lily olsen: badass balenciaga-walking model, queer activist, metal-welding artist

The Connecticut-born 5"4 model was discovered by Vetements and Balenciaga stylist Lotta Volkova on Instagram.

by Georgia Graham
20 September 2016, 3:45pm

Meeting Lily Olsen at a coffee shop near her apartment on New York's Lower East Side, I am struck immediately by her outsize personality and 5'4" frame (miniscule for a model). In addition to being one of the most in-demand models of the moment, she is also an artist and queer activist. Lily began welding at age 16 and now creates art in multiple media, including sculpture and photography, as well as public installation pieces such as her #itslegalNYC campaign, a riff on the #freethenipple movement. Her portraits, mainly of queer women, are raw and stirring testaments to otherness.

Originally from Connecticut, Lily moved to New York to escape the conservative confines of her hometown in Greenwich, a place she describes as "a really preppy place, where people meet on the golf course, or at church." In February this year, Lily hit the big time after being cast via Instagram DM to walk both the Vetements and Balenciaga shows in Paris. She now juggles work as a full-time model alongside her own artistic career. We catch up with the 23 year-old phenom about creativity, queerness, and traveling to Europe for the first time.

How did it feel to have Balenciaga slide into your DMs? Can you explain how that happened?
I was followed on Instagram by stylist Lotta Volkova, and she messaged me and asked if I was interested in doing the Balenciaga and Vetements castings at the Mercer hotel. I didn't have a comp card or anything, as I wasn't with an agency at that time. When I arrived, I sat down next to this guy who looked like he was running stuff, as everyone else seemed too scared to sit next to him! I said: "Hi I'm Lily," and he said: "We know who you are." I was shocked as I'm not a known somebody.

It was Valentine's Day, so after the casting I went out on a date and didn't check my phone. Later I saw this email "Balenciaga confirmation" - I was shocked and extraordinarily happy. I'd never even been to Europe before.

You're also a multidisciplinary artist. What kind of work do you make?
I studied sculpture and specialized in working with metal. Photography came later - my preference is to shoot queer women. I shoot them in a way that is happy and strong and empowering, as I want that to be something you relate to femininity - rather than something that's floral. Also, less focus on armpit hair!

As a photographer yourself, how is it to now be on the other side of the camera?
I actually started modeling when I was 18, as an ex-girlfriend was a fashion photographer, and she said I should model for artists in my area. I never imagined I'd do stuff for fashion as I'm only 5'4''.

I worked with Cass Bird recently - I'd known about her for ages. It was really wild meeting her, as I've always loved her stuff. Meeting her, she felt like this gay mom I never had!

You say you are fascinated by the welding techniques of metalwork. Do you feel like you're being bent into shape by the fashion world?
It's hard not to want to cater to the fashion world, but I think I get a lot more attention for being different, for being the things I can't control. As opposed to them molding me, I want to start molding them.

The latest issue of i-D focuses on the female gaze. Can you tell us about your #itslegalNYC project?
That was kind of my ode to the #freethenipple thing. I did a cut out of both a man and a woman topless to study the way that people react to breasts.

I actually did it because it's so hot in summer here and there are times in the park where I wanted to take my shirt off but I can't because people stare or take pictures, not like if a guy did it. It's actually legal in the city boroughs to have your shirt off, but people aren't doing it because it's taboo. I want it to become normal to de-sexualize it.

I like my work to be out in public as the audience are unsuspecting - they don't seek it out but they are forced to interact with it. I saw that people didn't want to be in the person with breasts, because you feel instantly sexualized and objectified.

As a New Yorker who debuted in Paris, what qualities do you feel like you bring from NYC to the Paris fashion scene?
New York is known for its energy. It's hyperactive, there's a lot of sensory overload, and I think that that is something I can bring. That, and a little bit of sarcastic humor!

Were you aware of the Vetements phenomenon before being cast in the Balenciaga and Vetements shows?
I was completely unaware but when I looked into it I instantly got it. Vetements has a sense of humor; it gets in touch with meme culture, and it's taking the fashion industry in a way that's less serious, which is revolutionary.

As a young artist, do you feel inspired by this kind of rebellious attitude to fashion?
Oh totally! I think to rebel in a way is to make yourself an individual person. I come from a suburb in Connecticut where there is no rebellion at all. I tried to conform but after a while I couldn't take it any more, it felt too annoying, too fake.

Are artist Lily and model Lily kept somewhat separate?
I like the combination. Artist Lily is what brought me into the fashion world, and working with artists was what gave me my entry into modelling. Similarly the things and people I'm meeting through fashion are feeding into my artwork.

More and more there is a focus on models as individuals. Do you find this empowering?
Absolutely. To feel like you're not conforming is empowering - you feel more special, more yourself. I think in our generation too, with social media, it's all about branding yourself. I like being part of a generation of acceptance and personalities, and I want to be a part of that.

Last season was a season of firsts - first time to Paris, first time in heels. What are you looking forward to this season?
I'm looking forward to seeing if I actually get anything! To see who is willing to take someone who is shorter. I'm excited to meet people, and for the after parties! The Balenciaga after party last season was amazing.


Text Georgia Graham
Polaroid courtesy Ford Models, Artwork courtesy Lily Olsen

fashion interviews
georgia graham
lotta volkova
lily olsen