Shailah Edmonds Unleashes the Rebel Within in “Wild Child to Couture Style”

In the fashion industry, the word legendary incorporates both fashion designers and fashion models. We all know legendary designers—Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen, Hubert de Givenchy, and many others. And the list of legendary supermodels continues to grow.

Still, there are legendary names that should be added to these hallowed lists. Though some of these superstars are not household names, their contribution to the fashion industry is immeasurable.

Shailah Edmonds is one such fashion luminary. In an era when black models dominated European runways, Shailah Edmonds was a standout member of a core group of African American superstar models. These models of color changed the way the fashion industry perceived runway presentations and the way couture fashion was presented to the press, buyers, and fashion elites.

Though she is an unsung legend in fashion, her story has now come to light in her memoir, Wild Child to Couture Style:The Shailah Edmonds Story. Shailah set down with Fashion Reverie editor-in-chief William S. Gooch and talked about her unlikely ascent in fashion, her love of runway, and that rare, but brief moment when women of color ruled the runway.

Fashion Reverie: Why this memoir at this time?

Shailah Edmonds: I wrote this book because I feel that I have done about everything that I am going to do in the fashion industry and I wanted to expose the industry to a younger audience. I wanted to detail how hard black models worked to get traction in the industry. Back in the day we had to walk the streets and beat on doors and go for our own. 

FR: How did you come up with the title Wild Child to Couture Style?

Shailah Edmonds: The original title of the book with my co-writer was supposed to be black couture because my co-writer was enamored of the fact that I had ended up working in the highest rung of modeling. As I writing the chapter about working in Tokyo, performing in the Wild Child band, it occurred to me that I was a wild child, even as kid growing up in Portland, Oregon. I am a poet at heart so Wild Child to Couture Style from that moment just came me. And I knew that this should be the title of the book.

FR: What do you think early on in your life helped prepare you or gave you the qualities to become a top model?

Shailah Edmonds: Both of my grandmothers were very fashionable, proud ladies. I have pictures of them in their hats and furs, dressed to go to church. My mother was also very fashionable. My entire family was well dressed when we went to church. So, that sense of style informed me early on.

I believe that’s why some black models have been so successful in Europe, we brought that sense of elegance that you can find in the black church. When you put on a fantastic garment it changes your sense of yourself and it can inform your walk.

FR: Why do you think Europe, and in particular Paris, was more open to black models in the late 70s and early 80s?

Shailah Edmonds: Fashion began in Africa. Most folks have witnessed the beautiful fabrics and designs that come from Africa. And if you have ever seen African women walking with a jug of water or a basket of fruit on her head, there is nothing more regal and stately than that!!

Some black people are born with that sense of rhythm and style. The designers in Europe recognized that and it gave the designers energy when they witnessed the way black models reacting positively to their beautiful creations.

FR: In your book you talk about your swirling runway walk, something Pat Cleveland also had. Where did that walk come from?

Shailah Edmonds: When I came to New York City in the mid-1970s, I had the opportunity to watch Pat Cleveland and Billie Blair walk in fashion shows. I thought if I could get my feet to move like they did then I would have a fantastic runway walk. I would go home and practice and practice, and I finally I mastered a very good, signature runway walk.

I knew that if was going to be a fashion model I had to have a distinctive runway walk. My walk was different from Pat Cleveland and Billie Blair because I loved to dance and I added some dance elements to my walk.

FR: Everyone talks about how open Europe was to black models, but in your book you detail that wasn’t always the case. Could you elaborate on that?

Shailah Edmonds: Some European designers would blatantly tell you that they weren’t interested in black models. Some would say they had enough black models and didn’t need any more. There was a lot of rejection.

In one of the chapters in the book, I talk about going on a casting for Guy Laroche. And he flatly told me he was not interested in me. I countered him about his decision not to cast me. I was tired that day and had been rejected from so many designers that particular day and his rejection was the last straw.

I asked him if he would let me try on one garment. He was so taken aback by my determination that he let me try on one of his garments. I modeled the garment beautifully and was cast in his show. And from that moment on almost every fashion designer in Paris wanted to work with me. It takes a lot of determination, even to this day.

As I was having so much success in Europe, many more black models came and started having success. At one point there was an overabundance of black models on runways in Europe. In fact, we were ruling the fashion runways in Europe. Then the backlash came where the European fashion houses in the mid-90s stop using a lot of black models and other models of color in that respect.

FR: And why was that?

Shailah Edmonds: Well, at one time during the 80s, there were just too many black models in Europe. Also, Europe started imitating the US, where there were few models of color working steadily; particularly, when the US fashion market started going global. And lastly, the black models were racking in a lot of the money because we were in such demand. Audiences loved our walk and the designers loved the way we showed off clothes. So, some of the powers-that-be in the industry decided to change all of that and started wanting a simple walk and less extravagant runway shows. All of this took away some of the black models’ dominance in Europe.

