Paloma Elsesser is having one hell of a month. It started with Copenhagen Fashion Week, where the 27-year-old model walked in Ganni’s now-viral fall ‘20 show. From there, she hopped on a flight back home for a quick stint at New York Fashion Week to not only walk for Eckhaus Latta, a brand she’s been working with for years now, but also to casually hang out with Dapper Dan, Chioma Nnadi, and Anna Wintour for Vogue 100’s annual fashion week dinner at Majorelle.
Cut to 24 hours post-Eckhaus Latta. I’m across the country, standing in the dimly lit hallway of a mid-century modern home in Beverly Hills for H&M’s Studio Collection launch party. Lykke Li is here, performing a surprise acoustic set which acts as background noise to my short but sweet conversation with Elsesser. As “Sex Money Feelings Die” plays, I ask her why she got into modeling in the first place. “Somebody gave me the want before I wanted it for myself because I never knew that I wanted it,” Elsesser says.
While studying in New York, Elsesser was contacted by an editor at Pop Magazine who told her about the changing industry, asking her to join in on the movement. “I took the bait,” she says. “I was inspired by how it was evolving and that I could have financial and experiential autonomy over my life, which I didn't have as a 20-year-old. I also wanted the chance to change the world a little bit. And that seemed like enough for me.” Two years later, she was contacted via Instagram DM by the great Pat McGrath, who asked her to star in the makeup artist’s Golden Makeover line. That’s when things really took off.
Since, she’s posed naked for Glossier billboards all over Manhattan, starred in a Fenty Beauty campaign for Rihanna, and became a CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund judge. “Anna sent me a personal email,” she recalls. “I thought she sent it to the wrong email.” Now, of course, they’re thick as thieves. “She answered my email today. Like yes, Anna Wintour has emailed me.” But for someone who’s been hand-chosen by fashion royalty, Elsesser doesn’t, in any way, act superior. Instead, she’s using her newfound role as a judge to shake things up. “It's been like such an incredibly eye-opening experience getting to see how this business works up close because if I don’t know the business, how am I supposed to change the industry? That’s what I came here to do: I didn’t come to wear clothes, I came here to disrupt and change some shit.”
And that’s exactly what she’s doing. For one, she was part of the committee that awarded Brooklyn-based designer Christopher John Rogers the 2019 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award, which allowed him to focus solely on his namesake brand. “It’s been amazing to be a part of him getting that award because while he, of course, deserved it off talent, the conversation always came down to his magic, his energy, and what it means for him to be a new American designer that we can look back at in time and know that we supported.”
In addition to that role, Elsesser continues to push boundaries in her modeling career, paving the way for a cooler and more inclusive industry. “For way too long, the plus-size industry has been all about being extremely sexy,” she says. She then walks me through the most spot-on description of every plus-size modeling campaign of the last decade: A curvy girl all oiled up wearing a leather jacket over her shoulders. But that’s not how she sees the next ten years going. “I really feel like instead of all that, we can just be cool, we can have nuance, we can be strange.” Since Paloma rose to supermodel status, she’s been able to parlay that message, giving rise to a community of plus-size models who look different than the picture she so accurately painted in my head.
As for other changes that she’d like to instill on the fashion industry, empathy is her highest priority. “I think there needs to be a heavy dollop of empathy inserted for the well-being of models.” The way she sees it, it’s great that nowadays, the general welfare of models is being taken care of (read: sexual assault is no longer being swept under the rug and models aren’t being told to “correct changing areas” as they previously were), but what really needs to be pushed is the nurturing of peoples’ careers so that it’s not just about how you look. “But that takes time. Even just that you were able to ask me that question and me answer it honestly is a change in and of itself.”
For someone who never had any intention of working in the fashion industry, Paloma Elsesser has made one serious mark on it. And at just 27-years-old, these weighty accomplishments are only the beginning of what’ll surely be a long and impactful career for the model.