Model Brandi Quinones, known for her killer walk on the runway and a favorite of Donatella Versace, has stayed the course for over two decades in an industry known for its fickleness. From advertising campaigns for Chanel and Versace to the cover of Vogue, Brandi is a part of a coterie of models whose appeal still whips fashionistas into a frenzy. I caught up with her by phone to chat about her remarkable career.
You were born and raised in New York, correct?
I was born in New York but I didn’t grow up here. I moved when I was young and was raised in Florida and Oklahoma. My mom was a hair and makeup artist, and a model, so I lived in a lot of different places. I moved back to New York when I was 14 years old.
You were discovered when you were in New York at the age of 14, right?
I started modeling around the age of 2. I was literally learning how to do makeup, hair, and clothes at that age because I grew up in the 80s with a really cool mom. I wasn’t discovered until I was 14. When I was discovered, I said the only way I would model was if I had an apartment in New York—the next day I moved to New York and in June of 1992 started working as a professional model. I went back and forth between New York and Italy. When I started my career as a professional model, I wasn’t working very much in New York. I would always have to deal with editors that weren’t used to seeing a girl like me. There weren’t many Latina or black girls that were getting covers or becoming superstar models.
So you were groundbreaking for the time.
I tried to be and I am still trying to be
Your big break came via Donatella Versace. Tell me about that.
Oh yes, I was found by Donatella. I ended up doing the Versace campaign when I was 14. I had already done a really beautiful editorial for Spanish Elle in 1992 in all Versace clothes with tweezed eyebrows and floral bell-bottoms. I wish I could find the story because it was so good. We had the demo of RuPaul’s Supermodel playing on set over and over—it wasn’t even out yet. That was before I met with Donatella and booked the ad campaign.
That was the point where it took off for you?
It did start to take off for me. Shortly after shooting that campaign in Miami with Doug Ordway, I moved to Italy and I stayed there for a little while before making my way to Paris in January 1993. I remember leaving right after New Years to meet with my agency, and from there it took off. I did my first couture show for Chanel, which was horrible—I didn’t know how to walk on a runway. I didn’t learn how to walk until much later. All that sass was cute because it was attitude, but I did not know how to walk.
I think one of the great things about that is that it really showcased your personality. Now it’s so homogenized and there is no personality.
Yeah, it’s become a production line. As long as you make that designer’s creation look beautiful you have done your job. I am there to sell clothes and that’s all I want to do.
Illustration by: Justin Teodoro
Diversity is very much a part of today’s zeitgeist, but a lot of that conversation smacks of tokenism to me. Do you think the fashion industry has made any progress?
I actually think that we are making very good strides. I think that fashion goes with trends, but I feel there’s way more diversity now than when I started. I would have to go and see the same managing editors two, three, or four times and they still didn’t get my look. I would go see them with my hair straight, then I had to go with my hair curly—they just didn’t understand. Was I Latina? Was I black? I didn’t mind, but understand that I am not your typical classic beauty with blonde hair and blue eyes. I am a very unusual looking person, but I feel that I want to open doors. I feel at this moment we are making strides we have not made in a good while. I feel like there is a lot more diversity, and there are a lot more young kids that I would like to see model. I feel there are more mixed girls than ever before booking big jobs like the Céline campaign and things like that. That would never have been very easy for us in the past.
Why do you think there is a lot of nostalgia around the time that you modeled?
I mean, come on, we don’t have creators like that anymore. I grew up dreaming of working with creators like that. My mother’s gay best friend used to buy me all the Guess and all the Christian Dior a girl could ever want. I grew up watching designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, and I always knew I wanted to work with them. I feel like that time is super nostalgic because we don’t have many amazing creators like that anymore. We’ll never have a Gianfranco Ferré again, we will never have a Halston again, we will never have a Bill Blass again. So many of these amazing people made fashion special. It was so rare. Not everyone had a Chanel bag, and we didn’t even know how to pronounce Versace.
How do you think social media is changing things? I find now, every young person seems to think they can be a model.
It is crazy, let me tell you; it’s so backward. I come from a time where it is was much more professional. I lived in Europe for most of my career, and I was raised with a very different mentality. In Europe you had to have a release from the your agent to use a picture to post anywhere. These days, you take a picture and it’s right there for the whole world, without going past an agent. I don’t necessarily think it’s good or bad. As much as I love celebrities, this is a model’s game and I’m not really happy with all these celebrities on covers. I want it to go back to what it is supposed to be, and hopefully it will at some point. I am just super old school.
Before there was an element of mystery and anticipation waiting for images to come out. You just don’t have that anymore.
Absolutely! You hit the nail on the head.
How do you stay interested after all this time?
I really love it. Something in me sparked when I was young and I started to read Vogue and saw Naomi, and Claudia and campaigns for Revlon and L’Oreal. I just happened to be lucky enough that it was just my time.
Where would you like to see the industry progress from where it is today?
I think it has been progressing so much, and it’s really great. I would like to see more models doing advertising and not so many celebrities. You know, it’s really our job to sell the clothes. I was one of the first models to have a brand—now that word is overused.
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