Girl Gangs, Tooth Gaps, & Drones: Lili Sumner Isn’t Your Typical Model

Being a model is a double-edged sword. On one hand, being able to make a living because your looks are more compelling than the average person is a compliment. You're beautiful, you're gorgeous, and people really like you! On the other hand, your looks are literally your moneymaker — and because of it, they're held up to ridiculous standards and a level of scrutiny that'd make the average person volunteer for a one-way trip to a hermitage. And as for models who have a truly iconoclastic, non-commercial look and an iron-clad sense of confidence, plus unique personal style and a really fun personality? You'd be hard pressed to find one. Well, world: Meet Lili Sumner. When casting for our Fuck the Fashion Rules fashion editorial, the NEXT Model Management-represented Sumner was a shoo-in. She's beautiful, naturally, but in a disarming way that challenges you to redefine what you consider conventionally attractive. Smart, articulate, and with a wicked sense of humor, the New Zealand-raised Sumner spoke with us about growing up in a hippie school surrounded by her three older sisters, the parts of her job that make her feel powerful, and what she did with the drone we gave her after our mall shoot.

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Photographed by Steven Brahms
The idea of community and sisterhood seems to really be resonating right now in the fashion industry, which is interesting because most people tend to think of fashion folks as very catty and exclusive.
Lili Sumner:
"Yeah, definitely. The image that’s always portrayed in film and stuff is us hating each other. I’ve never really felt that kind of bitchy cattiness working, but I have a really close group of girlfriends who I work with all the time, which is really nice. I’ve met a lot of my good friends from doing Saint Laurent, for some reason — I guess Hedi [Slimane] has good taste in people — and then we end up doing a lot of other jobs together as well. We stay together during Fashion Week and that kind of stuff."

Who’s in your girl gang?

"Grace Hartzel, Lida Fox, and Kiki Willems. Those girls are the main ones, but I have a lot of friends in the industry. And boys as well — like boy models from Saint Laurent, because we do the shows together, so, not just a girl thing, you know?"

How would you would define the word “beauty?"
LS: "I guess 'beauty' to me is about charm and funniness and things like that. I don’t really find physical beauty that interesting for very long if there’s nothing beneath it."

Who in your life has most influenced how you think about beauty and about style?
LS: "When I was younger, it was probably my sisters — I’ve got three older sisters. There were a lot of women around. And they’re all about ten years older than me, so I saw what they were reading and what they were looking at — all the magazines and stuff that they had. So I guess that influenced me when I was quite young. And then I found my own taste."
How did you find your own aesthetic?
LS: "I grew up watching a lot of strange films and stuff, and I always liked the strange women who were a little bit kooky — I always found that kind of woman more interesting. There’s this film I love about gypsies in Romania called Gadjo Dilo, and all the women in that are wearing these layers and layers and layers of skirts and weird turbans, and there’s this cool French guy with nice curly hair. Paris, Texas had a big influence on me, too. "I like weird combinations and weird outfits and I mostly shop at vintage shops. Music influences my mood, but not like the particular aesthetic. But I’ve been listening to lots of psychedelic ’60s-sounding stuff. Like Can or Silver Apples." You have such an individual sense of style — what’s the biggest compliment someone can give you about your outfit?
LS: "I guess a good compliment is when someone copies you, but it’s also the worst compliment, because it’s so annoying. you know? When strangers on the street stop and — well, it doesn’t really happen in England, in London, because people are a little shyer, but in New York, I find people often stop you and say like, 'Hey, I really like what you’re wearing.' That’s always nice." Are specific outfits that get the most attention?
LS: "I have this dark green marching band jacket I got it in New York. It's got epaulettes and brocade and stuff. I always get comments when I wear that."
Photographed by Steven Brahms
What parts of the fashion industry kind of fill you with a sense of power?
LS: "I guess I feel powerful when I'm shooting editorials and I work with a team who’s super creative and they’re not just about making money. They’re actually trying to make a beautiful image, and trying to make art. It's when the photographer or the stylists want me to be involved and ask me questions about what I’d like to wear. "That's when it feels powerful, because we’re making a project together. Modeling often doesn’t feel like that. Often, you’re kind of just a piece in someone else’s work. You're not doing your own creative thing, so it’s really powerful to feel a part of making a beautiful image."
Any particular projects that have made you feel like you had a voice in the process?
LS: "I was just shooting in Barcelona for three or four days with Oliver Hadlee Pearch. It’s not out yet, so I probably can’t tell you about it, but it was just such a good creative experience. My shoot with Refinery29 was so much fun. We’re shooting in a mall? It was a weird, super-fancy kind of mall — I haven’t been to a mall in years. "But I was flying a drone around, and they had me walking around in the fountain, just being a complete maniac in this very like, orderly, well-behaved mall. So that was pretty fun. And then at the end, they actually gave me the drone. I took it — I just got back yesterday from a festival in Cornwall, in England. I took the drone with me and I was flying it over the crowds to film everything, and I got to film all the festivalgoers and my boyfriend’s gig. It was quite funny and bizarre."
Your tooth gap is such a part of your identity. Has anyone tried to fix it along the way in your career?
LS: "Growing up, I never had any insecurity about my tooth gap — and I went to a really nice school. Not nice, as in a really proper school, but it was a hippie school and there was no bullying, really. And my sisters always told me like, 'Madonna has a gap, blah blah blah,' so I was never embarrassed of it, and I never had the trip to the dentist to get it fixed, which I’m glad about. I don’t really notice it. I forget that it’s a selling point!"

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