Mugler Muse Connie Fleming Reflects On Her Life And Career

Interview Magazine Sept 2020 by Cruz Valdez | All images courtesy of Connie Fleming

Before the rise of today’s more inclusive fashion industry, there were trailblazers like Connie Fleming who had to demand respect. Fleming, who was born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, New York, found her way into the limelight by performing drag and posing for Steven Meisel. Even though she dealt with vicious ridicule and pushback from people within the industry, Fleming’s undeniable star power carried her to become one of Thierry Mugler and Vivienne Westwood’s early muses. In the latter half of the ‘90s, naysayers in the industry tried to box out transgender models and gatekeep opportunities. Although modeling started to slow down for Fleming, she was a trailblazer in other ways, like becoming an iconic door girl for NYC parties. dove deeper with contributor Greg Emmanuel into Fleming’s career as an illustrator, walking historic runway shows and her best takeaways from posing with top photographers for Area and Mugler.

Interview – Greg Emmanuel | Editor – Irene Ojo-Felix

What is Connie Fleming up to these days?
Along with some modeling, I’m trying to get my art out there. I had my first solo show in Montreal in the middle of the pandemic and then it came here to New York to the beloved Lower East Side Girls Club, who I work with and advocate for. I got a great response and it gave me the push to go further with my art.

I’ve come across your art in real-time before. During a recent fashion week, I saw some of the Soul Management comp cards and you were actually the artist behind all of the illustrations for their comp cards that season.
Yes, that was Jason [Soul], who is a long-time friend. He came to my solo show and when he saw the work, he said it reminded him of the Golden Age of illustration, and he said we have to talk. A couple of weeks later, I went by Soul Artist Management and he was like let’s do this for fashion week and it was a wonderful experience.

Thierry Mugler Fall 1992 Couture Show | All images courtesy of Connie Fleming

When you entered the fashion space in the early days of your modeling career, were there any particular goals that you wanted to manifest after doing your first show?
No, not really. I just wanted to do a good job and hopefully get called back for the next season. It was a great opportunity and I didn’t want to do a bad job because I knew, or at least hoped, it would mean opening up the space for others. I just didn’t want to screw it up and anything after that was a thought for another day.

How would you describe your experience working with Thierry Mugler in 3 words?
I guess “a dream come true” – is that three words? *laughs*

As someone who got the opportunity to work with Thierry, has the feeling evolved into something new since working with the new Mugler team and Casey Cadwallader?
Casey has such a wonderful eye and has fostered the true DNA of Mugler, the brand’s inclusivity and the democratization of fashion. Back then, it was considered subversive, theatrical and outlandish. But now, in our new space it’s inclusive. That’s what Thierry was always about, so it’s great to see Casey and the team embrace and further that narrative.

As a model with a great walk and being a part of Mugler’s shows, where we get to see some of the nastiest walks come down the runway. In your opinion, who are some of the models that you would say have the greatest walk?
Yasmeen Ghauri, Naomi [Campbell], Mounia [​​Orosemane], Amalia [Vairelli], Katoucha [Niane], Mariacarla Boscono, and Pat Cleveland. Pat Cleveland is like a silent actress. She has taught me so much about conveying mood, suspending yourself in the world and in the narrative of the show, and letting the clothing speak through you to convey the feeling of a show.

From your perspective and current experience with the fashion industry, would you say you notice a notable progression in terms of diverse representation and respecting all genders and identities?
I do. It took the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and the Me Too movement to push society to this point, but we have to take the good with the bad. We have to sort of see this moment and all of the hurtful things that have happened with society, rummage through, and pick out the good. I do see a progression and I hope that it is not taken as a trend. It doesn’t feel like that, it feels like it sunk in and taken hold. Hopefully, it will progress and we will see a time when beauty doesn’t ask for anything. It doesn’t even ask to exist, it just asks us to appreciate it, learn from it, and grow from it. Hopefully, that will have an everlasting anchor in society and in business.

“Both Thierry, Vivienne, and Gaultier…wanted to show the world beauty, in all of its aspects and configurations, and they didn’t put it out there as a spectacle.”

Mentally & emotionally, how was last year for you, considering Mugler and Vivienne Westwood’s passing and you being one of their early muses?
It was super difficult because they were my two champions. They saw talent and gave it a chance to be showcased. When I started, there were a lot of things I wasn’t put up for or could do because it would be seen as subversive or pushing a narrative. Like you know, if anybody saw me on the runway, they would think it was unattainable. But that is fashion. Fashion puts on the best lighting, the best hair and make-up, the best photographer, and the best tooling to sell scented water and chiffon. We don’t really need those things, we are being sold dreams and aspirations.

