Updated: Dec 15, 2022
Model and writer, Irina Lazareanu is somewhat of an enigma. She is at once fashion's favourite darling (in 2007 she broke the record for the most shows ever walked in a season), and yet she’s not a household name, but this of course only adds to her endless charm. Diligently sat beneath her Rock 'n Roll tumbling chocolate locks and heavy bed head fringe lie her wide eyes, almost cartoonish in their owl like proportions, resting atop delicate facial features. For these are eyes that have arrested designers and musicians across the globe for over two decades. Blink and perhaps you’ll miss her.
Words by Charlie Newman.
Runway Bird, Lazareanu’s debut book charts her life from her days living in a squat having quit drama school to her dizzying success as a model. “When I was young I literally went from park bench to Park Heights” and whilst we’ve all heard the rags to riches story all too many times, Lazareanu’s flourishes with originality, wit and depth. Born in Romania under an oppressive regime, six year old Irina and her family fled to a refugee camp near Salzburg, Austria. After receiving immigrant status from Canada, her isolated childhood only extended further. “I was an only child, it was another kind of lonely time because I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t know the culture, I didn’t know the language. What I did have was this sudden access to an amazing archive of books, music and movies that I didn’t even know existed because they weren’t allowed in Eastern Europe. Of poets, songwriters and storytellers, in a way they kind of became my friends. Leonard Cohen became my friend, Patti Smith became my friend and William Blake became my friend, because in a way they were taking me to a land of the imaginary, storytellers where everything was possible.”
And just like her childhood idols, Lazareanu’s book unravels with a playful rhythm, punctuated with style notes but is ultimately an ode to her creative peers. After reading Runway Bird you too feel like anything is possible for Lazareanu wasn’t a stereotypical model in the noughties. “I didn’t dress like them, I didn’t talk like them and I didn’t move like them.” After hundreds of no’s at castings her life “changed in a second” when she caught the eye of the legendary designer Karl Lagerfeld. “Karl loved me exactly the way I was and didn’t want to change anything about me and he thought that I was interesting. I still don’t understand what made him stop in that corridor, what made him turn around and look at the kid and decide that there was something about me. How does he see that in people? I had no idea that was there. I still have Imposter Syndrome! For years when I was on set or backstage at a show or at a movie premiere I was like ‘How did I get here?’” But there’s no denying her success. Not only does she withhold an infectious joie de vivre and soul baring stare, all the while carrying herself with grace and ease, but her work ethic is relentless, “I come from this long line of people who are fighters and they stand for something.”
Self integrity and a great awareness for others appear to be deeply embedded within Irina, despite or maybe even as a result of her “challenging childhood.” Lazareanu notes, “I feel that a lot of my favourite people and artists did maybe have challenging upbringings or backgrounds, and somehow that made them more resilient, more aware. It didn’t harden their hearts, they didn’t become pessimistic or disconnected. They didn’t have a narcissistic approach about things, quite the opposite, it filled them with love and empathy.” It is this resounding compassion that shines through her writing as she recalls heart warming anecdotes from precious moments shared with Prince, Kate Moss, John Galliano, Pete Doherty and The Babyshambles (her “very close knit family”), Lindsay Lohan, and so the A list list goes on. Lazareanu jokes that she might have sold more copies if she sold people out or sensationalised her memories, but that was never the purpose for her. Lazareanu checked with her friends, and her late friends teams that they were happy with her words before sending it to the publishers, for she only ever wanted Runway Bird to be “a love letter to people that I collaborated with, I grew up with, and I really wanted to do a portrait of a generation. The last generation before the arrival of cell phones and social media, where self expression was just that, it was self and it was expressive.”
Lazareanu first unlocked her self expression after her father played Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A Gone Fall from his Free Wheelin’ album on their family record player. From the first time she heard Dylan’s lyrics to the day of interview, Lazareanu still wells up at the beauty and power of his lyrics. From that moment on she hasn’t stopped writing. “Journalling was just something I had to scribble down, whatever I felt, wherever I was, whatever I saw,. Whether it was on a napkin or a journal, something that somebody said or something that I saw. A poster on a wall or a in a book, or a letter from a friend. I just impulsively started gathering all of this material and put it together.” It’s from the well worn pages of her journals that Runway Bird was born.
In 2015 after an exhausting international schedule stretched between modelling and touring, it was time for Lazareanu to take some well deserved time off. She returned back to Canada to “reconnect” with family, but also used this time “to completely forget who I was for a while” for her identity was getting fuzzy after too many years of “people pleasing” and being surrounded by people who say yes all of the time. “You’re the it girl, you’re so and so’s muse, and kind of with time you’re so tired of fighting it you just go, ‘You want me to be this? I’ll be it.’ So that was the danger I was in, I needed to regroup. Moving back to Canada was a major chapter in my life.” Another momentous chapter was becoming a Mother to River her son with bass guitarist and songwriter, Drew McConnell. Irina laughs, “I always say I’m River’s personal assistant. He’s the boss and I work for him, it doesn’t pay great but I’m in it for the long run!”
It was lockdown that finally afforded Lazareanu the time to delve back through her trusty journals, waking at 4:30 every morning before River arose at 7 am, to steal the silence and reminisce over her dazzling moments with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, or Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse, the latter of which was “the hardest chapter to write. I listened to a lot of her music which I hadn’t done in years because it was too painful. There was a lot to process and then I finally got into it, in a day or two it just came out. Once I finished it I had a good cry and then I sent it in. She was such a force of nature, it’s really kind of hard to express exactly who she was, either through words or images or documentaries or books, because you can’t really get that essence of her because she was so magical. But I feel like she still inspires people of this generation. In the book, I say that the first time I met her I started called her Lady Day because I always felt that she had Billie Holiday’s voice.”
After a restorative seven-year hiatus Lazareanu is back gracing catwalks, covers and front rows, reminding her how much she “completely loves the industry”, an industry that has indeed changed enormously since she first started working within it. "I love everything that’s been happening with inclusivity and diversity, that wasn’t around in my day.” As an ambassador for No More Plastic, Lazareanu is weary of the use of sustainability as a buzzword and instead encourages those accountable to “walk the walk.” Fashion is the world’s second-largest polluter after fossil fuels, so inevitably marrying both fashion and sustainability feels paradoxical but also essential to unlocking a greener future. After all, fashion is “a social portrait of our society in a way.” Forever the truth-teller, Lazareanu explains, “For the industry and the marketing decisions to change, then the world has to change. Consumers have to change, put your money where your mouth is….Progress and change takes time and as long as we keep the dialogue open and talking to each other and keep growing and understanding then I think there’s room for improvement. There’s always going to be room for improvement. This is going to be a forever project.”
At the end of our call, just at the moment when I felt well acquainted with Irina she surprises again, admitting to her “fanatic” football obsession with Arsenal and fried chicken sandwiches. Ever the unexpected, Irina Lazareanu’s child-like sense of wonder and enthusiasm continues to pulse right through you. Run don’t walk to order your copy of Runway Bird for lessons in life and style.
Buy your copy of Runway Bird here. Irina appears courtesy of Elite London.