Unless you’ve been on a five-year fashion fast, you know the name Paloma Elsesser. Whether you’ve seen her in Oyster, fronting recent beauty campaigns for Glossier and Pat McGrath, on the runway for brands like Eckhaus Latta and Fendi, or from simply following @palomija on Instagram because you can’t get enough of her refreshing honesty and effortless confidence — there’s no denying the 27-year-old is a fashion force (and one of the models we’re obsessing over rn).
Since launching her modelling career, Paloma has broken nearly every barrier and become an outspoken advocate for inclusivity and body positivity in the process. She’s also not afraid to speak up about the causes that are important to her, including social issues and sustainability.
Her support for the latter is one of the reasons why our fav Aussie brand, Bonds, tapped her to rep their new Organics collection in their latest We Gots You campaign. On a dreamy set in Malibu — pre iso, of course — we snapped some moments of our own with Paloma as she took the range for a spin. Made from GOTS-certified cotton — which means ethical production from the farm to your drawer — and ranging from sizes AU 8-20, the collection’s neutral and block colour palettes make being comfy and socially conscious look effortlessly cool.
With Paloma in Paris for the FW20 shows as the campaign launched last month, we caught up with her in between jobs walking for Fendi and McQueen to chat about her own evolution over the past five years, change and transparency in the fashion industry, and why it’s important for brands and people alike to continually evolve — even if it’s a bit uncomfortable.
Alexandra Weiss: The last 5 years have been a wild ride for you. Take us back to where it all started.
Paloma Elsesser: Five years ago, I honestly had no idea that I could or would ever be a model. An editor gave me the idea — they were telling me about how the industry was changing and I thought the idea sounded cool, but I definitely never saw myself succeeding. The way the industry was at the time — it wasn’t completely devoid of plus-size models, because limits were being shattered by the women like Ashley [Graham] who came before me, but still — I just didn’t fit the MO of a plus model.
In what sense?
They were always looking for a very specific body type, or a very commercial, very sexy girl. And not that I haven’t been able to be that, but I had no idea that I could be that. I was introduced to agencies but nobody could make sense of where I would land — literally all of the agencies said ‘no’. I didn’t really care, though, because it wasn’t my dream at the time, so there was no love lost. Then, six months later, I was approached by Pat McGrath to be one of the models to help launch her eponymous makeup line. That’s pretty much how I started.
“They were always looking for a very specific body type, or a very commercial, very sexy girl. And not that I haven’t been able to be that, but I had no idea that I could be that.”
Has the industry changed enough that people ‘get it’ now? Or do you still feel like they don’t know where you’ll land, as you put it?
Yes and no — I’m constantly surprised at the changes that have been made. Once I started modelling, I realised that if I didn’t provide some kind of service or look at it in some bigger picture kind of way, I wasn’t going to be able to survive it. Seeing the industry really respond to that, and respect my position and my thoughts, was amazing. It’s still a pretty cutthroat industry and sometimes it can feel very archaic, but I feel lucky to have worked with some of the most amazing people and in a really collaborative space that is different from how it was when I first started. So, I do feel that it is changing — simply by me existing and being supported, and now seeing other women who look like me, who dress like me… I can’t say that the industry hasn’t changed if I am “successful” now.
I always think that female artists, in particular, often have to reinvent themselves throughout their careers, much more so than their male counterparts… Is this something you feel like you’ve had to do?
Yeah, I have. But I’m always wanting that evolution to happen — so it kind of happened naturally for me, in addition to being necessary. If I was always doing the same thing, I wouldn’t feel fulfilled — so I welcome challenges that force me to grow in my career and in my personal life. It feels cool to be in a space of reclaiming it from the necessity of having to do it, by just always upping the ante, and finding new parts of myself with grace and excitement.
Although you say you embrace it, do you still find it somewhat uncomfortable, though?
Change is definitely uncomfortable, but with each change, I’ve grown. I’m not the kind of person who’s like, ‘Oh my god, I love the unknown!’ Definitely not. I’m way too much of a control freak. But there’s always something to learn, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Are you in a process of change at the moment?
Yeah, I’m currently in a new, uncomfortable transformation because I never really thought that runway would be a part of my career and I just walked the Fendi show… it’s a new development and evolution that’s been kind of scary in some ways. But instead of backing away when I’m challenged, I force myself to step into it — I want to always be evolving and growing.
Why do you think it’s important to educate yourself on political, social and environmental issues?
I was raised in a very informed household and I’ve always felt it was important to know what’s going on outside of my own little world and to advocate for the things I believe in — it’s not like I do it because it’s popular now. And if we’re going to live in a world where we use all of these products, we need to be educated about them. That’s how I was raised — to think and operate from a place of critique, and to always look for more information.
