Couture may not have been a completely foreign word to the upper and middle class Black community of the late fifties but access to it certainly was. That is until Eunice Johnson, doyenne of black publishing, beauty, and fashion at the time, launched the Ebony Fashion Fair. It was a traveling show that brought high fashion to Black communities across the U.S, the U.K., and the Caribbean for fifty years. It also brought Black models, of all hues, to the attention of top designers and the broader public consciousness for the first time. One of the first and arguably most successful models featured in the Ebony Fashion Fair tour was fourteen year-old New Yorker Pat Cleveland.
Even at that tender age Cleveland had been honing her eye for fashion and her skills at clothing design with her mother in their modest Harlem apartment for years. Her father, a Swedish jazz musician, was never a part of her life. She says, “My journey started with my mother. She gave me fashion because she dressed so beautifully. Made her own clothes. She never stopped playing with the fantasy of who you could be. I just took the torch of everything she gave me and I had a great moment where I was just wearing my own clothes in the subway and someone noticed me from Vogue.”
That chance meeting in the subway was with the legendary fashion editor Carrie Donovan. Donovan ended up doing a story on Cleveland’s clothing designs for Vogue a few months later. Encouraged by this flirtation with serendipity, her mother decided she would send her pictures to Ebony magazine. Eunice Johnson, its co-founder and editor, was impressed enough that she had Pat in for a photoshoot and subsequently invited her to be a model on the fashion tour which ended up changing her life.
Cleveland, who predated Naomi Sims, Beverly Johnson, and Iman, ultimately became what former Vogue magazine Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley describes in his memoir as, “The first black supermodel.” The Ebony Fashion Fair tour brought her to the attention of designer Oleg Cassini.
Most famous for designing numerous ensembles for Jackie Onassis, he urged Ford Models to sign Cleveland which they did. Ford was the foremost modeling agency at the time. Racism in the U.S. proved to be stronger than Cassini’s enthusiasm. Lacking bookings, Cleveland eventually signed with another agency, Wilhelmina, which was then up and coming and open to a more diverse slate of models. The head of that agency sent her to Europe where she found huge success walking the runways for the likes of Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld.
Cleveland recently completed her own memoir, Walking With the Muses. The book reads like a paean primarily to her mother, Lady Bird Cleveland, her greatest champion and inspiration. It was her mother’s illness that was indirectly responsible for her finally writing the book that she had been promising friends for some time that she would write.
Cleveland told the AFRO, “My mom was not well. I was living in Italy so I brought my whole family back to America to work with her and all my diaries were sitting there that I had kept since I was sixteen. I went through boxes and said let me try to do something with this.”
Secondarily, Walking pays homage to the innumerable influential cultural figures she has encountered during her extraordinary life. It is a veritable who’s who of fashion, entertainment and art from the 1950’s on. Cleveland has met everyone including being wooed as a teen by pioneering New York City DJ Frankie Crocker and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Her first great romance was with the son of jazz great Billy Eckstine. Later, she had a long, torrid affair with silver screen heartthrob Warren Beatty. As a child she met Paul Robeson, Eubie Blake, Eartha Kitt and many others who knew her mother. Opera legend Marian Anderson once sang her a lullaby.
“These are people who were all friends of my mother. My mother was an artist and knew a great many artists and people who loved art,” she said.
Cleveland, who is currently on a quest to get her beloved mother’s paintings into the Smithsonian Museum, also learned from these assorted creative luminaries what it took to be a success. “They have a focus, a creative focus. They don’t listen to anyone’s opinions about what they believe in. They know that they can do something with what they have,” she said. Cleveland described the book as, “A love letter to the people you love, your antagonists, anybody who came into your life that you learned a lesson from and that’s why I’m walking with the muses all the time.”