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Marisa Berenson, The Girl of the '70s

Marisa Berenson

Photo credits: Instagram @marisaberensonofficial

Marisa Berenson may have been born with style in her blood (she’s the granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli), but her own entrée into the world of fashion didn’t arrive until she was discovered by Diana Vreeland at the age of 16. “She just took one look at me and said we have to photograph Marisa—and that was it,” says the chameleonic Berenson, who went on to pose for everyone from Irving Penn and Richard Avedon to Hiro and Helmut Newton (not to mention grace the cover of Vogue more than 20 times). Here, she speaks with RE-SEE about modeling in the 1970s, her friendship with Halston, and the invaluable art of dressing up.

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Instagram @marisaberensonofficial

"Fashion wasn’t at all in my upbringing, nor did anybody talk about it when I was a child. My grandmother Elsa Schiaparelli, who was very present in my life, never spoke of her past or her career. Although I was born in New York, I left when I was two and was raised in Europe where I was educated in boarding schools. I had a very sheltered lifestyle except for all this traveling I did with my parents where I discovered another side of the world... But I had these dreams. I used to cut out and make incredible scrapbooks of fashion and film because it made me dream. I would collect all these wonderful images and put up on my wall beautiful actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner and fashion photographs. When I went to school in England I started making my own clothes in sewing school. I remember making a Chanel [inspired] suit and wearing high heel shoes when I was 13 or 14. My mother didn’t even know about it. I guess it’s just in my genes, you know?


Modeling was sort of a destiny. When I was 16 I went to New York for the first time since I’d left as a child. My father had been ill for a few years and he ended up in the New York hospital at one point, so my sister and I were told to come and spend Christmas there. One night, my father took me to a ball, which was this big New York ball… Maybe a coming out ball... It was my first ball, and Diana Vreeland was there. She had known me when I was very young because she was a friend of my grandmother’s. She used to call my sister, Berinthia, and me the Mauretania and the Berengaria. So she rediscovered the Mauretania at the age of 16 in New York. She just took one look at me and said we have to photograph Marisa. And that was it. That’s how my career started. She sent me immediately to Bert Stern’s studios, and then she sent me to Paris to do Vogue’s September issue with David Bailey. That was the beginning of my career, which started out with a bang. Unfortunately my father died at that time, so I decided to stay in New York and live my own life and spread my wings and do it on my own. I took a little tiny apartment. Stuart Models came to get me as an agency, and I just started working and living alone in New York.

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Instagram @marisaberensonofficial

I had done one photoshoot before that when I was living in London studying interior design and architecture. At the time, someone saw me out and about and Vogue wanted to photograph me, so they did these pictures of me with David Bailey. After that shoot I didn’t even want to be a model because he never spoke to me and he just put me in this studio with this blaring music and didn’t say one word to me. I was traumatized. I thought, this is not for me. But when I got to New York and I started really working seriously as a model, I found myself in Paris with David and we then became really good friends. We still are. Then I started working with [Irving] Penn a lot, and all of the other photographers, like [Richard] Avedon. All of the best of the best. I was working for Vogue and traveling the world under Diana Vreeland’s wing, so I was very protected and very privileged I must say. You can’t compare what it was then and what it is now. It was really, really different.


It would take a whole book to talk about that period in time. Everything was a fabulous memory. I was very young and I was thrown into this world of fashion and incredible creativity and freedom with a mixture of the most amazing people in the world, whether they were artists or socialists or fashion people or politicians or movie stars. It was just an exhilarating time and a very creative time and we were free. It was a very freeing, expressive time where if you were individual and different you were more interesting than if you looked like the girl next door. One celebrated personality and individuality in those days. We were just enjoying life, enjoying the ride, which was fantastic. The work was amazing, the traveling, the photoshoots, seeing the world through that lens with all these amazing trips to the four corners of the earth... I feel sorry now for the young people today with all this going on. Oh god, the world has become so difficult. At the time, all doors could be open and really there was a joy of life, a joie de vivre, and a freedom of expression, which there isn’t today.

I met Halston when he was still making hats for Bergdorf’s and just starting his first studio on 57th Street. We became very close friends. He was like my big brother. Forever. Until the last day. We would do the occasional show, eventually in the Olympic Tower, but they were not big shows. Halston’s the only person I really showed for because we never did shows in those days. Those shows were very much full of his muses, like Elsa [Peretti], Liza [Minelli], Loulou de la Falaise, and Pat Cleveland. It was a very joyful time. We would go on the weekends to his house in the country and we would start tie-dying fabrics. We started that whole thing. We were in the backyard tie-dying old fabrics having a ball. He actually even gave me away at my second wedding because I didn’t have my father. He wanted to walk me down the aisle and make my dress. His clothes were just so beautiful. They were so beautifully cut. They would really show the body. He had a whole new way of dressing the American woman with these wonderful fabrics. He would just wrap you in all of this silk jersey in one fell swoop and make the most divine thing that you would go out to the Met Ball in. He had great style and great elegance, and he adored beauty and class and loved to dress very stylish elegant women. He was so elegant himself and had such taste and refinement. He just had an eye and a dream.

Halston dressed me a lot. So did Saint Laurent and Valentino. Loris Azzaro and I had a very special relationship too. I loved all those glamorous movie star looks of the ’30s and ’40s, so he would make me those kinds of dresses. People always ask me what’s one souvenir or one [favorite] piece from that time… It’s impossible. I have so many memories since I have worn so many clothes. You can’t choose one. They were all unique. They were all talented. I had fun wearing and working with all of them. It was just a great privilege to be able to live at that time and be young and be dressed by all those people. We all had our own style. I had my own style. You can’t explain it. It was just one’s own style.

In 1984, I wrote Dressing Up: How to Look and Feel Absolutely Perfect for Any Social Occasion. That was a funny book. When I look at it now—apart from the pictures, which are quite kitsch and ’80s looking with those big shoulder pads—everything in it is still of actuality. I think it still stands on its own. It still does have the secrets of dressing up. I don’t go out as much as I used to, but when I do, of course, I love to dress up. It’s just part of life, it’s part of being a woman, it’s part of being glamorous, it’s part of enjoying oneself, it’s part of respecting oneself and respecting others to look good and to feel good... Marrakech, where I live in Morocco, is very conducive to the style that I love, which is eclectic orientalist, as they would call it, or boho chic. I’m inspired here because I can go wild with my creativity and looks. When I’m in New York or Paris, or when I’m working, obviously it’s a different mood—more classical, more practical—but if I go out at night, I do love to wear my turbans or my embroidered jacket or some great beautiful dress or put myself together with tons of accessories and jewelry. For a long time, people were not dressing up anymore. Everybody looked the same, and it was not so much fun. Now, I think there’s a shift towards more creativity, more individuality, more a sense of oneself and wanting to enjoy being who you are, or making a statement on who you are. What you want to project into the world, who you feel you are, what you want to be... You can express all of that in clothes."


as told to Zoe Ruffner

Image of a woman with handbags

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