Icon is a trite term in the fashion world, but for Pat Cleveland, the word carries some actual weight. Cleveland broke racial barriers in the modeling industry in the 1960s, stood on the other side of Andy Warhol’s lens, and served as Salvador Dali’s muse. All the while, she modeled for Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta, and Valentino — among other greats. She infamously walked the runway at fashion’s Battle of Versailles, and at one point, boycotted the United States entirely until a black model appeared on the cover of Vogue.
This year, Cleveland published Walking With the Muses: A Memoir. The autobiography traverses her wild and remarkable career. During an event with WNYC, the Cut tapped into her knowledge about fashion. In return, she shared a wealth of knowledge about making a life within fashion, big butts, and of course, Kanye. Read on for selections from the interview.
On how to organize your closet: You’ve got to have a color for each day. Monday is green, Tuesday is black, Wednesday is red, Thursday is yellow or gold, Friday is blue, Saturday is brown, Sunday is white. Have your closet organized like that. Then you just have to grab that color and then you know what you’re doing and what day it is.
On revenge: I had a boyfriend who said “Oh, you’re skinny and you’re bowlegged and nobody’s ever going to love you,” and I said “I’ll show you.” I decided to be the most beautiful girl in the world, among many others. But I turned down Playboy.
On how she’s made her way in the fashion world: I’ve always been interested in new designers. That kind of flow is like water coming from the mountaintop — this little stream comes down, and you watch it develop, and before you know it you can’t touch it anymore because they’re a part of the ocean of fashion. And I just feel like this magic raindrop of talent just comes down on me and I discover someone, or they discover me.
Like one time I did this show for the Olympics. I ended up in Barcelona standing in the middle of the stage, under the spotlight, by myself. The flame was coming towards me and it was like, What am I doing here? I don’t even exercise.
But sometimes somebody just involves you in their story. I think my story is everyone else’s story that I’ve been involved in. I follow fashion because it’s something that is kind and it’s something that keeps me good. It makes me well, it just gives me kind of dignity, or something to look forward to. Like a new dress, you know?
On butts: Is twerking out now? I saw those awards the other night and everybody had their butt out in the camera and I was like, I thought I’ve seen one butt and now I’ve seen them all and they’re all trying to out-butt each other. But why? We have clothes. Cover your butt. It’s the rage but it’s to me démodé. But fashion is about embellishing and everybody embellishes in a different way. So there’s nothing bad; it’s just a time.
On the editor of her memoir: I’m on book tour now and I’m so fortunate to have Simon & Schuster and Dawn, my editor. When I first saw her, I didn’t know who she was. I saw her walk into this Simon & Schuster building and it looked like she was floating above the ground. She was in this pineapple-yellow dress and this beautiful chocolatey skin, and I said to the guy behind me, “Oh my God, look at that girl, she’s beautiful.” And she came right over to me and said “You’re looking for me! You’re here to see me.” I was so freaked out because I had actually fallen in love with her and the way she looked and then she turned out to be my editor.
On Kanye: The thing is, he has a platform and the love story of those two is something very peculiar because of all of the publicity around them. I’m sure they have good intentions. I can’t judge people by anything.
If somebody has success I say: Yes, good for you. But I don’t have to agree with everything. This is a big planet. I have my point of view and you have your point of view, and that’s what makes us individual people.
So whatever they do, God bless ‘em, because the trends are the trends. There are all kinds of new animals in the sea of life. Those giant fish that are hundreds of years old that nobody caught — that’s what it feels like to me. There are new kinds of creations. And we have to look at it and we have to understand what it is and then we go on our way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.