Photo by Cathy Pinsky
Alvin & Friends is the newest restaurant in New Rochelle’s burgeoning dining scene—but one with a surprisingly comforting old soul. Tucked into a corner of a longstanding building in downtown New Rochelle, the restaurant has an interior with the elegant hallmarks of the best Manhattan bistros: banquettes, chandeliers, and vibrant oil paintings. It’s an exciting addition to the neighborhood; fitting in so seamlessly, it feels like it’s always been there.
If this eatery can be seen in several different but equally impressive lights, so can its owner, Alvin Clayton. He’s more than just the mastermind behind the restaurant’s Southern and Caribbean fare—he created the stunning artwork on its walls. And that’s hardly the only place his paintings can be seen: They’ve been shown at the Smithsonian and are sold through galleries on both coasts. Avid collectors include Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro, and Halle Berry.
Artist and restaurateur—two titles anyone would envy. But there’s a third one: Clayton, 48, also lays claim to the title of supermodel. Perhaps more amazingly, modest supermodel. For someone who’s been one of the most sought-after faces of the past three decades, he’s remarkably short on self-congratulation. “I’ve been blessed,” he says, flashing a gorgeous smile that in itself helps explain why he’s posed for fashion bibles like Vogue and GQ.
How Clayton found fame—and Westchester—is a tale as colorful as his Matisse-inspired paintings. On a Monday night when the restaurant is closed, we huddle at a front table as he shares his life story.
Life began for Clayton in Trinidad. Early childhood, he remembers, “was free, friendly, and beautiful,” spent at school and playing with his four brothers and sisters, under the loving care of his mother and grandparents. Still, “America is the country everyone aspires to come to,” he says. His mother, a dressmaker, departed for the U.S. to set up a store, sending for her children when Alvin was 12. The island child suddenly found himself in Washington, D.C.
“Trinni,” as classmates at Archbishop Carroll High School called him, was shy at first. “I spoke with a West Indian accent,” he says. Soon, though, he won admiration for his soccer skills, eventually becoming team captain and student council president. Yet the future model was no spotlight hog. “I did one play, but I liked doing crew more,” he says.
Though he was appointed to the National Honor Society and courted by colleges, he didn’t apply anywhere. “I wasn’t familiar with the process. I thought, ‘If a school wants me, they’ll just invite me.’ I had no clue!” Shortly after graduation, he accompanied his guidance counselor on a trip to Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland. “I don’t know if it was a setup, but the soccer coach was there and offered me a scholarship.” He happily accepted.
At the cozy, 2,400-student school, Clayton again was a big man on campus. But he was getting attention for more than his athletic skills—his 6’2” physique and magnetic grin attracted notice. “I was voted ‘sexiest legs’ in a class poll,” he says, laughing heartily. When a friend who worked for the Wilhelmina Models agency in Manhattan sent in some snapshots of Clayton, he was invited to come in.
But Clayton’s interests lay in another field—literally. “The San Diego Soccers, a pro team, invited me to try out!” he recalls. Before he could show them his moves, though, the league folded. Suddenly, modeling was more than just a pipe dream: “Wilhelmina was still interested, so after I graduated, in 1984, I came to New York. I decided I’d give it a summer. If it didn’t work, I’d move on. My education was still my focus.”
Soon, though, cameras began focusing on him. “First, it was catalog jobs,” he says. But a break quickly arrived when Ebony booked him for the premiere issue of its spinoff, Ebony Man. “I worked with top African American models, like Beverly Johnson, Iman, Mario Van Peebles, and Renauld White.” Soon after, GQ, the male models’ magazine of choice, booked him for a day.
“I was nervous,” he confides. “Any shot in GQ—especially if it was of a man of color—showed the guy looking serious. But my portfolio was all smiles. Was I supposed to give that ‘someone just killed my dog’ face?’ In the end, I decided to be myself.”
He was invited back for a second day. “Wilhelmina was ecstatic,” he says. “It was unusual.” What followed broke all the rules: GQ’s next issue included eight pages of Clayton, among the first times a model of color had received such exposure.
