The model that some are calling fashion's new "it" girl isn't a girl at all. Andrej Pejic takes the industry's on-again, off-again fascination with androgyny to a new extreme by modeling both menswear and women's wear for top designers like Jean Paul Gaultier.
At a shoot for Out Magazine, Pejic takes a final sip of his Earl Grey tea before stepping into position against a stark white background.
In a converted warehouse studio in New York City's old Meatpacking District, a photographer raises his camera as Pejic arches his thin frame into four buff male models. He angles his baby-soft face toward the camera, accentuating his cutting cheekbones.
Brent Coover is the fashion editor of Out, which is geared toward a gay and lesbian audience. To him, Pejic's androgynous look means fashion doesn't have to be about macho men anymore.
"For so long of my life, I had to look at images of male models who are super muscular, super hunky, look like Ken dolls, and maybe it's time to see another concept of what a man can be," Coover says.
He thinks models with an ambiguous gender help expand the idea of beauty beyond masculine and feminine archetypes.
Fashion Fairy Tale
Pejic remembers being pressured to give up playing dress up in heels and skirts as a child.
"I was told that I had to be more boyish and fit that social role," Pejic says, "but that didn't make me happy, and it didn't really work."
He was born in Bosnia and fled with his Serbian mother and brother to a refugee camp when the war broke out, then on to Australia. His Croatian father stayed behind.
Pejic says, "I'm not a big fan of identity politics and sort of picking one thing and defining yourself with it."
So, he doesn't.
Pejic says he's open to being called a girl, and doesn't have any boundaries as far as attraction goes.
He started modeling after an agent approached him in a McDonald's he worked at in Melbourne. After graduating from high school, he moved to Europe to pursue modeling full-time. One of his first big jobs was for French Vogue.
"I just walked on the set, and they said, well, put him in a Fendi dress because that's what's going to look good, and they were right," Pejic recalls.
He quickly started to get more work in women's wear than in men's — and, unlike that Fendi dress that just happened to fit, top designers started to make dresses with Pejic in mind.
In this Cinderella story, Pejic's moment at the ball came last year. The eminent and envelope-pushing designer Jean Paul Gaultier sent Pejic down the runway in a sheer bridal gown. He had hardly walked 10 steps when the room burst into applause.
"I felt like the happiest bride," Pejic says.
And why not? His career is sort of a fashion fairy tale on fast-forward. Forget landing Prince Charming; Pejic has worked with some of the world's most celebrated designers — and he's only 20.
Pejic has a serious presence in the industry, but many people outside of it don't know what to make of him.
"How do you prove your push-up bra can push up even the most minuscule bust? Have a man model it!" CNN's Jeanne Moos announced in a segment about Pejic, who had recently appeared in advertisements for a bra by Hema, a Dutch dime store.
Few people Moos showed the ad to could tell Pejic was anything other than a buxom blond woman in plunging necklines.
Pejic admits it was sort of a "gimmick," but in the end, he says, "It did work. I think the bra did sell."
And selling products is the whole point of modeling, says Ashley Mears.
"Fashion models are these desired goods that also lend value to commodities," she says.
Mears worked as a model to inform her book Pricing Beauty about the inner dealings of the fashion industry.
She says the ads Pejic is used in could backfire when consumers learn he's actually a man.
That's partly because Pejic plays into one of the biggest criticisms of fashion models — namely, that they're way too thin.
He's been called "fashion's greatest insult to women" by critics who see him as the end result of an industry tendency to showcase women who they say look like young boys.
But Mears says Pejic isn't the problem: "Fashion has been insulting women for a long time with unrealistic body standards."
And Pejic maintains that he isn't the one setting those standards.
"When I'm sitting in a casting room in Paris, I'm not the thinnest model," Pejic says. "Sometimes I'm not the most flat-chested, either."
Pejic's unique ability to go from menswear to women's wear has captivated the world of fashion. But elsewhere, men in dresses can be ridiculed or even brutalized instead of lauded. And Pejic's picture in Vogue isn't going to change that, says Leila Rupp, who has written extensively about drag culture.
"I think watching someone on a runway or looking at someone in a magazine just doesn't have that kind of erotic and emotional impact," says Rupp.
She says simply seeing images of Pejic isn't enough to encourage acceptance for people who break gender norms.
But Pejic says he is not out to change the world. He's just doing his job. Up next, he'll be featured in ads for Kokorico, a new fragrance for men by Jean Paul Gaultier.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.