Sunday, 23 June 2024

Leon Dame

Supermodelling at home with the German showstopper himself

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Leon Dame answers the door to his flat in Belleville, Paris. The January menswear and haute couture show season has just finished. He’s on a comedown from the high of opening John Galliano’s Maison Margiela Artisanal show: a fashion spectacular that instantly became one of the most talked-about in recent memory, Leon’s silhouette emerging from the fog of the Paris night, beamed in 9:16 ratio onto phone screens around the world.

From Fantastic Man n° 38 — 2024
Photography by SENTA SIMOND

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The sky is that specific and perfect shade of late-afternoon, nearly spring deep blue that you get in January in Paris. It’s been nearly nine years since Leon – curly haired and cherubic and 16 years old – began his career as a model, opening Sacai’s SS16 show. The following season he seemed to be everywhere, possessing that particular quality that he radiates, standing out from the whirl of new faces that are deposited onto catwalks every six months. There he was at JW Anderson, Margaret Howell, Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Jil Sander, Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Raf Simons, easily slotting into the various visions of fashion: elevated, amorphous, underground, beauty, luxury.

Now, he’s whatever passes for a “super” in the world of male modelling. “I’m not very experienced with doing interviews though,” he warns, making a cup of tea for us both – the cup, a little memento from childhood, is emblazoned with a cosy red teddy bear. The tea is a gift from fellow model Kiki Willems, who’s part of an intimate clique of friends whose faces have defined the recent look of high fashion. We smoke a cigarette out of the window. He recently moved to Belleville from the Marais and is relishing being out of the craziness of the city centre, enjoying people-watching in local brasseries, having more space to do pilates and being able to walk down the hill to buy spätzle in the German supermarket when he’s feeling homesick. Leon is charming and welcoming, regularly laughing. He’s wearing a pair of baggy check pyjamas, a furry pair of black Birkenstock Arizonas, and a Pink Floyd T-shirt which features the cover art from their various albums arranged into a pyramid. This evening he has a birthday party to attend for Paul Hameline, another member of his model friendship circle.

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Yesterday’s eruptive Maison Margiela collection was a performative, trompe l’oeil shimmer of a show, something stuck between reality, theatre, dream and nightmare, a couture facsimile of Brassai’s 1933 monograph, ‘Paris By Night’. It’s exactly the kind of thing that Leon, whose walk is equal parts committed, sensual and direct, is perfect for. He opened it in just a pair of high-waisted trousers, impossibly nipped in at the waist, a small blossom of white corset around the ribs, preening with the allure of a praying mantis. The urgent sense of theatrical carnality was perfect for Leon, who glared and stared at the onlookers. It felt like a fashion show from another era: bigger, with more meaning underpinning the flamboyant spectacle, more connection.

“John’s great at playing with this space between the audience and the models,” Leon says of Galliano. “He builds what you wear, which gives you so much information about the character you’re meant to be. For me, it’s very important to understand both what you are wearing and why you are wearing it. John dresses a character, and the dressing makes the character, so you have to inhabit it. You play the character through the clothes.” It’s this approach to the catwalk that has allowed Leon to assume such an interesting place in contemporary fashion.

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I, and the rest of the fashion world, first noticed Leon’s talent for this kind of fashion performance when he closed Maison Margiela’s SS20 ready-to-wear show dressed up as Jean Genet’s wet dream of a seaman: black patent leather booties, no trousers, great legs, little white pants, sailor top evolving into miniskirt and officer’s cap. Then this crippled, strutting, scowling energy that wilfully broke the fourth wall that usually separates the catwalk from the audience. He glowered and pouted at the audience, too in-the-moment to be fully aware of the moment of fashion history he was creating as he thrust his hips through the Grand Palais, Anna Wintour smiling uncontrollably in the audience.

“I expected it to get attention,” he says now, as we reflect on these career changing moments. “But I didn’t think it was going to be so much of a thing. I was nervous – I get nervous before all the shows – but especially with these kinds of shows where you feel like you want to give more too. It’s stressful, and it would be the biggest lie to say I wasn’t super freaking out. But I realised that something happened in that moment. I couldn’t really grasp it, but something switched.”

It’s a skill that Leon has consciously and studiously honed. He was scouted in the old-fashioned manner – at the bus stop after school – but he had little understanding of the industry he was joining. He did have an innate love of dressing up, however. Unlike many young men who are scouted, he had a curiosity about modelling as an artform that allows you to put some clothes on and tell a story. His SS20 viral Margiela moment is a case in point. “I love looking at the audience when I’m walking,” he says. “I love this connection. To present the audience with something, whether it is an idea or an emotion. But more generally, to be a male model now is quite interesting. There’s a lot more opportunity to show something new, try something new, express something about being a man, experiment with masculinity. There are so many different ways to be a sexy guy right now, so many different characters you can inhabit. You can really have fun with it.”

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Even though he’s now established, his modelling career has had its ups and downs. “The first three or four seasons, you get recognised by the industry as an exciting new face. Everyone wants you; you start doing all these shows. I remember in that first full season I did so much and really got so sick – I had a 40°C fever. I barely spoke English, I didn’t know what was happening, but I did it and I made it home somehow, full of painkillers and antibiotics. And then a few seasons later, suddenly it all slows down. No one at the beginning tells you about this moment, even though it’s quite natural. Even now, I don’t think there’s a lot of transparency about these issues. Everything changes very quickly, there’s so much pressure, you feel anxious, you feel really bad sometimes.” It’s a familiar trajectory in an industry that prizes newness as an intrinsic virtue.

