Local Fashion Icon
By: Sarah R. Smith
"Trends don't matter worth a damn. What matters is when you put the clothes on, you give something to the clothes, and the clothes give something to you."
- Mike Southall
I’ve known Mike for almost two years now. We’re both regulars at the same bar, a place where “everybody knows your name,” and we all feel like family. Although we’ve spent countless nights together sharing stories, it wasn’t until I told him about my new adventure of starting a magazine that he shared the details of his modeling career in the 80’s and 90’s. I sat in awe listening to the amazing stories about a man I thought I knew so well, only to discover, I had no idea about his fascinating past in the fashion industry. While deciding what articles we would feature for our editorial debut, Mike’s story immediately came to mind; hence, I invited him over for dinner to conduct my very first interview as a magazine editor.
That night Mike arrived with an old worn-out suitcase, and the most delicious sweet potato ice cream from his newest business venture, Ice Cream 504. We popped open a bottle of cheap wine, and opened up that old suitcase. Inside were hundreds of exquisite pictures, including one of Mike wearing a one-of-a kind jacket designed by Andy Warhol.
I’ve been told a good interview should last no longer than an hour, but those people haven’t interviewed Mike Southall. Four hours and a pint of ice cream later I had learned so much about Mike and the glamorous past of the New Orleans fashion industry.
"The feel of it was glamour, and the people were so sophisticated."
Growing up in Napoleonville, Louisiana, about an hour and half outside of New Orleans during the 70’s, Mike and his mother would visit the city every week to stroll the shops along the once alluring Canal Street. Mike explains, “It was nothing like it is today. The feel of it was glamour, and the people were so sophisticated. It was no different than Fifth Avenue in New York or Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Designers from all over the world would come to New Orleans to showcase their line and conduct personal fittings.”
As a child he remembers walking through places like Maison Blanche, DH Holmes, and Godchaux’s, “and I can recall people staring at me. I always thought of myself as being funny looking. I was very thin and had huge eyes and full lips. It wasn’t until many years later, once I had started working, that I recognized those people who used to stare at me. They were the department store art directors, and here I was working for those people who may not have remembered me but saw something in me long before I did."
Much of Mike’s career as a model can be accredited to his natural ability to connect with people, as well as being in the right place at the right time. Before he began modeling, Mike worked at Liberty Financial, a local bank here in New Orleans. It was there that he met Robin Goldman, a financial banker whose real passion was modeling. Mike and Robin quickly became best friends, and oftentimes, having an affinity for fashion and clothing himself, he would accompany her to photo shoots. It wasn’t until Robin was working for Maison Blanche that Mike’s presence served a more important purpose.
Everyday around the time the girls would be wrapping up, a police officer would wait outside of the Maison Blanche headquarters in Baton Rouge harassing the models he found attractive. He would then follow them on to the interstate, pull them over, and further harass them for their phone numbers. Feeling unsafe, Robin believed that if she had someone in the car with her, she was less likely to be harassed. So, from then on Mike rode to and from Baton Rouge with her.
"When you're new there's a certain confidence you don't have. The moment I stepped out on the runway I knew everyone there knew that I was new."
During that time Maison Blanche, being the largest furrier of the South, was working on a nationwide fur campaign for which Robin was booked. On the day of the shoot one of the male models didn’t show. “They just needed a body and asked me to step in.” Once the shoot was over, the director, being so impressed with Mike’s natural ability, recommended he go to an agency. “And so I did.”
New Images, a local modeling agency here in New Orleans, signed Mike to model for them. There he had polaroids taken. which everyone knows are not the most flattering of pictures. The very next day an international gown campaign came through town and booked Mike strictly off of those polaroids. To any model this would be considered a very big deal, but for Mike it was particularly big, as he had no portfolio and no experience modeling prior to his impromptu work with Maison Blanche.
Soon after Mike booked his first big show. Top ethnic designers from all around had come to New Orleans to showcase their clothing lines. Although he was new to the industry and not as seasoned as one would like to be for such a big-time event, Mike was chosen to “walk.” “When you’re new there’s a certain confidence you don’t have. The moment I stepped out on the runway I knew everyone there knew that I was new.” It goes without saying that a show with such grandeur was in fact quite the learning experience for Mike.
" When you love what you do, you excel at it."
As fate would have it, another model no-show landed Mike his first nationwide campaign. The international clothing company, Marithé François Girbaud, had come to the United States to introduce their new clothing line, showcasing Girbaud Jeans (you may remember this brand from being all the craze in the 80’s. The brand became famous after Jennifer Beals strutted her stuff while wearing them in the movie Flash Dance). As the show was moving throughout the country, they had collected models whose look and attitude they felt fit the clothes. “Oddly enough they had refused me, and then taken me by default because they needed someone.” Even though he was not a model they initially sought after, Mike turned out to be the only model they took with them to do their entire line of shows. When I asked Mike why he thinks they changed their minds and wound up taking such a liking to him after first refusing him, he replied, “That’s how runway was for me. I was too short for runway, but I was great at it because I loved it so much. When you love what you do, you excel at it.”
