Michelle Elie, Designer, Prim


“It’s very hard to pinpoint when I first discovered fashion, because I believe it was fabricated onto my subconscious very early on. I got it from my mother. My dad, on the other hand, was not fashionable; he was practical and a New York City cab driver. I was born in Haiti, and I was attending a tiny all-girls Catholic boarding school when my parents left to look for a better life. We had a uniform, and it was a red and white checkered skirt. Then we had a white shirt, white socks, and red ribbons. I actually hated it—I couldn’t wait to get it off.

I came to New York at the age of six. I remember the day very clearly. I wore a white dress, with a ribbon in my hair and socks. It was like a creole dress, you know what I mean? Every Caribbean girl has it. Like Valentino used to make the high waist dresses—it was to the knee. My first year in New York was intriguing because I didn’t understand a thing. I learned English by hearing it—you know when you’re that young, your brain registers things more quickly. I wanted to fit in, and I didn't want to be teased in school, so I was absorbing everything really fast.

My mother was always fashionable—she was one of those women in the ‘60s who wore high heels so often that her feet became slightly deformed. The wigs she bought—she would always go to Macy’s, oh, so sweet. And she used to go to Africa just to buy jewelry, because of the gold. I was always buying things from flea markets myself—Salvation Army was one of my favorite places. I was also influenced by Vivienne Westwood, you know? The punk era. Do it yourself—buy it, transform it, make it your own. And then you have to understand, we couldn’t afford high fashion. Years later, when my mother passed away in 2002, I was in charge of dressing her up. I went and bought her a beautiful dress, I put her high heels on, and then I put her lipstick and her jewelry in her coffin. I believe if she’s going to come back, she has to be beautiful. When we closed the coffin, everything was in there with her—like the Egyptians.

But back in my twenties, my parents embraced my modeling. I actually got my degree in international studies, and I studied to be a doctor. I thought that’s what I wanted to do. But my mom said, ‘Michelle, go out to see the world.’ She said travel, travel, travel, go out, see things, do things. At the time, you could walk into modeling agencies—there were open days. I went to Elite and they were like, ‘No, sorry, you’re very beautiful but you’re just too short.’ Naomi [Campbell] had just started. There was Veronica Webb, Tyra Banks. Naomi was capitalizing the whole market because she had Steven Meisel behind her, and Anna Wintour was loving her. You know what they do? They love one Black girl, and they use her over and over.

But to me, modeling was everything. It gave me travel, it gave me direction—hair, makeup, aesthetic, a picture. I almost started to art direct where my life was leading. Through modeling I met my husband, who is one of the most incredible art directors in Germany. He lives in Cologne. He does his thing, quietly. He’s not loud. And even though I live in Germany now, I still have a strong connection to New York. In fact, I made my best friends from modeling and gym classes in New York. RuPaul was in my gym class! It was called Mega Fitness. You can call him and say, ‘RuPaul, did you go to a gym called Mega Fitness in the ‘90s, which turned into David Barton, and now it’s Crate and Barrel?’ There was David LaChapelle, there were a lot of models, a lot of photographers. People would be screaming because this one instructor, Greg Washington, played house music in the class.

OK—so I have a whole suitcase of beauty with me for this [Paris] trip. I brought eight suitcases, and one suitcase is just product. [Laughs] My secret is called ‘cream.’ Your skin is your body’s biggest organ, and you need to protect it. Most people take it for granted, especially boys. They just wear a deodorant—if they do—they take a shower, and then they run out. My kids do this all the time. Ashy legs, dry lips—I can’t take it, it kills me. I’m like, you look like you have a disease with dry legs, I’m sorry. So I take very good care of myself, and I invest a lot in my products.

I used to live in Paris, and I had lots of spots—the water is very hard and dries your skin tremendously. You have to remove the dirt and the pollution. So, I wash in the morning and at night with Kiehl’s. The thing about Kiehl’s that I love—when [the stores] first came out, you would buy things in there because it gave you ‘the feeling.’ This was the very first luxury shop for beauty, if you think about it. I’m completely devastated because I’m on my last leg of my favorite cleanser. I’ve been using it for 20 years, and they discontinued it! It’s called the Washable Cleanser, with the red writing. I went all over Germany, and I called all their providers who had it, and bought the last 10 bottles.

