Wednesday, January 24, 2018

meet "one of the cool kids" ... Tommy Garrett

As a boomer coming of age in the 70’s I was absolutely consumed by the print media. Of course there were no cell phones, no such thing or even conceived of social media and so it was monthly doses of Vogue, Bazaar and GQ.    Then there were daily doses of WWD and DNR, if you remember that, while fashion and nightlife played out in tangible media whether W or Interview, or your newspaper of choice. Since those times my fascination and attraction to fashion has certainly become more circumspect, broader and absolutely more informed.

 Through that double edged sword of the internet and social media, I have been afforded the pleasure of meeting  and getting to know so many of those who I refer to as the “living legends of fashion” ..whether they be  models, designers, hairstylists, makeup artists, writers or social butterflies. Needless to say that then it was about ubiquity rather than name recognition unless of course you actually read the small print ... which of course I did and somehow these names and people were indelibly etched into my fashion consciousness and subconscious. Now, so many decades later I can actually say that many of these astoundingly talented and consummate professionals are my friends in real life. I teasingly say to many of them... look how long it took for me to sit with the cool kids!

With all that said today is about one of the “cool kids” who made his mark in fashion on 2 continents on the runways and in print. Again, had it not been for social media our paths might never have crossed other than on a printed page and for that I am forever grateful and occasionally even humbled by some of these connections/friendships.

Jeffrey Felner: First can you give us a sort of resume as to how you started and where you are now?

Tommy Garrett: Growing up I always wanted to be a professional tennis player to the point that I competed in major junior tournaments. I managed to win a full tennis scholarship to Howard University but I soon tired of competing. After returning to my hometown of Newark, NJ, I decided to try and make a living as a singer, but friends of mine said I should give modeling a try as well. I was soon doing my first fashion show in downtown Newark at The Robert Treat Hotel and The Terrace Ballroom where the upstart models from Newark were squaring off against the professionals like Apollonia, Billie Blair, Jerry Hall, Alva Chinn, Bethann Hardison, Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, Martin Snaric and many more.  These shows were highly competitive and the audience would blow whistles and stomp the floor when certain models wore certain outfits. "The most exciting shows on the east coast - The Big One- Glamour!" read the posters which included photos and names of participating models, were plastered all over Newark. It was wonderful time when I began to meet many creative eccentric types, like Salvador Dali and his wife Gala who invited me to a terribly avant garde dinner party with about twelve of his fashionable friends.  

   After some time, I was eventually discovered by Eileen Ford and accepted into The Ford Modeling Agency.  I did every casting the agency gave me and once a week I took voice lessons with Thurman Bailey.  When I started modeling there were already many African American male models, so Ford decided they would push me in the direction of being the first black male model to integrate the pages of Co-ed, Seventeen, Modern Brides, Redbook and Glamour Magazines.  As "The first African American Glamour Magazine boy", I was photographed in the 70s with some of the greats like Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson, Bitten Knudsen and Marcia Turner.  These images were the bridge for me that led to all types of catalog work and advertising yet oddly I was passed over by the likes of Ebony and Essence. 

It was then that I felt I  needed to be staying in NY and a friend of mine suggested that I ask a model is she was looking for a roommate in her SoHo loft… that unknown model was Jessica Lange.  On my very first visit to meet Jessica, I found a very famous Grace Jones glaring at me upon entering. It didn’t take long before Grace and I became good "frenemies" for years to come.

During that time I was booked to go to Tokyo for "The 10 Great Designer's" fashion show where Eleanor Lambert and Bill Blass personally presided. Bill Blass liked what I did on the runway and upon returning to New York he booked me for my first fashion show during NY Fashion Week.  Producer Mia Grau began to book me for shows at F.I.T and various places in NYC.  She also hired me to do a show in D.C for First Lady Rosalind Carter featuring the clothes of Calvin Klein … the models were Lisa Taylor, Iman, Martin Snaric and I.
The French modelling agent Guy Herron, owner of The Cosa Nostra agency in Paris came to meet me at Maharlika where I was moonlighting as a singer performing jazz standard for the likes of Imelda Marcos and may model friends chief of which was Pat Cleveland who was a great supporter of mine.  Before I knew it I was working in Paris for the likes of Thierry Mugler and then shipped to Milan to do shows for Basile and Walter Albini.  Once back in Paris I was hired by Thierry Mugler, yes the real one.

Soon after  I joined The Elite Model Agency and over time worked Mugler,  Issey Miyake, Paco Rabanne, Christian Dior, Claude Montana, Hermes, Cerutti, Pierre Balmain, Kenzo, Patrick Kelly, Paul Smith, Jean Charles, Castelbejac, Joop, George Rech, Kansai Yamamato, Lucien Foncell, Hechter, Jeff Sayre, etc., etc... But the one designer in Paris I refused to work for was the great Yves Saint Laurent, but the reason is not quite what one might expect.

