“Your skin on my leather. Touch the leather, leather, touch the leather, leather.” The singer Lias Saoudi’s voice emanates from a laptop in the corner of a crowded living room, the set for today’s shoot. “I love the Fat White Family,” model Lili Sumner says, as if in a trance, without breaking her gaze from the screen. She barely notices the fashion team fussing over her, and says in her Kiwi drawl, “Hey, let’s go someplace quieter.”
Sumner is radiant and animated, revealing a twisted sense of humour. The chaos of jet-setting was normal for the 20-year-old long before she took up modelling. Growing up in a family of writers and filmmakers meant that her childhood was spent following her parents’ spur-of-the-moment relocations from their farm in New Zealand to China and Canada. “I used to live in the middle of nowhere, Hawke’s Bay, with horses,” she says. “I love bareback riding. My sister and I had a horse called Bang Bang Benita Banana Abigail. We would pack a picnic and take her to the pond, go swimming naked with her and sometimes pee on her. We’d just do weird stuff. I even drank horse milk once. It’s just like rice milk – really thin.” She confirms that she milked it into a cup rather than drinking from the teat: “No, I didn’t suck it. Now that would be too close.”
Sumner is an eccentric storyteller and a wild child through and through. “I got to about 13 and was like, ‘Fuck this! I don’t want to live on a farm anymore.’ I managed to convince my mum to let me move to Auckland.” Her older sister, a former model, then took the 14-year-old Sumner to meet her first agent: “We went in the holidays and I signed with them. They took these really awkward Polaroids of me in stonewashed jeans and Reeboks – terrible.” Later she packed up for Japan, spending a brief stint in a model house before relocating to London, where she has lived ever since, busying herself with work, writing, drawing and occasionally singing in her boyfriend’s band, Yak.
With her free-spirited attitude, it’s hardly surprising that she has inspired the likes of photographer Ryan McGinley and Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane. “I’ve done every season with Saint Laurent since we met,” Sumner says. “I also do his men’s shows, which I love – much more laid-back and less bitchy. And he smells amazing. I think he has his own scent. You can’t buy it, but he sprays us all with it before the shows.”