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Traffic is too slow on 35th Street on a recent Saturday, so Lindsey Wixson, the 16-year-old model from Kansas, decides to ditch her cab at Madison Avenue and walk the last few blocks across town through the snow to Jason Wu’s studio.
A stranger seems to recognize her on the street. “Really?” she says gleefully. That never happens. She might want to get used to it.
The story of the 16-year-old from the Midwest who finds fame as a model has been done before, but the speed and degree of Wixson’s success breaks the mold. When she was 15, Steven Meisel found a video of her on a modeling Web site and booked her for Italian Vogue. When Meisel’s photographs ran, Prada booked her to open their spring show in Milan, and Miu Miu tapped her to close in Paris, both as exclusives. By September, Stefano Tonchi ran a full-page close-up of her lips and the gap in her teeth — her two most arresting features — in his first issue of W. She walked in a combined 44 shows in New York, Paris and Milan in the fall. John Galliano, Versace Vanitas, Miu Miu, Jill Stuart and Alexander McQueen have all booked her for campaigns.
This year promises to be bigger.
Backstage at the Oscar de la Renta runway show in the fall, a reporter for the blog Modelinia asked Wixson which designer she would like to wear to the prom. “Jason Wu,” she said. “Oh my god, my friends would be, like, how much did that cost? What? Like freaking out.”
Soon after, someone reached out to tell her that Wu would be happy to accommodate.
Now, five months later, she is sitting across a narrow table from the designer in the middle of his studio. Spare electronic music plays over speakers. Wu, wearing a blue sweater and jeans, says that after the blog item ran, people kept asking him if it was true, and that at least one other 16-year-old model was jealous.
“It will be my first prom dress,” Wu says. “I’ve done all the other occasions, but I’ve never done a prom dress before.”
Nick Bananto, Wixson’s 18-year-old boyfriend, sits at the end of the table watching quietly. It is his first time in New York. He flew in from Kansas to meet up with her when she got back after two weeks in Paris for the couture shows and China, where she walked for Prada. “You’re going to have the most glamorous prom dress, I promise,” says Wu. They brainstorm colors and a design.
“So, like, a bustier, and then a double-shoulder thing, and a blue, kind of flowy dress,” Wu says, summing up his vision. “I think that will be nice. Let’s do it.”
Wixson thanks him several times.
“I’m so excited,” she says. “I’m so flattered.”
The designer turns to the boyfriend. “What are you going to wear?”
“Umm,” he says. He hadn’t thought about that. “A tux,” Wixson answers, saving him from awkwardness.
“You’re gonna have to dress up and match her, because she’s gonna be really dressed up,” Wu says. The couple laughs politely.
Wixson invites the designer to the prom before leaving. “You can come. You’re totally welcome,” she says.
“Cool,” says Wu. He says that he didn’t get to go to his own prom in high school and promises to show her the dress when she returns to town for fittings for New York Fashion Week. He escorts them to the door, and Wixson and Bananto say goodbye like polite teenagers from the Great Plains.
“It’s such an honor to be here,” Bananto says, shaking the designer’s hand.
When Wu closes the door to his studio behind them, Wixson takes a giant leaping skip toward the elevator and lands in a pose with one hip out to the side. She raises a celebratory fist in the air.
From Wu’s studio, the couple heads to catch the 2 train on 34th Street. Wixson is wearing a purple Anna Sui coat, a scarf covered in silver sequins, skinny black jeans and boots that she bought herself in Kansas. Bananto takes a long-exposure photograph of the train pulling into the station on his iPhone. He lives in Augusta, Kan., a suburb 20 minutes north of Wichita, and plays the guitar. He surprised her that morning with a dozen roses. The couple met in a doughnut shop. She made the first move.
“I don’t really think of myself as being 16,” Wixson had admitted earlier that morning, sitting on a gray sofa in her agent’s boyfriend’s apartment on East 3rd Street. Her right leg is crossed over her left, and she energetically bounces her dangling foot. “I think I’m in the middle of 17 and 22. I don’t feel 16 at all.”