In the course of my life at that point I was photographed by photographers, including Dick Ballerium, David Bailey, Mike Reinhart, Eddie Kohli, Frederick Eberstadt and a bunch more and soon it was Paris Vogue, Italian Vogue, Vogue Hommes, Depèche Mode and Joyce Magazine who wanted to contract me. Without exaggeration I can say I’ve worked with about every female super model of my generation, including Sayako.  My favorite partners on the runway were Gloria Burgess, Alva Chinn, Mounia, Carol Miles, Katoucha, Amalia and Kim Luret.  I was thrilled to work in Moscow on the stage between Christie Turlington and Renée Simonsen 

During these years, I was constantly honing my skills as a jazz singer in Paris.  Doing fashion shows and shoots during the day and singing at the most popular clubs, jazz festival and galas by night.  Somehow, I become a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and signed with the Sony/ Columbia Jazz Label which resulted in a hit album titled Quiet Times.  When the Broadway Musical Bubbling Brown Sugar came from New York to Paris, I landed a lead part which was the thrill of a lifetime; but it was actually Yves Saint Laurent and his bff Betty Catroux who discovered me which propelled my popularity in no small order.  Honestly, there were many people who admired me because Betty and Yves were my fans but I think a lot of people followed me because they thought if I was good enough for Yves, I was good enough for them.  It was also widely believed that my voice was the inspiration for the fragrance "Jazz" for men by YSL; I'll talk more about that later.
I retired from modeling years ago and oddly I lost my voice for some time.... but now it's back, so I am singing again.  I have written a collection of short stories about my life as a singer, model and actor thus far which recounts my funny experiences which will serve as a sort of memoir Right now I am preparing a jazz concert in tribute to Nat King Cole and Yves Saint Laurent.

JF: Having worked with many of the greatest designers of the 20th century, might you share some otherwise never told stories of how they interacted in your career? Highlights of your career?

TG: On  my very first casting call at Maison YSL I was waiting in a room with six other  models who has already arrived,  Each one was given what night be called office attire but when  my turn arrived, the assistant handed me a leopard speedo! The indignant and offended me rushed into a large room where Yves sat surrounded by his staff.  Shocked registered on  Mr. St. Laurent’ face,  No one said a word as I stood in front of the table, glaring at Yves and said, "I will be happy to return another day for a casting when you find real clothes that would be suitable for me to wear!” “our” story did not end there but suffice to say there was a happy ending eventually.

My working relationship with Christian Lacroix was not what you might expect since we interacted as cast member and costume designer rather than as designer and model. He was commissioned to do costume a stage production, L'as Tu Revue, and so I had to go to his Paris atelier for my fittings.  Christian was very friendly initially, but seemed to ignore me as part of the ensemble. When the show eventually opened in Paris to less than stellar reviews I was singled out as bright spot in the production along with the Lacroix costuming.  I last encountered him after one of his couture shows and gushingly told him that each season his work got one step closer and closer to heaven.  He looked shocked when I finished what I had to say and Christian then told me that I had just given him the greatest compliment that he ever received in his entire career, and then he gave me the biggest hug.  The ice had melted!

JF: Lastly let’s speak of diversity; when you hit the catwalk, diversity was probably the strongest is has been. It was key to now fit and to stand out. What’s your feeling about the career path of fashion models today as opposed to then?

TG: Racial Diversity in the fashion industry of the 70s and 80s became a force due to the success of those pioneering designers and their cabines that appeared at the Versailles show. Those women confirmed and cemented their importance as models of American fashion; the aftershock was seismic.

Unfortunately that type of broad acceptance eluded their male counterparts. The groundbreaking events that took place for female models and the milestones they created never really quite made the leap to the men. Personally I practically had to pry open many doors in America just as I had to done in Europe!

I recall a season when one of our legendary black male model's came to Paris for the men's shows. He was one who had been on the cover of G.Q. and had many other major accolades. In Paris there were at least 30 shows he could have book but this superstar booked one; Paris was often times tone deaf and slow on the uptake.

 I enjoyed success in Paris but sadly because I was the token male of color... I was first to work for Balmain which fortunately led to booking more black models. Truthfully, it was the only show that many of us black guys would book and I was so grateful have been the catalyst for that.

I recently it is a hot button issue again and I have heard Audrey Smaltz, Iman and Bethann Hardison speak on the importance of diversity on today's runways. Some of today's designer's... trying to be elite unwittingly make themselves irrelevant by refusing to diversify their castings.

The truly great and legendary designers… Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Issey Miyake and many more knew what racially diverse models brought to the catwalk. As for the rest of the less wise and less talented designers ...karma awaits them.


  1. hi, this is great... but there is no date here. When was this written?

  2. What an absolutely wonderful interview - I felt like I was sitting front row and center to a truly exciting life :) Thank you so much for my mini-vacation and allowing me to live vicariously :)

  3. Great reflections into a world that most can only imagine.

    I went to Clinton Place Jr High with Tommy, and as always, so proud of the success of someone I know.

    You have lived an AMAZING life, and thanks for sharing!