His career exploded. He soon had a months-long waiting list of clients, including Vogue and Glamour and department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. Work took him to Japan and Italy, but it was France that made a lasting impression. “I fell in love with the Matisse paintings at the Musée d’Orsay. My then-girlfriend had painted as a child and told me she wanted to get back into it, so I bought painting supplies for her birthday. Two weeks went by, and she hadn’t touched them, so I started using them.”
By 1989, Clayton was still modeling, but also painting. “My agent came to my place, and she couldn’t believe my work. She brought over her friend, Lee Arthur, who had a gallery in SoHo. Lee said, ‘I’ve got to give you a show!’” She did—and Clayton sold 19 of the 27 pieces featured. One attendee at the gala was a producer on the TV show House of Style and tapped Clayton for a special on successful models. “After it aired, I got inquiries about my paintings from as far as Europe. Like my scholarship, it was lucky.”
More good fortune arrived in 1991, when Clayton met his future wife, Gwen, then a corporate event planner, at a party. “Our eyes locked, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty girl.’” (To see the “pretty girl” now, turn to our Beautiful People feature, page 86.) He took her on a date to a comedy show, “where she said, ‘Tell me your best jokes,’” Clayton recalls. “Luckily, models pass time at shoots telling jokes, so I cracked her up.” (I ask for his favorite joke; Clayton protests it’s too risqué. Eventually, he’s persuaded—but not before I promise not to put it in the piece. It’s great, though. I’d have married him, too.)
Life with Gwen would take Clayton in new directions, including out west. When she broke the news in the early ’90s that she was being transferred, “I called my agent in L.A. right then and there,” he says. The two married in 1994 and created a family: Matisse, Oliver, and Bella, now ages 15, 13, and 11.
He continued to work modeling jobs in California, while painting on the side. Soon he felt the lure of another business: restaurants. “A friend was opening a place called Georgia, where stars like Denzel Washington and Debbie Allen were investors. He offered to show me the ropes.” Clayton helped run Georgia until its closure seven years later.
By then, both he and Gwen were ready for a change. “We’d always said we’d come back east once our kids were school-age. Gwen’s best friend had a house in New Rochelle, and we’d visited and loved the small-town feel.” In 2001, the Claytons bought their own New Rochelle property. Soon, they were part of the community fabric, making numerous friends (some of whom are investors in Alvin & Friends, hence its name). Clayton lent and donated artworks to local libraries and charitable initiatives.
While Manhattan modeling jobs have kept him busy in recent years (and his kids as well; all three have posed for catalogs), he’s long missed his L.A. restaurant life; Alvin & Friends is a return to those happy days. “I scouted locations for years until I found this space,” he says, waving toward the window, from which the upscale Avalon apartments are in view. His search for a chef to serve impeccable Caribbean and Southern specialties, from caramelized salmon to fried chicken, ended in Raymond Jackson, formerly of famed New York barbecue mecca Blue Smoke.
Since its opening in October, the restaurant has received an avalanche of accolades. Notables such as Janice Huff, Maurice DuBois, and Vanessa Williams have sampled the fare, “but I treat everyone like they’re a star. I’m honored they’ve chosen us.” That’s no line, says good friend Theresa Leghorn, director of New Rochelle’s Museum of Arts and Culture and an investor in Alvin & Friends. “With Alvin, what you see is what you get,” she says. “He’s inclusive, too. He’s put together a group of investors in Alvin & Friends that looks like our community: young and old, black and white, from different fields. And he’s a hands-on owner. He wants everyone who walks in to have a fabulous time.”
Toward the end of our interview, someone does walk in, unexpectedly. “Are you open?” the well-dressed woman asks. Clayton shakes his head. “I hate to disappoint you, but we’re closed Mondays.” She pouts. “I’m sorry,” he cajoles, “but I hope we’ll see you again.” He flashes his five-thousand-watt smile.
Yeah, he’ll see her again.
Deborah Skolnik is a senior editor at Parenting magazine. Her past profiles have included celebrity musicians, actors, and athletes, as well as the surgeon general.