It’s a perfect early June day in New York City, a blessed mix of cool temperatures and sunshine that hasn't yet suffocated under the humid blanket of peak summer. Twenty-five-year-old influencer and model Paloma Elsesser is shooting ASOS Magazine's Fall 2017 Make History issue in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Manhattan, a charmingly haphazard swath of the Lower East Side. Falling between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, it was once a gateway neighborhood for waves of immigrants and still looks like an encyclopedia of a New York that barely exists anymore: jumbled tenements stand next to '70s housing projects, hemmed in by solemn grey courthouse towers and the slanting ramps of the namesake bridges. Traces of Irish, Italian and Jewish residents are overlaid by later imprints from Black and Latino families, though much of it now feels like an extension of Chinatown. It also feels like the perfect backdrop for this particular photo shoot, one that’s just as much about diversity in fashion and self-expression as it is about the clothing itself: ASOS Magazine uses each issue as an opportunity to push the fashion conversation forward, spotlighting people who are disrupting conventional industry standards with their presence.
"[This is] an issue dedicated to those people who are changing what tomorrow looks like for all of us," says Francesca Babb, editor-in-chief of ASOS Magazine. "We look for voices that are saying something, standing for something, doing something, and that’s never been more relevant than in our Make History issue. Paloma is the embodiment of that."
“I’ve been told I’m too ‘hood’ or ‘street’ to fulfill the bombshell archetype of a curve model,” Elsesser tells me after spending the afternoon with the ASOS Magazine team, modeling in the AW17 ASOS collection. “Among many other limiting stereotypes that plague the industry.”
The constraint of the fashion industry for those that fall outside of conventional standards is not a new concept. According to theFashionSpot’s latest diversity reports, which focuses on fall 2017 ad campaigns, a mere 2.2 percent of models cast were plus size. Though fall ad campaigns were markedly more diverse than previous seasons (30.4 percent of models were women of color), out of seven models who booked the most campaigns, only one was non-white.
For models like Elsesser, those casting limitations are what makes social media such a powerful tool for self-promotion. At 18, she moved to New York City from Los Angeles, all the while building the beginning of an authentic personal brand on Instagram.
"I feel more inspired to post photos of myself which I might not do as much if I didn’t have this kind of social media presence. But I’m told that posting pictures of myself may inspire another girl, so I try to do it more," Elsesser says. "I simply try and remain authentic. I can’t be or portray a person I am not."
Elsesser's transition to New York City, a place that she's grown to love, hasn't always been easy: Her career growth happened in tandem with challenging personal growth.
“I was quite out of control in high school, I felt really isolated and alone in who I was,” Elsesser narrated in the companion video for ASOS Magazine's Fall 2017 Make History issue. “One of the channels that I expressed myself, and that insecurity and unknowing, was through drinking and partying and putting myself in bad places. When I came to New York, I projected that same behavior. I took all of that insecurity and brought it here, and it chewed me up and spit me out. I think getting clean and getting sober a reassessing what I want in my life provided a completely new life.”
Elsesser’s career has blossomed since. She’s amassed a following over over 88 thousand on Instagram, and eventually collaborated with legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath — the artist tapped Elsesser to be one of her muses after seeing her on social media. In summer 2017, Elsesser was cast as the sports bra model in a splashy Nike campaign that featured a diverse range of body types. And of course, the ASOS Magazine team cast her in its Fall 2017 Make History issue, a celebration of how fashion history is influencing the current culture. Elsesser may have been told she’s too “hood” or “street” in the past — but for this ASOS Magazine issue, she's a perfect fit. Make History is about exalting the power of late '80s and early ‘90s street style, an aesthetic that feels as much about authentic self-expression as it is about acknowledging the presence of communities of color within the fashion conversation.
"Paloma is a dream to style and super collaborative," says Natalie Michaelides, Head of Fashion at ASOS. "We took inspiration from New York, a city she loves, with a throwback to the late '80s and early '90s aesthetic. Key pieces are the red track suit and deconstructed camo pants — a nod to Paloma's signature streetwear, all with an AW17 update."
For Elsesser, the decision to pursue a career in fashion was something that pushed far beyond an interest in clothing and image — it was about the opportunity to represent something more in fashion, something that the general public sees much less of. Working with inclusive brands has been an important part of her growth as a model. "ASOS has something for everyone," she says, speaking both about ASOS sizes, which includes petite, tall, and plus ranges, and style options. "Every type of person can go into ASOS and find something they appreciate and want to buy," Elsesser continues. "It's amazing."
"Once I started educating myself on my own experience as a person of color and a woman of color," she says in companion video for the Make History issue, "Where I remember the feeling of reading my first bell hooks essay, and being like, 'Oh my god, I'm at home here. I was able to see the value in feeling beautiful, feeling fat, feeling gross, feeling great, feeling stupid, feeling dumb, feeling incapable, feeling the most capable. And seeing through that, that I’m human, and that I have to make continued steps to this day... to be of service to myself, and most of all, to others."
Elsesser says that in addition to being a plus size model and woman of color, ASOS speaks to another aspect of her clothing choices. “I would describe my style as a blend of masculine and feminine," she says. "They understand that aesthetic well and provide options to blend silhouettes while still remaining on trend and classic at the same time.”
It's true that no matter what she's wearing — from a full denim look, to a throwback tracksuit to red, ruffled mesh — Elsesser is completely at ease in front of the camera. Knowing her story and what she's trying to represent in the industry, it's impossible to ignore the fact that her presence is one of many ever-increasing breaths of fresh air in an industry that's been closed to so many for far too long.
"[Paloma is] a model who uses her voice, who is unafraid of honesty and who is absolutely not about to settle for industry standards if industry standards don’t represent what is good and what is true," Babb says. "Whether she’s talking body positivity, race, addiction or whether she’s just walking you through her incredible wardrobe, we’re listening and we’re here to celebrate her."