Paloma on Top

Paloma on Top

She’s broadened the definition of beauty on the fashion runways. Now model and social justice advocate Paloma Elsesser is taking advantage of these crazy times to expand her mind.

Volume 4
Volume 4

Since she was discovered on Instagram by makeup artist Pat McGrath, model Paloma Elsesser has appeared in fashion campaigns and editorials too numerous to count. But this past spring, when she was cast for the runway at Fendi, Lanvin, and McQueen, she finally got the opportunity to walk the walk. Here, she talks to Alex Hawgood about sisterhood, slowing down, and finding peace of mind in these crazy times.

WALES BONNER poplin shirt; Vintage ALAÏA leggings;
HELMUT LANG top (worn underneath); BALENCIAGA boots;

AH: How is life during quarantine going for you?

PE: My life has been kind of all over the place. It’s been consistently out of order and crazy, but also impactful and powerful in a way. Initially, I was stressed about money, but I recognized how, occupying a position of privilege, I was okay over those first couple months. I wanted to use that time off to reclaim my body, my time, my sleep schedule, my eating schedule, and my interests. It was kind of awkward at first, because I had been working so much and all my free time was allocated for social stuff. In the last three or four years, I kind of lost major personal hobbies or interests, which is not to say that now I’m, you know, into fucking crochet. But I asked myself, ‘What do I really enjoy doing in my own time?’ It’s still the kind of thing that I enjoyed doing when I was young. I like to read. I do like to be quiet. I’m a homebody. I really missed being at home and being able to make my own decisions about how I spend that time.

You reclaimed your calendar.

The pandemic sort of opened me up in a way—centering in gratitude. I had friends who got sick, but no deaths that I was close to. But I did feel a collective grief and sadness over the level of carelessness for the communities that can use care the most. The uprising and the movement for Black Lives galvanized everyone to show up for these issues. That definitely cracked me open. I think a lot of us were, I know I was, searching for space and time to be able to think critically about how to show up for Black people, trans women, trans men and other different iterations of identities. The past couple of months gave me permission to look at the ways in which these systems and issues show up in my own behaviors and ideologies. I don’t think I would have had time to look at it in such a real way if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

I was also in New York this summer, which was surreal because it was so empty and quiet, but also kind of serene.

I don’t drink, so for the most part I had a very cute, wholesome summer in New York. I got to go to the beach and go to a lake with a couple of core friends. The social interactions I did have felt really wholesome and safe. I did everything with intention, like spending quality time with people that I want to spend time with. I don’t have to see anyone I don’t want to see.

When did you realize that your busy life as you knew it was now on sabbatical, so to speak?

I had just got back to New York from the runway shows in Europe in March. I tried to go to Jamaica with my boyfriend, you know, just like after fashion month as a reprieve and break. But I was denied entry because I had been in Paris. So I was like, ‘Oh, fuck. Okay, so I guess this is real.’ At that time, a lot of people in Paris were thinking that Coronavirus was more like a flu or something. The reality hadn’t sunk in. So when we went into lockdown, my boyfriend and I were in our Chinatown apartment. It was interesting because we started keeping our house the most tidy. I had the most regulated sleep schedule. I slowly didn’t feel exhausted all day. I would be like, ‘Oh fuck, I just took a guilt-free nap.’ It was nice to just be tired and watch TV in the middle of the day. There were peaks and valleys in productivity.

The words “productivity” and “pandemic” still send a cold shiver down my spine.

There was just so much stuff cycling the internet being like, ‘This is the time to read that book and learn that language.’ I was literally like, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ This is the time for me to literally eat three healthy meals and sleep eight hours—if that. I came out feeling a lot more spiritually connected with a very intact meditation practice, which is crazy.

Did you start a meditation practice during the onset of the pandemic?

No, I’ve always meditated, but it would be classic work shit, like ‘Ok, I’ll meditate today. Oh shit, I have to shower! I have a call, etc.’ I would put it off until tomorrow and then I would forget to do it. So during quarantine, I just designated 20 minutes every morning before I looked at my phone and before interaction with anyone, including my boyfriend. I was able to really regulate that in quarantine because I wasn’t rushing off or rushing to do anything. Now, I feel the difference when I don’t do it. It’s just a part of my morning now.

