La’Shaunae Steward is Fashion’s Next Superstar
La’Shaunae. Her unforgettable moniker plays over and over again in my head like a mantra as I mentally prepare myself to have a chat with the latest fashion influencer to break the internet (hey Paper, please don’t sue us, thanks), who just so happens to reside in the same city as Monachopsis HQ.
During this preparation I’m careful to taper my expectations so as not to be disappointed, as a handful of the influencers I’ve crossed paths with in this profession can sometimes carry their URL fame to nauseating extremes with IRL interactions, often overstating their importance and minimizing us normal folks in the process. (A shrill “Do you even KNOW who I am?!” still rings in my ears to this day as I instinctively remember these less-than-stellar encounters, haunting me like resurfaced photos of my 2014 hair style or a DM from an ex-boyfriend filled with unsolicited–and equally unremarkable–dick pics.)
Meeting La’Shaunae, however, proved to be a totally different experience altogether. With an Instagram account full of sassy quips, esteem-boosting affirmations that would leave Tyra herself shook, and a homegrown aesthetic that looks like it was ripped out of a 90s issue of Dazed & Confused (now known only as Dazed), I thought I was in for the “take no shit, I’m 100% that bitch” interview of the century–and don’t get me wrong, I totally was, just not in the ways that I originally expected.
Although she is certainly blessed with Bad Bitch Energy™ that undoubtedly commands a room, the 22-year-old aspiring model also possesses a soft-spoken demeanor and is rife with incredible stories about her humble beginnings in the industry. Upon admiring her inviting gap-toothed grin à la Slick Woods, I felt like I’d found my long-lost BFF as we gushed about our favorite queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race and spoke openly about our struggles with depression. It’s rare yet refreshing to meet a human so deeply entrenched in online fame that’s still so surprisingly relatable.
La’Shaunae’s seemingly ubiquitous presence on the Internet is due in large part to a post that went viral last year. What started as an Instagram photo intended to show off a killer DIY hand-frayed denim skirt morphed into a slew of skater trolls making snide comments about her wearing a Thrasher t-shirt and retweeting cruel memes using her likeness. British supermodel Reece King immediately rushed to defend La’Shaunae’s flawless look, thereby setting the stage for a 21st-century underdog story as her online following would jump to more than 72K, to include celebrities such as Rowan Blanchard and Junglepussy. The story was swiftly picked up by Buzzfeed, Refinery29, and Seventeen, cementing her long-awaited and much-deserved status as a fashion icon.
Growing up in a conservative state like South Carolina, bullies have been a constant source of contention in her life, especially during her tumultuous years in middle and high school. “I was always tormented in school and was never thought of as the ‘attractive’ girl. It got so bad to where the boys would record me on the bus on their phones just to make fun of me, and they never got in trouble for it. Back then, I always felt like I wasn’t good enough, and I remember telling my mom how much I hated myself.”
Sporting outfits inspired by the 90s and early 2000s clothing donned by her parents as well as implementing style cues from visionaries like Leigh Bowery and Thierry Mugler, her adolescent looks pushed boundaries far beyond the Lilly Pulitzer prints worn by her peers in the small town of Summerville. “People would say, ‘What is she wearing? Why does she look like that?’” La’Shaunae explains. “They were so quick to judge and be like ‘Who does she think she is?’” Unfortunately school administration and faculty adopted a similar mindset, as she was subject to scrutiny with her wardrobe choices because of her size. “I would get in trouble for wearing the exact same stuff that thin girls would wear! High-waisted shorts, crop tops, shirts, leggings…I was told I couldn’t wear these [types of clothes].”
Fashion became her ultimate respite from schoolyard tyranny at a tender age. “Even when I was a kid, I was always into fashion, and it’s always been a big part of my identity. I grew up in the country and I used to play outside with my cousins and stuff, but I always made time to play with my Bratz dolls!” She laughs, as she continues reminiscing on her simple sartorial beginnings: “Like, my entire room was Bratz themed. Do you remember how their feet popped off?!” (I nod in solidarity despite knowing full well that I was a Barbie kid.) “I used to spend hours changing their shoes and clothes. I was obsessed.” As she got older, she turned to Tumblr when she was in seventh grade as a way to meet other people who liked fashion, which sparked an interest in modeling and would change her life path forever.
