You were brought up in a very creative household your mother a painter, your father a jazz musician and your grandmother was Marian Anderson the classical singer.
Yes, she was an African American singer during the time of Roosevelt. The challenges she faced you simply can't even imagine today but she managed to have great success in the United States and Europe. Growing up I had very artistic people around me. One of my godmothers was a Vogue editor in France in the 1920’s. She was in her 80’s when I met her and she was friends with Vaslav Nijinsky, Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan. I grew up with impressions of these great artists so when I was quite young I knew I wanted to go to art school.
Which is where you studied fashion design. You were wearing your own designs when you were first discovered.
I was wearing a mini-skirt. I was pre-Twiggy, I was making tiny skirts before she even had them. Carrie Donovan from Vogue saw me in the subway and asked me to take my designs up to Vogue. So, I took some pieces to the offices and while I was sitting there this guy named Joel Schumacher−he’s a film director now−saw me and said we should use ‘her’ for the pictures. Right away they took me out on a shoot. It was the middle of January and I was outside in the wind with a kite.
After you appeared in Vogue how did your life change?
My mother sent that article around to some magazines and the first to respond was Mrs. Johnson of Ebony, which was a popular African American society magazine. She had purchased entire collections of Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert Givenchy, Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin. She asked me to join her travelling trunk show.
You must have travelled the whole country, what was that like?
I was stuck in a greyhound bus for three months. You know what they say about travelling, you have to see your own country first and boy did I see it. I have never been so terrified than when I was down south. We were a bus full of black girls and they wanted us out of there. I remember it was Thanksgiving and Ku Klux Klan came past with torches in front of the hotel telling us to leave.
How did that experience affect you?
I was glad it was over. When the tour ended, I went back to finish school and then things started happening for me. Irving Penn took my photograph and I got a call from Antonio Lopez the illustrator asking me to come to Paris.
What was Paris like in the early 70’s?
Fantastic! We didn’t have any money but we were rich in other ways. You don’t really want money when you’re young. You want life, you want experience and you want to be with amazing people. We lived in Karl Lagerfeld’s apartment on the Rue Bonaparte where five of us slept on the floor. Karl was always working but we would spend all day at Café de Flore ordering water until somebody would come past and pay for our drinks.
You brought drama and excitement to Parisian nightlife.
We were always decked out and decadent and La Coupole was my runway. One night I walked in wearing Marlene Dietrich’s lingerie that Karl had given to me. It was made from densely pleated blue chiffon and had a long train and angel wings. When I lifted my arms the light shone through and it was lovely and sheer. I had nothing on underneath. People broke out in applause and popped champagne.
Do you think people are just as daring today?
You have to have the confidence to take what you want. I see people taking selfies on their phones and I think it’s great. People want to shine to get some attention and love. They want to share a moment when they feel at their best. It’s all about love in the end and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
PHOTOGRAPHY Wikkie Hermkens - STYLING Sonny Groo - TEXT Savi Kuruppu