And then I do a very basic moisturizer, because the one I was using before was giving me allergies. I went to my skin doctor, Dr. Evelyn Ford, and she told me that the products on store shelves could be there for two years before you buy it. So the one I use now comes directly from my pharmacist. But I have other creams, I cheat sometimes. Retrouvé is everything—look at my skin darling! It’s glowing! It goes into the skin so deep. You can just wear that and not wear any makeup, and you look like you’ve been in the sun forever and have all the vitamins.

My favorite toothpaste is Marvis—all of them. I went to Milan, and I bought as many as I could get. I got the green, I got the purple—lavender. I have to hide it from my kids because they eat it like water. And then I hate dry lips, so I have my Eight Hour, by Elizabeth Arden. I even have my friends bring it over in their suitcase, and when I go to New York I stock up on it. I put it everywhere, I give it to my kids. It’s not just a lip balm, it does everything—it’s a really gorgeous product.

For my makeup I’ll do a light foundation because I have to protect it from pollution. I like Dermablend. It covers, you can do it heavy and you can do it light. And then, it stays. It works with my skintone, it doesn’t change into green. Sometimes if you drink too many acidic things like orange juice, I know for Black girls at least, it goes through your pores and it starts changing [the color of] your foundation.

For my eyes, I have every MAC pencil there is under the sun. I like a soft line. It’s more organic, I think. I don't do my eyebrows because I don’t really think I have great eyebrows—I just leave them the way they are. On the other hand, I like to wear lip tints. I always wear the same color—I like Bittersweet from MAC, and Bespoken For. My favorite lip color is Nars, Train Bleu. And then I have this MAC lip paint in Crimson. I also just discovered this brand Essence, it’s a cheap brand. Essence Color Boost Vinylicious—it’s giving me all the mega looks I need to have right now. I like wine, brown, mauve-y colors. I like aubergine and red. I either use dark, or it’s like a tint, you know what I mean? I’ll do a red, but the red has to be mega fab—this is Shu Uemura in 165 [ed. note: discontinued]. Wait, this company’s the major one, Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics. Lip Tar—I have all of them.

I have body creams of all flavors from Byredo. Oh God, I love Byredo. My favorite is Pulp, and they discontinued that one, too! Oh, the smell… I like everything light. Citrusy, grass, lemon, orange, grapefruit, mixed with vanilla. Most people were not buying it—maybe it was too strong. Now they have Bal D’afrique—ugh. One thing I love though is Laura Mercier vanilla body cream. It reminds me of the perfume from Thierry Mugler called Angel. Do you remember how every man was going mad about this perfume? You know why? Vanilla. It had something sensual about it. And then my favorite perfumes of all time are from Molecule—I have every one of them.

People should invest in a great haircut. It’s very important. I have a secret, but I’ll tell you. I used to go to a hairdresser in New York called Amoy. It was in the basement of a little tiny salon on East 10th street. We brought Amoy to Naomi [Campbell], because my best friend Desiree is best friends with Naomi, and Amoy was doing my hair and Desiree’s hair. Amoy was going to Naomi’s house, because Naomi did not want to come to the basement. And then guess who was there too? Patti Wilson! I love Patti. Now the person who does it is called Nicole Etunko. She lives here—she’s great.

I like my hair straight because it’s easy—I don’t have to worry about it. But I like my little two braids for the little girl in me. I do treatment and relaxer. I used to use regular relaxer, now I use another one—it’s so expensive. But I do that one with my African hairdresser in Cologne. I do it before, and then I’ll come to Paris, and I have to do the weave—I mix it—and I’ll get her to do the color, and she cuts it. She does the best straightening there is. My hair is healthy short, but it’s not giving me the length or the fullness. It’s full when it’s natural, with the afro. We leave it to the natural afro girls who are giving you mega looks on the runway, you know?

I use coconut oil, oregano oil, and olive oil—yes. I do grease my scalp, because my hairdresser insists I do. Black hair tends to get dry very often. I use Creme of Nature conditioner—a very old product. You can just go and buy this product, it costs you five or seven euros, and it gives you the exact same thing as expensive products. I also like the Schwarzkopf Shape Texture, which is for controlling the edge. It’s amazing, because it’s not greasy. Instead of putting on a greasy cream, then your hair is still light and movable. It controls that area that you need to control—without it, those little tiny edges are out of control all day long!”

—as told to ITG

Michelle Elie photographed by Tom Newton in Paris on February 27, 2019.