Runway Icon Debra Shaw Talks About Past Vs Present

Photo by Jeffrey Galvezo Sales, 2015 / Photos courtesy of M Management

As fashion goes through a seismic shift, from the designers to diversity to photographers, takes a step back and talks to one of modeling’s favorite faces from the 90’s, the inimitable Debra Shaw. Industry veteran Mac Folkes delves deep into conversation with the American runway icon who inspired everyone from McQueen to Gaultier to Dries.

Mac Folkes: When you got involved in the industry, how do you think you disrupted the standard?

Debra Shaw: Consciously or unconsciously?


Unconsciously, I think I brought to the business a unique presence, I suppose. Maybe it was my long limbs legs, arms and neck? I did not understand how to embrace them fully. The fashion industry helped me to understand my body parts, especially with the clothes that were made-to-measure on me. The illustrations would inspire me, and the designers would often make requests for me to use my arms, legs, hands…a lot.

Consciously, what I hope to bring over time is a sense of awareness. My approach was to learn as much as I can about the business. I wanted to understand all aspects and how everything works in relationship to everything else. I was always trying to figure out how to meet designers and photographers I wanted to work with.

During the 90s, when I was doing shows with Kiara (Kabukuru) and Alek Wek, we had this type of unity. It wasn’t about insecurities and needing to be the only one in the show. So when the photoshoot with Peter Lindbergh for Vogue happened with 6 black girls, we got excited and had so much fun on the set together! It was quite rare in fashion, a photo shoot with all black girls! Another wonderful opportunity was working with Jean Baptiste Mondino with all black models (Stacey Mckenzie, Lois Samuels, and Kadra). It was there I asked Stacey and Kadra to be my bridesmaids. I’ll never forget that day and the bonding we had on set.

You mentioned that you always had an idea about who you wanted to work with, would you mind sharing who was on your wishlist?

DS: Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler! I snuck into Mugler’s 1991 show by saying I was a model in the show. I saw Diana Ross gliding down the runway and models performing so expressively on stage, I knew I had to work with him. My goal was always, ‘How do I get to meet this designer?’ Because I knew once I meet them, I’m going to convince them to hire me.


Photo by Patrizio Di Renzo for ‘Photos of Illusions’

I did that with John. I crashed his casting, and that’s how I got hired for my first Galliano show at the Theatre de Champs Elysee. I believe it was his first time using several black models like Karen Alexander, Joy Bryant and Naomi Campbell.

I crashed a Versace casting and got that too…

Where did that sense of confidence come from?

I started out modeling in Philly, with a distinguished gentleman named Dr. Ernesto Philpotts. He was a pediatrician. Yet when he was not working, he would teach modeling classes at the community center in North Philly to young boys and girls. I went with my friend one day, and watched her in class. I started to go every week to just watch. One day Ernesto said to me, ‘Would you like to walk?’ and I panicked and said ‘No!’

I was not ready and very insecure at the time. But I kept attending the class and watching. Another day Ernesto asked me again, and this time I was ready. I got up and I walked, and he said to the class, “That’s what you all should be doing!” I had received so much information from observing for weeks and I was ready. Ernesto would take us to different fashion shows around the New Jersey/Philadelphia area. We would go and see different shows quite often — they were like “modeling battles.”

Finally he took us to a competition called The Model of the Year, in Newark, New Jersey. I told him I wanted to enter. He did not want me to do it. I never knew why because he passed away unfortunately from AIDS. I did the competition, dedicated it to him, and won. First prize…a trip to Paris!

I had a lot of people supporting me, wanting me to make it and I did not want to let anyone down. I hadn’t realized that I was carrying that pressure of making it for everyone back at home who wanted me to succeed. The community peers I modeled with and the president of the competition all had such high hopes for me. I needed to succeed for them and that allowed me to not accept failure as an option.

Photo by Tyen

So that I may have greater understanding and context, when did you start working significantly in Paris?

That would be in 1992. My first Haute couture show was for Paco Rabanne, then Dior with Gianfranco Ferré. My first ready to wear was for Xuly Bët where he did a spontaneous unofficial show in the gardens of the Louvre. We all carried boomboxes for our music and it was an all black cast. All the models, got off the bus one by one, and walked into the park where the Gaultier show was taking place.

I know that we have periods when we have more black models on the runway than others. Do you think that “Blackness” goes in and out of fashion?

Yes, unfortunately. John Galliano, McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Paco Rabanne, YSL, would always use a diverse casting every season. And then you had some shows where you were used for your skin tone as the theme. Example: When it is an all black cast you knew for the next few seasons it would be an off season for black models until the next time we became part of a theme again. Today there is more diversity! I like that! Every show I believe should represent every type…Always. Do we come in and out of season? I think that’s based upon the business structure and the people doing the hiring.

