On 10 February 2015, Lineisy Montero left the Dominican Republic on an Air Europa flight to make her debut on the catwalk. She sat in an economy seat, 12B, with only a 10kg carry-on bag. It was her first time on a plane but, little did she know, by the end of the year she would be the woman who defined an entire catwalk season.
We chat on the phone in her mother tongue, Spanish, the night before she walks in the Chanel show, traditionally the most grand and storied of the catwalk season. It’s her first major interview for a fashion magazine.
She’s on the final straight of fashion month and the 19-year-old model cannot wait to fly home at the end of the week.
‘I miss the beach, the heat, the food and my family,’ she says in her lilting, Caribbean-Hispanic accent.
During the SS16 shows in September, only her second round of Fashion Weeks, Lineisy appeared on 68 catwalks. What makes this number even more impressive is that she opened five, including Jason Wu, one of the biggest tickets in New York, taking what is essentially the most important spot on a runway. All of those impressive stats sealed her place as the top walker of the season, making her the first model of colour to have ever done so.
Now based in Paris full-time, Lineisy is the model everyone is talking about. ‘In the same way Kate, Gisele, Freja and Anja all defined their times, Lineisy will likely define the current era,’ says casting director Angus Munro. ‘It’s not often I see a woman who is so special. She has immaculate proportions. She can literally wear anything and make it look expensive and desirable.’ When she smiles (which she does a lot) she reveals a slight gap in her front teeth that adds to her much-celebrated, unique charm. And her hairstyle, a cropped midi-Afro, has played its part in making her the face of the most diverse and inclusive moment fashion has seen in decades.
‘She is a supermodel in the making,’ says Carine Roitfeld, who featured Lineisy in the latest edition of her magazine, CR Fashion Book. ‘Her look is so unique. Her hair is proof that more and more, what is beautiful is what is natural. I knew she would be the next big thing.’
Fame has come suddenly to Lineisy and she’s had to work fast to keep up with it: she’s currently learning to speak English through an app.
Growing up in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, Lineisy’s childhood was spent in a tight-knit family. ‘We were always together,’ she explains. When home, she stays in the same house she grew up in with her mother, Enercida, who is studying accounting, and her two younger siblings (she has a further four half-siblings on her father’s side). And when she travels, she finds herself craving a bowl of her mother’s arroz con leche, a kind of rice pudding that reminds her of the comfort of home.
Lineisy’s mother raised her alone (her parents are separated) but she is in touch with her father, a tailor. She didn’t receive any fashion tutelage from him beyond an unsuccessful sewing lesson. In fact, she is still trying to work out whether her own look is more biker or boho. ‘I was never really into fashion. My style is relaxed.
It depends on how I feel on the day. Normally boots, trousers, a coat.’
Lineisy was first spotted in an amusement park, aged 14, by a scout from Ossygeno, a local model agency. But her mother forbid it. She was eventually allowed to sign with Next (the top agency that handles Alexa Chung, Arizona Muse and Binx Walton) at the end of 2014. Just months later she made her Prada debut in Milan, the only model in a 41-look show not to receive a topknot ponytail from hair god Guido Palau. While the other black models in the show, Aya Jones and Amilna Estevao, swished their way down the Prada catwalk, hair scraped back, Lineisy’s taut curls were left as nature intended and she was universally lauded for it, sparking a global debate about why we don’t see natural hair on the catwalk more often. The enormous wave of attention and support no doubt helped clinch her a slot in the AW15 Prada campaign, shot by Steven Meisel and, months later, magazine covers.
Such was the impact of Lineisy’s arrival on the catwalk this year that her UK agent Amanda Bretherton, President of Next London, tells me she is devising ‘a global strategy to amplify the unbelievable SS16 show season, translating that into advertising and editorials that will elevate and position her at the very highest level.’
Carole White, founder of Premier Model Management, who helped launch Naomi Campbell and Malaika Firth, predicts Lineisy will crack the modelling world’s shortlist of top earners, booking the kinds of big campaigns that turn models into household names.
‘The shows dictate everything now,’ says Carole. ‘The first question from the casting directors [for the campaigns] is, “Which shows has she done?”’
You can actually see Lineisy’s profile growing in real time on Instagram (21.9k and rising). There she is on cult magazine covers and in editorials (she singles out Katy England and Karl Templer as stylists she has enjoyed working with). There are selfies with everyone from Cara Delevingne to Diane von Fürstenberg, Stella McCartney to Pat McGrath, captioned in perfect English, which suggests some help from management.
In two short seasons, Lineisy has achieved a kind of success that is a big deal for any model, of any background or ethnicity. The fact that she’s the first in history to turn natural Afro hair into a global topic makes her rise to fame feel even more historic. To be clear, black models have worn their hair natural on the catwalk before (Bethann Hardison in the Seventies, Alek Wek in the Nineties and Rose Cordero in the Noughties, to name a few). And Lineisy is hardly the only one doing it at the moment: both Ajak Deng and Karly Loyce wear Afros. But there was something about the sight of Lineisy at Prada – her hair throwing the sleek straightness of the other models’ hair into sharp relief – that made the idea a real discussion, and put the fashion world in line with the zeitgeist.
In the wider realm, this month’s cover star, Lupita Nyong’o, and Solange Knowles are unofficial ambassadors for the natural hair movement, which began in the 1960s when African-American activists wore their curls as a symbol of pride in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, and has evolved to have a different kind of revival of late. Who can forget actress and activist Viola Davis’s emotionally charged speech to pick up her Best Actress In A Drama Series Emmy award, the first ever to be won by a black actor? She left her hair styled, but natural, as she told the world with tears in her eyes: ‘The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity.’
Lineisy has been quietly making her own assessment of the state of diversity in the fashion industry, and notes that it goes beyond hair type or skin colour. ‘You are starting to see more girls with natural hair. There is more acceptance than before, but not as much as there should be.’ Though much has been made of it, she questions whether her hair actually has any real significance. ‘The only thing I would change would be for all models to have the same opportunities. Black, white, Asian – everyone. And to always be natural and keep it real. The industry is not like this at the moment.’
Angus believes she won’t have to wait very long. ‘Thankfully, we are gradually becoming more responsible as an industry towards the inclusion of all of the world’s races and cultures. Lineisy is a product of this slow but sure progress.’
Having looked through all 68 SS16 shows in which Lineisy walked, it is true that the stylists have largely left her hair alone. But the Balmain show in Paris stands out because she sported a pin-straight ponytail. ‘I wore that hairstyle because all of us were wearing the same thing. The only product they put in my hair was a bit of Vaseline and I could wash that out,’ she says. She only has one stipulation when it comes to sitting in the make-up chair. ‘The first thing I, [with the support of] my agency, say is, “Don’t use any chemicals on my hair.”’
Straight after the shows, Lineisy posts a picture of an airport trolley, laden with designer luggage, captioned, ‘Next stop home’ – a tidy metaphor for a woman who has both world domination and her mum’s rice pudding firmly in her sights.
Words: Andrew Barker
Photography: Alamy, Getty, Imaxtree