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.