When Sara Ziff, a fashion model and labor activist, boarded a train in Philipstown, N.Y., in June 2019 after a four-day hike along the Appalachian Trail, glamour certainly didn’t get on board with her.
“I was thoroughly exhausted and smelly,” said Ms. Ziff, who has been the face of campaigns for designers like Stella McCartney and Diana von Furstenberg.
She hadn’t showered in days. And this left her feeling less than confident about the possibility of impressing a handsome stranger she met on the train platform who was also on his way home to New York City. The stranger, Reed Young, a photographer, tacitly confirmed she may not have been at her most magnetic when they parted company. Although they had chatted before getting on the train and throughout the hour-plus ride about their hiking adventures, he said goodbye without asking for her name or number.
Ms. Ziff, the founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit research, policy and advocacy group for fashion industry workers, wasn’t expecting much from the encounter anyway. She had gotten out of her trail experience what she wanted: a getaway with a few fellow models who also needed a break from their cellphones and work obligations. By the time she strapped on her massive hiking pack for the walk home to her West Village apartment, after a subway ride to Union Square, the prospect of romance with Mr. Young seemed as distant as the train whistle at Philipstown’s tiny Manitou Station.
“When I decided to go on this hiking adventure with my girlfriends I had been single for a while,” she said. “I was really not thinking about guys. To be honest, I was kind of over men at that point in my life and very focused on my work and resigned to maybe never meeting the right person.”
Ms. Ziff, 38, started modeling at 14 after being discovered by a photographer after school on the streets of Manhattan, where she grew up. Her father, Edward Ziff, is a professor of biochemistry at N.Y.U.’s school of medicine. Her mother, Susan Taylorson Ziff, is semiretired from her position as a lawyer at the law firm of Gerstein Strauss & Rinaldi. She has a younger brother, Benjamin Ziff.
Her decision to take the scout seriously and become a model did not sit well with her parents. “I come from an academic background,” she said. “Fashion and modeling just wasn’t a part of the world I grew up in. My parents were horrified. I thought it would be better than babysitting, which is what a lot of my friends were doing.”
In many ways, it was.
By the early 2000s, Ms. Ziff had been in ad campaigns for brands like the Gap and had walked runways for luxury labels including Prada, Chanel and Christian Dior; she still accepts the occasional modeling job. “I was one of the lucky ones, in that I got to be the face of big brands,” she said. “But I also experienced the pitfalls of what remains a largely unregulated industry.”
These pitfalls, she said, included sexual harassment and difficulties getting paid for her work. In 2010, while a student at Columbia, where she graduated, she co-directed a documentary, “Picture Me: A Model’s Diary,” that traces the highs and lows of models’ lives in front of the camera, including her own. Two years later, the prevalence of struggles within the industry and the lack of an organizing body to help with issues like nonpayment and racial discrimination inspired Ms. Ziff to start the Model Alliance.
She led the effort to introduce New York State’s Child Model Act, which was enacted in 2013, and was involved in other legislative efforts to secure fair working conditions in the industry. In 2016, she earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. She paid for her undergraduate and graduate education with money she made modeling. Now, “I very much appreciate my parents’ emphasis on education,” she said. If she had a teenage daughter who was interested in modeling, she added, she would advise proceeding with caution.
At the time of the Manitou Station encounter with Mr. Young, caution also defined her approach to dating. Her work had landed her in a precarious position. “When you run a nonprofit, you’re constantly trying to fund raise to make sure you can continue with the work that’s meaningful to you,” she said. “It can be hard to be fully present in a relationship.” Though she had felt a tug of curiosity about Mr. Young, it had been easily dismissed for that reason. “I remember thinking he was very handsome. But I didn’t want to push it.”
At the same time, Mr. Young had been harboring regret about the woman who walked away from him at the Union Square subway station on June 23, 2019. As he continued his ride home to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, he chided himself for his reticence.
“I wasn’t brave enough in the moment,” said Mr. Young, also 38, who has worked as a photographer for magazines including Wired and Time, and for the fashion line Tibi. “I remember sitting on the subway being so mad at myself, and then walking home that Sunday afternoon being so bummed, like, ‘Now I’m all alone. What did I have to lose?’”
Mr. Young grew up in Minneapolis with an older sister, Julie Taggart, and his mother, Barbara Iverson, the retired president of the financial services industry practice at Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm, and his father, Douglas Young, the retired chief executive of Endura Financial, a credit union. He graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., after an adolescent struggle to find a career path.
“When Sara was being discovered as a model, I was getting my first job at McDonald’s,” he said. His parents also pushed education. “But I didn’t have the bandwidth for it. To be honest, my No. 1 priority was hanging out with friends. I was very social.”
His friendliness has been an asset on the far-flung photo essay projects he assigns himself each year, which have taken him to places including Alaska and Japan. “I’ll think of an idea and go cover it, then come back and find a magazine or newspaper to publish it,” he said. This fall, he will begin a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia.
