It’s just after 1pm and floss-haired Fernanda Ly has just finished her share of the takeaway sushi laid out as lunch on today’s cover shoot.
While photographer David Mandelberg sets off with GRAZIA’s fashion director Aileen Marrto scout a fresh location for the next group shot, and the three other models on set today huddle around a table inside the location van-turned-dressing-room, Ly wanders outside into the mild winter wind to chat.
“I don’t really think of the past too much,” says Ly, who grew up in Western Sydney to Chinese parents. “When things happen, they just happen. I just cruise through. That’s how I’ve always been. I’m really chill, so whatever happens, just happens. I just do it.”
For anyone who’s met her, describing Ly as ‘chill’ would be an understatement. She sinks further into the cheap white plastic chair in the shade as she talks, peering through the curtain of pink hair that flicks in the breeze, part coy, but mostly nonchalant. In her hand, a bottle of no-name water. On her feet, ridiculously expensive (and high) designer boots.
Today, Ly is shooting a four-person fashion feature with potential to be a cover story and the unofficial working title, Girl Gang. By design, three of the four models here today – Tess Angel, Ruby Cambell, Lara Carter and of course Ly – are good friends, the common link being the latter, whose meteoric rise to fashion industry fame has a fairytale sheen.
Spotted in a Sydney shopping mall just before her final high school exams four years ago, the then 17-year-old was signed and quickly tapped to walk during Paris Fashion Week. Nicolas Ghesquière was so taken with her unique look, he cast as the face of Louis Vuitton’s global advertising campaign soon after. In industry terms, she’s a phenomenon.
But Ly is the first to admit she was dropped into the deep end. There was no cutting her teeth at Australian Fashion Week or local department store shows before standing in the scrutiny of the global spotlight. “When I started, I was in high school and at that age I didn’t know who I was. I still had pink hair obviously, but mentally, I was still finding myself,” she says.
The person she credits most for helping her find a new perspective through that fast-paced process is the agent who first signed her, Doll Wright. “She’s taught me a lot and through modelling I feel I’ve found myself, mostly because I’ve been put out there a lot straight away without me really being about to control anything.”
Wright has also been there to help safeguard the signature look that sets her apart: her long pink locks and square fringe, tended when she’s in Sydney by celebrity salon Valonz. Many have tried to change the colour – none of have succeeded. “They’ve wanted to for shows, but we’ve said no. I’m like, ‘uh, okay, sure, whatever, if they pay’, but it’s not my choice right now. You’ve got to keep the same image [with modelling] because the clients know you as whatever and because I’ve had it so long.”
“Obviously, there are other girls with coloured hair. One of my friends – she’s also Chinese, well, half-Chinese – and then, she’s got blue hair right now. Yeah, and she’s modelling as well, so that’s pretty fun. And then I have another friend who’s Korean and she’s got red hair.”
Modelling has also shifted Ly’s perspective on friendship. The huge amount of travel involved, she admits, can be lonely. “Non-fashion people don’t really understand it [the work] because they don’t have to jump from place to place. They don’t know what it’s like to not know your schedule week to week. That’s what makes it hard. If I have something [personal] planned, I have to tell me agency to block out the date a month in advance. Even then, there’s a chance I might still get booked for a job.” That, she says, is what makes shoots like today so much fun.
“They’ve known me since before Louis Vuitton. They’ve seen it all.”
“I first met Fernanda in Paris,” recounts 17-year-old model Lara Carter, who also appears in this shoot, when quizzed later. “We were both there for the Louis Vuitton show and ended up ordering pizza to one of our hotel rooms and watching the Givenchy show on live stream later that night.” Calm is the first word she uses when asked to describe her older friend.
Fellow model Tess Angel, 21, also on set today, first met Ly at University Technology Sydney (UTS). (Angel was studying business, Ly architecture. They bonded over being recently signed to the same modelling agency). “She just seems so humble and independent – there’s no diva behavior at all,” Angels says. “And I really like her style, which is quite cool. She really works it.”
How often does she see her closest industry friends, including Japanese model Yuka Mannami, her soon-to-be New York flatmate who she describes as her “separated sister”? “Very rarely,” says Ly, admitting her current lifestyle can be intensely lonely at times. “We can be in the same city but we won’t be able to meet because we’re busy during the day. Fashion Weeks are really busy.”
“I miss my friends from university… but non-fashion people don’t really understand it because they don’t have to jump from place to place. They don’t know what it’s like to not know your schedule week to week. That’s what makes it hard. If I have something [personal] planned, I have to tell me agency to block out the date a month in advance. But even then, there’s a chance I might still get booked for a job.”
She may be sitting pretty now, but Ly is still patently aware it could all evaporate as quickly as it began. “I like working. I’m a workaholic – I feel like I’m never working enough. Sometimes I could be working every day of the week, the sometimes you don’t work for like two or three weeks and you think to yourself… you get really scared [that no one wants you].
Should the equally unthinkable-slash-unlikely happen and her modelling work end as quickly as it began, would she follow the likes of Abbey Lee or Cara Delivigne into acting? “Oh, no,” she says emphatically. “I hate LA. I don’t like the beach. I don’t drive, which means you can’t do anything. I’m a New York girl. I live in the Upper West Side – it’s so good. Right now, I’m on my own, but I’m going to find another, bigger place with Yuka.”
What about fashion photography? “NO! I have friends who shoot and stuff and… what they have to go through, it’s so hard.” A return to studying the perspective of buildings as an architect perhaps? “I really like studying, so maybe someday, yeah. When I have the time.”