In the 1950s, China Machado made fashion history as the world’s first non-Caucasian model. She went on to model for the great couture houses of Paris, before relocating to New York and working exclusively as Richard Avedon’s muse. China recently returned to modelling aged 83, confirming her reputation as true fashion royalty.
With her razor sharp cheekbones, doe eyes and elegant bone structure, China Machado is just as awe-inspiring today, as she was 50 years ago. The 83-year- old wife, mother and grandmother is once again enjoying life behind the camera, proving that beauty and style really do transcend age.
Dressed in a kimono with a two-foot trail and “a giant headpiece that must have weighed over ten pounds”, China stands proud in this i-D story, shot last year, one part puppeteer and one part dominatrix. She describes the shoot as “something out of the Lost Empire”, and thoroughly enjoyed her matriarchal role. “The headpiece was so heavy someone had to hold my head to put it on,” she recalls. While on her feet she wore a pair of nine-inch heels. “I’m 82, for Christ’s sake!” she laughs over the telephone from her South Hampton home. “Darling, I’m amazed I got through it. If it wasn’t for the photographers being so energetic and inspiring, I couldn’t have done it. It was hysterical.” Born Noelie Dasouza Machado in Shanghai in 1929, to a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother, China’s life has never been straightforward. The luxuries of her colonial childhood were stripped away during the Japanese invasion of WWII. “Fear was installed. Our servants fled back to the countryside, our house was confiscated, it was a horrific change,” she recalls. “I went from one day when I asked for a glass of water it was bought to me, to the next day cooking on the stove.”
China’s family fled Shanghai on the last boat out, and set up home in Argentina. It was during a visit to her brother in Lima, Peru, that China met the world famous bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, a chance meeting that was to take her world in a whole new direction. Captivated by her beauty, Dominguín pursued the young China and three days later she eloped with him to Mexico. “I was madly in love and I didn’t realise the consequences of my actions,” she recalls. “My whole family ostracised me. I made a huge sacrifice and gave up everything for a man who every woman in the world wanted.” Sadly it didn’t last, and two years later Dominguín left her in Paris for Hollywood starlet Ava Gardner, China’s idol. Finding herself alone, with no family to fall back on and no money, China made a pact with herself. From that day forth she would never rely on another man again. “That was it,” she declares. “I vowed to be independent, whatever it took.” It was a combination of chance and good fortune that set her on the path to success.
“I was down and out. It was a matter of survival,” she says of her introduction to the fashion industry. “I was staying with a girlfriend of mine at the time, so that afternoon she taught me how to model walk. Up and down the room. The next day I went to Balenciaga, but it was too late, Balenciaga had already gone back to Spain. They said ‘Listen, go and try Givenchy’. So I went there and they thought I was a replacement for a girl who was sick. So I got the job and I stayed there for three years.”
China went on to become the highest paid runway model in the world. But she still had not been photographed professionally. “At that time, in the 1950s, you were either a runway model or a photographic model,” she explains. “You did not do both.” All that changed in 1958 when China met American fashion designer Oleg Cassini, who whisked her away to New York to star in his show. “Many people refused to buy his collection after seeing me wear it,” she recalls. “I only found out twenty years later, but he said ‘Well, don’t buy it then’. He was very ahead of his time.” It was through Oleg that China met Diana Vreeland (the legendary American Vogue editor, who then worked for Harper’s Bazaar). Vreeland had a keen eye for style and cast China in a show at the Waldorf-Astoria the very same night as meeting her. Balanced atop a twenty-foot ladder wearing a Balenciaga bat wing top and a pair of hot pink trousers, China caught the eye of photographer Richard Avedon, who was immediately smitten.
Avedon went on to photograph China for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, refusing to renew his contract with the magazine unless they wavered their reluctance to publish a photograph of a non-Caucasian model. “People will cancel their subscriptions”, the publisher told Avedon. But he believed China was “probably the most beautiful woman in the world” and stood his ground. China and Avedon went on to work together exclusively for three years, remaining good friends until his death in 2004. “As models back then we had enormous pride in what we were doing,” China explains. “Models today are coming in to the industry too young. They need to hone their craft. They should look at photographs of themselves and see what they’re doing wrong. Look at a model they admire and learn from her.” For China, modelling was an art form, a beautiful synergy between photographer and muse. Entering the fashion industry later in life - China was 28 years old when she landed the job at Givenchy - gave her the inner confidence to explore different facets of her personality in front of the camera. “A photographer trusts you to give yourself to him and you trust him to get the best from you,” she says.
Diana Vreeland left Harper’s Bazaar in the early 60s, and China took over as fashion director. She continued to work for the publication for a number of years, before enjoying stints film producing, designing clothes and running a gallery. “Anytime I was bored I moved on to something else,” she informs. IMG Models signed China to their books at the end of 2011, making her the world’s oldest signed model. Campaign work with Carine Roitfeld and Barney’s soon followed, as did shoots with Bruce Weber and Steven Meisel. Ivan Bart, head of IMG Models, explained her appeal to CNN. “First of all, she’s legendary. This amazing woman who has given so much to the fashion industry ... and also, oh, by the way, she happens to be in her 80s. How inspirational is that for any woman of any age?” Inspirational it certainly is. China marks a new era for the industry, where age is less relevant than style. When asked what it feels like to have returned to modelling, China lets out a self-deprecating chuckle: “Darling, I’ve just done a few shoots. It’s hardly a return to modelling.”
Either way, we’re happy to have her back and there’s little chance she’s going to take a back seat now. China is busy writing her autobiography, I Was Always Running After the Laughter, and working with her daughter on a documentary celebrating her life and work. “I have hundreds of old photographs, clippings and movies of my days as a model,” she reveals. “I used to photograph Avedon as he was photographing me, so all these things are to be correlated and published.” China’s energy and passion for life is infectious. “My secret is I never stop moving,” she concludes. “The most important things in my life are my family, first and foremost, and my friends. I like to keep myself interested, and as long as I’m having a good time I’m happy.”