Amid increased scrutiny and pressure across media that have led to an unprecedented number of hirings, firings, and leadership roles for Black journalists and execs this year, Vogue and parent company Condé Nast seem to be making good on their promises to diversify their ranks and coverage. Since American Vogue Editor-in-Chief and Condé Nast U.S. Artistic Director Anna Wintour conceded in June that the magazine had, at times, been “hurtful and intolerant,” and had “not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators,” concerted and highly visible efforts have been made to center Black talent and faces. In fact, each of American Vogue’s covers from August through November of this year featured a Black model, celebrity or creator.
As many of us rightly question whether the sudden interest in Black lives and creativity spawned by the events of 2020 will prove to be just another trend, Vogue and Condé Nast appear to be keeping that same energy as we head into 2021. To wit: two of its four January 2021 covers again feature Black women; Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka’s cover debuted last week, followed this week by supermodel Paloma Elsesser, who has continued to push the inclusivity conversation forward not just racially, but as a size 14 who, like Ashley Graham and Precious Lee, has crossed over into the echelons of high fashion.
For those who scoff at the impact a model can or should potentially have in our current climate when there are so many other deeply pressing issues to address, Elsesser, who grew up in Los Angeles’ Mid-City neighborhood and “identifies as a Black multiracial woman” is hyper-aware of her place in the bigger picture, as well. “When a size 14 person like myself says no to doing a show, they may not put anyone larger in that show—therefore that sample doesn’t go into the editorial season,” she notes in her cover story. “[O]ther girls my size don’t get shot in looks that aren’t lingerie or a jacket; there’s a whole cycle happening. My participation isn’t just about me.”
To date, Elsesser has walked runways for labels like Fendi, Ferregamo and Savage x Fenty, and starred in recent campaigns for Coach, among others. Among her mentors is makeup mogul Pat McGrath, who handpicked Elsesser as one of the faces for the launch of her now billion-dollar brand.
“There’s something cinematic about Paloma,” McGrath told Vogue. “She’s a modern Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne or Rita Hayworth. Her face, her body, and her mind are beautiful—and she has a wonderful personality brimming with fun and joy.”
“To see myself as this beautiful, glamorous creature was affirming,” Elsesser says of what would prove a breakthrough moment in her career, “and there was something specifically comforting in having a plus-size Black woman there being supportive. I felt so seen.”
As she also shares with the magazine, her current self-assurance was hard fought—and fueled with drugs and alcohol in younger years, before her commitment to sobriety. “There was a level of impostor syndrome,” she says, recalling accompanying McGrath to a spring 2016 Lanvin runway show. “I was looking out at all the people, all the girls, all the chaos, and was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’And I started crying. A couple of our first assistants scooped me up and held me and [told me], ‘You’re supposed to be here. None of this is the most important thing. It’s what we do after this day that’s important.’”
What Elsesser has done since is to center representation in her work, in hopes of bringing deeper dimension to what many consider a very surface-level career. (Full disclosure: this writer is a predecessor of Elsesser’s in the full-figured modeling arena.) “Modeling is my livelihood and my career, not my passion, but that passion is cloaked within what I do,” she explains. (I concur.)
“There shouldn’t be this grand separation between art, culture, fashion, and politics,” she also tells Vogue. “Not every part of fashion needs to focus on politics and reality—this isn’t CNN—but ultimately, we all have a level of responsibility. What’s the downside of giving visibility to disabled people, putting dark-skinned femmes at the forefront, or prioritizing diverse perspectives?”
British Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful has been prioritizing diverse perspectives since assuming the helm of the publication in 2017—in fact, one of his first issues included Elsesser among several cover models “Changing the Face of Fashion” in 2018. On Tuesday, it was announced that Enninful’s influence would be expanding, as he will now become Vogue’s European editorial director, overseeing the British, French, Italian, German and Spanish editions.
As reported by Fashionista, the promotion is part of a reconfiguration of leadership by Condé Nast, one in which “key editors take over titles across markets.” Further cementing Wintour’s legacy, the famed yet recently embattled fashion icon also received a promotion, becoming the company’s first chief content officer as well as Vogue’s global editorial director (she will also remain editor-in-chief of American Vogue and U.S. artistic director of Condé Nast). This, despite several calls for Wintour’s resignation in recent months, due to her handling of race and employees of color during her now 32-year tenure (and counting). Nevertheless, Wintour persisted, issuing a statement which again promised a more inclusive Vogue and Condé Nast, moving forward.
“As we look to the future of Condé Nast, we will use the unmatched combination of our global reach and local knowledge and identity of our titles to tell the most important, inclusive and inspiring stories of our time,” she said.