It’s 9pm in Milan and Paloma Elsesser is tired.
The US model has just wrapped up a frantic day of last-minute fashion week fittings, and she’s also recovering from the flu, which inconveniently struck just moments before her recent runway appearance at Ganni at Copenhagen Fashion Week.
“The music had started. There were girls on the runway and I threw up! I literally vomited” she laughs over the phone, still sounding mildly horrified. “But it worked out in the end.”
That’s something of an understatement. Elsesser’s appearance at Ganni was hit, heralded by fashion writers around the world, and over the past few weeks she’s also walked for Fendi, Lanvin and Alexander McQueen.
It’s a dream run – a starry string of high-fashion bookings that most models can only hope for. But in Elsesser’scase it’s even more remarkable because – at 1.7m tall with creamy Latina skin and a curvy, plus-size figure – she looks nothing like most models.
“It’s all very new to me,” she laughs over the phone from her hotel room in Milan, sounded awed at her own good fortune. “I [knew] I could do campaigns and editorials, and just generally modelling, but with runway…I just never thought that was something I could really do.”
“It’s really powerful,” she continues. “As someone who, as a young person, didn’t see any diversity in media or ad campaigns… [and] who internalised my body as inherently ‘wrong’, it feels very cool to be someone who can have an effect on how media sees people.”
It’s this sort of casually insightful commentary that has marked Elsesser out as a force to be reckoned with in the fashion industry. For although it was her face and figure that initially captured the fashion world’s attention, it’s her voice – and her willingness to speak out on social justice and diversity issues – that’s cemented her status in the industry.
Last year Elsesser – who is currently starring in the new Bonds Organics campaign and has also appeared in campaigns for Glossier, Nike, Matteau and Fenty Beauty – was named as one of the top 50 people shaping fashion, globally, by the influential website The Business of Fashion, while her Instagram following (247k and counting) grows by the day. She is among a new wave of plus-size models who walked for luxury brands on the runway recently in Paris and Milan – many of whom found fame after being scouted on social media.
If the waif-life and notoriously private Kate Moss epitomised modelling success in the ‘90s, then Elsesser, with her mixed-race heritage, curvy figure and activist approach, is the modelling industry’s millennial incarnation.
Elsesser says her outspokenness and passion for social justice stemmed from a liberal upbringing, she says, and a family with deep-seated convictions on social justice. “I grew up in a quote unquote ‘woke’ household. I went to a predominantly white, prestigious school in Los Angeles and I remember talking to my mom about why I didn’t look like the other girls at all,” she recalls. “I know mum handed me [American feminist writer] bell hooks essays when I was very young.”
Growing up, Elsesser admits to “really dark thoughts” about her body, and even today is unwilling to declare complete body acceptance (“it’s an ever-evolving experience or reckoning”).
But these days she feels a sense of gratitude that her younger self wouldn’t recognise. “When I was younger, I thought that if I was thin, my experiences would be different. And that’s true, you know, some of my experiences would have been different – but because I’m not thin, some of my experiences have been grander.”
Although Elsesser clearly loves the fashion world – which she describes as “a creative beautiful industry” – she is critical of its flaws, saying that it is “steeped in laziness and fear.”
“It’s very much a ‘follower’ industry,” she says, explaining that models usually need the approval of one fashion house or one magazine, before the rest will follow. “People haven’t really had the courage to step out of the fear and challenge the idea of what’s chic and what’s beautiful and what is ‘fashion’. We’re going to need some fearless gatekeepers in the industry to show that we can diversify. It does take one fearless individual to be like, ‘No, fuck this, we’re going to make it work.’
One of those fearless gatekeepers, says Elsesser, has been Edward Enninful, the newish editor of British Vogue, for whom she is full of praise.
In May 2018, Elsesser was among a group of models shot for the cover of British Vogue. She was the only plus-sized model on the shoot and recalls the moment that a member of the production team suggested that Elsesser required fewer outfits than the other models. “She said, ‘Oh well, Paloma can just wear that third look for her fifth look as well,’ and Edward said, ‘Absolutely not. There are six girls. They each get six looks.”
“I feel like you need that kind of fearlessness and willingness to say ‘No’ – and command that – because a lot of the time people will do the easiest thing.”
Elsesser, on the other hand, has zero interest in doing the easiest thing if it means compromising her values – which include a commitment to the environment. This month she appears in the campaign for Bonds’ Organics range, which is made with full transparency and traceability in GOTS-certified cotton, and says she was excited to work with a brand that’s walking the walk when it comes to the environment. “I try not to be wasteful in my daily life. I get pretty irritable on set when there’s a bunch of plastic water bottles.”
During fashion month, she took the train between Milan and London for environmental reasons and says her biggest challenge is reducing the flying that modelling demands.
Having visited Australia in her teens, the model says she feels fortunate to have seen The Great Barrier Reef a decade ago. “It was wondrous. But in the past 10 years we’ve wreaked so much havoc!”
So, what’s next for the model who has the fashion world at her feet? A new line of products, which she can’t yet talk about, and an ongoing contributing editorship with ID magazine for a start. “But I just want to expand my repertoire. With modelling I’ve been given this incredible platform, and I always knew that I want it to open doors to other things.”