The job of a model is to essentially be the protagonist and vessel of a fantasy: to be the person with the body and the smile and the fabulously good-looking company, looking as cool and happy as you would be, if you only had their clothes. Typically, constructing that fantasy requires the work of a small city: makeup artists, stylists, creative directors, dudes who are just there to hold up one of those circular light reflectors, location scouts, hair zhuzhers, and photographers. And for the past couple of years, if you were trying to sell clothes to men, the face of that fantasy was Alton Mason.
Pre-pandemic, Mason was on top of the modeling world. Models.com’s 2019 annual awards were more or less a celebration of him: He won the industry’s vote for Social Media Star, he was the industry's and reader’s choice for the Best Street Style award, and he was unanimously chosen as the male Model of the Year too. In 2019, he became the first Black male model to walk for Chanel—both an honor and an indictment. The hottest designers in the world say stuff like this about him: “In my opinion, Alton is the closest thing to a modern-day Michael Jackson. On a star level,” Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo writes in an email. “He walks on set and the entire atmosphere shifts... He is without doubt the best in the game. There is no one even close.”
Modeling, of course, calls for the awesome physicality Mason is capable of: his calm saunter, or a series of backflips down the Louis Vuitton runway. But the conditions of 2020 made shoots difficult to get to and wiped fashion weeks off the board. A shoot for Hugo Boss in late March was shut down two days early so everyone could scramble back to their respective homes. So what do you do when you’re the hottest male model in the world?
If you’re Alton Mason, you chill, and then you evolve.
Early in the pandemic, Mason booked it to his folks’ place in Arizona. Mom was a model, and Dad played basketball overseas: The family moved to Belgium when Mason was three, then eventually to Arizona. He moved to Los Angeles at 17 to study dance and got a gig as a backup dancer for Diddy during the 2015 BET Awards. A contract with an agency followed, as did a breakout job, secured via Instagram, in the Yeezy Season 3 show at Madison Square Garden. From there, he went from a face to the face for these brands. When it all stopped due to the pandemic, he found himself spending extended periods at home, which he hadn't done in a while. He spent the first few weeks swaddled in idyllic family time. The Mason household shared cooking duties—Alton, ever health-conscious, made salmon. He was “taking this time to be one with nature and heighten my vibration,” he says.
With time, the fashion industry eased back into action. And when modeling came back, it was subtly—but undeniably—changed. Over the course of the pandemic, models like Mason were forced to become face, photographer, stylist, creative director, and location scout. What once took the monumental effort of an entire well-paid team to do simply became Mason enlisting his sister to photograph clothes he’d style himself. They would take the pictures and send them back. “[The brands] loved it,” Mason says of his self-produced shoot.
For years, the fashion industry has been inching closer to a system like this, where the folks starring in advertisements are also creatively involved in them. Think of the influencer: They’re sent some product—a bag, or a box of clothes—and are then responsible for where and how they take the picture. It’s gently guided, of course, but much different than a massive, precision-coordinated shoot. And the results speak for themselves: The kids who represent fashion’s future, it turns out, like authenticity as much as their predecessors loved in-studio artifice.
This shift was accelerated by a pandemic that forced brands to relinquish total control. As early as April, companies were sending Mason clothes and a license to do whatever he saw fit. Zara was the first: They sent him a box of clothes and let him have at it. “It's wild, because I feel like this quarantine and everything that's happening has moved us forward and gave us access and another level of trust when it comes to companies sending clothes for you to shoot at home, having you self-shoot campaigns and editorials,” Mason says. “That's a beautiful thing, and that's really evolution right there when it comes to fashion.”
Starting to shoot his own campaigns was a snap. “They said that they loved the way I take my pictures, and they like my creativity,” Mason says. “My agent told me that, and then I ran with it.” DIY shoots at the Mason household sound not unlike a Sex and the City montage: Mason would gather his younger sisters, and “we turn on the music and we're just dancing in the living room, taking out the clothes, trying it on,” he explains. One sister manned the camera. Glamorous sets and on-location shoots gave way to various parts of Mason’s forested neighborhood in Arizona.
Part of Mason’s appeal as a model is that he’s not just a model. The fantasy can follow him off the set or the runway to Instagram, where it can be hard to tell the difference between a simple selfie and professional modeling work. Mason is making the most of this time to make the leap from the physically gifted runway marvel to something more transcendent. “I reinvent myself all the time,” he says. “Modeling is not the only thing that I do. I'm very talented in many other aspects.” For much of this year, making music kept him preoccupied. He has enough songs for two albums, he says. His fondest memory of the past several months is providing food and COVID relief to a village in Nigeria. In May, he put out a short film, set in Lagos, that features him alongside local children and a lion cub.
Not every transition was so simple. Europe, where nearly every major fashion show happens, was still largely off limits. Forget contracting the virus. If he went, would he be able to return to the States? Most brands pivoted to videos in lieu of runway shows, and Mason opted out of the few shows that were happening after discussing it with his family.
While Mason avoided travel when he could, there was one invitation he couldn’t turn down: The Prince of Monaco invited Mason, along with Tommy Hilfiger and Naomi Campbell, to a gala. The cause was “planetary health.” Mason stayed in the castle-like Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo, which has played host to more than one James Bond. “It was so fly,” Mason says.
More than that, though, “I was grateful to be the only male model there, and a Black male model there,” Mason says. “I think that I could count on one hand how many Black people were there.”
In the wake of the summer’s civil rights protests, Mason was more sensitive than ever to that feeling, and tracked the industry’s response to the movement. Which brands were talking about inequality? Which brands were sharing statements on social media and completely missing the point? Worse: Which brands were completely silent? Mason saw the fumbles, and has an idea about why they happen. “We see it all the time,” he says. “A lot of the talent is Black, but the internal team isn't. Then these are all brands who benefit off Black culture and Black talent and creativity. So I just would love if that representation was routed to the entire team,” he says.
This year, as the power balance has shifted in the direction of models like Mason, he’s focused on how he can use this newfound agency. Over the course of our conversations, I ask him about maintaining his momentum, keeping his quote-unquote hotness in a world that requires and feeds off that heat. He doesn’t want to hear it. “I just want you to know that that's the last thing on my mind,” he says, “and I think that's such a surface-level way of thinking. I'm deeper than that.” His mind is only on the future: not just the next project, but the next iteration of Mason. “I’m able to continue to push forward and reinvent myself,” he says. Throughout the pandemic, a group chat with other models, including Dilone and Duckie Thot, has served as a support line as well as a channel to game plan. “We've been speaking to each other about everything that's going on,” he says. “Not only about just the pandemic, but police brutality and different ways to form a collective within our community to really prosper and really change the narrative for the future."
Originally Appeared on GQ