China Machado, iconic fashion model and fashion editor whose career began in the early 1950s and spanned the rest of her life, died Sunday due to cardiac arrest, WWD reports. She was 86 and fabulous to the end.
WWD’s chronicle of her life really encapsulates that fabulosity. Born in Shanghai to parents of Chinese and Portuguese descent, her life had many highlights, including running away with a world-famous bullfighter, moving to Paris and walking for Givenchy and Pierre Cardín, and becoming the first non-white model on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, as shot by her lifelong friend Richard Avedon. She eventually became the magazine’s Fashion Creative Director. Most recently, she launched Cheenawear, her own fashion collection—she modeled it, too.
The way Machado broke barriers in those early days of runway fashion is what’s most fascinating, both career-wise and as a woman of color starting out in the post-War years. She discussed some of this in the excellent 2012 documentary About Face, which focused on the models whose careers have lasted their whole lives. In one clip, she talks about being the highest-paid model in Europe in the 1950s—she received $100 a month—and the early origins of the intimidating runway walk. “You didn’t let the buyers touch your dress because they were trying to see what was inside,” she said. “And so you walked like you had an attitude, like ‘Don’t touch me.’ Not a smile on your face. You walked in and walked out.”
In 1971, when Machado was working on the editorial side at Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine released a little film in which she interviewed designers and narrated the fall looks for that year. It was a time in which fashion was clearly thinking about and discussing women’s liberation, and Machado spoke to, among others, an impossibly tiny and young Betsey Johnson, the enterprising Anne Klein, and Halston in a sleek turtleneck.
In 2011, Machado was honored with several other models of color by the Met’s Costume Institute for their work in the 1973 Battle of Versailles, a legendary fashion show which helped amplified diversity on runways and in design houses. She posed for photographs with the likes of Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland, Norma Jean Darden and others.
(For more context, here’s the trailer for a film about that runway show.)
In 2013, Machado appeared in a Cole Haan ad and discussed her life, including not feeling beautiful because she was different. At 83: “I’m not going to wear a dowdy dress down to here. I’m going to wear a skirt up to here. I got good legs, so I show them!” she laughed.
In October, Machado spoke with New York, pegged to an art exhibit she curated of photographs and paintings of her likeness, about the racism lobbed toward her, and how her friends protected her from it:
When I first came to New York, I did runway for Oleg Cassini [Jackie Kennedy’s favored designer] and he brought me to his showroom on Seventh Avenue, and after the show I sort of felt there was a little funny thing going, and the Southern buyers would not buy a single dress that I was wearing. Oleg said, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “Oh, she’s black.” He said, “She’s not even black!” Oleg was something else. He stood up for me. After that he booked a lot of black models in his show. That was 1958. Like Dick, Oleg didn’t let me know about it until quite a bit later. I really didn’t know.
In this video, she discusses Avadon refusing to sign his Harper’s Bazaar contract in 1958 unless photos of her were published.
“I think a woman has to learn to survive in life,” she said, and lived by example.