Model Coco Mitchell at home in New York / © AFP
Coco Mitchell, one of the first black models, returned to the runway this month after a decade away, keen to push boundaries again in her 60s and support young creators.
As the fashion carnival swings into Milan from London before heading to Paris, Mitchell is basking in the glow of achieving new catwalk feats in New York last week.
"I want to push the envelope," she told AFP, days after busting some Janet Jackson dance moves during a star turn in the Deveaux New York show on September 9.
"I want to be remembered when I go up. To walk sort of vapid, with no look or expression, I can't do that. You have the wrong girl," Mitchell added at her home in Harlem.
Coco Mitchell modeling for Deveaux at New York Fashion Week / © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP
Mitchell, who doesn't reveal her exact age, also delighted audiences at shows by Mexico's Victor Barragan and American Christopher John Rogers during New York Fashion Week, which ended September 11.
"The whole thing for me is I'm grateful to be there, and not because of my age. I was grateful back then."
"And people have a sense, they feel that I have no fear of anything, I'm not afraid. The designer may not like it. Whatever. I'm going to take a chance," she said.
Mitchell, from the United States, first modeled more than 35 years ago. She has paraded for Dior, Saint Laurent, Armani or Versace and clearly has nothing left to prove.
In the early 2000s, however, Mitchell quit the runway after becoming disillusioned.
"I decided I didn't want to do it anymore. I felt like a slave," she told AFP during a lengthy interview.
The 5-foot 10-inch model, who was spotted on the street by legendary model agency executive Eileen Ford, returned to doing the sort of catalog work that kickstarted her career.
She went to model for the likes of Macy's, Old Navy and Gap, but felt the call of the runway again, so this year decided to work with young designers.
"I'm one of those people that if you call me and you said we're doing this thing and we really need you to help, I would do it," explained Mitchell.
- 'Racism a strange animal' -
Coco Mitchell modeling for Christopher John Rogers at New York Fashion Week / © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP
Her approach chimes with many up-and-coming creators who aim to break with the formalities of traditional catwalks by permitting their models to smile and even interact with spectators and photographers.
During the Barragan show, she teased the crowd by placing her hand on her blouse and then nonchalantly sweeping the air, causing spectators to cheer.
Mitchell is no stranger to breaking new ground. She was the first African American model in Sports Illustrated and one of the first on the runway, going on to model at all the world's major fashion shows.
She observes with interest the winds of diversity that blow through the fashion world these days, particularly in America, be it skin color, age or the range of body shapes now gracing runways.
Mitchell sees greater openness, but also a realization amongst fashion executives that there are profits to be made too.
"Economically a lot of the businesses are seeing that brown people, black people -- we're spending a lot of money on skin care, hair care, beauty products, clothing," she said.
Model Coco Mitchell outside her home in New York / © AFP
Mitchell doesn't have any illusions about attitudes in parts of American society, though.
"Racism is a strange animal and we live in America. I don't believe it's ever going anywhere. It's part of people's DNA. It's just how they think," she said.
Mitchell's impromptu return to the runway gave her so much joy and satisfaction that she is already thinking about appearing again next year.
"I started late, already 23 or 24. No one really knew how old I was so I never think about age," she said.
"When I'm 99 years old, I want the quality of my life to be like it is now. I want to be able to walk, run, with my mind intact. That's my goal."