After appearing in a viral 2016 Allure video dispelling the beauty myths about aging gracefully, the Harlem native has become a New York Fashion Week regular over the past few seasons, walking down the runway for brands like Deveaux and CDLM. Chances are you’ve seen her in a recent fashion campaign as well. From Pyer Moss to Rihanna‘s LVMH luxury maison FENTY, the 67-year-old model has fronted advertisements for some of the buzziest fashion labels today.
“At 5’4, black and 67 years of age I am not your typical model in the general defined way,” Johnson told us as we shot this editorial against the backdrop of Chinatown, Manhattan. “What I represent though is not a fad, so essentially my new career is positively challenging the status quo.”
Read our interview below to learn more about the model who’s breaking all fashion stereotypes by being herself.
Founders & Followers top and pants.
One of your first jobs was working in New York’s Garment District. What are some of your fondest memories from that period of your life?
The company I worked for sold jeans at the time. Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were the big sellers, so we would buy them and make knockoffs. You had to be on top of what was coming out next, so it was a fast and fun time in the business. Just being a part of the radical changes that paved the way to what is acceptable today was exciting. Those years (The ’60s and ’70s) signified through fashion, the widespread influence of the youth culture. Our music had changed, our art had changed and fashion went right along with it. Studio 54 was rocking and the world seemed open to new ideas and opportunities.
Having left and now returning to the industry as a model, how would you say the fashion scene in New York has evolved over the past 50 years?
The most impressive thing to have happened to the fashion scene in New York over the past 50 years is the Internet. When I started out, how we communicated styles and trends was very different. It’s gone from waiting six months to a year to find out what the next trend from Paris, Milan or London is, to almost instantaneous. I can go online and see the Paris shows and the collections of the latest designers for every season, in real time. The speed at which the industry moves is the biggest change.
It’s a truly positive thing to now know that the New York fashion scene today is more accepting of individuals regardless of one’s race, orientation, physical abilities, etc.
On the other side there were also sections of society who had always been invisible when it came to being represented in fashion, so it’s a truly positive thing to now know that the New York fashion scene today is more accepting of individuals regardless of one’s race, orientation, physical abilities, etc.
How does living in Harlem inspire your personal style?
My community is very diverse and rich with color and history. Street style has always been celebrated in Harlem because fashion and looking good was always a matter of pride. Sometimes I’ll mimic styles from past Harlem entertainers, but it’s always about being creative, fashionable and comfortable.
Today I try to wear clothing that can make as stunning a fashion statement as the zoot suits men wore in Harlem in the 1940s, but I can also be as comfortable to wear the baggy pants street kids sported in Harlem in the 1990s.
Did you ever have any style icons?
One icon I admired greatly was Josephine Baker. Her style, courage and conviction and her appearance of being unconstrained and untethered were inspiring to me.
When I was working in the Garment District, I followed a few black models religiously to look at their fashion — Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland and Norma Jean Darden. Those were the girls that I wish I could have hung out with all the time. Watching their careers take off is what kept me interested in fashion.
How do you discover new fashion and new designers these days? Who are some of your favorites?
The internet plays an ever increasing role in me finding new fashion. The influencers and stylists I follow show their designs and post their collections online, and that too keeps me current.
My personal style is rather eclectic and is dictated by my mood. I know what all the trends are, but I don’t hold myself to that. I go with what I’m comfortable with. Y-3 is the ultimate in sports luxe. Rick Owens is design innovation on a hanger with the perfect amount of calculated edge.
My personal style is rather eclectic and is dictated by my mood. I know what all the trends are, but I don’t hold myself to that. I go with what I’m comfortable with.
One of the other designers I’m also wearing now is DEMOBAZA. Very comfortable and very different. Much of their line has hoodies which I began wearing a lot of after the death of Trayvon Martin. Recently discovered the joys of Grey Ant sunglasses also.
You’ve been modeling for over two years now. What is it about your new career that you enjoy the most?
I enjoy having the ability to disrupt all the fashion rules, whilst inspiring large groups of people to think of inclusion more broadly in this space. I don’t consider what I’m doing as your usual modeling career, and at 5’4, black and 67 years of age I am not your typical model in the general defined way. What I represent though is not a fad, so essentially my new career is positively challenging the status quo. And it’s great!
At 5’4, black and 67 years of age I am not your typical model in the general defined way. What I represent though is not a fad, so essentially my new career is positively challenging the status quo.
Each segment of this journey brings along new experiences whether it’s on the runway, print, etc. I’m happy to be here, doing this, at this time. Each photographer has their own style — they are artists, it’s their work and their vision, so being the object or muse — if you like — of someone else’s vision, to bring it to life is exhilarating.
Your occupation often requires you to look confident in front of the camera and on the runway, but how do you find confidence in yourself outside of your job?
For me, confidence comes from showing up for life on a daily basis. Everything I’ve been through — the good, the bad and the ugly — has prepared me to know that I can handle my next challenge with confidence. Being older gives me the experience of knowing that I’ve overcome difficult challenges before, like the death of my husband, and that gives me the confidence to face whatever comes next. Young people should welcome new experiences — they help you build on your current abilities and hopefully add new ones. And with that, even more confidence will come.
A lot of people have sung the praises of the casting of FENTY’s campaigns. As one of the models chosen by Rihanna and her team, what do you think these positive reactions say about the importance of representation and diversity in today’s fashion landscape?
Fashion is part of our world. Shouldn’t it represent the people of the world? I applaud Rihanna and those who have moved fashion in the direction of inclusion, allowing many who felt they were forgotten to now say, yes I can be a part of this industry. Campaigns featuring nontraditional models like me can introduce different audiences to designers and vice-versa, that they otherwise may not have been exposed to. And that should be good news for everyone.
Fashion imagery could be such an amazing tool of empowerment when it’s done right. Do you agree and how do you relate to this personally?
I do agree that when it is done right and not just an afterthought or part of a trend, fashion imagery can undoubtedly impact how you see yourself and the world beyond fashion in the most powerful way. Commitment is needed by all involved though, to keep the empowerment wave going.
The hang tag on my one-of-a-kind wearable art that I make states “it is within imperfection one finds true beauty.” We all have beauty and we all have our own unique style. How we “work it” is the key.
Do you consider yourself a game-changer What changes do you wish to see in the modeling industry in the years to come?
I’m not sure I’ve changed the game…yet, but I do know that I am a visual representation of inspiration for being the change that I always wanted to see in the world. For the modeling industry, I wish for consistent and open dialogue and action when it comes to inclusion and diversity. Fashion has the ability to influence so many conversations. As it continues to move forward, this may help to change perceptions and acceptance in our world at large.
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