Long before landing her breakout role as Hedi Slimane’s muse during the designer’s tenure at Saint Laurent, Lili Sumner was living in rural New Zealand, dreaming up the kind of woman she’d like to grow into. A voracious reader, her character references were largely pulled from her favourite books: Francie, the tenacious lead in Betty Smith’s perennial coming-of-age classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was her number one pick. “I was never much of a princess girl when I was a kid,” Sumner says cheerily over an espresso. “Ursula from The Little Mermaid was more my speed. She’s cool, lives under the sea, and wears a lot of black and purple.”
We all know the story... Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a woman called Cinderella’s dream came true when she was gifted a pair of perfectly fitting glass slippers. Known for centuries as one of the most iconic shoe stories in history, this week Semaine and Lili, in a special collaboration with Browns, bring this story to life again on the streets of London, but will our Lili make it home before the clock strikes midnight? First, in this wide-ranging conversation, Sumner discusses inspirational and badass women, her friendship with Slimane, and why it’s ok to write your own fairytale ending.
Semaine: You’ve lived in New Zealand, London, Japan, and NYC. Where is home today?
Lili: New York, and it’s the best city I’ve ever lived in! I moved from London just over a year ago, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot in myself since then. This city pushes people from different circles together, and there’s this expansive energy to it that I love. At the same time, Trump is terrible, and we’re in the belly of the beast.
Semaine: Did you always want to be a model?
Lili: I wasn’t a kid with a dream of being a model or a rock star. For me, it was less about a particular career and more about the kind of person that I wanted to be. I’ve always read a lot, so different characters from novels grew my perspective of what was possible. Today, I look up to the kind of woman who’s around 35, has her shit together, is super chic, but can also get down in the mud. Maybe she has kids, maybe she doesn’t—but she certainly reads a lot of great books.
Semaine: Can name some of these badass women IRL?
Lili: There’s a lot to pick from: Dorothy Parker was a cool woman; Holly Golightly is my New York dream. Then also Simone De Beauvoir, Eve Babitz, Nina Simone, Betty Smith, Penelope Spheeris, Maxine Waters, Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Janet Frame, and Jane Campion.
Semaine: What’s been the most magical moment of your career so far?
Lili: Closing Hedi Slimane’s last-ever Saint Laurent show. I wore a beautiful red dress in the shape of a heart. There was no music, so all you could hear was people gasping in delight as the looks came out and the click of cameras. It was sad because it was the end of an era, but I also think it was extra special because his run at the house wasn’t super long. He created a whole culture at Saint Laurent; it became our world. The people I met there are still my close friends today.
Semaine: We heard you’re writing a screenplay. Please tell us more!
Lili: It’s something I’ve had in mind for a year or so. Right now, I’m about halfway through writing it. Storytelling and developing the characters is the most interesting thing about filmmaking to me. Directors get all the glory, but screenwriting is difficult!
Semaine: When do you think it might be ready?
Lili: I hope soon. I’m planning to shoot a short film first, so you can look out for that. I love it when people write and act their own material, but I don’t think I’ll star in it. Being in film is an exciting step for me because it contains everything that I love. It’s clothes; it’s aesthetic; it’s framing; it’s character; it’s a study of the human condition and an exploration of life.
Semaine: If you could wave a wand over the modelling industry, what would you change?
Lili: Diversity is becoming a lot better, but it still has a long way to go. This last Fashion Week, I noticed that a lot of the big shows still only cast three or four black girls or women of other ethnicities. I think social media is helping to accelerate change, though. People are calling out the lack of diversity, and brands are reacting. The change is good, but it’s not enough.
Semaine: Do you believe in fairytales?
Lili: I’ve never been much of a fairytale girl. Travelling at a young age has shown me that there are so many different kinds of lives you can live and that it’s up to you which one you choose. You have to keep things exciting though. Life’s a big movie, and it’s possible that we’re all on The Truman Show.
Watch this week’s film to see Lili sprinkle sartorial magic throughout the streets of London, (thanks goes out to Jerry and the impossibly chic shoe cupboard at Browns for making it all possible). And read on to discover her spellbinding film picks, essential reads, and just about everything else in between. Only on this week’s enchanted edition of Semaine.
By Elsa de Berker for Semaine.
Photography by Benedikt Frank.