In Australia, everyone grows up wearing Bonds – but it’s lesser-known in the US. Was it their progressive approach to drive change within the industry that excited you about working with them?
It’s just so cool to see a brand dedicated to implementing sustainability from beginning to end. I think what’s lacking in the industry and specifically in the consumer market around sustainability — or lack thereof — is just transparency. About how it’s sourced, how it’s made, where it comes from… As a buyer you feel like you’ve been left out of the decision-making process. So, it’s really amazing that Bonds has focused on transparency, and become such a force of change in an industry that does so many things in secret.
“As a buyer you feel like you’ve been left out of the decision-making process — it’s amazing that Bonds has focused on transparency in an industry that does so many things in secret.”
I’m assuming sustainability plays a big role in your day-to-day fashion choices, too?
It plays a big role — it could play a bigger one, though. I really admire peers who only wear sustainable brands and I’m still working out how to mandate that into my everyday life. But in general, I’ve never really bought fast fashion, I’ve always tried to shop vintage and thrift by default — mostly because that was all I could afford growing up — and I try not to buy and wear things that are just trend-driven. So, if I’m going to buy something new or that wasn’t sustainably sourced or made, I’m going to make sure it’s something I’m going to wear for a long time, not just for one outfit. I respect what Bonds has done with the GOTS-certified Organics collection — really focusing on top to bottom production from a sustainable and ethical standpoint. It’s so nice to work with a brand that makes that a focus.
And they look great! Do you have a favourite piece or colour from the line?
Yeah, the high-waisted green set. I’m always very attracted to khaki and forest or olive greens, and I love a high-waisted look. So, it was just super comfortable and cute. You’ll find me wearing them at home, which is where I love to be, or just on vacation, reading a book on a deck with my phone turned off.
“I mean, there’s so much of myself that I don’t share on Instagram — why would I not think that everyone else is doing that?”
I know your schedule is packed — especially right now, in Paris. So, what are your go-tos for self-care when it’s time to wind down?
It’s the classics. I love a massage — I’m obsessed with being touched — and listening to a good meditation or a really good self-help podcast while you get a massage is like the closest thing to enlightenment. I’ve literally tried to get a massage in every single place I’ve ever been to! Over the last year, as my career has gotten a bit crazier, I’ve started feeling a lot more homesick. So, whenever I have the opportunity, my self-care practice is just to be at home and spend time with my boyfriend and friends… just have a normal life.
Speaking of self-care, what’s your relationship with Instagram? Obviously, it’s become a really important space for women, and women in the fashion industry, but as we all know, it can also get super toxic…
Instagram is cool — it has been such an amazing thing for my career, and for the industry, and getting how I feel out there, and connecting with people — but I don’t think that I’m entirely capable of divorcing myself from the [negative] feelings it gives me. It’s like, we exist in this space where we’re getting micro-hits of trauma all day, and we don’t have time to recover from it. It’s small things, like things that are happening in the news, and you click past it, then it’s that girl who got that job that you wanted, and you click past it, then it’s some person whose vacation looks really dope… You’re getting a triple whammy of: ‘I’m not good enough, the world is fucked up.’ You know what I mean? And we don’t have time to even register how all of that is affecting us at that moment. So, the spill out for me sometimes is a sense of hopelessness or a lot of compare and despair. But I have to have agency over the fact that it’s also not the real world. I mean, there’s so much of myself that I don’t share on Instagram — why would I not think that everyone else is doing that? Instagram is the finished product. Like when I’m on a shoot and I’m wearing shoes that are two sizes too small and my skin is terrible because I’ve been on a sixteen-hour flight — the finished product looks great, but people don’t know all the stuff that goes into making it.
You’ve clearly learned to put up a kind of a healthy barrier. What other ways do you think you’ve grown as a person, and as a model, since you started?
It’s weird, I constantly feel like I’m both evolving and devolving. Growing up, I was always so insecure. I would dumb myself down for boys and for other people, and in the last few years, I feel very proud of the fact that I can be wholly myself, and then weirdly be applauded for it in an industry that’s never really applauded anyone who wasn’t skinny and white and had any kind of voice at all. So, that has helped evolve my sense of self, and feeling secure in that. But with “success”, or visibility, I’ve also become so much more insecure about things I was never insecure about. Like, now I realise that I have a good side and a bad side, and that my eye is wonky, which I never noticed before. Or even just feeling that I used to be super social, but because of work, I’m just tired, and my circle has gotten smaller — which isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes I feel insecure about it. So, I would say I’ve kind of devolved in that sense — maybe not devolved, just changed. I’m always changing.
Interview and words: Alexandra Weiss
Photography: Daphne Nguyen @ Lion Artist Management
Talent: Paloma Elsesser @ IMG