« I always say « I am not an artist », but they made me realize that there are many ways to be an artist. Not only by making things, but by assembling things, and making connections, in a way that is artistic. Germans find a way to intellectualize everything. They rationalize things, they want to understand the trajectory. Seeing the clothes on these Black mannequins, seeing the Black mannequins in the museum, is so powerful… It is full of warmth, it is alive, it generates such an incredible energy. I am infinitely grateful… despite the lockdown. Not afraid of life! »
– Michelle Elie
You may have heard her contagious laughter on Instagram, caught a glimpse of her power-packed outfits in street style photographs, and secretly screamed « Mega! » in unison with her over a spectacular look by Valentino, Marni or her all time favorite Comme des Garçons. Michelle Elie is a proof that the mind transcends matter. What she expresses, she is, and her energy is contagious. In a fashion world where too often, the public is sold a carefully edited version of reality, Michelle brings a distinctive, immensely personal, and generous outlook on life that is hard not to relate to. All may not own a full closet of Comme des Garçons, but all can surely appreciate a good time in the company of friends « Some went mad, some ran away! » and family « Kids ruining my look! » Smiling as I write this, I am reminded once again, especially in these difficult times of the Covid-19 pandemic, how precious joy is, and how much of a gift is it to be able to share it with the world. At the favor of an exhibition of her iconic collection at MAK Frankfurt, we catch up with the self-professed cooking junkie, mother of three and fashion inspiration, who like one third of the world’s population, is currently stuck at home.
Olivia Anani : Hello Michelle. So good to see you. I see that you’re in your amazing kitchen, spending a quiet lockdown morning. My first question to you would be whether you can retrace your parcours, and how you ended up in Cologne?
Michelle Elie : Wow. Do you have time? (laughs)
I have time! Everybody has time with this quarantine situation. Because it’s a beautiful, but long story. We can start with the mannequins modeled after me for the exhibition at Museum Andgewandte Kunst. When I look at them, I don’t see myself, I see my mother. And she really is who it all started from. She was the one to always push me to travel and go and see the world. The title of this exhibition comes from her. She used to always tell me « Don’t be afraid of life, » in creole: « Pa peu la vie. » And back then I didn’t understand what she meant by that. Now after all these years, and now that I am a mother myself, I am finally getting it.
Haitian language is so rich, because you live in proverbs. And a saying like « Pa peu la vie » stays with you. When you have to make a decision, no matter how painful or scary it may be, through this saying, you know that you have nothing to be afraid of. And when you overcome that fear, you become confident in the decisions that you make, whether good or bad. All that matters is that each decision is right for that precise moment in time. She would tell me « A louv les yeux, » meaning: « Go and open your eyes. » My parents were both from small villages in Haiti. My mother was quite good looking, and she had many suitors to choose from. Back then, things were so formal, having a boyfriend meant meeting the parents and preparing for the commitment of marriage.
She said she choose my dad because she thought he was a good man, genuine and who would make a good father. Although he was from a poor family. They both left their villages, and my father went to the Bahamas, very early, from Haiti, on a boat, to stay there and work. You know, sending money back to our family in Haiti and my mother eventually followed him once she had the possibility to do so. They were both as you can see, not afraid of life. I got all of these stories from his sisters and brothers, who told me his life when my dad passed away, five years after my mother. Eventually from the Bahamas, my father went to the United States. I stayed in Haiti and was put in a catholic boarding school by the age of six or seven, and my mother joined my father in the US, where she found a job at a shoe factory. She studied on the side and eventually became a nurse’s aid. My dad, like most Haitians in New York City, worked as a taxi driver. He also worked as an exterminator on the weekends.
After a while, us kids all got our green cards and joined them in the US. We were all in strict, girls-only and boys-only boarding schools. Mine was called « The Sacred Heart. » Le Sacré-Coeur.
So I was born in Haiti, but most of my childhood was in New York. I am the youngest of my siblings. My older siblings have a stronger connexion to Haiti, my two brothers still have only their Haitian passport. And as a result, they have such a hard time coming to see my exhibition! With all the visa requirements. So I grew up in New York, immersed in Haitian culture, with its proverbs, but also its strict education and restrictions. We have a saying within my family, about the lockdown: « We have been living in Haitian lockdown this whole time! » Haitian education is « L’école, la caille, l’église. » And that’s it. School, Home, Church.