FR: In the US black models, at that time, were not getting a lot in fashion campaigns. Was that the experience of black models in Europe?

Shailah Edmonds: In Europe, at that time, there was a real division between runway models and print models. Beverly Johnson and Iman were more print models so they received more campaigns in the US and in Europe. However, runway models like me usually got two or three campaigns a year, and nothing in the US. However, the European campaigns paid very well.

FR: You started your modeling career in New York, then you went to Europe and had great success, and then you came back to NYC and had a better time than the first time around. However, in your book you detail that when you came back stateside, NYC was not as open to you as you had hoped. Why was that?

Shailah Edmonds: I was so excited to come back to New York City. I had European tear sheets in my portfolio. However, booking agents in NYC said my tear sheets were not American enough. I was told that my images didn’t match the American market. They were not excited at all that I had gone to Europe and made a name for myself.

I heard the same stories that I heard before I had originally gone to Europe. It wasn’t until I started walking for the top couture designers in Europe Yves St. Laurent, Valentino, Thierry Mugler, and others that I received better acceptance in the States.

This was like the third time back in NYC. I always wanted to model in NYC but I had to go all the way to Europe and work for top fashion houses there before the top American fashion brands would work with me.

FR: Who were some of your favorite designers?

Shailah Edmonds: Yves Saint Laurent is at the top of the list, as well as Valentino. I was a fit model for both of them so I spent endless hours working with them. I loved working with Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. Versace and Armani were always great because they used just fine fabrics. Gianfranco Ferrè was also a favorite. No one could make a shirt or blouse better than him.

Hana Morai was wonderful. She took me to Tokyo and Mexico to model her clothes. She was responsible for getting me to come back to NYC. When I finally came back to NYC, the style of modeling was changing and many of the American designers had moved on to the supermodels of that time—Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks, etc. Still, I loved working for Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, and Stephen Burrows, who were so supportive of me.

FR: When you hit your stride in Europe, you were in your late 20s. However, everyone thought you were much younger. How did you pull that off?

Shailah Edmonds: Thank God, there was no Internet at that time. We were not dealing with global terrorism at the time, so it was very easy for me get to fake IDs. I really mastered hiding my age with my identification putting me about ten years younger than my true age.

I even went so far as to pour nail polish on my passport, concealing my age. I got away with that for four or five years. (Hey, I did what I had to do.) And by the time everyone knew my real age, I was making so much money and headlining top fashion shows, my age didn’t matter.

FR: How did you balance modeling with parenting?

Shailah Edmonds: It was very difficult. I had my kids at a very young age, so when I first started modeling, they lived with their father. Later, I brought them to NYC and I had to hire a nanny to take care of them. That was the hardest part, but I had no choice because I was working all the time. With any success, there is sacrifice.

FR: In your book you talk about making the transition from being a top runway model to a showroom model in NYC?

Shailah Edmonds: When the major runway shows stopped happening for me, I was sort of at my wit’s end. I started talking to other seasoned models and I learned they were doing a lot showroom work for designers. After runway season, most major designers/brands have a showroom where they show their current collections to prospective buyers at a private showing at their atelier or showroom.

It is a lot of hard work because I worked for the major showrooms in NYC like Valentino, and you are trying on clothes non-stop for ten to twelve hours a day. But, it was well paid, though seasonal. There were at least three to four months of no showroom work, so in that downtime I coached young models and did some commercial print work. I also worked as an actor.

                                        Images courtesy of Shailah Edmonds

FR: What’s next for you?Shailah Edmonds: I start my book tour in September at the Black Caucus Convention in Washington, DC, and I am continuing to love and embrace life.

Wild Child to Couture Style: The Shailah Edmonds Story is published by Lyons Publishing and is available on amazon.com and at shailahedmonds.com.

—William S. Gooch

Comments

  1. CAROLYN BROWN says:

    I LOVE THIS!!!! WHAT ELSE CAN I SAY: SHE’S MY BABY SISTER!!!

  2. LYNN MARW says:

    BEAUTIFUL LEGGGGGGS FOREVER !!!
    You Taught me How To Do The Cat Walk!!!
    ThankYou
    Its a Shame The Girls Walk Like Robot!!!
    I Remain InFull Support Woth You…
    BRING BACK THE CAT WALK!!! NOW

  3. LYNN MARZ says:

    BEAUTIFUL LEGGGGGGS FOREVER !!!
    You Taught me How To Do The Cat Walk!!!
    ThankYou
    Its a Shame The Girls Walk Like Robotssssss 🙁
    I Remain InFull Support With You… :+)
    BRING BACK THE CAT WALK!!! NOW
    I LOVE YOU BIG SISTER your a BLESSING

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