You may recognize him for being the face of Calvin Klein’s Man fragrance, or on billboards for Abercrombie & Fitch, Lagerfeld, Tommy Hilfiger. Or perhaps you’ve stumbled across his body in the pages of GQ, V Man, or any other photoshoot by the likes of Bruce Weber, Steven Klein, Mario Testino, or whoever else. That’s because Garrett Neff is one of the only bona fide male supermodels in the industry.
We interviewed and photographed him at Surf Lodge in Montauk, where he launched his latest Katama X Surf Lodge collection. There, we talked about his career, why diversity is important to him, being nervous around a certain female supermodel, and how he used to be an award, skinny teen. Below, in his words:
“Growing up in Delaware in a small town, I was a bit too skinny and awkward for a period of time. I wouldn’t say super awkward, but there was a period of time when I felt that I was gawky, lanky. I think maybe all teens go through that. I was finally able to put on some weight and some muscle and some mass, and at that point I was playing tennis. It was something that I didn’t take too seriously, I wasn’t going to be a pro, but I got into Bucknell University with that skill set.
I played for two years and then started to prioritize school. I knew that I would somehow go into business or finance and I figured it would be New York of Philly but I didn’t have a clear vision of what that was. I just knew I wanted to get there.
Then, between junior and senior year i was coming back from and economics trip taking a course through my university in Barbados and somebody came up to me in the airport and they were walked back and forth, looking me up and down. I thought it was a little curious, sure. Then, he approached me and said, ‘Hey, you should start modeling.” I was like, that’s interesting, I hadn’t ever thought of that. In Delaware growing up, I didn’t think that modeling was even an option. There wasn’t a time when I thought that I had an upper hand when it came to my looks. As I said, I went through that awkward stage.
My family was supportive but my dad really didn’t know what I was doing at first. I was traveling for modeling gigs and my dad finally told me he didn’t think this was the right path for me. ‘I don’t know if this is really going to get you anywhere,’ I remember him saying. I didn’t know either but it was the path of least resistance in a way.
But very quickly, I found that I was doing really well and the feedback I was getting early on was good.My agency was happy, they seemed to be giving me extra attention, sending me to meet clients, photographers, people. I one day booked GQ, within a month of starting at the agency and I was like, oh okay, this could be a serious thing.
My dad then got onboard after my first big campaign with Karl Lagerfeld for his own collection. They paid an amount that was, for me, something I wouldn’t have even guessed was something I could make. It was like, wow, this is really happening. Funny thing is, I hadn’t heard of Karl before. I was new to fashion and wasn’t even aware of him. Which is crazy! I think that worked to my advantage too. I didn’t treat people differently and didn’t put them on a pedestal. I treated them with respect like I did my friends and family back home.
When I met Karl, I realized he really does command respect. You definitely are paying attention to him when he’s talking. It’s just the way he is. He has this wisdom, this air about him. I mean, look at him, anybody who’s that accessorized has a certain confidence and knowledge of the business and he’s just so well put together. I didn’t know just how big of an opportunity that was until years later.
I have to admit as a model, sometimes I get nervous. I remember shooting with (supermodel) Daria Werbowy. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this girl is so tall and pretty and beautiful; she’s amazing!’ She was shooting with 10 other guys individually for V Magazine with George Cortina styling. I realized just how nervous I was and started being conscious to loosen up.
I’ve now been modeling for over 10 years now and some people consider me a male supermodel. Truthfully, I’ve always been a little bit embarrassed of modeling. I feel it’s because there’s nothing that I really did to earn that. I mean, I stayed healthy and fit but there’s nothing where I really worked towards that.
Katama is my first fashion brand. After 12 years as a model, I decided to tell the story I was inspired to tell. The story I wanted to tell was simplicity and something a little more natural. It’s the spirit of getting away from mega yachts, the jets, and sort of approaching simple vehicles and vessels like canoes and a sustainable lifestyle. Celebrating the outdoors, activity, health, in a sophisticated way.
It’s been getting a lot of great feedback and it’s good to know that all of this hard work is paying off. It’s not glamorous at all. In many ways I’m my own intern and not above doing anything small. I’m counting hardware, putting them in bags at times. Lots of manual labor at times. Like, to some extent now, I’m calling Ubers to pick up pieces and hand deliver them to press. But it’s coming all together and now I’m reaching a point where I can find somebody to do it for me.
When I think about fashion, it’s all about diversity. I just showed during Australian Fashion Week and I was very shocked to see that our casting director there was opposed to diversity. “It wouldn’t work here,” a lot of people told me. “People won’t get it.” But for me, though they don’t have as much diversity there as in the states, I made it a point to ensure we’d cast a diverse array of guys.
Even though I was brought up in Delaware, diversity was always important to me. I was raised to be super openminded and celebrate diversity. It’s the differences between people that really make them interesting, and there’s something to learn from everybody. I definitely don’t seek out people who are just like me ever. I think that’s unhealthy. I think I’m attracted different people because i’m inquisitive and I want to learn constantly.
Take for instance, June. It’s Pride month. I think it’s great to celebrate everyone. For Katama, I always want it to have that mantra. Celebrate and support different viewpoints and different backgrounds and different ethnicities, races and sexualities and show that the clothes work on everyone.”
Photos by David Yi/Very Good Light. Transcription edited and condensed for clarity.