Who is the American Woman? Meet Patrice, Haute Couture Model

Today we launch the next phase of our project, Who is the American Woman?

Last year we got to know her through history when we made our video story. This year, through a series of interviews, we get to know the American Woman in the here and now. And right now it’s Paris Fashion Week.

We are thrilled to present haute couture model Patrice Vailes-Macarie.

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A native of Washington, DC, Patrice told us she decided to become a model at age 12 when she saw a photo of 1970s supermodel Beverly Johnson, the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of Vogue. “She was elegant and classic, so well put together. I saw it was possible to have a career [in modeling]. I wanted to do that.”  

At 16 Patrice announced to her mother that she was going off to become a model. “My mother said, ‘Oh, no you’re not! You’re going to college.’” Patrice listened to her mother and off she went to Bennett College in North Carolina, where she studied Home Economics and French. On the day of her graduation, her mother presented her with a round-trip, open-return ticket to Paris.  

At first Patrice was completely intimidated. “I stayed in my hotel room for days. The cleaning lady kept urging me to go out.” Eventually she emerged to start her course of studies at the Paris American Academy design program. In her spare time, she looked for modeling opportunities. After a year, Patrice tells us, she learned that “the way to get into modeling in Paris was to start in New York.” 

So she did. At the end of the year, Patrice moved to New York with a group of friends from college. She worked at the department store Abraham and Strauss, and as she explains, built her modeling portfolio by knocking on doors. Karl Lagerfeld, Donna Karan… Patrice was hired on the spot by Pauline Trigère, Paris-born grande dame of American fashion. Unlike the other designers, she interviewed Patrice personally. Trigère, whose clients included Grace Kelly, Beverly Sills, and Lena Horne, did not sketch her designs. Instead she draped in the traditional couture method, from bolts of fabric directly on an in-house fitting model, known as a cabine. She hired Patrice to be that model.  

 Pauline Trigere and Models. 1992

Pauline Trigere and Models. 1992

Patrice’s voice takes on a special note when she talks about her relationship with Pauline, for whom she worked for 10 years. She explains how a live fitting model interacts with the designer. How her movements, gestures, and yes, her suggestions, may influence the design process. Still with a dream of an international career, Patrice had an arrangement with Trigère that allowed her to work in Paris during the summers. Through the 1980s, Patrice graced international runways and magazines, modeling for Balenciaga, Jean Patou, Jacqueline Des Ribes, Leonard, and James Galanos. In the mid-‘80s, she was Balenciaga’s It Girl, appearing widely on television and in print.  

As she built her portfolio, Patrice explains, it was necessary to work with different photographers in order to show versatility in her style. At one point, she recalled that a photographer she had worked with in the past had an assistant who might be available to do some work. They met to arrange a photo shoot. Dinner followed. Patrice relates, “I didn’t usually find it difficult to work with a new photographer. But for some reason, I was especially nervous that everything be just perfect when we worked together.” Today she reflects, “I must have kind of liked him.”

The model-photographer collaboration was extremely successful. That fall, Patrice returned to New York and told her boss that she was engaged. On her wedding day, Patrice walked down the aisle in an original Pauline Trigère, handmade by the designer herself.  

Patrice and her husband Laurent first lived in Paris, where their son was born. Eventually they decided to make their home in Washington, DC, where their daughter was born. Patrice readily offers, “I love being a mother.”

When it came time for her children to go to school, she and her husband thought hard about the kind of education they wanted them to have. In addition to strong academics, Patrice wanted a school that instilled character—thoughtfulness and generosity. She found the combination she was looking for in a small pilot school that taught traditional African values. But after one year, the woman who ran the school was unable to continue. She suggested that Patrice take on the teaching herself.  

With a deep breath Patrice became a full-time teacher. Laurent, the professional photographer, assumed the duties of principal. Patrice was nervous about getting it right. Her children would need to take an annual test of home school standards. She remembers clearly the day she opened the envelope with her son’s first grade test results. “I was at the playground. When I saw that he had scored ‘Outstanding’ in every category, I just sat on the swing and cried.” Patrice taught her children for 10 years until they attended public high school. Both are bilingual French and English speakers. Today her son is in his final year as an architecture student at Harvard University. Her daughter has just started graduate studies in communications at Columbia.  

After teaching, Patrice returned to work in the fashion industry. For almost 15 years she has been a personal stylist at Lord and Taylor, also appearing on local television and hosting special events. Patrice and Laurent are renovating their home. She tells us that she is excited about a return to modeling. After all, “60 is the new 30. I’m not afraid of changes.” Evidently not. Patrice has recently re-established with modeling agencies, returned to the runway, and is in the process of doing a new ‘first’ video commercial.  

As we heard about Patrice’s remarkable career, we learned that models have personal styles. We close with this lovely lady’s own words on the subject. “Some are hard, others playful, others bubbly and full of personality.” When asked what her style was, Patrice says the word people used was ‘elegant.’  She thinks a moment. “I want to present myself…prettily.” She goes on, “But it’s important that my internal values be just as presentable as my outside.”

Posted on September 30, 2018 .