Thierry-Maxime Loriot is living a fashion fairy tale. In the late 1990s, the Quebecer moved to Montreal to study architecture, but was soon snatched up by a modeling agency and shipped off to Europe, where he booked campaigns for Burberry, Zegna, and Lanvin, among other. After an industry insider told him he shouldn't expect his career to last longer than six months, Loriot went on to model for 10 successful years.
Now, he's left his runway days behind and devoted himself to a career as a museum curator. His breakout solo curatorial project for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier, opens the New York leg of its tour at the Brooklyn Museum October 25, 2013 after successful stops in Dallas, Rotterdam, San Francisco, and Stockholm that have made it the most-visited fashion exhibition in history.
The exhibit shows no signs of slowing down. And neither does Loriot.
DETAILS: How did you get your start in modeling?
THIERRY-MAXIME LORIOT: I was living in Montreal studying architecture when I met this fashion journalist at a party one night. I was 21, tall, and skinny, and she asked if I had ever considered modeling. It was something I never really thought about because I had no interest in fashion and I didn't even know male modeling was a career. She sent me to an agency that turned me away . . .but this journalist said, "No, no, no, I strongly believe in you, please go see this other agency." So I went to see Montage, and they absolutely loved me.
They sent my Polaroids around and 24 hours later I was in Paris to see a photographer who wanted to meet me, I got to his studio and was super-jetlagged so I fell asleep in reception. I woke up at the end of the day and told the assistant, "I'm here to see a Mister Testoni?" They laughed in my face. It was Testino. He liked me, and told me to pack my bags because the next day would be my first job: shooting a Burberry campaign with Kate Moss. Testino loves to discover new people like that.
DETAILS: So your first job was Burberry? With Kate Moss?
THIERRY-MAXIME LORIOT: Yes it was. Not bad! Before the campaign was even out I got booked for tons of shows. I wasn't a typical model at the time. There was this wave of androgynous models and also the super-buff Brazilians, and I was this freckled young Canadian export!
DETAILS: What's the biggest difference for models in the industry today compared to when you started?
THIERRY-MAXIME LORIOT: Models get paid less now. Also, designers then were very loyal to their models. Versace, Burberry, Lanvin—it was always the same every season. But in the early 2000s it began to change. We started seeing what we called the "Prada guys"—super skinny, weird-looking—come for one season and then disappear. There's also an explosion in the market with lots of new designers that weren't there in the '90s, when you had all these established houses. Now there are so many young designers, more brands, more stores, and the market is bigger. So that's why there's been more demand for models also.
DETAILS: When did you first encounter Jean Paul Gaultier?
THIERRY-MAXIME LORIOT: When I saw images from Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour in 1990. The meeting of JPG and Madonna was very important for pop culture. Usually it was costume designers doing musicians' tours, but Madonna was the first to use someone from the catwalk because that was what she related to. She told me she liked his work because of its tongue-in-cheek humor. They have the same voice about power and gender, and a sense of humor that other people sometimes don't get.
DETAILS: When did you begin to think of your "exit strategy?" You worked for a decade as a model, but you must have known it couldn't last forever.
THIERRY-MAXIME LORIOT: I bought a house in Montreal and started to take art history classes because that was interesting to me. When I was traveling as a model I was going to museums and galleries in my spare time. It's just a question of having your mind open to new opportunities.
DETAILS: How did you make the transition from modeling to curating?
THIERRY-MAXIME LORIOT: I was invited to a dinner for the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts did a few years ago. There I met Nathalie Bondil, the chief curator of the museum, and the associate chief curator, Hilliard Goldfarb, who took me on as an intern. I was only supposed to be there for two weeks to help on a photography exhibit he was working on in 2008. But then they asked me to coordinate the Yoko Ono and John Lennon Bed-In For Peace exhibition in Montreal, because the curator was from Paris. After that, Nathalie Bondil, who knew my background in fashion, called me and said that she wanted to do a fashion exhibition, and asked who I would pick. I said Jean Paul Gaultier and she asked me if I wanted to be the curator. I almost fell out of my chair. I was 200 percent into it.
DETAILS: How has the exhibit changed since it opened in Montreal in 2011?
THIERRY-MAXIME LORIOT: We have Jean Paul come in at night to adapt the exhibition for each venue, not only in terms of space (it requires a minimum of 10,000 square feet) but to match the city. In Rotterdam there were a lot of nautical pieces because it's the largest shipping city in the world. In Spain we focused on the collaboration between Gaultier and Almodovar. In New York there will be special focus on the muses of Gaultier, from the streets to the catwalk.
DETAILS: To what do you attribute the exhibition's success?
THIERRY-MAXIME LORIOT: I think people like it because they can relate to different parts of the exhibition. It's really the story of this little kid from the suburbs of Paris who had a dream and brought it to life. Just like Madonna, Cosette, and so many of his muses. In San Francisco, there were 60,000 more visitors than to the Picasso exhibition, which was so popular. I think the world—in terms of culture, museums, fashion, what people want to see—is really changing.
—Todd Plummer, follow him @toddkingston