An Interview with Paul Cavaco from the Motion Issue
Looking back over Paul Cavaco’s 38 years in the fashion world, it’s hard to believe that the renowned stylist and founder of KCD, the largest fashion PR company in the world, fell into his profession by chance. On set with then wife and former Vogue editor, Kezia Keeble, Cavaco began styling to support their daughter, though he soon uncovered an organic talent for fashion. As one of the few men (and a Cuban man, at that) in an industry full of high society women, Cavaco’s legacy is as radical and subversive as his very existence in the field. After working with luminaries across various disciplines, including Richard Avedon’s iconic photography and Madonna’s sensationalized Sex book, Cavaco found a home as fashion director of seminal publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, before landing his current position as creative director of Allure. What began as happenstance ended up revolutionizing the fashion industry, and earning Cavaco the praise of his contemporaries. This year, he’ll be honored with a CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award for his eminent work.
Patricia Black, like Cavaco, is equally familiar with both the beauty and the darkness that underlie this seemingly glamorous industry. Black serves as the creative director of the Albright Fashion Library, a warehouse of archival couture that acts as a mecca for stylists, editors, and designers. She sat down with long time friend Cavaco to discuss artistry within commerce and fashion’s perennial evolution.
Patricia Black: Recently and regrettably we’ve lost some of fashion’s rock stars to suicide. L’Wren Scott, Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow—not to mention John Galliano’s infamous meltdown—all suffered under the pressures of fashion, fame, and status. Are the pressures too demanding?
Paul Cavaco: I guess because I’m not famous, I don’t really know. There is a pressure to keep up with that, but I don’t have that pressure. Maybe fashion is a place where it’s difficult if you do have that propensity towards depression or upset; it is an easy place to get more upset. Anything that is attached to fame has to have the flip side. Because you’re in the public eye, it is more difficult, but every business has to have profitability, and the pressures come with that.
Are institutions such as the CFDA, or even Vogue, possible contributing factors—and should a dialogue be opened up over such concerns?
I’m not sure if it’s the responsibility of the CFDA—it’s a personal responsibility—but there should be a dialogue about it. Same with anorexia, underage models in the industry, diversity. These things should become part of the conversation, they shouldn’t be invisible. Things are changing. Now, many places won’t employ models that are under 16. It’s good because it allows older people to be photographed and it helps people who are used to looking at what they say is a 25-year-old, but is actually a 16-year-old, have a more realistic idea of age. Everyone looks good at 16, they are just peaches. There is a tendency to want to photograph something that is blossoming but it’s better to wait. Years ago, exercise and health were not in the conversation, but now it’s open. Same with diversity, now that people are talking about it, things are changing. There are way more women of color on the runway and in magazines now.
Are you conscious about diversity when you are casting for a show, advertisement, or editorial?
Yes, I think you have to be. I don’t think people were thinking about it before, they were just booking what they book. It was almost innocent, they didn’t realize it was accidental racism. They weren’t consciously excluding anyone but it was racism out of omission, and now you can’t have that omission. When I started in the industry, being a guy wasn’t a good thing if you were a stylist. There weren’t many men in the industry and if you were a male stylist you were probably a fag, you were campy. That’s what they put on you even if you weren’t. “Why would a guy be interested in styling unless he was a drag queen?” I was also ethnic. Now, Cuban isn’t considered so ethnic, but then it was a big thing. You know, people would say: “Do you really think he can do it? He is, after all, a…”
Exactly. And I’m not even Puerto Rican, but at that time I was in a business of all women from money. They were girls trained by their mothers, they learned all the designers from them and they learned how to dress from their mothers. Now, it’s the job of the magazines to tell us what to wear, but it was all mothers back then. And it was rare to have a man there, I was a freak. I started in menswear because men didn’t work in women’s wear. It wasn’t easy. I mean, I’ve been blessed, but it took a long time for people to think of me as anything but crazy.
So the magazine is the new mother?
It’s the voice that people want to hear and that’s why they listen to it. It teaches you something. Someone has to be responsible and Vogue and the CFDA have begun to open up the dialogue. There is prejudice everywhere, you just have to be aware of it. What’s been good about the fashion industry in the past couple years is that it is trying to be aware of these things. It’s very American of us.
You have worked alongside many of fashion’s giants: Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, Anna Wintour, Fabien Baron, Tonne Goodman. Who are the true icons of fashion today?
I think to be an icon you have to have time behind you. For me, Meisel is an icon because there is time and a body of work behind him. It’s heavily copied now, but it is inspiring. He keeps producing the most beautiful work. Same with Fabien, he’s produced so much and we see so many things that are Fabien-like, but it’s a trickle-down effect.
Anna Wintour is an icon too, she’s the most powerful woman in fashion and has been using her power for good. She’s pushing American designers, who have always been thought of as the ugly step child, to do more. Sportswear is very American and now Europeans are doing it. But there are so many new designers that will become icons.
Who do you see as the next icon?