I came into the fashion world when designers were hiring the models, and they were pretty consistent with using a diverse casting. When stylists started doing the castings there was a collective shift in the casting process. It was not diverse at all.

I was a model agent for many years. When people ask me, “What was the significant moment that changed it for the black girls?,” I always say it was the British stylists. When they started taking over, suddenly there was an attitude in casting that was very deeply rooted in tokenism.

When I was first booked for YSL with Alber Elbaz it was his first season there. I had previously worked with Alber for Krizia where he used an all black cast. I remember telling Pam, the Fashion Editor at Essence, to please come see the show. For YSL, Alber started to do looks on me before the stylist arrived from England. When she arrived, I was told by my agency that I did not need to return. She had cancelled all the girls that the designer had chosen, and recast with girls that they referred to, at that time, as “edgy.” Unfortunately, there would be no black models in the show; something that he wanted from the start. It was a strange time in the business. The agencies stopped taking on black models as we were then considered ‘high risk.’ Whereas before, we were in demand. Today the casting directors are doing the hiring and casting has become more diverse.

Photo by Peter Lindbergh for American Vogue, 1997

Do you feel as a black person in the industry that you have to be a lot more subtle about the way that you advocate for yourself?

I think that as people of color, we should always be strategic in what we do. We’re the underdogs. People don’t need to know your every move, because everyone’s not out for your best interest. So if you’re gonna come––to use a combat metaphor—bring your army. You’re not gonna put it in the enemy’s face, and say, ‘Hey, here we are, we’re about to kick your butt.’ They strategically hide, they watch and monitor, and then attack. I think that’s a smart way of being. I don’t think people need to know your every move, because not everyone’s rooting for you to succeed.

When I was competing in the fashion shows in New Jersey, I had lot of black people rooting for me. So when I first came back from Paris, and initially didn’t have anything to show from my trip, I saw I was letting people down. I had to go back to prove something. For me, all these notions of black awareness and being a black model, and the support I got always made me feel that I wanted to make a difference. If I had to be the first breakthrough, I wanted that to happen. If I could pull more black kids in, I would do that. But my way of doing this was always discrete.

How do you feel about supporting the next generation?

Well, I love where fashion’s going with the models. I love that I see more than one black girl in every show, and the gender mix which is happening. I mean, that’s our world—it’s about time to make the same transition for designers and editors. People of color are not being fairly represented in all areas in the fashion business. I think some progress has been made in regard to the diverse models, yet more needs to be done in other areas of fashion.

There may be some people of color on the creative level, but we’re really sorely underrepresented on the corporate side of things. That’s where I think we need to be to make long term, sustained change.


Photo by Francesco Brigida for Encens Magazine

I know we’ve spoken disparagingly about the British and the significant role they play in fashion, but I have high hopes for Edward Enninful.

He’s in a very delicate and powerful position. His every move is being watched yet he knows what he’s doing! He has worked as an editor for many years! It’s new to see a man of color with this powerful a position in fashion. The last time we saw a black man at any Vogue was Andre Leon Talley.

You’ve managed to have a long and sustained career. What would you say is the secret to that? We know—not only as a black model, but as a model in general—that’s a very difficult thing to do.

I just rarely looked back. I am flexible, I stay open-minded (not always easy) and I keep looking forward. I have always been a dreamer! I enjoy to create and I will keep creating as long as I can in fashion, and now with music and art.

You know, when Barack Obama replaced his emblematic “Change” with “Forward” for the 2012 election, I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s what it is in the end: no looking back.’ That can be a real struggle right now, thinking about what’s going on in America, with so much of this retrograde conversation circulating about race and social justice. But the importance is to just keep moving forward.

It’s important, because that’s the way of the world. If you don’t know how to look forward, you’re going to fall behind in the game. Things are so different for models today. When I was working with Galliano or Mugler, I was able to be expressive. These were designers who allowed us to do whatever we wanted, they encouraged it and they gave us the setting to be able to do it. Today, the stage production wants the models to be simple and walk fast. Is quite unfair as everyone else are showcasing their talents. The glam teams get to express themselves through their work, the designers of course, the DJ, the stage productions, and what about the models? Oh, just walk straight and strong and fast. Like a robot. The girls need to express themselves. The designers want the girls to be more expressive. It is important that the models show their personalities through performance. It’s time to return to that format; looking back as a way of moving forward.

PARIS, FRANCE – JANUARY 24: Debra Shaw walks the runway during the Guo Pei Spring Summer 2018 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 24, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Peter White/Getty Images)

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