Chris Colls/Serlin Associates
Alison Syrett Cleary
Nov 28, 2017 @ 9:00 am

Model Malgosia Bela has a fresh perspective on fashion shows: the view from front row. “It’s been a nice change,” says the catwalk veteran, who just wrapped Paris Fashion Week as a full-time guest. “But I couldn’t help but notice when the girls on the runway were wearing uncomfortable-looking shoes. Been there, done that!”

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This could be Bela’s motto for any number of remarkable achievements. Since landing on the style scene in 1998, she’s been in high demand with major magazines and legacy brands (Comme des Garçons, Louis Vuitton, and Oscar de la Renta to name a few) and still found time to build an international acting résumé on the side (her latest project, director Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the Italian horror film Suspiria, is slated to come out in 2018). And while she’s quick to say the bulk of this professional success comes from a series of lucky breaks, a career like hers doesn’t last for two decades by accident.

Chris Colls/Serlin Associates

When Bela was a 20-year-old music student in Warsaw, Poland (fun fact: she’s still certified to teach piano), she was approached by a recruiter at a local theater. Although the job’s perks—glamorous parties! Free clothes!—didn’t tempt her, the nomadic lifestyle did. “My interest was piqued when [the recruiter] mentioned New York City because it was one place I could never afford to visit.” The following summer, Bela touched down in the Big Apple.

Chris Colls/Serlin Associates

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Things moved quickly for her that first season: prime spots in buzzy shows such as Balenciaga and Givenchy, a starring role in Jil Sander’s campaign, and a cool new wardrobe of black Helmut Lang jeans and sample pieces from Marc Jacobs’s spring/summer 1999 collection. “He paid his models with clothes back then, and we wore them everywhere.” Despite her well-received début, Bela struggled with impostor syndrome. “I felt out of place and unqualified,” she remembers of this whirlwind period. “I was always waiting for someone to realize I was there by mistake.”

Chris Colls/Serlin Associates

Now, however, she speaks confidently about her breadth of experience. “Collaborating with such fantastic people for the past 20 years has built up my self-esteem.” And Bela is ready to take her talents behind the scenes, as the editor-at-large of Vogue Poland. “This position lets me move a bit away from the camera. I’m doing a little of everything, from production to creative direction to writing.”

Chris Colls/Serlin Associates

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Not that she’s completely finished with starring in shoots. The images here, for instance, are a perfect example of highly personal projects she’d like to take on. “I styled and my close friend [photographer Chris Colls] shot these pictures out of my apartment in Paris. This is the way I prefer working now—intimate and no drama.”

Chris Colls/Serlin Associates
Chris Colls/Serlin Associates

Something else that’s evolved over time? Her wardrobe. “My look is becoming more minimalist and chic as I get older,” she says. At 40, she gravitates toward labels like Céline that embody a classic yet conceptual vibe—and has finally learned to love high heels. “I used to always be in sneakers, but I’ve hit this magic moment where I want to embrace being a woman.”

Chris Colls/Serlin Associates

When we’re done speaking this morning, Bela will head home to Warsaw, where she recently relocated after years of bouncing between homes in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris. After going full speed these past several days, she looks forward to her “simple pleasures”: playing piano with her 13-year-old son, Jozef; reading Thomas Mann novels; and swimming an hour and a half every day. “Now that I’m living in Poland, things have come full circle. It seems I’m where I should be.”

For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download now.

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