So my parents went to New York in search of a better life for us, and my experiences in New York have shaped me into the person I am today. I sucked it all in, the American culture, the Black American culture especially, since we lived in Brooklyn. As the youngest, I already knew then, that I wanted to see what was beyond « L’école, la caille, l’église. » My first boyfriend was African American, and I would go with him in basements to listen to hip-hop. This was a guy I could never bring home to my parents. They would have just seized my passport and sent me back to Haiti! But I was curious, and I feel lucky to have been able to experience all these different cultures. I would never trade it for the world. New York really is one of my favorite cities, and from this foundation I built up in Europe: Paris, and now Cologne. I would love to live in Milan one day, or maybe Asia, Japan especially. With this crisis I started researching on China as well, but Japan definitely has a strong appeal to me. I am trying to convince my son, who now wants to work in fashion, that he needs to see what’s happening in Asia. It will open his mind and give him a different angle, another perspective.
Having lived in Asia for several years, I can assure you that he will have the time of his life. Really. I believe that. So I lived in New York, then Paris, Miami Beach, Florida, South Africa. This is why I wanted to go into modeling, to discover the world, be introduced to new cultures, new food, new languages. My mother, to come back to her, was very much like that, which is why I keep coming back to her as an inspiration. I am just the shell, she is the soul of it all.
What was her name? Stéphanette Salomon. Some say the Salomon family in Haiti has roots to Ethiopia and King Solomon. There are no records to verify that point unfortunately, but I’m happy to take it! My father’s last name is Elie, which happens to be another Jewish name… I’ve been wanting to do more research on this. In Haiti, names are so important, and people always react with positive comments when I say my mother’s name, so I would like to dive more into this.
How does this journey eventually leads you to modeling: Paris, South Africa and now, Germany ? Being the rebel in the family, I got in so much trouble with my parents, my mother decided to send me to an all-girls junior high school on Coney Island, in the Jewish community, and then to a mixed high school in Brooklyn. All through high school, I never had any girlfriends, I got along with the boys. The girls would hate me because of how differently I dressed. I got into a lot of fights! Pulling each other’s hair and all… New York taught me to be tough. You got bullied, and had to learn to defend yourself. Even on the way to and from school, you encountered so many things: homeless ladies on the street, sexual harassment at corners, exhibitionnists in the subway… As hard as it was, I miss it in a way. I also remember how trains 3 and 4, the lines I used the most, would break down as soon as they got to the Black neighborhoods… Prospect Park was the pivotal stop. You would see from one station to the next, how the standard of cleaning changed, how the train broke down every time… racism and segregationist infrastructure, deeply rooted in the very fabric of the city, down to your daily commute. « The train is out of order, please take the connecting train… »
I started working with my dearest friend Marc Baptiste, the photographer, and another friend, a make-up artist. We wanted to take on the fashion world. We would do tests all through the night and on the weekends, recreating fashion spreads with clothes I found in second hand shops or the Salvation Army. We had no money, no jobs, but so much ambition. We were convinced we would be the next big thing. I didn’t care if Naomi, Veronica Webb and Tyra Banks were already there, I looked for my own place in the spotlight. We didn’t wait for it, we chased it. And when nothing happened in New York, I went to Paris, in hopes that this would be my chance to be « discovered. » I thought about musicians like Miles Davis, writers like James Baldwin, all the Black artists who went to Europe in the fifties and sixties to escape racism in America, I thought I should do the same.
Paris unfortunately, proved to be disappointing… I was about to leave when I met Lamine Kouyaté, who founded Xuly Bët. Lamine and a few other friends helped me to cope with Paris, but eventually I had to admit that I was not getting anywhere. I worked with great photographers, was found very photogenic, but was unfortunately not tall enough for the runway. I did work with Isabel Marant, who was just starting, and whom I met again recently. Although I still don’t get invited to her shows… let us blame the PR company. I did an entire lookbook for Isabel Marant, shot in the Bahamas. Looking at the clothes she did then and now, I am so happy for her incredible growth and success. For Lamine, we did this incredible show in 1992, outside of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s show, all dressed in white. I did enjoy the Parisian lifestyle, the wine, the food, the countryside. At one point I lived in Paris with an Italian boyfriend who studied architecture and worked in design, for the Marcel Breuer company. This experience further broadened my knowledge of art and culture. We would go on vacation in Tuscany with his family, surrounded by fields of sunflowers, vines and olive trees… But eventually, I had to go back to the United States. I settled in Miami Beach, which had not yet become this hype area. The rent was very cheap, 300 $, the atmosphere mostly hippie, a place for lost souls. My agency found me a six months contract in Cape Town, a city I loved very much. I didn’t like Johannesburg, which I found too industrial. These were the times of Mandela as President, and the job paid well. After my contract ended, I came back to Miami.
