Growing up in Buffalo New York, young Beverly Johnson, an honor student, and competitive swimmer, never dreamed of becoming a model or had any inclination to pursue a career in fashion and beauty. There were no fashion magazines in her middle-class upbringing—her goal was to go to college and become a lawyer. “I didn’t have an artistic bone in my body, I was a nerd and an ugly duckling” she states. But when the modeling opportunity presented itself, she seized the moment. Nerd-girl morphed into a stunning fashion model and the style and beauty expert that she is today. “I was born with a fire in my belly. I have this thing that I have to excel at everything I do,” she says. And excel she did with more than 500 magazine covers and the distinction of the first black person on the cover of American Vogue.
The historic 1974 Vogue cover broke barriers, allowing young girls who look like her, to see that beauty comes in all skin tones. Modeling also became the launchpad to the fashion universe. She attributes her art and cultural education to a creative circle of friends from the ’70s, one of which was model and Tiffanys’ jewelry and home designer, Elsa Peretti who recently passed away in her sleep at the age of 80.
Beverly Johnson was turned-on to luxury and refined style by Peretti and the iconic fashion designer, Halston. She described the duo as “besties.” Being invited into Halston’s inner circle, made her world take a 360 spin. In the disco 70’s they shared limos together, were sashayed into Studio 54 together, and modeled in his runway shows. She recalls Peretti as the essence of worldly sophistication.
But the path she took was self-forged. Soon after Johnson achieved success as a photographic model, she began to want more—she wasn’t one to stay in her lane. Always the consummate student she had yearning whether in modeling or at Northeastern University where she attended for several years. “I told Eileen Ford, ( Ford Models) that I wanted to do fashion shows but she said no, ‘we don’t go there.’ The crossover of model categories was unheard of in those days; you were either a runway model or a photographic model, but the cover girl persisted. “ I want to learn more, I wanted to experience more, I wanted to work for Halston,” she told Ford, to which Ford replied blithely, “well, you really shoot for the stars.” It was the Halston decade and at that moment in time, he was at the apex of his fame and influence.
But Johnson was undeterred and eventually met and became friends with the larger than life Halston followed by Peretti who was a founding member of the glitterati troupe. From that first meeting, the naive but earnest Johnson seems to have been transformed; Halston smoking with a Peretti-designed cigarette holder—long and lean, Ms. Peretti was ‘dripping in diamonds.’ Halston’s desk was brimming with silver— undulating candlesticks, vases filled with orchids, and other accouterments designed by the Italian model. The education-in-chic just had its first class.
She eventually broke the runway barrier and walked in his shows at a time when cover girls, who traveled the world for photoshoots, were prohibited. Her innocent curiosity made her an unknowing pioneer and also brought editorial attention to the more dramatic runway models who were dubbed the Halstonettes, by Vogue Editor, Andre Leon Talley. A term he coined to describe Halston’s fit and runway entourage.
She was thrilled to be invited to a private dinner party at his home and was told to go to his shop on 68 and Madison and pick out something to wear. To which she replied, “Mr. Halston, I can’t afford one of your designs.” His response, “ just call me Halston.” He gifted her one of his $6,000 designs to wear to the exclusive event and she was accepted into the rarified circle of friends and collaborators.
Johnson recalls, “Elsa was always so gracious to me, we were both introverts at heart. She was the life of the party but in public situations, she was serious and thoughtful. I had a lot of admiration for her and her taste level was exquisite. It was her era—it was my era. Our careers were on a parallel path and I wanted to emulate her style and the way she carried herself,” recalls Johnson.
Ms. Peretti began designing for Tiffanys’ in 1974, a partnership that became synonymous with the brand. She breathed organic life into sterling silver and bone china with classics like the sterling pumpkin box and the thumb-print bowl.
Beverly had her own dedicated salesperson at Tiffany’s and acquired many of Peretti’s designs which remain in her archive. They include the diamonds by the yard, open heart earrings, bone cuffs, silver candlesticks, and the bow tie necklace with diamond studs, a collection she treasures.
Elsa Peretti’s Diamond by the Yard earrings
Elsa Peretti’s Open Heart necklace Elsa Peretti Bone Cuff courtesy of Tiffanys
“Elsa was my education in fine jewelry, home decor, and fashion—she was a style icon that I tried to mirror in many ways. An incredible and outspoken lady who wasn’t afraid to use her voice and power as a woman,” says Johnson. The relationship of these iconic women was symbiotic. Each made their indelible mark on the disco decade and beyond.