Queso Tetilla, I discovered, is Spanish for “tit cheese.” Before I’d set eyes on the thing I wondered, isn’t all cheese tit cheese, by nature of it’s origin? Once I’d seen the cheese, however, on a pedestal at the hotel breakfast buffet specially labeled “Regional Foods of Galicia,” I understood its title; queso tetilla, it transpires, is shaped like a tit. And it is traditionally eaten in this part of Spain paired with membrillo, a quince paste of varying amber or maroon color that is manufactured in blocks to be easily sliceable on a cheese platter at dessert, or the breakfast of the nH hotel in A Coruña.
A Coruña is a small, dense coastal city in the Spain's Northern region of Galicia, and I was there this past month to shoot for Zara, whose headquarters are located a few kilometers outside the town in a huge and high-tech warehouse complex. The complex, and Zara itself, belongs to Inditex, a Spanish clothing company and the largest fashion group in the world. Inditex’s “fast-fashion” business model has redefined the clothing market, flooding it with affordable, high-end knock-offs produced by eight subsidiary brands. Over the course of my five days in the fortress (all blank walls and glassy floors and stillness) I glimpsed the owner of Inditex himself, a native of A Coruña and the richest man in all Europe, sitting at an identical desk to the hundreds of broad desks scattered over the vast, football-field-sized floor that housed the Women’s division of Zara. Lunch break lasted an hour and was taken in a canteen like an upgraded school cafeteria where food was plated by white clad lunch-ladies and -gents presiding over reservoirs of tuna salad, roasted chicken, rice and gazpacho. The owner, Mr. Ortega, could be seen some days sitting at a table on his own, eating dry potatoes and rice pudding from a tray like the rest of us, only he was worth $84 billion.
I was excited to be at Inditex. I’ve always admired Zara's online imagery: this relatively young brand has gained wide recognition for its immaculate presentation, characterized by rich lighting, elongated photograph angles, artsy crops, inventive garment styling, and, most interesting to me, distinct models. Zara ecommerce has, quite improbably, become an arbiter of taste not only in the fashion industry but in the modeling one as well. I was dying for a view behind the curtain of this coveted production.
And what I found, in the studios on the Women’s floor of Zara in the complex of Inditex in the province of Galicia, Spain, was that Zara’s ecommerce shoots proceed like a well-oiled machine: during my stay there seven or eight models came to work every day and five studios functioned simultaneously, each furnished with a stylist, art director, photographer, model, and hair and makeup artist, wending their collective way through the racks of pre-styled outfits allotted to them to shoot each day. I discovered, too, that the days were very long—there was no end to these racks. Finish one and another will roll into the room, for merchandise is boundless and the turnaround from memory card to Zara.com lightening-paced. This rhythm was interrupted solely by the punctual, 2:00 excursion to the cafeteria to eat, rest my feet, check my phone, get to know the people I was working with: those trivial but essential transactions that signify being human. I found that besides this pause, all other moments were scoured from the husk of the day in the relentless pursuit of an unquantifiable quota. I found, really, that I couldn’t wait to get away from Inditex.
Each evening when I was restored to my hotel by a company car, weary and glad, I visited a small market across the street and bought ridiculously cheap groceries from which to cobble dinner; if I had plans to go out with the hair & makeup artists I’d purchase simply a massive 2 liter bottle of this fancy brand of water called Cabreiroá—for .65 euros! These would cost six dollars had it been the US, and, enthralled by my discovery, I consumed a whole bottle each night. I was reading Silent Spring, about pesticides and how they accumulate in and kill earthworms, birds, fish, cows and humans alike when sprayed on crops or roadside shrubs, and I wasn’t sleeping because jet lag has a uniquely severe impact on me. Nightfall in my hotel-room meant confinement, desperate or bored; brought with it a certain strandedness that stemmed from the fact that in this conservative Spanish town things closed early, retracted, darkened, folded with sundown into sighing, seaside silence. Stifled in an impotent wad of bedsheets, I was dry-eyed, wide-eyed, unyielding: myself, a water bottle, and pages of pesticides.
What does it take to convince oneself of a thing’s realness, to make oneself believe a step in one’s life is truly in motion? I wonder often when I’ll realize that this, this here existence, this lonesome night in a hotel or jostling plane ride or wasted hour haunting Instagram or vigorous day on set—this is actually a part of my larger life, a constituent in the compilation of memories I’m gathering from this earth that all hold equal legitimacy, that will all be equally irretrievable and divine in hindsight? As I near the close of my fourth year of modeling—an occupation I never foresaw or fathomed for myself—I find I quite often wonder how one knows when one stage of life is over, depleted, and when one should propel oneself into the next.
On my last evening in Spain I climbed the Mount of San Pedro, a hill to the West of central A Coruña. I made the ascent with Jane Moseley, a model I’d met that week at Zara, and with abottle of Cabreiroá. At the peak stood an old WWII bunker overlooking the Atlantic, and Jane and I sprawled on the grass beneath a weathered green cannon with its snout craning out to sea. Stuck in the grass was a sign that read, “El Parque del Monte San Pedro No Utiliza Pesticidas.” The Park of Mount San Pedro Does Not Use Pesticides.
That day photos were already appearing on Zara.com from our week of work. There I was, seeing myself through a Zara lens: that signature rich lighting, elongated photograph angles, artsy crops, inventive garment styling. Seeing myself as one of the models I'd deemed "distinct," when I felt on the contrary most prosaic. What I did not see in those photos was my tiredness and jet lag, the torturous slowness of the clock as I waited for it to indicate 2pm, the clothes racks to my right that always stayed full. Nor did I see my room in the nH hotel with its twin beds and intermittent doubts. For nights in A Coruña gave me plenty of time to attempt what I’ve attempted these four years since I started modeling: to rationalize this career as my reality, to reconcile my self with my work. With each renewed attempt, I find myself a little more desensitized to the exquisite and ludicrous juxtaposition I generate with the function I perform; I find myself forgetting how unlike me it all seemed at first.
The next day I flew home, via a stopover in Madrid. By that time I was able to fall asleep at the appropriate hour--had finally adjusted to the time change--and with more rest under my belt held a much sunnier outlook on the world. Still I was glad to be going home, as I was glad to have witnessed at last the Zara phenomenon in action. I was glad, too, to have a place in this bizarre business I currently call my own, even if I keep my distance from it: modeling, though a cakewalk compared with countless other jobs, is hardly ever as glamorous as the pictures it produces. Its value, I think, lies in the life experience it provides. For the opportunity to spy on billionaires and pick up Spanish curse words and taste wild blackberries on a hillside crowned with cannons. For making friends in glorified cafeterias. For tit cheese.