Supermodel Pat Cleveland on How She’s Survived Five Decades in Fashion, From Studio 54 to the Me Too Movement

When Pat Cleveland was 14 years old, a woman stopped her on the street to ask about her look. Cleveland, then an art student, had designed her own garments: a miniskirt (“pre-Twiggy,” she insisted, but just as mod) and a poplin raincoat, her hair pulled into a high, braided ponytail. That woman was an editor at Vogue; she invited Cleveland upstairs to show her designs.

“Good clothes opened doors,” Cleveland told me recently during a W photoshoot in New York. It was an early winter afternoon, the last vestiges of a recent nor’easter finally receding from the sidewalks, and Cleveland sat curled in a velvet corner booth in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel; a David LaChapelle portrait of Eminem, nude except for some strategically placed dynamite, loomed overhead.

Pat Cleveland by Antonio Lopez from a new exhibition at Danziger Gallery in New York.

Photo by Antonio Lopez.

It has been 51 years since she signed with Ford Models, 53 since that fateful Vogue encounter on the streets. Over five decades, Cleveland became a favorite of artists, designers, and photographers including Steven Meisel, Halston, Antonio Lopez, and Karl Lagerfeld; she even went on to found a modeling agency in the mid ’90s. Still, much has changed in that time: The advent of social media has transformed how models acquire work, how fashion is broadcast to a wider audience, how that audience is able to access and consume what designers present, and Cleveland has had to keep pace with those developments. “I’m not this new generation, but I’m living in it, too,” Cleveland said. “I’m in it with them—I’m swimming through all these numbers and how many numbers do you have and how many people like you and staying on your Instagram.” (Plus, she noted, there was a quieter analogue transition: Where runway presentations were once documented with pen and ink, now photography and live-streams are the norm.)

Cleveland spread her hands across the velvet banquette as she described her relationship to the Internet. “Everything is instant and next,” she said. “We’re rushing past all this velvet, and are we actually feeling it? Are we touching the velvet? Are we not touching the velvet? I mean, I’m having a sensuous time just sitting here and feeling the stuff. Feel it,” she instructed me. I obliged.

Anna and Pat Cleveland dancing at Marc Jacobs's party at the Tunnel in 2015. Photo by Sherly Rabbani.

It probably doesn’t hurt that Cleveland has a 29-year-old daughter to bridge the divide between generations. Anna Cleveland quickly established herself as a sought-after model in her own right—she’s a regular presence on the runways at Moschino and Jean Paul Gaultier, and her other credits include Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui, and Haider Ackermann. When we spoke, Pat Cleveland had just returned from Amsterdam, where she had participated in a show alongside her daughter; they have also appeared in campaigns for Marc Jacobs and Lanvin together. How much, I asked Cleveland, does she think her daughter’s experience in the industry resembles her own, given the changes in technology, society, and culture in the intervening 50 years?

“The celebrity girls coming in, it’s a different kind of thing,” she said. That transition—from career models to a wider array of women modeling on runways and in campaigns and editorials—has, slowly, accompanied a greater emphasis on inclusion, whether of age, race, gender identity, nationality, or body size.

“They always used to make the girls look so sticky, skinny, and tired, make them feel pitiful,” Cleveland added. “Now, some of them are blossoming, coming back to life, because they’re realizing, ‘Yeah, I’m female, and I can look any way I want.”

This emphasis on inclusion has also benefited Cleveland, along with a contingent of previous generations’ supermodels, including Amber Valletta, Guinevere Van Seenus, Iman, and Cindy Crawford, all of whom have been enjoying something of a renaissance lately. Cleveland also proposed that newer designers are fascinated by the experiences of models of previous generations, whose careers and personal lives brought them in contact with, as was Cleveland’s case, the likes of Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol.

“You become like a storyteller,” she said. “They want to know, ‘Were you really there?’”

Though it’s easy to interpret this trend toward inclusion as just that—a trend, quick to fade—Cleveland said she believes it’s genuine, because all of fashion is, in some sense, a trend. “Fashion is a change. We change our minds, we change our clothes,” she said. “You just have to set a trend for yourself—this is my trend, this is who I am.”

I asked her if she was ever concerned about ushering her daughter into the industry, especially considering the recent allegations of sexual misconduct that have come out against prominent photographers like Terry Richardson, Patrick Demarchelier, and Mario Testino, as well as model agents. “It’s not as bad as other places. It’s not as bad as politics or the movies,” Cleveland said. Really? I wondered. “I know, for sure. Me Too, honey,” she added, with a slight laugh. “Fashion’s probably the safest place you can be.” Still, she observed the grueling work days, sometimes as long as 16 hours, and assertive personalities that populate fashion can be taxing, and a career in modeling requires physical, as well as mental, fortitude. She has reminded her daughter of this—the necessity of taking time for herself, of obtaining some distance from her work, in order to prevent burnout. “To embellish a woman is a great thing,” she said. But, at the same time, “a plant gets to the point where it has to drop all its petals and just seed out. That’s what you have to do every few seasons if you’re in this business. You have to seed out; you have to go away and disappear for a while.” (She means this quite literally: “Get into nature, put your hands in the dirt,” she said. “That’s how I’ve survived.”)

Paul von Ravenstein, Anna Cleveland, and Pat Cleveland. Photo by Simbarashe Cha.

While she has continued modeling, Cleveland also recently began making art—primarily collage and painting—which she plans to show at a solo gallery exhibition in London next year. She is curating a show of “black American history art” by her mother, Lady Bird, and she’s recording an album. And she, Anna, and her son, Noel Van Ravenstein, a model and emerging designer, are working on an as-yet-undisclosed fashion project.

In addition to “seeding out,” this, above all, has propelled Cleveland through a half-century in fashion: a relentless drive forward, to seek out innovation, to do better. “My family’s been slaves, kings, queens, everything. I’ve had everything in my family, and I’m not letting anybody down because everybody fought so hard to be alive, just to be in America,” she said.

“I make everybody stronger, by raising the bar, by being stronger,” she added. “You set the bar for yourself first.”