"Oh great, a black man who doesn't have gold teeth and can speak well."
When New Images folded, sadly Mike and the other models at the agency were ultimately forced to sign with long time competitor, MTP. Upon his arrival to the new agency, the director at the time greeted Mike by saying, “Oh great, a black male who doesn’t have gold teeth and can speak well.” Needless to say, “That really put a bitter taste in my mouth and it was a long time before I decided to go back and sign with them.”
"I'm serious, and this is nothing freaky or weird."
After working for MTP here in New Orleans, Mike reluctantly decided it was time to take his career to the next level. Thomas Holdorf, the photographer he had worked with while shooting the international gown campaign, had become a good friend of Mike’s. Holdorf repeatedly tried to convince Mike to move to New York, but both he and his agent were weary. It wasn’t until Holdorf uttered the words, “I’m serious, and this is nothing freaky or weird” that Mike decisively accepted his offer.
The morning after his arrival, Holdorf took Mike to the home of John Wright, makeup artist for German Vogue. There, having lunch, was every major supermodel of that time. Holdorf wanted to do some test shots for Mike’s portfolio, and he figured that if Mike had pictures taken with top supermodels, it would give his book the validation it deserved. One of the models chosen to work with Mike was Karen O’shea. Known for her gorgeous long legs, O’shea is someone everyone has seen, but no one knows. Having worked with every top fashion designer, Holdorf knew that if Mike shot with her, anyone worth anything who saw the shots would immediately view Mike’s work as credible. “That’s how things really got started for me.”
Holdorf had all sorts of plans and ideas in mind for Mike’s career, including sending Mike to Chicago. “He had the connections to really make things work for me there, and knew it was the best place for me to be as a black male in the industry.” And so, following Holdorf’s advice, Mike made the move to Chicago. There he signed with Susan Johnson, an agency known for having the most elegant and beautifully statuesque models. “They really set the standard for everyone else in the industry, and everyone wanted to work for her.”
Johnson’s models were also very well connected throughout Europe, which gave Mike his ticket to working overseas. After spending some time in Chicago, and before wrapping up his career as a model, he made his European mark, first signing with PHOne in Paris, and later with Zed, an agency based out of London.
"Thank you, but no thank you."
As glamorous as his career was, it also came with the harsh reality and struggles of being a black male in a predominantly white profession. In an industry where people aren’t afraid to speak their minds, racial stereotypes can often be passed off as brutal “honesty.” With dignity and self respect, Mike refused to let these false convictions define him.
Master tailor, Nazareno Fonticoli, and his business partner, Gaetano Savini of the clothing brand Brioni, were known throughout the fashion industry for choosing strictly white models to do their shows. When Mike was refused at a “go-see,” his agent at the time, Lisa Tudor and art director Cheri Muller, contacted Brioni stating that if they would not allow Mike the opportunity to interview, they would no longer allow their models to be used in their future shows. Upon hearing this, Brioni reluctantly allowed Mike the opportunity to interview with them. When he arrived, they placed him at the end of the line, in the least desirable outfit of the collection. As runway was his strongest suit, Mike dazzled everyone there, including Brioni executives.
Afterwards, the Brioni executive and his assistant got into a heated argument over whether or not they would use Mike for the show. Before leaving, the Brioni executive approached Mike to apologize to him for the way he was treated. He then asked Mike if he would, in fact, do the show for him. Having more respect for himself than the immense opportunity of working with an international designer of his caliber, Mike simply replied, “Thank you, but no thank you.” Some time later, Brioni put on a show featuring models of several different ethnicities.
"Thirty years later, I see style as an evolution, a unique reflection of who you are, where you've been and where you are going." - Donna Karan
His natural abilities, captivating spirit, and evident fate brought Mike a modeling career others can only dream of. Throughout his time as a model Mike had the fortune of working with a long list of fashion greats, including, Michael Kors, Donna Karan, Victor Costa, Versace, Girbaud, Armani, Willy Smith, and Calvin Klein. His fortuitous career also granted him the opportunity to shoot with Jean Paul Gaultier in his early career as a designer.
Today Mike’s devotion is to his love of ice cream. Earlier this year he and his business partner, James Comeaux, opened up Ice Cream 504, located at 2511 Jena St (just off the corner of Freret and Jena). There, you’ll find him behind the counter scooping uniquely delicious flavors, like blueberry basil, petifore, and coconut almond, all handcrafted by Mike himself. The knowledge and skill of making ice cream passed down to him by generations before him deliver a product that is perfectly smooth and delectably creamy. I can honestly say, despite the fact that I am a fond supporter of anything created by Mike, his ice cream is undeniably delicious!
Most models work their entire career trying to land jobs working with top notch designers. Mike didn’t grow up expecting to become a model, but life clearly had other plans for him. Being the “back-up” paved numerous roads filled with opportunities, from the start of his career with the Maison Blanche fur campaign, to a runway show celebrating the opening ceremonies of the Olympics where he was asked to sing the national anthem. For Mike it almost seemed as if destiny had brought him to the right places at the right time.