As the former creative director of Allure and Harper’s Bazaar as well as cofounder of press powerhouse KCD, Paul Cavaco is one of fashion’s most storied editors. Beloved by his colleagues, respected by his peers, and revered as a one-of-a-kind storyteller, his freelance career is bringing all sorts of interesting prospects his way. Cavaco sat down with close friend and former colleague Sasha Charnin Morrison to reminisce and reveal.
Tell me your name, age, and where you’re from…
My name is Paul Cavaco. I’m 64 years old and I’m from New York City.
So, tell me about your new job. What are you thinking of doing?
I’m thinking of becoming a bartender. [Laughs]
Why are you thinking of becoming a bartender?
After 40 years of the industry, I don’t know if I can do this much longer.
What would Diana Vreeland make of today?
From not knowing Mrs. Vreeland but having been married to Kezia Keeble, who worked for Diana Vreeland at Vogue; working with Tonne Goodman, who worked with Vreeland at the Met; and also my best friend, who worked for Mrs. Vreeland at the Met, what they all say is what she was interested in was what’s new, what’s happening, what’s modern. I think she would be fond of all the newness. I’m not so sure how she’d feel about the slipping of quality in the way clothes are made, in fashion coverage, in the speed of fashion, sort of sacrificing what made fashion special, which was making people look beautiful.
Given the climate, would she even have a job today?
You either have to be extremely old or very young. Everyone in between is sitting here thinking about being bartenders or Uber drivers. She would probably have a job. The talent was very special.
What was the most outlandish or craziest shoot you every worked on?
My shoots are not ever crazy, for some reason. I don’t know if I don’t attract it or what? Things have always just worked out. I have shoots where there are so many people on the shoot where it becomes…
A three-ring circus?
I’ve had 30 children, babies, 20 adults, all on the same booking. Animals. Clowns.
Madonna’s Sex Book. You styled that. YOU STYLED THAT! What was that like?
It was hilarious in a way that you can’t even imagine. We laughed from the minute we got on set ’til the minute we left. She’s an incredible model. She was always on time. She worked hard. She was open to suggestion. It was full collaboration.
I heard you didn’t have permits and were just running out into the street, taking pictures.
She took the handbags and sunglasses and just said to Steven [Meisel], “Let’s go.” I don’t think people realized that Madonna was that naked woman who was hitchhiking. There were moments: She wanted to do one thing and I said, “Madonna, I don’t think we should do this. I have a child.” And she just said, “Get over it, Paul. This is my fantasy, not yours.”
What was the most expensive shoot you ever did? And give me a number because numbers
At Harper’s Bazaar, we were protected from the numbers, so I don’t really know what the numbers were.
What was the average cost of a shoot at Allure?
Between $35,000 and $40,000.
$80,000, I would think.
No wonder we’re not all there anymore. What was the most painful shoot? I can give you an example of a painful shoot. I never thought you were coming back to work again.
Angelina Jolie. Delightmare. You think that was the most painful one?
You know, yeah.
I think you were mentally disassembled.
The thing about working with celebrities that’s really difficult is they don’t know you and you don’t know them. You’re walking in on a moment, and you don’t know what’s going on in their life that day. I’ve had someone’s divorce announced in the press the day they were coming to shoot. Angelina was in her twenties, which is a difficult time for anyone, and doing a thing that she’s not… Actresses didn’t sign up to be models. We’ve turned them into that because it sells magazines for us. I think they’ve become comfortable with it now, but in the beginning they were really not comfortable with it. She was not comfortable with it. Now, in retrospect, I can look back and think, OK, there’s all these things. But going through it, I was like, Oh my god.
That cover was beautiful.
I actually loved that cover. I think she looked beyond beautiful. In the end, she had a good time. It was fine.
Name your favorite, most beautiful shoots!
Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard. She was glorious. She was brilliant to work with. My first Kate Moss sitting with Patrick Demarchelier. She was…the gloriousness of what she looked like. Baby Kate. That cover was an homage to the old Bazaar covers, and it was Kate’s first cover. At the time, she didn’t like it, because it made her look too mature—she didn’t look young and hip. And I think she’s grown to like it for what it is. And I think it’s a cute cover for Christmas.
The Oprah cover?
She was the most amazing. She would actually dial the phone herself and call me: “Hi, is Paul there? It’s Oprah.” And my assistant would be frantic and say she’d run get me and could we call you back and she’d say, “No, get him. It’s OK. I’ll wait.”