Both Thierry, Vivienne, and Gaultier – and there were a couple of others – wanted to show the world beauty, in all of its aspects and configurations, and they didn’t put it out there as a spectacle. It was like, this is real, I am conveying to you something that is not only a dream, but it’s the world we live in. We sort of hide our eyes from certain things that we think are bad or in some way subversive, and they tore down that veil not only with their cast but with their expression of fashion. Vivienne tore down those class barriers and brought us the history of fashion. Thierry showed patent leather when patent leather was considered a fetish and dirty, but he showed it in a high fashion view that meant power and strength. For the [Thierry Mugler] opening at the Brooklyn Museum, there were moments of elation and there were moments that Thierry would be so happy to see his adopted town of New York come out and show him, love. He would have been over the moon because New York was sort of his place to come and rest, rejuvenate, and be inspired by our art, club, and music community.

Thierry Mugler Spring 1992 Show | All images courtesy of Connie Fleming

If you could share a few words, how would you describe the legacy of each iconic designer?
Their legacies are about tearing down the antiquated ideals of fashion, taking them, then retooling them to educate and expand our eyes and ourselves. Vivienne, in the beginning, was a punk princess, but her cutting and her sense of history taught us and opened our eyes to history in a way that feeds us now. She showed us that beauty is for everyone. Thierry showed us the power of us all and showed us this armor of constructed, tooled beauty that gave us strength and made us sit up straighter and want to show our best side. When he started, it was just the end of the first wave of feminism. Going into the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was that second/third wave of feminism when it wasn’t dawning on the masculine drag to be taken seriously as a woman in the boardroom and as a woman in life. The second/third wave of feminism wanted to embrace their femininity and not cover it with that masculine guard to be taken seriously. Thierry gave you a voluptuous shape and the power of femininity, but it wasn’t weakness, it was strength – and that threatened a lot of people. They both tore down gender norms, they sort of dismantled those little things so that we can live in this time and not have it be outlandish and new. They were doing the work back then that we can inhabit now and I think that’s their greatest contribution.

Most recently, is there anything new that has been inspiring your illustrations?
A great friend and Mugler muse himself, Scott Ewalt, the great artist. He just did a show with the Honor Fraser Gallery in LA and he called me up and asked me if I would do a drawing because he wanted all sorts of disciplines in the show. I did a drawing of William Dorsey Swann, who was one of the first drag queens in the 1880s and a former slave who would have cakewalk parties which morphed into ballroom. It was really incredible delving into Black history and Queer history at that time and depicting it. The show is super beautiful and I was honored to be a part.

Connie and Jean-Paul Goude, Interview Magazine by Steven Meisel | All images courtesy of Connie Fleming

What inspires you the most?
Well, I’m still a door bitch from hell at The Standard and at Battle Hymn. Coming out of the pandemic, I noticed the little pockets of kids that really dress up and make an effort. They are coming out more and doing more and giving me a look and it’s so inspiring to see the energies of the creative that I grew up being inspired by. And not just wearing jeans and a t-shirt from Fashion Nova – excuse me, while I spit the name out so that taste doesn’t linger. They really inspire me because they are coming out in looks and are unapologetic about it. They are pushing the envelope with boys wearing makeup and androgynous fashion and it’s super inspiring and wonderful to see this creativity, which was part of my growing up in New York.

As an iconic door woman, what are some of the most notorious NYC spots that were hard to get in?
I missed Studio 54 and The Mud Club because I wasn’t old enough to go, so I would say Area, The Palladium when it first opened, Mr. Black just because of the nature of space because it was so tiny, The Limelight to a certain extent, USA and Paradise Garage because you had to be invited by a member and Jackie 60 because of the dress code.

Looking back at some of the shoots that you’ve done, what moments stood out in your career?
That first time I shot with Steven Meisel, there was a moment when I was going one way and my ponytail was going the other. Steven told Francois Nars to grab one side and the wonderful Oribe to grab another side and he told me to straighten up my spine and then he told both of them to shake my legs and that’s how that photograph was taken, that was a wonderful moment. Shooting with Thierry in White Sands in New Mexico. There was one point when we were shooting and a wind storm came up and we were in the middle of White Sands. It was like an all-body dermapeel with the wind storm. I think it was Nikki Taylor and I who were out there and we were just trying to get back to the trailer, but we couldn’t see to get back to the trailer. Shooting with Steven Klein somewhere in Meatpacking, and I was in all Vivienne Westwood and the platform shoes. Steven was like, “can you do a cartwheel?” and I don’t know if he has this picture, but I was doing a cartwheel in those super high Vivenne Westwoods. Shooting with [Francesco] Scavullo, because it was like I grew up with Scavullo you know that opening scene of “Lipstick”. I had visions of Way Bandy doing my makeup, but he had already passed away, so that was a little bittersweet. But, just to have him [Scavullo] speak to me while shooting me was incredible, it was wonderful. Finally, shooting with Ethan James Green for Area because that was just coming out of the pandemic and I was in recovery myself from being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 and going through chemo and radiation and I was sort of depleted and not feeling myself, but sort of fighting my way back to health. Both Ethan and the team at Area made me feel comfortable and beautiful and that was a wonderful experience.

Interview Magazine Sept 2020 by Cruz Valdez | All images courtesy of Connie Fleming

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