High fashion, minus the labels

Story highlights

Andrej Pejic models men's and women's clothing on the runways of famous designers

Pejic was scouted to model after he was seen working at McDonald's

His androgynous look is creating controversy in the fashion world about gender and clothing

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 17, 2012.

CNN —  

Twenty-year-old, 6-foot-1 Andrej Pejic is a model for success: a women’s size 2 or 4; angular cheekbones; full, pouty lips; bleached-blond hair; and impossibly long legs.

Yet the walk down the runway – often squeezed into a ladies’ size 10 shoe – hasn’t always been a smooth and glamour-ridden one.

Bosnian-born Pejic grew up as the younger son to a single mother of two. He spent most of his childhood in a Serbian refugee camp before moving to Melbourne, Australia.

While others are quick to attach labels to Pejic – he’s been referred to in the media everywhere from “James Blond” to “gender bender” to “femiman” – androgynous sensation Pejic isn’t so quick to constrict himself to a particular description.

“Growing up as a child, I would say that I was quite feminine. I exhibited feminine behavior. I played with Barbies, I played dress-up, I wanted to have long hair,” he says.

It wasn’t until Pejic was around the age of 8 or 9 that he recalls receiving the message that it just wasn’t acceptable to exhibit these behaviors anymore, “because there was a fine line between how women behave and how men behave,” he says.

Pejic cut his hair short, attempted to dress more “boyish” and tried his hand at football. “That crashed and burned,” he laughs. Even with his so-called modifications, Pejic said he would still always be mistaken for a girl.

At the age of 14, prompted by a move to a different school and fed up with a bout of social anxiety, Pejic embraced the opportunity to showcase his now signature look.

“One morning, I bleached my hair and started wearing fitted clothes and tattered jeans and exhibit the more feminine qualities that I had to work hard to keep hidden.”

These same feminine qualities would later catch the eye of a modeling scout while Pejic was working at his part-time job at McDonald’s.

It was here that Pejic’s life unexpectedly starting drifting from French fries toward French couture.

“For us, the only way to escape our economic status was through school, and that’s what my mum always told us,” Pejic says. “I thought maybe this could be a good part-time job to earn money on the side, but then it sort of evolved.”

And evolve it did. After Pejic graduated from high school, he was given the opportunity to expand his modeling reach beyond the conservative, more masculine Australian market to London – his mom even borrowed money for the flight to get him there.

All of the European agencies he visited said no, except for his very last appointment, which just happened to be with Sarah Doukas and Storm Model Management.

“It’s just too interesting to not try,” Pejic recounts Doukas saying.

“Interesting” is a term that Doukas has certainly never shied away from. She is also credited with discovering now legendary British model Kate Moss at John F. Kennedy International Airport when Moss was just 14 years old – a risky move at the time, with Moss’ unconventionally waif-like 5-foot-7 frame competing against the tall, more curvaceous figures of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell.

Since that meeting, Pejic has taken both menswear and womenswear collections by storm as one of the most sought-after models.

Among his accomplishments, he was the face for the Spring/Summer 2011 Marc by Marc Jacobs line, and he appeared in both the men’s and women’s runway show for legendary French designer Jean Paul Gaultier; most notably in the latter as the finale piece of Gaultier’s 2011 haute couture show in Paris with a see-through bridal gown. (Rihanna wore the same dress to the 2011 Grammy Awards.)

Pejic was notably absent during New York Fashion Week (February 9-16) because of a scheduling conflict with a Jean Paul Gaultier campaign shoot in Paris.

More recently and controversially, Pejic modeled a push-up bra for the Dutch retail chain HEMA. He was also named one of FHM Magazine’s 100 Sexiest Women in the World in 2011.

“I think it can be somewhat intimidating for people. It’s something they haven’t seen,” he says. “I think transgender people in the media are portrayed in a very obscure, negative way, and a lot of people don’t have a frame of reference for these things or any education about it – so when they’re confronted with it, it’s almost threatening.”

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) defines “transgender” an “an umbrella term (adj.) for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.”

“It is an umbrella term, so it’s not a bad word,” Pejic agrees. “But I’m not quick to categorize myself.”

Even though Pejic isn’t into labels, those in the field of gender studies say there’s still a tendency to stick to the gender binary when he’s mentioned.

“I do think that the visibility of models like Pejic is normalizing nontraditional forms of gender expression, which is fantastic for folks out there who don’t identify with the gender they were born with,” says Lena Chen, a gay rights advocate and body politics writer. “But when you see coverage of Pejic, for example, it’s about a man dressing like a woman.”

But gender identity certainly isn’t the only issue surrounding Pejic in the fashion industry. Controversy is always in vogue.

For years, international fashion weeks have been criticized for employing ultra-skinny models with similar builds to Pejic’s, increasingly so since 21-year-old Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died from complications of anorexia in 2006.

“Typically, high-fashion models have boyish figures,” says Salvador Camarena, a Los Angeles-based wardrobe stylist.

To some in the modeling industry, it’s these same boyish figures that could be driving Pejic’s high-end success while simultaneously feeding the industry’s unhealthy environment.

“To me, selling women’s clothes using a teenage boy’s body is the ultimate cynicism. It’s as if the fashion industry is saying, ‘Here is the perfect woman for our clothes: a boy!’ ” says style guru and “Project Runway” mentor Tim Gunn in his forthcoming book “Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet.”

However, to others, the androgynous look is nothing more than artistic showcase.

“From an artistic point of view, androgyny is very interesting for them to explore and is quite unique – and I think throughout history it’s been very interesting,” Pejic says.

“Runway should be seen more as an art piece,” Camarena agrees. “He’s creating living art. It [gender] shouldn’t matter. After all, women have been wearing men’s white oxford shirts for years.”

Despite his unique look, as with any other model, fashionable relevance goes in and out of style just like last season’s pants. For now, Pejic is happy strutting his stuff.

After that, Pejic says he would love to go back to university to study law, and his media exposure has opened up possible opportunities in television and movies.

“If none of that succeeds, I’m back to McDonald’s.”