I loved Miami for the clear sea, the palm trees, the cultural mix of Haitian, Latin-American… you could have a great life while earning very little, and this is where I met my husband, who was in town for a photoshoot. I went back to New York to avoid, at the recommendation of my mother, getting too comfortable in this lifestyle, which was pleasant but was not leading me to grow. The ten fold increase in my rent, without counting the other expenses, proved to be a real trial. But still, a lot was happening in the fashion world. I lived in Soho, where you could find shops by Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake… we used to sneak into Gaultier shows. Eventually I became pregnant with my first son, and my husband – still my boyfriend at the time – and I moved to Germany. It was supposed to be temporary, as we both wanted to move back to New York, but for various reasons, including his company and the birth of our two other sons, we stayed longer than planned… and we are still here, twenty years later. It took me a long time to make my peace to settle here. I did hope to give my sons another perspective, to give them the New York lifestyle, to open their minds.
The world has changed so much over the past few years. I feel like the New York you knew doesn’t exist anymore, and that today from Germany, you can see the world. True, Germany also changed a lot. When I came here, shops would close at noon on Saturdays. Nothing was happening on a Sunday. Note that I wasn’t getting my mangoes, papayas and ananas at the shop, all I had was: apples and bananas. I couldn’t find a hairdresser. I had to go to New York to get my beauty products, my make-up, to get my hair done. A friend of mine used to bring toilet paper in her suitcase! But it has changed tremendously. It was very difficult for me to come to terms with being here, but the country opened up, and so did I. I had to live secluded in my own mind for many years, and then things started to change for me. I started picking up the language, and opened up about speaking it. Speaking lead me to better grasp the essence of the culture. It is very different for the kids, who are fluent in the language.
My mother told me similar stories from her experience being a student in London in the seventies. How restaurants would be silent, with only the sound of forks hitting the plate… people were not talking to each other. She found the environment so cold and so hostile. It is so hard to imagine when you look at London today, which is now such a vibrant city, bustling with creativity. Exactly, I would be speaking to my husband in restaurants, and he would tell me things like: « Don’t be so loud… » And my answer was always: « I am not loud! » I would send the food back when I didn’t like it and he would say: « We don’t do that in Germany… » To which I replied: « How will they know this is not good if I don’t send it back? Plus, I paid for it… » (laughs) It was always « You don’t do this, you don’t say that… » You don’t show your wealth, you don’t show your joy, you don’t show your excitement. You have to see it in the context of Germany after the war… they learned to avoid showing nationalistic pride, to show emotions. No jumping around with joy. And when you do, people look at you like that wild bird, like a piece of art. There was this guy I always see at the local café, and once I went over to him and asked him: « How are you? » He was stunned and stared at me: « Why are you asking this question? » I couldn’t believe that such a simple question could be perceived as suspicious, he was so uncomfortable to tell me the truth. « Relax, it’s just a question… » I eventually gave up. It was so hard, but it got better because I made it better for myself. My husband being in a creative field, working as an art director, helped a lot. My children also help me stay grounded in what is happening locally. They grew up here, they understand the codes and bring their own perspective. I am learning so much from them. Sometimes my Haitian upbringing comes out. I tell them « Don’t do that! » and they ask me why. In Haitian culture, you never question your parents, but they tell me things like: « Why not? Can you give me one good reason why I cannot do that? » The go-to answer « Because I’m your mom. » just doesn’t work with them, and many times I cannot come up with a good reason. I’d refuse to let them dye their hair blond, and they’d reply: « My dad is blond, so why can’t I dye my hair blond too? » I sometimes struggle with it, but I am learning from them. There are also issues of identity coming in the mix. Sometimes, they deal with the world from their German side, at other times they bring out their Haitian side, or their American side. For me it’s a continuous lesson. They lead me to think: « It is true, why can’t a Black boy dye his hair blond? Why couldn’t they do, and be, what they want? » I do wish I’d had more opportunities to take them to Haiti, but I guess they will now make their own discovery of it.
That’s the beauty of life, I guess. The journey is unpredictable, you never know where it will take you. So you are now living in Germany with your young sons, adapting to a new environment. How does Comme des Garçons happen? I often ask myself that question. How does a woman, born in 1942, raised in Japan, who eventually comes to Paris and shows a collection in 1981, and me, born in Haiti, raised in New York, discovers her shop in SOHO, and decides that this work speaks to me, and that I will acquire it; how do two people from such different backgrounds connect through a piece of clothing, through a singular vision, and how does this connection somehow ends up in a museum? This has been on my mind. Throughout my commitment to Comme all these years, I never met Rei Kawakubo, not until two seasons ago. My very first piece I acquired in 1995, and I attended my first Comme show in 2012. (…)Find the full version of this interview in SWAG high profiles issue 3