Pat Cleveland: 'The first black supermodel'

1970s Antonio Lopez black supermodel fashion Halstonette model Pat Cleveland Studio 54


Pat Cleveland backstage Calvin KleinPat Cleveland has just published her memoirs. Here’s what you need to know about the 70s fashion icon


Ladybird Cleveland

Pat Cleveland's mother, Ladybird Cleveland

Pat Cleveland's mother was the artist Ladybird Cleveland, and she grew up surrounded by poets

Born in New York in 1950, Cleveland’s parents were both creatives. Her mother, of African-American and Native-American ancestry, was an artist, Ladybird Cleveland. Pat’s father, on the other hand, was a white jazz saxophonist of Irish and Swedish ancestry. Raised by her mother in Harlem, Pat grew up surrounded by a vibrant artistic and literary circle – Ladybird’s friends included Harlem Renaissance figures like Carl Van Vechten. The creative atmosphere must have rubbed off on her: a young Pat went to study performing arts followed by design, hoping to become a fashion designer.


Pat Cleveland 1960s

Pat Cleveland aged 15, modelling at an Ebony Trade Fair in the 1960s

She was considered 'too black' for white magazines, 'too white' for black magazines

At the tender age of 16, Ford Models founder Eileen Ford looked Pat Cleveland in the eye and told her she would ‘never make it in the modelling business’ due to her mixed racial heritage. Thankfully, she proved Ford wrong, rising to superstardom in an era when it was unusual for non-white, and particularly mixed race, models to do so. 'In the beginning, people said, “You shouldn’t use her, you shouldn’t use her”,' reflects the designer Stephen Burrows. 'But her personality was so electrifying and inspirational, you could imagine anything you designed on her, like a sketch come to life.'

 Pat Cleveland Guy Bourdin

Cleveland in Paris, shot by Guy Bourdin for Vogue Italia, September 1972

Racism in the US made her relocate to Paris

Pat moved to Paris in protest to the racism she experienced in the US fashion industry – and she vowed not to return until a black model appeared on the cover of American Vogue. Europe presented a comparatively diverse fashion climate in the early 1970s: ‘We went to Paris and showed our colours like peacocks,’ she has since reminisced of the era. While in Paris, Cleveland worked with fashion legends including Karl Lagerfeld (then head designer at Chloé), Antonio Lopez and Guy Bourdin. As for that Vogue cover, Cleveland kept her promise, only returning to her homeland after Beverly Johnson made history as the first black covergirl in 1974.


Pat Cleveland and the HalstonettesPat Cleveland with Halston and the 'Halstonettes'

She became muse to many a great artist

Cleveland was a muse to fashion designers Stephen Burrows and Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, also working frequently with Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Thierry Mugler and Diane Von Furstenberg. She even briefly became a muse to Salvador Dalí, whom she met through her friend Juan Fernandez. 'I want you to pose for me,' the Surrealist artist allegedly told her in an early meeting. 'Can you get up on the table? Now pretend you're a dog and get on all fours and throw your derriere up!’ Cleveland obliged – but despite this electric encounter, it was perhaps Halston with whom Cleveland had the most memorable artist/muse relationship, being brought into the designer’s inner circle and anointed a ‘Halstonette’, alongside stars like Anjelica Huston and Karen Bjornson.


 Pat Cleveland runway

Pat Cleveland giving one of her signature twirls on the runway

She made a dancefloor out of the runway

Cleveland walked the most prestigious runways of her time: Valentino, Kenzo, Yves Saint Laurent, and even the legendary ‘Battle of Versailles’ fashion show in 1973, which pitted French designers against their American contemporaries. But it wasn’t just where she walked that makes her an enduring icon – it’s how she walked. ‘When she moved, she painted the air around her with the clothes,’ Janice Dickenson told The New York Times. Cleveland became known for dancing, twirling, blowing kisses and strutting around the runway as if at a party. Her signature sashays showcased the era’s flowing dresses and elongated silhouette with aplomb.


Pat Cleveland in Josephine Baker's banana skirt

Pat Cleveland decked out in Josephine Baker's banana skirt

Andre Leon Talley called her 'The Josephine Baker of the international runways'

With her mixed racial heritage, killer dance moves and long, lean body (‘A skinny girl from Harlem with no boobs and a frizz of hair’ is how Cleveland describes herself), the model bore more than a passing resemblance to the Franco-American singer and dancer Josephine Baker. Cleveland embraced comparisons to the Jazz Age star, dressing up in Baker’s notorious banana skirt for Patrick Kelly’s runway show in 1985 and then recreating the look for Vogue Italia (above).


Pat Cleveland Antonio Lopez Blue Water Series

She did the underwater fashion shoot long before Kate and Cara did it for LOVE

One of my favourite photo shoots Cleveland ever worked on was with her friend Antonio Lopez, best known as a fashion illustrator, but whose candid snapshots of his friends are, for me, unparalleled. In Lopez’s Blue Water Series, shot in Paris, 1975, Cleveland appears submerged in unnaturally blue water – swooshing around just below the surface. Its a trick that has been widely imitated, including for LOVE Magazine’s SS13 cover, with Kate Moss, Cara Delevingne and Chloë Grace Moritz.


Pat Cleveland Studio 54

Pat Cleveland dancing up a storm at Studio 54, 1977

She was a regular at Studio 54

Pat returned to the US just in time to experience the booming nightlife of the mid- to late-1970s, including the legendary celeb haunt Studio 54. With a squad to make any socialite jealous (think Andy Warhol, Grace Jones ans Jerry Hall), the model put her signature runway dances, twists and twirls to good use. Another club Cleveland frequented was the Tenth Floor, a members-only gay club made famous by Andrew Holleran’s novel Dancer from the Dance. ‘I practically killed myself at the Tenth Floor,’ she recently told The New York Times. ‘I was wearing platform shoes and went up on a ladder and started laughing and dancing because we all had poppers and I almost fell off.’


Pat Cleveland Marc Jacobs SS16

Pat Cleveland and her family in the SS16 Marc Jacobs campaign

She’s still super relevant

Since taking a break to raise her children (including model Anna Cleveland, who looks well-primed to follow in her illustrious mama’s footsteps), Pat has returned to the spotlight for various causes and big campaigns. Alongside Jerry Hall and Marisa Berenson, she started in a MAC campaign dedicated to her close friend and fashion legend Antonio Lopez, who died in 1987. She’s also walked the runway in recent years for Moschino, Zac Posen and H&M, and starred in campaigns for Lanvin and Marc Jacobs.


Pat Cleveland Andy Warhol 1980

Snapped backstage by Andy Warhol in 1980

She’s just published a memoir

Want to know more? So do we. Luckily, Cleveland has just written her memoirs. Walking with the Muses, published by Atria Publishing Group, is out now.

P.s. for more dazzling images, check out our Pat Cleveland Pinterest board.

Rosa Abbott / @VertovVertov

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