A hot, sticky June evening in Paris and model Paul Hameline is at a party, drinking warm wine from a plastic cup. It’s men’s fashion week and Le Marais is thick with models fresh off the Dries Van Noten catwalk. Not Hameline, though. Blue-eyed, with echoes of Richard Hell, this model is alone, looking bored, in a T-shirt that reads: No Heart Inside. He’s sacked off part of fashion week to be at the private party of photographer Pierre-Ange Carlotti’s exhibition. The T-shirt is by Carlotti.
He’s not actually bored. The coolest models tend to emit a certain ennui and Hameline is probably the coolest in fashion right now. Male supermodels are rare, and famous faces that deviate from mainstream ideals are even rarer. They tend to be either cartoonish (David Gandy, Lucky Blue Smith) or anonymously good-looking (Sean O’Pry, Jon Kortajarena). Vanity and grooming don’t sit well with smoking, basement parties and insouciance.
So Hameline is a rarity then. He’s the original Vetements muse and the collective’s influence makes this significant. His ascent has been exponential – he first walked for Vetements in 2014 and has carefully picked every job since. He models for only a handful of shows: Marni, Prada, Balenciaga, JW Anderson.
Fame baffles him: “I’m not even commercial looking,” he despairs. But it’s precisely this look – an androgynous, post-binary beauty with a flaw (in his case, a small dimple under his bottom lip) – that has made him menswear’s most in-demand face, and may explain why he’s finally hit mainstream and become the new face of Hugo Boss. He seems taller than his 6ft 1in, possibly because of the way he stands, Giacometti-like, incredibly slight, but sexy.
The idea of beauty being a static notion is deeply Americanised and, thanks to social media, has become the norm, says Alice Pfeiffer, a French fashion journalist and friend of Hameline’s. “But in France, we have always been good at celebrating the alternative.” He, she says, is the male incarnation of this philosophy.
“I don’t like just modelling,” he says. “I don’t consider it my main profession, and I never thought I’d make money from it.” Boredom scares him. “I have to keep busy or I get depressed.” His CV includes styling, studying art, acting, making zines inspired by cult cinema and designing prints for Ann Demeulemeester.
Hameline prefers meeting people face to face. It’s easy to see why. Context is key – he talks about models as “empty vessels” and about eating a bowl of blueberries for breakfast. Said on the phone, this might sound affected. But Hameline in the flesh is funny and bright, a little earnest but looser after a drink. We meet at the Wolseley (posh places amuse him) and he arrives, on time, in khaki Miu Miu shirt and Raf Simons trousers, his hair scraped back with blue acetate sunglasses. He is rarely without them – “On planes, too, which makes me look…” – he smirks – “but I like to watch Disney films and I always cry.” He puts them on the table, sits down and orders a large whisky.
Today, he’s celebrating the end of his first year studying art at Central St Martins. His final piece was an installation involving cassettes which he burned immediately after. Tomorrow, he is going to the dentist. As the buzziest model in fashion, you’d think his lifestyle would transcend wisdom teeth. Alas. “I have to wait to fix them until after [the fashion shows] because…” – he mimes a swollen face – “the designers will be upset.”
21-year-old Hameline was born in Paris. A quiet, introverted boy, he had braces and a stutter. Aged 11, he went to a boarding school in North Yorkshire which practised hunting and fishing, which he didn’t enjoy (“I like animals”). He went to a day school in Paris a few years later, before spending time at the prestigious Ecal in Switzerland and a summer camp in the US; he speaks English almost perfectly. His mother worked for the minister of defence, his father ran the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris, and clearly enjoyed clothes: “When he was 16 he’d wear tweed and a cape – you know, like Sherlock Holmes. He tried to pick me up from school in a fuchsia corduroy suit. I was like, non, Dad, it’s OK, I walk.” As a teenager, Hameline was “normal”, wearing black jeans, Converse and a Carhartt jacket.
His scouting was run-of-the-mill fashion folklore: 16, and running late, he was at an ATM getting cash for a cab when he was spotted by Eva Gödel, founder of ultra-hip street-casting agency Tomorrow Is Another Day, who chased him down the road on her bike. “I signed to her agency only because I was drawn to her, you know?” It was his fifth scouting by as many agencies but he was – and is – picky. He uses the word freely: “The others were bigger but I knew I didn’t want to be ‘a model’. I was picky.” Even now, he’ll walk only in particular shows. “I only do it for brands I relate to or respect. I’m picky about it,” he says. He recently left to join the Lions NY and Success Models in Europe: “It’s important to turn the page, to let people go,” he says. He remains on good terms with Gödel.
Hameline likes to vanish. “If I’m at a party, I call an Uber, say I am going to pee, then I just go. My friends call it ‘an Hameline’.” It feels as if that’s why he moved to London a year ago. Here, he enjoys the anonymity of eating Sunday roasts in a pub or shopping in Turkish supermarkets. One of his favourite things to do is sit in hotel lobbies and watch people, unwatched himself. Parisians are far more “judgmental”.
His big break came from meeting Vetements stylist Lotta Volkova through a mutual friend. “We were both bored of Paris, so we threw a party in my parents’ basement. We stayed up all night playing postpunk industrial music – Throbbing Gristle, Nine Inch Nails”, then Volkova took Hameline to a Vetements presentation. To him, “The clothes, that world, it made sense to me.” A few weeks later he bunked off school in Switzerland, flew home and hid from his parents in a studio with his new friends.
Through Volkova he met designers Demna Gvasalia and Gosha Rubchinskiy, and his best friend Mica Arganaraz (recently on the cover of Vogue). “These are people I rely on. I don’t know where I’d be without them.” This summer he plans to visit Vetements in Zurich and Rubchinskiy in Russia. He chose not to walk the last Balenciaga show because he wanted to watch the “performance” from the frow. In his eyes, he sits safely on the fence between insider and outsider.
Carlotti, the photographer, has known Hameline since he was a teenager. “I saw him dancing and he looked… cool,” he says. “I asked if he wanted a drink, he told me how old he was and just kept dancing.” He smiles. “I thought: that is how you should be. To just be you. To be cool.” Pfeiffer agrees, describing his “detachment from fashion” as part of his appeal.
It’s an odd position, especially for someone who ranks modelling as his least compelling skill. A prolific collector of photographs, he has already made one successful zine – Rave New World – and plans another. He talks with ease about Freudian theory and new wave cinema. Modelling pays the bills, of course, but one gets the sense his parents approve of his career because Hameline treats it more like an artistic process. He likes to shock, to play with themes of religion and sexuality. He is happy to pose almost naked in Vice, to wear a dress in Dazed. He walks, friends have said, like My Little Pony, but for a character model this works. His face – hooded eyes, full lips – is in constant flux. For the Guardian’s shoot, he’s sort of Marc Almond. The first day I met him, he looked like Charlotte Rampling.
“The thing about male beauty…” Hameline pauses. “What turns me on to a guy or a girl is how they are, their ideas, their soul. I don’t know why people would want to look at me. There are a thousand people who are prettier.”
It’ll be interesting to see where he is this time next year. Models who capture the zeitgeist as Hameline has sometimes get caught in the moment. Success can be brief so he’s wise to branch out. He plans to spend 2017 “nourishing my curiosity” which means applying to drama school. If, like politicians, the best models are the most reluctant ones, Hameline is already at supermodel level. The problem remains: even if modelling is boring to him, he’s still excellent at it.
This article appears in the autumn/winter 2017 edition of The Fashion, the Guardian and the Observer’s biannual fashion supplement