It's a familiar sight at New York Fashion Week: The women who rule the runways arrive in chauffeured cars with darkened windows. They stop on 40th Street beside the Bryant Park tents and emerge like the clone girls in a Robert Palmer music video, Aphrodites floating in on scallop shells, Starbucks skinny half-caf in one hand, Balenciaga bag in the other. Light bends around them. People know them by name.
You never see their male counterparts -- or more accurately you never think you see them. They arrive almost unnoticed on foot from the Bryant Park Metro station, Eastpak backpacks slung over their shoulders. It's only when they're underground, congregated in twos and threes and riding the trains in New York or Paris or Milan that they stand out: 6-foot-2 packs of cheekbones and confidence, giraffes among the wildebeests.
Matvey Lykov is one of the men who makes his living as a human clothes hanger. The 21-year-old Russian-born model has dark brown eyes, a whippet-thin body and his tribe's distinctive chiseled face. He speaks three languages, has a college degree in education and is quick to tell you he's living his dream -- anybody's dream -- right now. Traveling the world, appearing in magazines, making some money.
He first caught my eye on the Paris Metro nearly a year ago, as he and another model ran onto my train car, dashing from a Raf Simons show to a Lanvin fitting. Then, on the subways of Milan the next season, there he was again, amid the boys with the alabaster skin and radiant smiles, all of them perfectly tall and slender like genetically modified sunflowers.
They're the ones everyone's seen, but nobody knows.
Last month, the day after New York Fashion Week wrapped, Lykov plopped down at a SoHo delicatessen, shook off a hangover and shared his story -- one that took him from scrubbing the toilets of Manhattan on a student visa a year and a half ago to ranking in the top 25 male models on the international circuit.
Even after a night of drinking and dancing, he looks runway-ready -- if a few shades paler than usual and a bit unsteady as he slumps into a window seat. His brown hair is gelled into a casual tuft at the forehead, almost as an afterthought, and he's wearing a gray cashmere sweater over a turtleneck. He speaks nearly perfect English with a Russian accent that turns the word "models" into "muddles" and a cadence that makes many sentences sound like rhetorical questions. He constantly checks his ringing, buzzing and beeping BlackBerry, which has a Keith Haring wallpaper background.
That male model/mass transit connection I'd observed over the last four seasons was no fluke, he confirmed. "Yeah, it's ridiculous how many guys you see on the subway. You can run into each other every five minutes. But not the girl muddles, 'cause they usually have drivers."
It's a matter of simple finances, he explained. Because the cost of a car service -- like airfare to Europe and the price of accommodations -- is advanced by the modeling agency and ultimately offset by future modeling work stateside, such a splurge cuts into a model's take-home pay. Especially when a male model at Lykov's level pulls down a tenth of what a female of comparable caliber can expect. His average fee of $1,000 a show in Europe sounds like pretty decent dollars -- even when it includes fitting sessions and usually a call time four hours prior to the actual show for hair and makeup. But for a variety of reasons, it doesn't add up to anything close to a glamorous lifestyle.
According to Lykov, the lodging arranged by a modeling agency means dormitory-style digs, with four to six guys in tiny apartments. Multiply this by the several hundred barely twentysomething men who descend on Paris and Milan twice a year on the same flights, and the runway season ends up being part fraternity, part spring break and all Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
"Before my first show in Milan, we were staying in this apartment that belonged to a male model," Lykov recalls. "I was staying with these Canadians; they were like animals. They destroyed all the furniture, they were throwing chairs and beer bottles out of the window from the fourth floor onto cars -- one guy [relieved himself] in the oven." He said he took his suitcase and checked into a hotel that night. "Since then I try not to stay with other models like that. Maybe two in a hotel room, but that's it."
Lykov said he tries not to travel with a large group of guys either, but a late change to the Milan calendar this season found some 40 models booked on the same EasyJet flight out of Malpensa airport bound for Paris Fashion Week.