You famously always say you want it all to be beautiful. But what was truly the most beautiful of them all?
Beauty’s not one thing. They’re all beautiful for what they were at that moment.
You have 6,500 followers on Instagram—not bad for someone who barely posts. People love to reference and tag you—not that you’re monetizing it…
We can’t monetize anything on the Internet so we have to figure all of that out. I always think of that movie, The Graduate. When Ben comes home and they have that party for him and everyone keeps telling him, “Plastics.” That’s what I feel like: Internet. Internet. Internet.
How did you really get your start?
So, I was dating Kezia Keeble.
Are you going to give me the Hello Kitty version or the Citizen Kane version?
You want the down and dirty version? There’s a real down and dirty version.
Well, it’s a love story…
I was living with Kezia and I had thought I wanted to write. I can’t string two words together practically in conversation.
You speak like a lovely dolphin.
So, I realized if you were going to write, you had to specialize in something, because otherwise there’s just too many things to write about. So I thought, Kezia is into fashion, she had been a fashion editor. I was writing press releases for her, so I thought I can do that. Someone called Kezia and said, “We’re looking for a fashion editor for Esquire.” She got the job. One of the first people she worked with was Bruce Weber. Bruce had a few guys that he wanted to use on the reel, and Kezia sent him Woody Hochswender, who at the time was a bike mechanic in Central Park. He was 6’2″—he looked like a model. She sent me there. I’m now 5’4″, but at the time I was 5’5″ and change.
I was a little taller before I got old. We were all in our early twenties. Woody and I had both just gotten out of college. So I went to see Bruce. He had a little tiny studio on 27th Street. Took a picture of me on the roof, daylight, gave me like a sweater. I was one of the guys they hired. I was thrilled. Everybody else is 6’1″, 6’2″, and then there’s me. It was supposed to be a college story, so I’m wearing glasses. We do one scene where we all had instruments. I have a bass. So the bass is gigantic. I’m completely dwarfed. That’s where I learned to only be photographed alone so they can’t tell how short or tall you are. I was helping Kezia put the clothes together, and Bruce said, “He’s actually really good at this.” We finished the shoot, and about a week later Bruce called me and said, “You know, I have a job. Could you come style it?” He gave me my first big break.
Everyone’s a stylist now, but at that time?
It was a brand new business. Someone like Julie Britt, who had been a fashion editor at Glamour, was really one of the first freelance stylists. It was when stylists didn’t get credited. Hair and makeup did but stylists didn’t. It was not considered because it was supposed to be the point of view of the magazine, not the individual point of view of the fashion editor. There was Julie Britt, Kezia, eventually me, Freddie Leiba, Iris Bianchi… It wasn’t like now. None of us had agents. I never had an assistant. I did all my shoots by myself. I ironed the clothes, steamed the clothes, dressed everyone all by myself. I made $125 a day, which is what my dad made in a week. For me, it was an amazing amount of money.
I’m taking you to the past-life pavilion. How did you come up with the idea for KCD?
Kezia kept getting phone calls all the time from art directors and stuff saying, “Who do you think we should use for this?” She thought, Why am I giving out all this information? We would get paid to be the stylists but meanwhile she’d put together the whole team. So we decided to do this as a business. By this point, she was married to John Duka, who was writing fashion for the Times. We thought, We have everything here. We can conceive it together. Kezia and I can style it. John can write about it. We can produce ads. We can also work for designers and do their press kits. Eventually, we ended up doing PR to try to control the image that went out. At the time, PR was done mostly by single women who were connected, like Barbara Dente, Donna Christina, Mary Loving. We were the first three editors doing it. We had a track record of knowing things. When we called Polly Mellen or Jade Hobson or one of the Vogue editors and said, “This is a line, you should really look at it,” it was like your contemporary saying it rather than some publicist who’s trying to push their client. We could also style their line so it was palatable for the magazines. The clothes might not have been Vogue, but we could spin the look so it could give the Vogue look.
What was it like working together? You and Kezia were married, separated, divorced…
We had a really hilarious time. All three of us are fire signs—Kezia was an Aries, John was a Leo, and I’m a Sagittarian. The great thing about most fire signs is you do the explosion and you’re over it. Boom! The big joke was there was always door slamming going on in and out of our office. That’s why I slam the door all the time! I had been friends with Kezia before we were married, and we remained friends until her death. The same thing with John. Everything was brand new. We had no idea how to do it, so we were making it all up. That made it fun.