FALKE leggings;
DR. MARTENS loafers;

LOEWE shirtdress
with satin sleeves;
PACO RABANNE necklace.

“I see and experience microaggressions or hardships in fashion while simultaneously occupying these huge pockets of privilege. The fact that I straddle those two experiences is really illuminating.”

wool coat;
Beauty: CHANEL
BEAUTÉ Rouge Coco
Flash lipstick in Ultime

blazer; Vintage ALAÏA
leggings and bra.

Do you use an app or anything to help meditate?

It depends on my week. If I’m really busy, I’ll do a ‘guided’ because it helps. Liberate is an all POC supported and provided meditation app. The speakers and guides are all people of color. It’s nice because sometimes you don’t want to hear a normal white lady talking about these things first thing in the morning.

Especially during the summer we just had.

I’m actually applying for two passports: one from Switzerland and one from the U.K. [She was born in London and her father is Swiss- Chilean.] I mean, I don’t think I am unique here because a lot of people are trying to get in on the passport thing, you know? It’s not like come November if Trump is elected I am going to immediately leave. But I want to lean into the opportunities that I have. If I have the opportunity to live in other places, I want to take advantage of that. I’ve been thinking a lot about expansion, opportunity and freedom, although obviously the idea of freedom is a fairly nuanced one. I mean, I don’t know, but it’s like, ‘Shit, if I need to live in Switzerland then I need to live in Switzerland.’

Certainly one of the many lessons of the past year has been to be better prepared for whatever may come.

I would also say a heavy dose of humility, in that we really just don’t know. We can try and anticipate so much—there’s a sense of planning and sense of urgency, but there’s also a sense of surrendering to the unknown. It’s like, ‘Okay, I committed to all the things that I know how to plan, or the ways of life I want to change or transform, but there’s so much left to the unknown—shit, I know I’m being corny—even the universe and that is dizzying. That’s why when I wake up, I meditate and try to plan it all out even though I acknowledge I don’t know what’s going to happen. I so ache for that and crave that, but what the last six months have shown is that we have so much power, but there’s also so much power that exists beyond us that is so much larger.

You recently walked for Fendi and made history as Ferrangamo’s first “plus-size” model during Milan Fashion Week.

I only went to Milan this past show season in September. Honestly, I put it out there that I would only travel abroad as long as I felt safe. I want to go with intention. When I was getting back to work, I was pretty specific: I want to create, you know, but I still want to have a life. I didn’t want to go back to just work, work, work over and over. When the shows came up, I was very much so like, ‘It needs to make sense.’ I want to be with people who can really provide safety and comfort. I don’t want to pretend that it was a regular season or regular time the world. That being said, it was such an honor to work with brands like Ferragamo and Fendi again. It was so cool to see historically blue- chip, classic high-fashion brands being like, ‘Actually, maybe we’ll try something different.’ I think we speak a lot about diversity and inclusion. I’m aware of how I’m presenting at these shows as a plus- sized person. So, it’s really special to see real people being involved in the design process and seeing how excited they were to have women like me and what I represent for their brand. We talk so much about the importance of casting, but it’s important to see what is happening in the back of house, too. It’s amazing to work with women at those companies who identify with my body.

You’ve been modeling for the past six years. Have you noticed a shift in attitude among the fashion houses embracing diversity?

I think it’s slow. I think it has changed. I can’t lie and say, ‘I don’t think it’s changed at all.’ But I can say that I feel like it’s slower than I think it is projected to be. And that’s just me being honest. People think that we’re post-that-conversation, and we’re just not. There’s still so many ‘firsts’ happening. It can be a little dizzying to wrap my head around it sometimes. What I mean is that I think I occupy a lot of privileges: I am a racially-ambiguous, mixed black woman. I am a size 12-14. The places where my fat is distributed are more desirable to society than they are on other larger women. The sad truth is the bigger and the darker skinned you are in this world, especially in fashion, the worse you are treated in this world. I see and experience microaggressions or hardships in fashion while simultaneously occupying these huge pockets of privilege. The fact that I straddle those two experiences is really illuminating. On one hand, it is insanely brave or insanely new or extremely exciting for a size 12-14 woman to be doing this work. But should that really be such an accomplishment, you know?