"When we got to the airport we found out the flight was delayed until like 3 in the morning," he remembers. "The gates and the airport were all closed down. There were no guards, so there were all these male models smoking cigarettes, having -- what's the word with the office chairs? Office chair races. Some guys broke into a lounge to steal some pillows. It was really hilarious."
As Lykov's modeling career has progressed, demand for him has increased, bringing an occasional lifestyle change. During the recent Paris shows, he found himself booked in 15 shows (including Hermes, Raf Simons and Dior Homme), which meant he needed to hire a driver. "I would get up at 6, get in the car and be at castings, fittings and shows until 3 in the morning sometimes."
That's more akin to the routine of the female models -- especially a core group -- who tend to be more sought after during the runway season, says Anita Bitton, casting director for the Establishment. "The same women end up doing the same shows. Since it's not as important to have the same guys in the same shows, that's why you'll have the girls driven in cars and even on scooters through the streets of Milan and Paris between castings, fittings and shows."
This season, Lykov walked 34 shows in the three major markets of Milan, Paris and New York. That's not counting the one-off in Stockholm and pair of shows during Berlin Fashion Week.
He can't exactly say how much he makes a year -- "I haven't been doing it for a whole year yet," he points out. "I was also studying." But using the figure of $1,000 per show, he grossed somewhere close to $18,400 in the most recent round of shows (that's subtracting the 20% agency fee). Deduct another two grand for airfare, hotel, food and transportation costs and the season would net him roughly $16,400. Double that for a second season, throw in a couple of one-off shows and an exclusive gig and it turns out that being No. 24 on the list of top-ranked male models means making somewhere in the ballpark of $40,000 a year on the runways before taxes. It's not chicken feed, but in an industry where the favored faces can change with the season, it hardly screams "hired car and driver," either.
That total does not include the 11 New York shows he worked this season -- because most of them end up paying the models not in cash but in clothing. "Most of the men's designers paid in trade this season," he said (something that's not allowed in Europe). So it helps his bottom line that he's based in New York City -- he can easily catch the train from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where he lives with four roommates. "None of them are models, thank God," he says with a laugh. "Male models are messy -- it's not sexy at all."
The clothing labels that have retail stores give the models gift cards, and the smaller brands simply pull clothes from the showroom racks. Lykov points two thumbs at the ensemble he's wearing. "This is like two seasons of Patrik Ervell. If it's a designer I really believe in, I'll do it to support them, 'cause it advances my career too."
Between fashion weeks, Lykov said, the goal is to do editorial shoots to beef up the model portfolio for the next season. They don't pay much, he said, "but you need them for the show castings, and it's good to have nice tear sheets in your book. You also do catalogs, like Barneys [New York] and stuff, which pay well and let you pay the bills."
The men can have careers into their early 30s, but Lykov waves off the notion that he might spend the better part of the next decade on the catwalk. "I want to earn some cash and go to school in America for the film industry. I want to try everything -- acting, editing, producing -- everything in the film industry." (His father, Aleksandr Lykov, is an actor back in Russia.)
But for now, the model who was plucked from obscurity to be the face of the Jil Sander fall 2007 and spring 2008 ad campaigns says he's already looking ahead to "campaign season," when the luxury brands start the search for the models that will represent their labels in the season-long print ad campaigns. "Campaign season comes a month or two after the shows," Lykov explained. "This is where the money is hidden. You wanna do that -- that's your goal."
First, though, Lykov has a little matter of some downtime to schedule. Stepping out of the deli and into a frigid Friday afternoon in Manhattan, he checks his BlackBerry. "I wanted to go to Miami Beach for a vacation 'cause some friends are going to be there, but they're only going to be there for a few days, and I've been traveling so much I just want to go to one place and sit for two weeks."
He pauses for a moment, then makes a decision: "I think I'll go to the Dominican Republic and just lie on the beach for two weeks. What I earned in Paris will just about cover that."
Then he smiles a big smile, shoulders his backpack and heads down the street. Toward the subway station.