Max Lakin sat down with the Olympian fencer and style muse to discuss how he is challenging the old guard — one gold medal at a time. Exclusive photography of Chamley-Watson wearing DITA Endurance 88 by Arkan Zakharov.

Miles Chamley-Watson has a cold, not that it matters. The fencing season has just begun and you don’t get to be the first American male and youngest ever fencing world champion, graduate from university with a full scholarship, and become an international fashion model — well before the age of 30 — by marinating in vapor rub on your couch.

So Chamley-Watson will report to his three-hour workout today, in downtown Manhattan, right after he wraps our photo shoot. Having recently competed in his first national competition of the season, followed by the Fencing World Cup circuit in Germany, he is now focused on fencing qualifications for the Olympic Games in 2020, which will be held in Tokyo. So he’s got a hard out at 12:30, but he’s gone a bit over, because he’s having fun with it.

Miles Chamley-Watson for DITA Eyewear Miles Chamley-Watson for DITA Eyewear MILES CHAMLEY-WASTON IN DITA ENDURANCE 88

Chamley-Watson’s schedules are usually replete like this, and laid out to the minute, but he’s found some time in recent years, when he’s not training or competing at the highest levels of international fencing, to carve out a side gig as a professional model, walking in major runway shows and appearing in global campaigns. So on a Monday morning inside the New York Fencing Club’s floor-through training facility in Chelsea, he’s unequivocally in his element.

“Do you want to try something like this?” he asks the photographer, squaring himself against the lens and assuming an en garde position. Of course the photographer wants to try something like that — it looks perfect, in that way professional-athlete-slash-male-models can make everything look perfect — but Chamley-Watson is only being polite. “I like trying new things,” he says by way of introducing the point of his foil onto the lens and connecting it so it bows upward, a seamless synergy between him and the camera.

Chamley-Watson has a look that can be described as “distinctive” or, perhaps, “loud.” He’s six-foot-four and wears his hair closely cropped and bleached a soft champagne. He’s sheathed in tattoos, many of which reference his bifurcated heritage: Big Ben on one arm, a smiling Lady Liberty centerfold on the other. The neo-gothic facade of St. Patrick’s Cathedral co-opts much of the real estate on his back, US and UK flags flying resplendently across his shoulders. It’s a look that has more in common with the flash and flamboyance of modern athletes in professional football or basketball than fencing, the conception of which remains, to many, a dusty vestige of Anglo-Saxon peerage and hidebound social clubs of elite private universities. That’s by design—Chamley-Watson has said his biggest fear is being an average Joe.

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Chamley-Watson, who is 29, was born in London, the son of a professional model mother, and moved to New York City before he was 10, attending public school and then the Dwight School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His voice retains a faint English lilt, sped up to a New York rush hour.

Ironically, he came to fencing here, more or less by accident, or, as he tells it, as an alternative to detention. “I was getting in trouble a lot, and it was offered to me as an option,” he said. “I thought, 'OK. Swords are cool.’” A devotee of soccer, he had never even heard of it before. “And I loved it.” He stuck with it. He’s had the same coach since he was 12. He was the world fencing champion in foil in 2013, when he was 23, the first American man to hold that title, and the youngest fencer to do so, period. Chamley-Watson is a two-time member of the United States Olympic Team, earning a bronze medal in the team foil competition in Rio de Janiero in 2016.

To watch Chamley-Watson fence is to watch a sublime concerto of musculature. His rangy frame means his limbs cover more distance, which means the point of his foil reaches you faster than seems strictly possible. As his arms dart out and recoil they slash huge brushstrokes into the air, which brings to mind that film of Picasso painting with light. His movements are improvisational by necessity, but they don’t erode into chaos.

Miles Chamley-Watson for DITA Eyewear Miles Chamley-Watson for DITA Eyewear MILES CHAMLEY-WASTON IN DITA ENDURANCE 88

They’re balletic, contorting his form into wild shapes. Like boxing (which he’ll often incorporate into his workouts), fencing is violence cordoned into tight bursts of energy. Also like boxing, fencing is predicated on an antagonistic pas-de-deux. Whereas most fencers seem to operate within a cone of gentility, Chamley-Watson’s movements are entire star systems of verve, staccato flourishes of aggression that erupt in a kinetic symphony.

It takes two to fence, but it can often seem like Chamley-Watson has absorbed all the energy in the room. He does a move where he propels forward and wraps his fencing arm upward and over his head. Presumably you’re so stunned you haven’t just been bulldozed by the broad side of his body you’ve missed the part where you’ve been struck at your chest. It’s called “the Chamley-Watson,” not only because it’s unlike most anything fencing has seen before, which it is, but also because, physically, no one else can really do it.

It’s the kind of flamboyance that lends itself to glamour, which may explain why Chamley-Watson’s second career as a male model has been so fruitful. He’s signed to the agency that represents some of the most famous faces and highest earners in fashion. There are some neat parallels between modeling and fencing, too. A fencing match occurs within the confines of a narrow strip of floor. It’s not dissimilar—visually, geometrically, psychically—to a fashion show runway. He’s appeared on the runway for young, critically acclaimed brands, and in campaigns for multibillion-dollar retailers. “I'm an athlete who can wear clothes well,” Chamley-Watson offers succinctly.

I think fencing is considered a sexy sport, and a lot of fashion is inspired by fencing.

“European companies understand fencing, and they respect it, which is nice. It’s in the culture.” Over the summer, he walked in a US designer’s runway extravaganza in Shanghai, a tightly defined vision of Americana fantasia, which means, to a large degree, Chamley-Watson has already succeeded in making fencing a decidedly American export. Chamley-Watson enjoys fashion’s obvious appeals, but he’s careful to insist that it’s not his primary preoccupation. It's nice to kind of get refreshed and energized in that world and I love it, but, obviously, it's a lot as well.”

As his profile grows, Chamley-Watson feels his responsibility to the sport become more acute, both to raise US fencing’s reputation on the world stage, but also to foster its popularity at home. He’s aware of the focus on him, and culture’s changing attitudes toward representation. “It's 95 percent caucasian,” he says of fencing’s American demographic. “I think it's great to have someone like me who’s the first American to win the championships, not just African-American, but American, to show kids that no matter your skin color you can thrive in any sport you want. Hopefully I can be a role model to kids.”

If he can, it would be one more role model than what he had. “No one looked like me,” he said about his early career. “I didn’t have any reference point. There was no one. Not one person. I didn’t know their names, I didn’t care. Not to compare myself to Tiger, but no kid, growing up like me, gave a shit about golf until he was there, you know?”

Text: Max Lakin
Photos: Arkan Zakharov @arkanzakharov


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