Neither Mr. Young nor Ms. Ziff has ever married. Both describe themselves as serial monogamists. When he met Ms. Ziff at the train station, Mr. Young was looking for his next girlfriend on dating apps. Reluctantly. “I had been single for a while too, and I went through phases where I really wanted to meet somebody,” he said. “But at 37, which is how old I was when I met Sara, you go out on these dates, and you can tell right away it’s not the right person. With Sara, I remember there was this nice feeling.”
When they matched on Hinge last October, he nearly dropped his phone. “I was so happy,” he said. Ms. Ziff had only recently posted her profile at the urging of friends who convinced her she shouldn’t give up on dating. Mr. Young introduced himself through the app: “This may be a little creepy,” he wrote, “but I’m almost positive we’ve already met.”
Their first date, on Oct. 29, was at Malatesta Trattoria in the West Village. The chemistry they felt on the train resurfaced instantly. Within weeks, he was riding his bike to the West Village regularly for dinner dates in Manhattan, and Ms. Ziff and her rescue dog, Tillie, were commuting to Bed-Stuy for home-cooked dinners.
“That was one of the nice things for me, because I don’t have much of a kitchen,” she said. “That’s when the nesting started. We became homebodies together.” By Christmas, Ms. Ziff had agreed to spend the holidays in Palm Springs, Calif., where Mr. Young’s parents have a winter home. “I thought it was a bold move on my part, because we stayed for eight days.”
Ms. Ziff fit right in. “Sara is smart and beautiful and so down-to-earth,” Ms. Iverson said. “Reed had only known her five or six weeks, but by the time they left I knew that this was the one for him. He just absolutely lights up around her.”
Their next getaway, to Costa Rica in early March, was rocked by the start of the pandemic. “The news out of New York was bad, so we extended our trip, but eventually flights out of Costa Rica started seeming nonexistent,” Mr. Young said. At the end of the month, they secured tickets to Palm Springs. Their lives, like the rest of the world’s, had changed by then. But in a way that transcended the virus.
“Between morning hikes in the rainforest and afternoon swims in the ocean, we decided to get married,” Ms. Ziff said. “There was no formal proposal. It was more like a series of discussions. But we decided to do it while the world was unraveling.”
In late May, they returned to New York with a plan to get married at the spot they had met a year earlier. On June 23, Ms. Ziff, in a white cotton-voile dress by Esteban Cortazar and flat strappy sandals, held a bouquet of white peonies as she walked down a dusty country road toward the Manitou Station flanked by her friends Lisa and Peter Yanowitz. Ms. Yanowitz, a former model and now a labor and delivery nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital, was ordained by the Universal Life Church to marry them. Mr. Yanowitz, a musician, provided musical accompaniment during the walk on a pocket-size flute painted to look like a toucan. The wedding’s two other guests were Mr. Young’s friends: Edward Mostoller, a consumer protection attorney at Brooklyn Volunteers Lawyers Project, had been Mr. Young’s hiking partner last summer when he met Ms. Ziff. Jaka Vinsek, a photographer and cinematographer, is a frequent collaborator of his.
As the couple met under the shelter of the station, ornamented by a local florist with garlands of roses and ranunculus, Ms. Yanowitz started by telling them the universe wanted them to be together. “To meet on a tiny little platform in the middle of nowhere, all the stars have to align,” she said.
Mr. Young, in black pants and a black jacket pulled from his closet, was the first to read handwritten vows. “I’ll never forget how radiant you looked on that bench last summer,” he told Ms. Ziff. “I’ll never forget the dread I felt on the subway home for failing to ask you on a date.”
After a train roared past, it was Ms. Ziff’s turn. “One year ago today I got butterflies when I spotted you,” she said. “My life is happier and better with you in it.”
By the conclusion of the 15-minute ceremony, when Ms. Yanowitz pronounced them married, not a single passenger had surfaced. Ms. Ziff and Mr. Young celebrated the semiprivate moment with a marathon kiss before Ms. Ziff tossed her bouquet behind her toward the train tracks. Mr. Mostoller, the only single wedding guest, was waiting to catch it.
On This Day
When June 23, 2020
Where The Manitou train station in Philipstown, N.Y.
Heat of the Moment Mr. Young and Ms. Ziff exchanged custom gold bands during the ceremony. The rings, ordered from Bario Neal Jewelry in Philadelphia, were a struggle to put on during the 90-degree day.
Together This Time After the ceremony, the couple and their guests took an hourlong hike to a picnic area, where they celebrated with a catered lunch packed by Greedi Kitchen, a vegan cafe in Brooklyn.
More Nesting After the wedding, Ms. Ziff and Mr. Young planned to finish moving Ms. Ziff into Mr. Young’s Brooklyn apartment. “We’ve had so much time off with the pandemic that it seemed strange to think of going on a honeymoon.”