We Fascinated Them: Shailah Edmonds on a Golden Era of Black Models

In 1970s Paris, all the top designers wanted to hire dark-skinned women. Then fashion moved on.

At a piano bar in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, just before night life shut down across the city, a 71-year-old former model named Shailah Edmonds performed her one-woman cabaret show to a two-drink-minimum crowd.

Ms. Edmonds, who stands 6-foot-2 in heels, wore a chiffon dress and a bejeweled head wrap as she told her life story: that of a starry-eyed girl from Portland, Ore., who came to New York in the 1970s and rose to success as a model during an era when black women were excluded from the elite runways of haute couture fashion.

Ms. Edmonds dropped zingers as her band accompanied her with jazzy tunes.

“My career started when I won the couture award at a modeling contest. I didn’t even know what ‘couture’ meant.”

“My first big campaign was for a ski catalog. They put the skis through my Afro.”

When the lights dimmed, though, Ms. Edmonds told the crowd that her modeling career didn’t take off in New York the way she’d hoped.

“The agencies would tell me, ‘We have enough black girls here,’” she said. “‘We don’t need any more of them. We can’t do anything for you.’ And my blood would boil. America wasn’t interested in black beauty, and the agencies were blatant about this. That’s the way it was and we had to accept it.”

So, as Ms. Edmonds recounts, she took what gigs she could get, selling perfume at Bloomingdale’s on the side, until one day a photographer told her she needed to get to Paris: he’d heard whispers that African-American models were starting to dominate the Parisian runways of haute couture designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Balmain, and Dior.

“Something is starting to happen in Paris,” he told her. “The French are different. They will appreciate you. You need to get there.’”

Ms. Edmonds, then 25, secured a one-way airplane ticket, and in Paris, everything changed. She became one of fashion’s dazzling stars, and bore witness to a now largely forgotten chapter in its history.

Settling into a tiny apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement, Ms. Edmonds joined a scene of young black women from cities like Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles and New York who had faced adversity getting work in America but were now thriving as glamorous jet-setting models in the City of Lights.

As she tells it, these tall women had their run of the town through the late ’70s and early ’80s. They were booked constantly, they put local models out of work, they broke the hearts of Parisian men, they began their mornings on set with flutes of champagne, they partied nightly at Le Palace Le Palace, and they never paid for meals at bistros they closed down by dancing on tables after midnight. After a bountiful season, Ms. Edmonds’s agent bought her a jewel-encrusted coke spoon for Christmas.

“They accepted us because we fascinated them,” she said. “We stood a little taller. We felt a little more fabulous. We had more rhythm. The white models couldn’t keep up with us, and they were livid about it.”

Ms. Edmonds was eminent during this era. She walked the runways for all the couture houses and she developed a signature double twirl. Karl Lagerfeld flew her to Rome. Issey Miyake requested her in Tokyo. Gianni Versace needed her in Austria. Guy Laroche asked her to be his muse, and Arthur Elgort photographed her in Valentino.

“She became a favorite model of mine at the time,” Mr. Elgort, 80, recalled. “She was really one of the best black girls working during that moment.”

Ms. Edmonds also became one of Yves Saint Laurent’s fitting models, spending intimate hours with the designer at his atelier at 5 Avenue Marceau.She was fired, she said, after he fainted during a fitting from a drug overdose.

“It was always just me and him, and one day he crumpled down right in front of me,” Ms. Edmonds said. “All the seamstresses ran into the room and started freaking out. ‘Monsieur! Monsieur!’ I knelt down trying to help with all these pins sticking in me. I was let go after that. He never acknowledged me again.” (Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, struggled with substance abuse.)

Ms. Edmonds is resolved to remind people of this era. Until the closure of nightlife in New York, she was performing her autobiographical cabaret show, “A Star Alone,” at Don’t Tell Mama on West 46th Street, and she plans to resume when the city starts back up. She has also self-published a memoir, “Wild Child to Couture Style.”

Isolated in her apartment on the Upper West Side, Ms. Edmonds has become only more immersed in the past. She keeps a cabinet filled with dusty copies of Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily from the Paris days and spends her nights researching them as she writes new material for her show.

As the nation roils with protests after George Floyd was killed in police custody, Ms. Edmonds has reflected intensely on racism she experienced in the fashion industry. “Right now, the fashion world isn’t talking about what is happening in the country because they don’t want people looking at them too closely,” she said. “The truth is that the fashion industry is racist. Models today have no idea what we went through and continue to go through.”

“I think black models get more play now, but I’m skeptical,” she said. “I think the industry decided inclusivity is a message the public finally wants to hear. If it was left to them, it would still be white models. Look at Zac Posen. He did that show once with all black models and he was never heard from again.”(Mr. Posen closed his business in 2019.)

At Ms. Edmonds’s cabaret, there’s usually a table filled with tall women like herself: a squad of former models from the Paris days who come out to show support.

Charissa Craig, who was part of Emilio Pucci’s “cabine” of models through the 1970s, is now a real estate agent working in Bergen County, N.J. “That was our moment, and we’ve never been able to get it back,” she said.

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