I was first discovered working at a McDonald's when I was 15 years old. Just kidding, you tend to hear stories about how girls were discovered working in a fast food restaurant or at an airport but my story isn’t as serendipitous.
I was taking ballet classes and eventually grew too tall to continue, and at 14, my teacher suggested that I model. I had to wait until I was 17 to get representation as laws during that time prohibited model agents from representing children or young adults. It has since changed today as models as young as 12 or 13 are plucked from obscurity to a runway or where Kaia Gerber, 14, (Cindy Crawford’s stunning daughter) can grace the cover of French Vogue. So at 17, I got an agent and signed a contract to model in Tokyo. I wound up staying in Japan for two years. I eventually learned to speak Japanese, and also had a chance see the world and visit some of the most beautiful places in Asia such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Guam, and the Micronesian Islands. At this point, I had a full model portfolio and the next natural step was to set my sights for New York. They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, and so armed with my portfolio and experience modeling in Japan, I hit the ground running and quickly began working with the best designers, photographers, stylists, magazines, editors and hair & make up artists. I was fortunate as I didn’t have to pound the pavement around New York and endure “go sees” and castings which was pretty standard for new models at the time. I worked very hard and, at 21, bought my first apartment.
Things started to progress for me quickly in New York, I shot my first Italian Vogue cover with Hiro and then became a "Vogue girl". Once a model lands a coveted Vogue cover, it opens her to prestigious editorial work, campaigns and cosmetics companies. Revlon took notice and I appeared in the ‘The Most Beautiful Woman In The World’ campaign shot by Avedon with Cindy Crawford and Iman.
At this point, I had reached a professional milestone and was among an elite group of models, dubbed the ‘supermodels’. Fashion had fast become a global phenomenon, CNN and MTV were covering the shows, actresses associated fashion as denigrating to their craft, so the fashion world found a substitute to fill that void. The supermodels. No longer limited to fashion magazines and runways, models were now omnipresent. Cindy was on MTV, Naomi on the cover of Time, magazines didn’t just photograph us anymore, they wanted to know everything about us. What we ate, our beauty regimens, who we were dating. Gianni Versace paid us exclusively to do his shows in Milan setting model fees to new records. Fashion lighting had struck.
The late 80s and early 90s were the best time to be a model because there were about 25 of us doing shows, covers, editorials and campaigns. Each of us were unique so we didn’t compete for jobs, there was enough work to go around, but we also had our own unique attributes that appealed to clients. Linda was the chameleon, Christy the classic beauty, Naomi had the famous walk, Cindy was smarts & sex appeal, Time tagged Elle “The Body”. And so my trademark “elegance”. I was never really a commercial Victoria’s Secret or Sports Illustrated kind of girl (though I did walk the inaugural Victoria’s Secret show at the Plaza Hotel in New York and appeared in their fashion catalog). And I wasn’t seen as super sexy like my good friend Cindy, but I was elegant in my twenty-something way that appealed to designers like Azzedine, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein. That helped distinguish me from the other models of the time along with my understanding that it was a business. I was professional, took care of myself, never missed flights, was punctual and kind to the crew. You can call it "professional elegance"! I was fortunate to have a twenty year run and been a model during the industry’s renaissance period, but I also believe my success and longevity is largely attributed to understanding a client’s individual needs at the time. This helped when I began a transition from model to designer.
My foray into design was organic. I was still modeling and one day while in New York, I wanted to wear a silk slip dress but couldn’t find one in any stores. Versace had started the trend of wearing sexy slip dresses, typically reserved for the bedroom, now out at night. In the 90s this became a big trend which was seen as very edgy and decadent at the time. I searched and bought vintage slips but didn’t love the fabrics, colours and fit. I then had an “aha” moment. I decided to make them myself! And then September 11th happened.
I lived eight blocks from Ground Zero on Reade Street in Tribeca with my husband Joe Coffey, a screen writer at the time. Like the rest of New York (and world), we were shaken by the attacks and mourned the destruction and loss to our beautiful city. We were lucky enough to have built a home in Amagansett in the Hamptons and decided to move there after Sept 11.
While I continued modeling, it was during this time I was able to develop a line of silk camisoles and slip dresses. I didn’t think much of building a brand, just a small line of luxurious items that fit great and made you feel beautiful. I had spent twenty years working with some of the best designers in the world, so I picked up a few tips. And so Little Joe Woman was began as an endeavor between myself and my husband Joe, Co-Founder and CEO, and we aptly named the company “Little Joe” as it was our ‘baby’. We initially started with six silk camisoles and slips and it organically evolved into a global brand. We eventually changed the name to Little Joe Woman by Gail Elliott and moved the business to Sydney and now Bali. It’s still kind of bizarre to see my name on a label or swing tag. It’s a thrill and internally I say to myself “We Did It”!! It’s such an honour, I don’t think I’ll ever get over that thrill. Everyone has a choice of what they wear so when I see someone in something that I’ve designed, it's very exciting and humbling.
People often ask me who is the Little Joe Woman? She’s a mix of my friends and people who inspire me. She appreciates luxury, she’s chic, she’s subtly sexy, she’s a busy person, she enjoys travel, is well read and loves life…just like me. It’s funny though, sometimes I do think about my 17 year old self and what I would say to her as she begins her journey. If given the chance, I would tell her she’s very lucky, she’s going to experience a wonderful life, and so be kind, be honest, be thoughtful and enjoy every moment. And yes, you do get the cute guy and live happily ever after