My stepmother, Jade Hobson, who was Vogue’s creative director, tried to explain to me the origins of your company. I couldn’t believe it—married, divorced, remarried, working together, a baby.
So Kezia and I were married. The form of our relationship was work. The relationship worked, but the form wasn’t working, so we changed the form. We obviously remained friends until her death. I cared for her while she was sick. We have a child together. You have a child with someone, you’re connected forever. I loved Kezia as a person. I thought she was the most hilarious, fabulous and smart. Why would I want to be separated from the thing that I thought was wonderful? She loved me as a person, and she was the one person who had my back. I had her back. Then you throw John into the mix, which was just insanity. We all worked really well together. Imagine us on Instagram, how great it could’ve been.
Did KCD become a victim of its success by creating a model for others?
I think I left it too early to know that.
Why did you leave so early?
The void was too great for me. John had already died. Kezia died. My dad had died, who was also part of the business. My mom had moved. My whole life changed, and it was too hard. I went to the office for two years after that, but I literally had to grip myself outside to walk in. Then the opportunity at Harper’s Bazaar came along. Julie Mannion and Ed Filipowski were running the business so beautifully that they needed me for some things, but not really. No one is irreplaceable. They made the company something that Kezia would’ve been proud of, but she couldn’t have imagined it, because it’s modern and has nothing to do with what we knew. It has the DNA of us in it, but Julie and Ed were part of it to begin with, because they came with us so early. Ed is the one who created the way we do PR. It’s their DNA
as much as ours.
Did your daughter change your view on fashion?
I have a much more generous outlook on body types than most editors. I know what it’s like to bring up a child—what girls go through. Also, it helped me because I knew what kids were interested in. I could keep up with the times because I had someone who was telling me about it. One day, it was reported back to me that my child was wearing a see-through Dolce & Gabbana dress with a very beautiful bra and panties. She was maybe 17, and she said, “You show it in the magazine.” If I’m showing it, I’ve gotta be fine with it. I can’t judge it.
What is great style and who has it now?
I like generic style. I’m fine with everything. Kate Young has great style. Everyone she styles looks amazing. Lisa Eisner has fabulous personal style. I love the way Olivia Palermo and Johannes Huebl look—considered and purposeful. I want all people to look that way. Everybody kind of has such good taste, you kind of want a little bit of bad taste.
That’s the thing: There’s either no vulgarity or it’s too vulgar. You want a little bit of vulgar, but it’s not tacky. It’s a distinction. Here’s someone like Angelina Jolie, who’s extraordinarily beautiful, but there’s a little vulgarity in the fact that her mouth is so large. You don’t think of that as refined, but she’s the most beautifully refined girl. It’s that thing that makes her not ordinary and so beautiful. Marc Jacobs has a little bit of vulgarity. Beautiful can be blah—a little too sterile. There needs to be a little bit of sexuality, a little bit of desire.
How would you style Hillary Clinton?
A little boxy at the moment. She has to look presidential, but it could be a little more tailored. Same idea. Maybe someone should color-advise.
A girl just got off the bus and wants to break into the industry. What would you tell her? Get the hell back on the bus?
Internet. Internet. Internet! It’s a brilliant industry. You just have to figure out what you want to do, what your place is.
You’ve worked with some of magazines’ classiest. Give us your thoughts on Liz Tilberis.
She was completely joyful. She understood that you might not always do your best shoot. After a shoot day, she knew you need a day to unwind, because it took so much out of you.
Anna was precise. What I loved about working with her is that you knew what she wanted. She knew what she was going after and in that you had to try to create something that was still a surprise. I learned to edit clothes very tightly from her.
Linda was kind of a combination of Liz and Anna in that she is a great editor, and she is happy, joyful, fun to hang out with in that way, but she’s also very directed in what she wants for the magazine. We had a very good collaboration—she treated me very much like what I did was important for the magazine. And she valued it, and my ability to do it unhindered. I lasted about 16 years so obviously I liked working with her a lot. My new boss is now everybody.
Is there a place for you in the industry?
I do a very, very specific thing for magazines, but the nature of the industry, anyway, is change. The nature of life is change. The struggle is about becoming part of this new world in a way that works for me, because I’m not a street-style star or an incessant Instagrammer. Cayli Cavaco Reck has an idea for me to do a blog, which is great, and I’m going to do a book. But I want the everydayness of working. I’m working freelance for magazines like W and V, and I’ve done lots of ads. But how am I going to become a part of this internet world? That’s my new challenge.
Read the full issue HERE.