“When I started modelling, I was quite insecure. I couldn’t move properly yet. I didn’t know what to do, so you sit there waiting for someone to tell you what to do. You’re scared of upsetting someone or doing something wrong. And my English was terrible: I’d just stand there and be ‘ja, ja, ja’ and have no idea what people were saying to me. I felt like a baby. Then you grow up a lot and quite quickly. I worked hard at modelling, straight away I really enjoyed it, and I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I decided if modelling is my job, then it’s my life. I made a decision that, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it really well. I want to do something that people remember.”

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So during the downturn in work after his first explosion onto the fashion scene, Leon moved to the London suburbs, living in deepest, greenest Lewisham, learning to speak English properly, working in a restaurant, trying to make ends meet, and waiting for modelling work. Then he went back to Berlin and studied art history briefly (“I didn’t get past the Renaissance”) before switching to study theatre and politics. “It was theoretical – reading texts, analysing – but I wanted this practical thing. I really enjoy using my body.” So, with a desire for a more theatrical application, he moved back to London for a course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, learning how to move and hold himself, how to present an idea through a walk or a pose on the catwalk. He didn’t follow what he sees as the clichéd path from modelling to acting that entices so many.

Leon is cosier in person than his startling runway apparitions might lead you to believe. His flat feels lived-in, homely, and full of trinkets and gifts, postcards and homemade ceramics, rather than the stark, minimalist apartment with an empty fridge that might stand in for a model’s home in the popular imagination. He moved to Paris four years ago, but was born in Berlin, the son of a proud West Berliner father and a mother from the Black Forest. Born in the late ’90s, Leon is from the generation that just missed out on the excitement and optimism of reunification and the fall of the Wall, who never knew the city when it was divided, but was all-too aware that a physical wall used to split the city in half. “You could feel the past sometimes in the city, but it wasn’t really present in our everyday lives growing up,” he says.

Since he’s been on the catwalk, Leon has seen the rise of Instagram and the social-networked instant runway reactions captured on countless camera phones. “It’s weird to be able to track exactly how you look at any one moment in time over nine years just through Vogue Runway,” he says.

“I was part of the first generation in fashion to really grow up with phones. Modelling has changed so much, both in how connected people are to fashion and also in the way you present yourself online as a model. When I started, I just had a personal Facebook account and that was it. It wasn’t this thing.”

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Fashion now has an ability to transcend the peculiar cloisters it used to inhabit, uncared for by the rest of the world. Now, every single terrible, amazing, inconsequential part of every fashion show is beamed to whoever is looking at their phones around the world. It has led to a lot of fashion shows full of cynical, empty spectacles, exercises in marketing and shock. It’s as much about the guests in the audience and the screaming fans outside as it is about the ideas on the runway. But to see Leon on the catwalk is to buy into something deeper, older: the idea that the clothes we wear can impart something about who we are and how we hold ourselves. In his time in the industry, there’s been a breaking down and broadening of gendered clothes and body types, freeing men up to wear whatever they want. It started on the catwalks, where Leon stood out as a male model who represented changing ideals surrounding masculinity and beauty. Now it’s filtered through to the wider culture: footballers wear Miu Miu womenswear and carry little handbags, skateboarders sport skirts, rappers dress up as queer futuristic cyborgs, and any outrage about it in the tabloids feels more performative than pointed. The world of menswear has changed, and by extension, so has male modelling.

Leon was part of a generation of male models – alongside friends like Paul Hameline, Malik Bodian, Jonas Glöer and Alton Mason – who have brought a more expansive vision of male beauty into fashion. In the noughties, there was a binary: the hunky, gleaming torso of David Gandy on Times Square billboards, or the waifish underground kids without careers or names, who were plucked from techno raves in Rotterdam, Cologne, Zurich and Hamburg to walk for Raf Simons or Hedi Slimane, and then promptly deposited back in the nightclubs afterwards. But the male model now encompasses a much broader idealism and sense of freedom which has transcended the underground. Actor Jeremy Allen White might still be ripped and lusted over in Calvin Klein adverts, but Leon, the new face of Loro Piana, is an equally important barometer of the state of mainstream masculinity.

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In the rise of male models like Leon, Malik or Jonas, we can trace a changing vision of what masculine power looks like. Over the last decade they’ve become less objectified, less one-dimensionally beefy, more in line with the classic faces and poise of female fashion. They’re also more interesting, mirroring the journey of their designer-champions like Raf Simons, moving from the underground to the mainstream as fashion became the dominant artform of the late 2010s. “You really notice the way models dress has changed over the years,” says Leon. “I see it as quite indicative of a wider youth culture. Male modelling is such a broad cut of people, there’s people from everywhere, so it shows you what kids pay attention to, what they look to. When I started, everyone was obsessed with skinny jeans, and everyone was skinny, really influenced by the Hedi Slimane look, but now it’s very free, very broad. People dress in amazing, fun ways. Menswear has become more fun, I think.”

At just 25 years old, Leon already stands out for his longevity in an industry that relishes consuming its children with all the shamed, sad necessary glee of Goya’s Saturn. He’s a male model who has broken away from the parade because of his personality and talent, together with his love and embrace of the craft and importance of male modelling. “It took me a while to be open and proud about being a male model, because for a long time there wasn’t much recognition. In the ’80s there were big models, and in the ’90s, but it was not very often that a male model would have a proper career. I’m proud to be a model. I enjoy being a model. I think I’m quite good at it! I’ll always be very connected to it. It’s a job I love.”

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Photographic assistance by Vassilli Boclé and Chiara Vittorini. Styling assistance by Apolline Coquet. Hair by Soichi Inagaki at Art Partner. Make-up by Kanako Katase at Streeters. Retouching by INK. Production by WA Productions.