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Paloma Elsesser on Her New Vans Ads, Fashion Week, and More

Paloma Elsesser in the new Vans campaign. Photography and styling by Thistle Brown.
Photo: Courtesy of Vans

Paloma Elsesser has accomplished many firsts in the fashion industry: She is one of the few plus-size models to be on the cover of Vogue and one of the first to walk the runway for Fendi and other major fashion houses. The title was one she never intentionally sought out. “This is just my reality,” she said during a phone call from the office of her modeling agency, IMG, just days before Fashion Week. “It’s the community I care about.” That community includes women and femmes, like myself, who never quite felt their bodies were shaped or sized in a way society deemed desirable. For us, Elsesser serves as a beacon of beauty in an industry that has long subscribed to one standard.

Now, Elsesser is flexing her creative chops through a collaboration on a new campaign with Vans, one that she says feels “very organic” to her. “I’ve been wearing Vans forever, so it’s a full-circle moment,” she notes. “This campaign represents a community of creatives and colleagues I call friends.”

We chatted with her about what it means to be in the driver’s seat of one’s creative endeavors and the importance of balance.

Why did this collaboration make sense for you?

I started wearing Vans in elementary school or middle school. My style today brings in elements of different parts of myself. For example, I’ll wear a fashion-centric, higher-fashion piece with a pair of black Vans. The skate-and-surf world has been so influential in the fashion industry and in my own life. With this collaboration, I felt really grateful to be able to be brought in for much of the conversation. It created this safe environment that I think is an extension of keeping it cool, keeping it honest.

I know you were just on vacation in Italy and Greece. How do you properly pack for vacation?

I wish I knew, because I was toting around two checked bags, checking my air tags psychotically. I am a full-look giver. I am in full ownership and acceptance that I’m not in jeans and a T-shirt. I want to wear a Loewe look on the beach, but I’ll pair it with a dirty tote bag or whatever; that’s how I feel most myself. I also do fittings before I pack. I think: How do I want to feel on vacation? And generally, I want to feel like myself. It helped that, on vacation, I was surrounded with the women in my community.

Photo: Courtesy of Vans

Back to work. Fashion Week is coming up, and I’m sure it’s an extremely busy time for you. How do you stay grounded through all the chaos?

I’m selective about what and where I have to be. Thinking really intentionally about what my next day will look like. If I have to do four shows, maybe I just get dinner or order pizza with my boyfriend the night before. I’m trying to intersperse balance, choosing to do what needs to be done and where my energy goes. For instance, I don’t really sit in the front row anymore. Ultimately, from a career standpoint, it’s like, if you want me to sit in the front row, then why don’t you want me in your show? If you want my energy, if you want me in your clothes, why don’t you want me on the runway? Even if I love them, I’m not going to go sit front row, because it’s just so much effort to do hair and makeup and do the look; I would rather reserve my energy for shows that want me in them.

I know you’ve recently started designing collections with more inclusive sizing; why is inclusive sizing important to you?

I’ve been resourceful in getting dressed my whole life, but just because I’m bigger doesn’t mean I should have to be resourceful. There’s so many clothes in the world, and there’s not enough for girls and people like me, so maybe I should be a part of making them.

I thought: What would it mean to create clothes for girls like me who want to wear a well-cut cargo pant and corset? What would it look like to have access to that? It’s like suddenly if you’re over a size 10, then you have to spend more money, and that’s just not true. The way that I dress and the collections that I’ve been a part of, or have designed, are not for everyone, but they are for a huge component of people who just don’t have access to clothes that feel good for them.

What do you think holds other brands and designers back from just doing extended sizing? 

There’s two sides. I think there’s human fear. As open and exciting and creative as the industry is, there’s still a very rigid idea of what beauty is and what sells. I’m a U.S. 14, which is the average size in America, but I think because fashion has so long rarefied our body type and pedestal-ized a very thin, white, normative look, a departure from that is scary — that it’s not going to sell, it’s not going to be aspirational. However, every time I’m in a show, there are metrics that I get the most views. I was having lunch with the Coperni boys a couple of months ago, and they were like, “The shirt that you wore in our show is our No. 1 most sold shirt.”

And also, people don’t have an education around how to make clothes properly for us. By doing my Miaou collection, I learned that the plus-size grading scale operates on a completely different set of rules than it does for straight sizes. I’m actively working on this in a solution-based way, not just an ideas-based way.

Bonus question, because we have to ask. You have an iconic personal style. How do you think about self-presentation?

I like to feel my best self. I dress for myself and no one else. I started this practice maybe five years ago, when I thought: What would it look like if I just got dressed how I wanted to get dressed today? So when I get dressed, or when I start spiraling about what to wear, I’m like, Well, how the fuck do you want to dress? For example, today I went to a shoot; now I’m doing a panel discussion at my agency, and I’m wearing the same thing. Later, I’m going to dinner with my boyfriend. I can do all those things and feel great because I got dressed for myself.