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.