[The photographers] Mert and Marcus are interesting and great. Because technology has changed, the art of photography has changed, and it’s now a very different one. There is a lot of retouching that happens but that’s the thing now, we have to accept that. It’s like when hip hop started, people would say: hip hop’s not music, they’re sampling songs and taking pieces from other songs and putting them together. But that’s what became hip hop music and now we don’t think about it, there’s no question that hip hop is music now. So things are changing, and I think that Mert and Marcus, who take a piece from here and a piece from there, are really putting together something new. It’s a new type of photography.
So regarding fashion versus commerce, has the fantasy been subverted in fashion? Has the commerce hijacked the art?
Make no mistake, this is commerce. It can be done artfully but we are selling clothes and to think otherwise confuses things. That’s where people get confused, they think they are doing art. Avedon shot fashion, and it just so happened to be artful sometimes. Meisel isn’t confused, he only does fashion, he doesn’t think it’s art or try to make it art. It’s meant to be sold, but it is beautiful, sometimes so beautiful that it is art. But he knows: we are getting paid. It’s commercial. It’s not for the art of it.
Editorially, we are trying to sell a dream, a life, a way of being that is more aspirational. In that way, it’s not pure commercialism, but it is still commercial. We are selling something and if it were art there wouldn’t be prices in magazines. Since the 90s, I think the concept has gotten confused. Yes, we have to do it artfully, and with integrity, but the bottom line is that you sell the product.
You once stated that Avedon’s operative question on set is “What’s the surprise?” Can you elaborate on that, how does one arrive at the surprise?
When I first worked with Avedon—I was really young and I did a shoot with him—I had no idea what he was like. I knew he was a big star and I was a wreck. So I dressed the guy and he got out on set and he just looked like a regular guy, and Avedon said: “What’s the surprise?” I had no idea what he meant and then I just said, “Oh, he’s wearing mauve socks.” And so he did this whole shoot with the guy showing his socks and it taught me that there needs to be something in the picture that is either unexpected or delights you. Sometimes it’s a gesture, or the bra strap you shouldn’t see, or that the girl is all dressed up and should be all proper but she’s laughing like a fool. You have to try to find something.
The juxtaposition is the surprise. It’s all about entertaining the eye, about taking the space. We used to take the photograph and turn it upside down to really know what it looked like.
You also worked with Madonna and Meisel on the controversial book Sex. Can you speak about that moment in your career and in America?
It was Madonna’s idea to do the book and Steven wanted to do it because he wanted to do a book that wasn’t about himself. In the end it was very organic, the way that it happened. There were moments that I had a very hard time though. There was a picture that was sort of a fantasy for Madonna where she was dressed as a schoolgirl and there were all these guys in a gym taking advantage of her. I was uncomfortable with it but it was her fantasy and you can’t censor that, it’s a person’s expression.
It wasn’t sexy doing the book, it was funny! We were laughing all the time. We saw things we had never seen, like when we were casting, we had never seen a pierced clit before. Even Madonna! We went to The Vault, we had never been to a sex club before. It was hilarious. We had a really good time doing it but I had just gone through some things. My business partner had just died from AIDS, I had lost a lot of friends to AIDS, my other partner had died of breast cancer—I really wasn’t conscious about death because it was so prevalent in my life at the time. The book was really about sexual freedom at a time when they were trying to shut down sexual freedom, but I wasn’t even thinking about that. Now I can look back and see that it was a great thing that she did at a moment when people were trying to shut down every type of sex that wasn’t “family” sex.
What is your take on the Kayne/Kim Vogue cover? What does it say about the power, as well as the status, of that publication?
It’s funny, people are outraged by it, but having worked with Kim, she’s the nicest girl! When you watch the show, she seems so nutty, but she’s really well-mannered and gracious. She’s a good business woman and he’s a great musician. I can judge it and say they seem a little down market for Vogue, but Vogue isn’t what it was; we can’t put old values on it. They are topical, they’re “of the moment.” They are in vogue.
[Anna Wintour] waited for the right moment to put [Kim] on the cover. She waited until she had become Vogue. She’s a beautiful, beautiful girl with a body that’s not a typical body [in fashion], it’s an ethnic body, and it’s great to have that on the cover.
I think we have to change what we think about Vogue. The world is changing and we have to change with it and if Vogue remained how it was, we would fault it—it would become Town and Country. I like the idea that it’s not what we think it is.
In taking inventory of your career, what is your one WILD Wish for your future, or for the future of fashion?
Until recently, I was feeling tired and my wish was to just sit down. But lately, I think I still have something in me. I’m not sure it will be as good as it was before, but I still want to work. I still love to work and I love to be part of a team, to crate as a team. My wish is for people to just have as much fun as I did. Of course, I was driven to make money, but the quality of the work was so heavenly because I worked with such great people. But in this business, I fear that people are lost in the commerce and in the fame of it all. You should do this because you love it, because there is a history behind it, because there is something to be learned. There is something to be learned about life, about the way you are in a group, how to problem solve and get each other through. There are so many elements, how do we put everything together and come up with something that’s beautiful?
For younger people, I hope that they will have that time to experiment, to play, to not have that pressure to be famous. I had no idea of what I was doing when I started and I think that having no idea helped me because there were no restrictions.
I couldn’t have found a more perfect job. No one sees you, no one knows who you are, but you get to work with these great people and make beautiful things. And you get to see people nude, who doesn’t want to do that?