When I was 17, I was in London in the ‘80s. I was part of a group of beautiful people called Buffalo. My friend, the stylist Ray Petri, started it, and [singers] Neneh Cherry, Nick Kamen, [model] Barry Kamen, and [photographers] Martin Brading and Jean-Baptiste Mondino were in it. Buffalo was…a whole movement. Ray was the first person I knew with AIDS. What struck me the most about his sickness—especially the end of it—was how poorly others treated him. Not our little family but those outside it. It was a different time back then. I remember there was a season when Ray came to Paris to see [Jean-Paul] Gautier’s show. No one would talk to him. I told Jean-Paul backstage, and Jean-Paul went out in front, took a chair, and moved it to a prime position in front of everyone. He loved Ray, and didn’t like the way he was being treated. We did everything we could to push his legacy after he passed.
Later in America, I met the makeup artist Joe McDevitt. David Lachapelle reminds me of this still, because we met each other through Joe even though we wouldn’t work together until many years after. Back then Joe would do the makeup for all my shoots. One day I heard that he needed creams for his sick body and help paying for his hospital care. I wasn’t making any money at the time; I had just gotten my own apartment with Christy [Turlington]. But I knew that if I gave my rent check to Joe that God would take care of me and I’d find that money again.
Then after that…[fashion designer] Giorgio di Sant’angelo, [photographer] Bill King…but we never spoke about it. These people were not victims. They wanted to continue working, so that’s what we did. Even when Bill would collapse on set, he’d take a break and then just continue. I’m not the type of person to disappear when someone’s down; that’s when I’m there the most. Anyone who knows me knows that. Even though I didn’t fully understand everything that was happening during those times, I knew that my friends were not well. Since then, I’ve been a supporter of AIDS research and finding a cure. It’s something I’m still fighting for today. It’s been nearly two and a half decades. I do believe that there is a cure.
I try to support groups like amfAR [The Foundation for AIDS Research], Mothers2Mothers with [Gucci CEO] Marco Bizzarri, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and the Human Rights Campaign as much as I can. I’ve been lucky to have done a lot of work with UNAIDS [the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS], where I’ve been to different parts of the world. One of our most profound trips was to Lesotho, where one out of every four girls has AIDS. And that’s out of two million people. To hear them speak was incredibly uplifting. They’re not victims, either. I remember there was a young girl there—she must have been only 26—who started…not a clinic, but a hub, where locals could go to get tested. It was really effective, because it can be extremely intimidating to go into a room filled with people in white lab coats. I mean, I’ve done my fair share of giving out condoms in South Africa in the ‘90s. People can really get insulted at the act.
When I see that something needs to be done, all I can see is the final goal. I always know that I’ll get there. I started Fashion for Relief in 2005. The first time I came to the United States was for a shoot in New Orleans in 1986, so I always kept an emotional connection to the city. When I saw what was going on [after Hurricane Katrina], I was horrified. There were hundreds of thousands of people with nowhere to go. I saw that there were actors and musicians doing a telethon [A Concert for Hurricane Relief], and I thought, “Fashion Week is one week way, there must be something we can do.” People told me it was impossible, but I wanted to make a fashion show that would actually help these people’s lives. I called Teddy Forstmann, who owned IMG at the time, and he gave me a tent at Bryant Park. Everybody jumped in—designers, stylists, models—and we all came together. To this day, we’re still committed to making the world better—and this year we’re bringing the organization to Qatar in March. The fashion industry is a trillion dollar business. We all have to do our part. For relief, education, or simply just doing what’s right. There’s so much that we can do—what we must do.
I think back to 1988 when Bethann Hardison brought me and Iman together with the Black Girls Coalition. There has been so much great change in the last few years that I really feel like the world will sustain. The next generation understands that. With Gucci’s Multicultural Fellowship Program, we’re sending a group of students from Africa to Rome to work and train [with the brand]. The continent of Africa—which was overlooked for so long, especially in fashion—is now the place to look to. It’s exciting, I don’t say this word often—exciting—but I’m very enthusiastic and looking forward to the times ahead. Some wonderful things are going to happen, and I’m just happy to be here to witness that.
PHOTOGRAPHERS MERT ALAS & MARCUS PIGGOTT
FASHION CARINE ROITFELD
HAIR SHAY ASHUAL
MAKEUP ROKAEL LIZAMA
HAIR FOR CHER SERENA RADAELLI AT CLOUTIER REMIX
MAKEUP FOR CHER FRANCESCA TOLOT AT CLOUTIER REMIX
MANICURIST DIEM TRUONG
ENTERTAINMENT BOOKING SHELBY BEAMON
LOCAL PRODUCTION GE PROJECTS
PRODUCTION PALM PRODUCTIONS
SPECIAL THANKS MARJAN MALAKPOUR AT THE ONLY AGENCY
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