Yvonne Presser, a leading model in the Sixties for Norman Norell, Geoffrey Beene, James Galanos and other American designers, died April 20.
Presser, 78, died at the Foss Home and Village in Seattle from complications from Alzheimer’s disease, according to her husband, Robert.
Raised on a wheat farm near LaCrosse, Wash., Presser had seen enough copies of Life magazine to know she wanted to be a fashion model. As much as she enjoyed going to dances at the local grange and sneaking out of school to smoke, she was determined to have a modeling career in Manhattan. After graduating from high school, she convinced her parents to let her enroll at the Barbizon Modeling School. With their approval, she boarded a bus and made the cross-country trip to Manhattan.
“For an 18-year-old, that was a pretty gutsy move, even more so 60 years ago,” her husband said. “Once she graduated from the Barbizon course, which I think was pretty much a week or two of walking around with a book on her head, they gave her a certificate, a list of possibilities and set her loose.”
Presser started out as a fit model for Pandora’s Frocks and went on to become a runway model. Early on she worked for Maurice Rentner, George Halley, George Samen, Chester Weinberg, Bill Blass and Wragge and Teal Traina. As Norell’s house model, she traveled the globe with him in the late Fifties and Sixties. During a trip to Paris, she found her signature elfish look in a cafe. “She saw a waiter with a great haircut and she asked him where he got it. Then she went and got the same haircut. When she returned to New York, it became quite the thing,” Robert Presser said.
In addition to her boyish haircut, Presser favored heavy eye makeup, which helped Norell define “the van Dongen look.” In June 1960, Norell presented a collection inspired by a Kees van Dongen portrait he owned. As a nod to the artist, Presser and her fellow models wore white makeup, darkened eyes and shingled haircuts, which prompted three beauty trends and sent prices for van Dongen’s art skyward. Presser would later reach a new salary height of her own. Before stepping away from the fashion scene in 1970, she was known to be the highest-paid runway model, earning $90 an hour. Around that time, WWD wrote of Presser, “She sweeps down a runway faster than anybody in town, and has a built-in sense of drama.”
Her husband offered another take Monday. The irony was she always said she walked so fast because she was scared. But it worked for her.”
Once she stopped modeling, Presser pursued photography and did oil paintings and watercolors — some of which were used for greeting cards. After she and Presser and their young son had relocated to Minneapolis for his job at the Dayton Co., she made a few trips back east. She served as a consultant for the first televised “Model of the Year” pageant and returned to the runway for a Norman Norell retrospective that was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after the designer’s death.
But all in all, Presser preferred to keep a low profile and rarely spoke with friends about her modeling days. “Many of her neighbors and closest friends at the funeral were just astounded. They had no idea,” Robert Presser said. “When she did talk about her time in New York, she never really made a big deal about it. Yvonne had a very expansive and interesting life. Living in New York she became a very sophisticated person but what made her so special was she started out as a country girl and, at the end of her life, she was still a country girl. Her values were still very down-to-earth.”
In addition to her husband and son, Brian, who both live in Seattle, Presser is survived by a brother, Paul Stamper of Clarkston, Wash.