Paloma Elsesser has had a big year. Around this time in 2020, the 28-year-old model and activist – an uncategorisable beauty whose curves, charisma and cool have made her one to watch in fashion – vaulted to the next level, career-wise, in a breakthrough season that saw her walk in Fendi and Alexander McQueen’s autumn/winter 2020 shows.
Although the spring/summer 2021 shows (in September 2020) were mostly digital, she ended up walking for Fendi and Salvatore Ferragamo, then appeared in Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty Amazon Prime special, and signed a deal with Coach as one of the faces of its new Pillow Tabby handbag campaign.
“Of course she’s gorgeous,” says Stuart Vevers, the American brand’s executive creative director. “But more than that, she draws you in because she’s an individual with warmth, a sense of humour and an interior life… She’s a very genuine person – and just lots of fun.”
None of the above, of course, could compare with the “incredibly surreal” experience of her first solo American Vogue cover. Rising from a lake in a wet Michael Kors Collection slip dress on the front of its January 2021 issue, she looked like a latter-day Venus.
Elsesser (pronounced El-SESS-er) saw the issue for the first time on a video call with her mother and grandmother. Her boyfriend, Johnny Wilson, a videographer and skateboarder, filmed the reveal; it’s impossible to watch it without joining in on the women’s happy tears. “This was a huge deal for me – I wanted to celebrate that with the people I want to make proud,” she says
It was the highest-profile moment in an otherwise introspective period. Elsesser spent most of last spring and summer in her New York apartment, reacquainting with herself. “The weirdest part was just having to look at who I am outside of work, friends and family members. Like, what is it that brings me joy outside of other people’s expectations?”
She wrote a lot of poetry. Set up a community fridge filled with fresh food for those in need on the Lower East Side. And, in a milestone personally more significant to her than Vogue, began the process of buying a Brooklyn brownstone with her brother Sage, a musician and skateboarder. “I grew up in a house with my grandparents downstairs and me and my siblings upstairs; my mum lived in the living room at one point. I never really thought property ownership was in my future.”
Elsesser was raised in a “hippie poor” household in Los Angeles, the daughter of an African American mother and Chilean Swiss father. Both parents were artists – her mum, a dancer turned writer; her father a musician – and they sent her to elite private schools where she often felt set apart from her predominantly white, ultra-affluent peers.
She moved to New York to study psychology and literature at the New School, relishing the city’s culture and meeting stylists and fashion insiders along the way. She did the rounds at modelling agencies but nothing took – until she received an email from Pat McGrath. The make-up artist was about to start her own line and wanted Elsesser as the face of her first product, a concentrated gold pigment. “That’s pretty much the day that changed my life,” Elsesser said last year. “She was a person in a position of power who showed me that I could have a place in the industry. And she didn’t want to change anything about me.”
At the time, in 2015, there was only a handful of plus-size models who had achieved mainstream success. Elsesser knows her visibility has powerful downstream effects on which sizes of clothing get produced (she wears a UK 18) and who gets booked on future jobs. “If my doing a job opens up the conversation, then I feel a certain level of responsibility. Because it’s not just about me.”
Sometimes being an exemplar can feel heavy – few straight-sized models are called upon to represent a swathe of a demographic. “I just want to show up as authentically as I can, in an industry that by design is about fantasy,” she says. “If I can contribute to alleviating people of self-hatred – yeah, I’m down.”
She’s had more company lately, including at the shows in September. “Show seasons can be isolating, especially if you occupy any body out of the norm... It was really nice to have Precious [Lee], Alva [Claire] and Ashley [Graham] there,” she says, naming fellow plus-models who flew out for Fendi’s show. “There was more of a sisterhood vibe.”
Another place she feels that is Coach. “It’s an iconic American brand, and definitely one of those places where I feel completely accepted.” Shooting the campaign for the Tabby bag (“really contemporary and modern”) with Juergen Teller over FaceTime from a Covid-secure set in LA was a defining moment. “One of the things I’ve taken out of the past year is the importance of doing things that feel good and working with people that make you feel good.”
It’s something she wants to share with a wider audience. She constantly receives messages from women keen to know where she shops, given that there still aren’t as many places where curvier women can feel at home, fashion-wise. She think a clothing line might be in her future.
“I want plus bodies to feel validated and seen, and I think that as somebody who's utilized fashion and style as an incredible armour to navigating the world, what's available is really limiting…. I would love to create garments I know I feel good in, that hopefully other people would too.” The way things are going, you can’t help but feel certain that she will.