In just a couple of days, New York City will bear witness to a bevy of beauties that parade back and forth over hallowed runways twice a year. Fashion Week which starts this Thursday, has had many incarnations from its original moniker, Press Week, to Olympus Fashion to current tome, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. But one thing has not changed; no Fashion Week could exist without the models that show off the garments. Though a model’s career seems to get shorter each decade, there are those rare creatures who season after season continue to inspire designers and light up the catwalk.
Coco Mitchell is one such rarefied being. From Valentino, Armani, Chanel, Givenchy, Thierry Mugler to Donna Karan, Patrick Kelly, Bill Blass, Betsey Johnson and Ralph Rucci, Mitchell has walked and worked for the best. And after more than three decades in the industry, she is still going strong, loving what she does and sharing that joy. Unlike those in the industry who put up walls and approach fashion as a gated community, Coco shares the joy and passion of her chosen profession with likeminded souls and kindred spirits. Though Coco does not throw her pearls before swine, she willingly gives her gifts to those who respect the craft.
On the eve of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, Coco gave some detailed insight into what it takes to make it as a top model.
Fashion Reverie: What do you contribute to the longevity of your career?
Coco Mitchell: I believe the reason my career has been so varied and extensive is because I have a passion for fashion. I know that sounds very cliché, but it’s true. I have really studied my craft and I try to stay current. You cannot work in 2012 and have a 90s runway walk. I know the trends, the new fabrications and textile technologies, and I know who the new, hot designers are. Just in case a particular door opens, I want to be able to walk through.
FB: Sometimes, agencies spin stories about finding some nascent beauty in the cornfields who knows nothing about fashion and beauty, and turning that young lady into a high-fashion model. How much of that well-spun story has weight in today’s market?
Coco Mitchell: The girls who are successful models usually have been following fashion and reading magazines since they were teenagers. Agencies like to spend that story but with the proliferation of fashion on television and in movies it is kind of hard for a young person not to have any exposure to fashion. Now, I was discovered by Eileen Ford walking down Fifth Avenue. I knew nothing about fashion and was already working as a school teacher. Fashion was not on my radar. Back then there was no youtube, Internet, fashion reality shows, etc. But now fashion is ubiquitous. The girls like Karlie Kloss who have extremely successful modeling careers had a goal of being a model.
FR: What do the girls that are successful possess that not only makes designers like them but also gives them longevity in this industry?
Coco Mitchell: The models that are successful are models that inspire designers. And that hasn’t changed in the industry. Pat Cleveland inspired Halston; Linda Evangelista inspired Karl Lagerfeld, Coco Rocha inspires Jean-Paul Gaultier. These models have passion for clothes, the arts, movement; a variety of things. These models are expert at referencing and drawing inspiration from the things around them and that passion transmits through their work in print or on the runway. And that gives them an edge over other models. They are also very educated about fashion. And lastly, they do the work, which is the maintenance required to stay relevant and keep working. They not only serve as muses for these designers, they are also their confidantes, and designers trust their taste.
Coco Mitchell: For me fashion is war. And in a war you have to an arsenal of weapons and tools. So, let’s say that you are getting your body and skin together. Now, you look like a model and you might get signed to a good agency. The next step is can you bring it to a photo shoot or the runway. It is so much more than your beauty and physique.
You have to educate yourself and bring the correct point of view to a variety of designers and design aesthetics. Chanel has a different point of view than Ralph Lauren, and the top models understand that and deliver the correct perspective to a specific assignment. To hold your body in a certain way that a designer may want for their aesthetic takes a lot of work and an educated approach to the work. Designer’s and fashion editors want to work with models who understand the craft.
FR: It is often said that designers are no longer interested in forming long-term relationships with models. Is that true?
Coco Mitchell: No, that is a false perception. Just because there are so many new models every season does not mean that designers are not invested in working with a select group of models for several seasons. Designers want to work with models who understand the language of their clothes. There is a language that goes with different design aesthetics and silhouettes. You have to evoke a mood and mystery.
FR: How have the walks or points of view on the runway changed over the years?
Coco Mitchell: Pat Cleveland said something very interesting in the HBO documentary About Face. She said that fashion gave her wings. And Pat Cleveland can fly. She can spin and twirl while beautifully showing off the clothes. In the 80s, sometimes to open a show a designer would send out 10 models at one time. It was all for effect and very theatrical. Then all of the sudden in the late 80s, the Japanese started buying up brands and it became more about showing the clothes. The runway walk was more about selling product and marketing, so the walk became very singular, not theatrical.
In the 90s with the ascent of Gisele Bundchen, the walk became more of a stomp and a gallop. And now the walk is more fluid, but the attitude is all in the face. The face sets the mood and evokes mystery. Black models like Joan Smalls and Sessilee Lopez give you theater and intensity in the face. They look like fashion warriors.
I was not a model that performed or twirled down the runway. So, I am thankful that I came after that kind of walk. I always sold the clothes and gave focus and intensity in my face. I learned to give you face in Paris from models like Katoucha.
FR: Where do you fit in the pantheon of supermodels?
Coco Mitchell: I’ve had a very fulfilling career both in Europe and in the States. And now that my career has spanned several decade, I can truly say that I am blessed. My idol is Carmen dell’Orefice. She is fabulous, working in her 80s and I want to be like her. No matter where you send me I want to be able to evoke mode and deliver a superior product. So when I get booked, I will get booked because you want me specifically for what I bring.
FR: What is your legacy?
Coco Mitchell: I truly believe my legacy is all the young models I have coached over the years and the pearls of wisdom I have given them. So whatever they do with their lives, if I have had a positive influence; that is my legacy.
—William S. Gooch