If model Mariacarla Boscono ever wants to change careers, she would make a great spokesperson for Rome. “It’s a paradise,” she says of her native city, where she and her 5-year-old daughter, Marialucas, have been living for the past three years. “When you go out to dinner, no one is looking at their phones. Going home has helped me reconnect with engaged conversation and good food—I’ve put on a bit of weight but have never been happier.”

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Indeed, Boscono is noticeably at ease as we sit down for this interview on a breezy summer night. The 36-year-old, who is wearing a laid-back combination of black workout clothes and sparkly Miu Miu mary janes, chats candidly, laughs loudly, and drinks a tall glass of Champagne with the air of someone living la dolce vita. “Cheers,” she says, giving our third toast in 15 minutes. “See, this is what happens when you work with Italians!”

She’s the first to admit that she has not always been so effervescent. During her early childhood Boscono moved from country to country—the U.S., Thailand, Kenya—as her free-spirited parents took on odd jobs that allowed them to travel. She describes that period as a “beautiful but secluded” experience spent in the company of adults and her two much older brothers. By the time she resettled in the Eternal City at age 14, she had constructed an identity as a perennial outsider. Even at home her nickname was Calimero, after an Italian-Japanese cartoon about a black chicken that lives in a family of yellow birds. “It’s the story of my life,” she says. “My siblings were both tall, with light blond hair and green eyes, while I was small and dark.”

Family friend and former Fellini photographer Mimmo Cattarinich, however, saw something else. “He thought I had a very interesting face and asked my mother if he could shoot me. I was going through a sullen period where I only wore black, so she said, ‘Sure! Maybe that will put her in a better mood.’ ” It did more than that. Those pictures, which were spotted in Cattarinich’s office by a Milanese casting director, led to Boscono’s 1997 modeling début, and ultimately an exclusive contract, with Comme des Garçons.

“I arrived at that first job trying to channel Claudia Schiffer from the Versace ads, wearing high heels, a miniskirt, and orange foundation with white powder over my teenage pimples,” she says, gleefully recalling the horror she felt when the label’s designer, Rei Kawakubo, swapped the getup for a sacklike black dress and white face paint. “It took me a while to realize that the beauty of fashion is more than just looking pretty—it’s about inspiration, transformation, and art.”

This fall Boscono will have logged two decades in the business and plans to celebrate her achievement with a big party. A guaranteed guest of honor is her best friend and creative collaborator, Riccardo Tisci. Despite their frequent arguments (“We love to fight about everything!” she says), the two have been inseparable since the designer’s senior year at Central Saint Martins in London. Following his graduation, she even persuaded several of her colleagues (including fellow ’90s breakouts Karen Elson and Natasha Poly) to walk his show gratis, much to the chagrin of more established houses.

“The designers were upset because they were paying for work from the same people,” she remembers. “I said, ‘If there’s a problem, go ahead and cancel me from your show.’ Of course they wouldn’t because I was the girl of the season. I was so feisty about it—but I wanted everyone to see he’s a star.” Her unwavering support paid off: During Tisci’s subsequent 12-year tenure at Givenchy, she became the brand’s de facto muse, solidifying her standing as the go-to girl for dark, gothic chic.

Lately, she’s been particularly selective when choosing new projects, cherry-picking gigs so she can keep being a hands-on mom to Marialucas. She’s currently the face of Italian cosmetics brand Borghese and makes the occasional catwalk cameo, as she did in July for Chanel’s fall 2017 couture show. But no matter how demanding work gets, Boscono is thrilled to find that after all this time she still loves it. “You know, I’m not the most beautiful lady in the world, but I am 100 percent happy to be here,” she says with a laugh. “This is a damn good job!”

For more stories like this, pick up Fashionmomo‘s September issue, on newsstands and available for digital download Aug. 11.

Photographer: Phil Poynter. Fashion Editor: Vanessa Chow. Hair: Peter Gray for Home Agency. Makeup: Christopher Ardoff for Art Department. Manicure: Kelly B. for De Facto. Set design: Daniel Graff for MHS Artists.

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