Each season during fashion week there's a model that stands out for me. It me be the shows they booked or simply the clothes they wore when exiting a show but someone usually stands out. In Milan it was Tony Thornberg for me as his style is always impeccible, but more importantly, distinctly his own. I sat down with the softly spoken chap to chat about his hometown of Hawaii and life as a model, only to discover a man wise beyond his 27 years.
Tony Thornburg, model with Elite Milan
Where did you grow up and where do you live now? I grew up in Hawaii in the island of Niʻihau. We lived in the west side in a very quiet neighbourhood and in the last 3 or 4 years I’ve been living in Europe, mainly Zurich, Switzerland.
That’s an unusual base for working the fashion industry. How did you end up there? My girlfriend is Swiss. We met while working in Hong Kong and we happened to be with the same agency. I had already planned that my next trip would be for the shows in Milan so decided let’s give it 3 months and that turned to 6, then a year and I am still there today. We’ll see how much longer I’ll be there.
I’ve never been to Zurich, what do you like about the city? It’s very private and feels like a little escape from the main hustle and bustle of the cities I work in. The city itself is a little cold and the people can be difficult to break through and make friends with but that benefits me as when I want to get away from it all I can just go home and really relax.
I can imagine there’s no greater contrast that Zurich and Hawaii. What do miss most about home? Yes there are huge differences. Of course my family and friends are top of the list. I also miss the most beautiful sunsets in the world. As I grew up in Hawaii I always resented the fact that I was so far away from everything and I had big dreams that couldn’t be achieved while I was there. As I started to travel the world I realised the magic of what it means to be of far away in such a small place in the middle of the pacific ocean. I started to realise how much I took it for granted and have learned to appreciate my own culture.
When you were young what did you want to be as a grown up? I used to play a lot of video games and drew a lot. Animated characters really captivated me. When I was about 12 years old I had no idea of who I wanted to be but before I fell asleep every night I watched television. At around 11pm a show used to come on every night called ‘Fashion Trends’ and it was a loop for hours of shows from Europe. I would watch it until I fell asleep and though to myself “these people going down the catwalk look powerful and successful like the characters in my games. Something really drew me to that and as I got older I became more and more drawn to that. Being Asian I wasn’t so popular when I began modelling but something kept pushing me to pursue that route. It took a while until the industry was ready for me but as I stuck around the industry began to evolve. One season I was in Milan and I got called to the Armani casting and honestly thought how odd it was. My look isn’t typical for the brand but I knew It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I went to the casting and left feeling like it was a waste of time but within a matter of days I got a call saying that Amani wants you to be the face for his brand. I was blown away and I’ll never forget that feeling.
Was that your big break then? Oh yes, most definitely. After that campaign was released things just snowballed. Jobs just consistently kept coming in and it was so lovely as I’d been travelling, saving up, going broke and struggling for nearly 5 years and it felt like everything had come together. As a model nearly all expenses come out of your own pocket until you break through and that was the point I got the understanding of what it is to be a professional in the industry when you finally get to a point when you feel like you’re appreciated. It was a wonderful moment but I made sure to stay humble and remember that it doesn’t make me any better. I’m still just a man and I take that experience as one of the best lessons in my life. I’m so excited to transition into becoming a real man. It’s such a funny thing to look back over my body of work and see how much I’ve grown. I looked so young at the beginning and the years and flown by.
That’s such an interesting path, what advice would you give someone else wanting to become a model? I meet a lot of people who ask me that. Persistence and discipline are probably the two greatest factors to success. There are stories we all hear on television who just got scouted on the street and a few months later ‘Boom’ there they are on a billboard at Times Square. It doesn’t really work like that. A lot of my friends have been in the industry for years, trying and trying until they “make it.” I have one friend who told me recently that he’d been struggling for 7 years with the biggest job he’d ever had in that whole time paid him $500. One day, out of the blue, he booked a massive job with an international brand and his whole life turned around. You have to remember patience is key.
With that patience in mind, how would you describe yourself in 5 words? Take the time to feel. I like to think that modelling is not just about being an image of success, it’s about being a real role model. I want to communicate something more than just clothing that looks good. We’re lacking role models like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan in todays culture.
Are there any role models you look to? A lot of people may laugh but truly Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was the stereotype of a massive muscle man as an action hero for so many years but when you look at what he’s been able to achieve it’s incredible. He started in a small country far from Hollywood and went on to become a superstar actor, then a successful politician. He’s now a motivational speaker and I love that transition.
On that note, leave us with some words of wisdom. Don’t forget where you came from. You’re never too good for anything. When you have the opportunity to help someone, do it. Helping and sharing give the greatest feeling possible.