“I never wanted to be a model until I graduated high school,” she recalls. “People online saw me as someone who should be working in high-end fashion. They would say they haven’t seen anyone who looks like me in magazines.” After receiving such a positive reception from her online fan-base, she decided to pursue her ultimate goal of landing a modeling contract…only, it hasn’t happened yet, a fact which baffles both the Monachopsis staff as well as the majority of her followers.
“I’ve been rejected by every single modeling agency I’ve applied for,” she laments. Being 5’4” and a size 24/26, she’s faced some harsh critiques that wouldn’t otherwise be directed towards her taller, straight-sized counterparts. Although she has been featured in several digital campaigns, she’s sometimes subject to tokenism where she’s the only plus and/or black model on set, which further inhibits her ability to be taken seriously by prospective agencies. “For some of the shoots or runways I’ve done, I’ve been used as a prop, to show that a brand is ‘inclusive’ or ‘diverse.’ I’d love to see ACTUAL fat models booking jobs, as well as other underrepresented groups, like people with disabilities and trans models, on high-fashion runways and in the pages of Vogue.” When questioned about trend predictions for the upcoming Fashion Week® shows, she gives me a tongue-in-cheek response: “No models over a size twenty, the same trend as every year.” Touché.
There’s no denying that the industry has a vicious tendency to cut corners and do a minimal (if any) amount of work to portray diversity. Conversely, there are some brands out there she’s been particularly impressed with that are actually inclusive in their size range, like Christian Siriano, no sesso, ASOS Curve, and newcomer Premme, the latter of which she’s partnered with on a few Instagram posts after sending co-founder Nicolette Mason a direct message, a piece of advice she offers to followers that aren’t in established industry cities like New York or Los Angeles: “If you look up to someone or want to work together, don’t be afraid to reach out. You never know what could happen!”
The same notion holds true for her first influencer collaboration with Tunnel Vision, a Los Angeles-based online shop boasting an early aughts grunge aesthetic. “They sent me a bunch of stuff for my 18th birthday,” she remarks, fondly. Since then, she’s walked a runway show for fashion house Whatever 21 at New York Fashion Week and most notably designed a size-inclusive capsule collection with contemporary shoe brand Jeffrey Campbell, a line created with plus size customers in mind that includes three wide shaft boots and two wide-fitting sandals, which she calls her greatest career achievement to date. “I would see similar boots at other places, but I knew right away they wouldn’t fit. That’s where I got the inspiration for this line.” The collection has been featured in Teen Vogue and i-D, with the Heel-Flip boot selling out in a matter of days from the release date.
Despite all of the perks that come with being an influencer, there are a lot of misconceptions that she is eager to clarify about the job: “People assume I have lots of money just from my follower count or collaborations I’ve done. They assume that I’m being paid for every post and every interaction, when in reality, it’s the opposite.” Even with an account as large as La’Shaunae’s, companies may compensate only with free product (that sometimes doesn’t come in her size) or offer vague promises of “exposure,” much to her chagrin. When she aims to address these inequities using her platform, she has encountered pushback. “When you have a following like I do on Instagram, people think that you always have to be happy. So, when you post anything involving not being happy, you get an inbox filled with messages of people being like, ‘I look up to you, and you’re being depressing and negative!’ and you are immediately invalided. Just because someone looks up to me doesn’t mean I can’t be vulnerable or talk about my feelings. I’m allowed to be myself.”
“It took me a really long time to get [confident], and sometimes I’m still not fully there. Some days I still feel like I’m not good enough. Sometimes I have really off days; whether it be agencies saying, ‘Sorry, you’re not a good fit’ or telling me I’m too short, or when people tell me I need to look a certain way or lose weight or not wear certain things…I still face these problems all of the time.”
Her solution for battling self-doubt and haters? “You have to make time for yourself, even if it means logging off of social media for a while. I’ve come a really long way from those days of crying in the bathroom after school.”
So, what’s next for La’Shaunae? Aside from slowly curating her dream closet filled with pieces from brands like Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Off-white (“I’d describe my vibe as ‘broke with expensive taste,’” she jokes), she’d love to partner with Pat McGrath Labs, the eponymous cosmetics label that recently crossed the billion-dollar revenue mark, and score a fashion spread in a major magazine like NYLON.
Just promise that you’ll remember us, La’Shaunae, when you become the next fashion superstar.
Necklace – H&M
Leather Jacket – Navabi