Kim’s “How’s it going?” text. She tries not to think about the fame too much. “When I go out and someone comes up to me and they start crying or they’re telling me all of these things, it does hit me, and I’m like, ‘Wow, these people really do look up to me.’ I feel honored and it makes me want to be the best me that I can be,” she says.
She credits her father with keeping her and her younger sister, Kylie, grounded. “He helped us stay sane and on the right track. He always told us to keep our heads on our shoulders and never put anyone below you. I appreciate that because I see some people and think, ‘Thank God that’s not me.’ ” Her mum, Kris, the formidable mastermind of the Kardashians’ pop-cultural dominance, is, she says, really good at “teaching us how to ignore the hate”, and has also instilled a strong work ethic in her daughters. “She’s a businesswoman. I mean, I think we are all businesswomen, we all naturally have that trait.”
Jenner is also a natural model. Rousteing and I watch as she twists her lithe body into a succession of poses. Kendall, he muses, has the same appeal as the original supers Claudia, Naomi and Linda. “Today we go back to the 1990s, when beauty, power, attitude and confidence were more important,” he says. “Weird, creature-like models are part of the past. Kendall is not weird. She’s a beautiful woman, even iconic, because all these young girls look at her Instagram and they want to look like her.”
What modern girls want is something that Rousteing instinctively understands, perhaps because, at 28, he’s young himself. “All the designers are older than me,” he says, with a mischievous twinkle. French fashion’s boy wonder, he took over the historic house of Balmain at the tender age of 24, and quickly set about designing some of the most photogenic clothes on the planet, shamelessly plundering the 1990s for inspiration and befriending the two biggest pop-cultural icons of our era, Rihanna (who starred in his SS14 ad campaign) and Kim Kardashian. “Fashion thinks it’s bad to be pop, but pop means popular,” he says with simple logic. And with popularity comes power.
Like his two muses, Rousteing is obsessed with social media. “I love Instagram. I think social networks are so important. People see the show, but they love the behind-the-scenes, too, because that is something real. People need reality. That’s my generation.”
He sees everything through the prism of celebrity. Even his approach to the historic house of Balmain is inspired by Rihanna’s take on getting dressed. “She can take archive Alaïa or Chanel, but in her way make it cooler and newer and modern. That is what I do with Balmain.”
Intricately embellished and fiercely structured, his designs are not for shy, retiring types, but Rousteing says his power dressing is a positive force. “When you wear Balmain, you just need to believe in yourself. It’s like a therapy. You can’t wear a Balmain jacket, or the dress that Kendall was wearing, if you don’t believe in yourself.”
With all the selfies, celebrity and clothes that are too tight to bend in, Rousteing is intent on shaking up the French fashion establishment. “Sometimes I think fashion forgets that it talks to different ethnicities,” he says, and he has created his own “Balmain army” of ethnically diverse supermodels and muses to counter that. Rousteing grew up in the south of France and was adopted from an orphanage by white parents. “And now I am a black boy in the fashion business working for a French luxury house. But what is France today? What is Paris? Paris is a mix of people, Paris is a mix of ethnicities.”
Jenner is the newest recruit to his Balmain army and, if you check his social-media feed today, you’ll see how he harnesses her fame to get his message across. “You don’t work just for fashion. You work for an idea and ideology of world. That’s why I want to bring fashion back to pop,” he says.