Kiara Kabukuru

She escaped war-torn Uganda as a child and survived a life-threatening bicycle accident at the peak of her career. in an EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM PORTER MAGAZINE, THE TRAILBLAZING MODEL and MENTOR shares how, with help from close friend Gisele Bündchen, she is making her fashion comeback 

Photography by Bjorn Iooss | Words by Heather Hodson

Kiara Kabukuru describes her home in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village as “a place of peace, of calm, of health”, and on a late-spring morning, sitting in the light-filled living room with its milk-coloured walls, expanse of oak floors and steel casement windows overlooking a courtyard, the apartment feels miles away from the urban chaos of downtown New York. It is an inviting space of comfortable grey sofas and soothing hues – every object chosen with a deliberate eye. 

Room With A View: main picture top, Kabukuru wears Pringle Of Scotland sweater, Roland Mouret pants and Trademark bracelet. above, wearing Adam Lippes dress, earrings and bracelet by Eddie Borgo and Manolo Blahnik shoes. 

“I like things to feel like they’re worn, like they’ve got a history,” explains the 39-year-old model, as she pads through the rooms with the graceful, straight-backed poise of a dancer. In the main room, a trunk from the 1800s and an African leather stool Kabukuru found at a street market fill the space – “I like mixing genres and textures.” Another example is her bedroom chest of drawers, a cupboard in black metal set atop a Moroccan chest, with a slab of marble between. “I got these in Morocco and Hungary, and I married them with this Italian marble,” she laughs. “I’m like a kid, I think things have a life. ‘This is her and this is him and they got married in Italy!’ I animate objects, for sure.” 

When Kabukuru renovated the apartment in 2010, she tore down the French moldings and stripped the oak floors, designing things herself – which, she says, “was a mistake, but now I know everything about metal and wood”. She points to the bookshelves flanking the fireplace, which are made out of reclaimed wood, and to the gray metal radiator covers made by a motorcycle engineer. Despite the eclecticism, there is not a hint of clutter: everything is meticulously organised. 

Standing Strong: above, Kabukuru wears Carven top, Jenni Kayne pants, Jimmy Choo shoes and Jennifer Fisher ring.

She bought the property in the 1929 building on the advice of  one of her best friends, the model Natane Adcock, and of Adcock’s mother, the creative director and producer Nian Fish. “They told me this is the neighborhood,” Kabukuru laughs, referring to the grid between Broadway and 6th Avenue and 9th and 12th Streets, lined with antique shops. “I was 24 years old – I had no idea! But my dream was to have a home, and I walked in here and just knew it was my place.”

The desire to anchor herself with a home is not surprising given her displaced childhood. Born in Uganda, her family fled to Los Angeles with the help of Amnesty International when she was six – “but the whole family dynamic had changed”, she recalls. “My father had a nervous breakdown and we all went into survival mode.” From a young age, she had her sights set on New York, she laughs, “because that’s what ‘different’ people did, and I was going to be ‘different’.” When the photographer Bill Bodwell discovered 16-year-old Kabukuru in a shopping mall, she took her chance and headed to Manhattan.

By the late 90s, she was enjoying huge success, starring in campaigns for Gucci, Chanel and Calvin Klein, walking the runway for Christian Dior Couture and appearing on the cover of American Vogue. “Everything was great; life was wonderful. I was up for this big CoverGirl contract – the dream, as far as money goes. And then the accident happened.” Bicycling through the Meatpacking District one spring weekend, she was hit by an 18-wheel truck. It would take seven reconstructive surgeries to rebuild her jaw alone. She spent the next five years in Los Angeles, close to her family, rebuilding her life through intensive physical rehab, therapy, meditation and yoga.

Since returning to the apartment, her New York life is far calmer. Downtime is spent at the movies or trawling furniture shops with her boyfriend of six months, a designer, and seeing old modeling friends such as Gisele Bündchen, a close confidant for 17 years and fellow devotee of Pure Barre on 14th Street. “They just got a place here,” she says of Bündchen and husband Tom Brady, “so we’ve been buzzing around the city and doing classes together.” She credits Bündchen, whose son Benjamin is her godson, for her return to modeling. “She was like, ‘You look great – just do it. Come to a completion about it, because you stopped and it wasn’t your plan.’ She’s such a cheerleader. She’s five years younger than me, but I feel like we grew up together.”

Moving lightly around her apartment, Kabukuru is the picture of good health. Her daily uniform tends to be workout gear, but in the evening, she says, “I dress up and I like to take risks – anything that feels like it’s got its own life. If it shines, I’m in.” She pulls out a shimmering vintage lilac silk 20s dress, followed by a sparkling turquoise top made entirely from sequins that she found in a market in London and calls “very Vegas”.

On top of relaunching her modeling career, Kabukuru is busy with writing her memoir and mentoring children of incarcerated parents. Her closet choices reflect her transformation, too. She used to wear only monochrome, grey and tan, but that’s changed. “Now I want to be head-to-toe in colour – yellow, orange, even neon,” she says. Her vibrant personal style reflects her zest for life. “I’m much clearer about my purpose,” she says happily. “I’ve got away from everything I had to deal with as a child. Not many people get to experience such extremes. That’s what I have to share.”

Read the full interview in Porter magazine on newsstands or via Cover image of Anja Rubik, below, photographed by Inez & Vinoodh. Images courtesy of Porter magazine.

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