China Machado

Legendary fashion model China Machado, who worked well into her eighth decade and moved from magazine covers to fashion editor, died Sunday morning at Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island. The cause of death was cardiac arrest, which she suffered at her North Haven, Conn., home Thursday night, according to her family.

She was 86 years old.

Born in Shanghai on Christmas Day 1929, Noel De Souza Machado’s early years were ones of prosperity and privilege. The daughter of a prominent banker in a community of mixed Chinese and Portuguese heritage, she was carried each day to the convent school she attended on the back of a servant. But the life she knew ended abruptly when the Japanese occupation of 1941 forced her family from their mansion. Later, the rise of the Communists would prompt her father to declare, “We are leaving China to the Chinese.”

Machado and her family arrived by ship in Buenos Aires at the start of the Peron era. In Argentina, the young girl with the almond eyes got the nickname China — pronounced Cheena — and it stuck with her for the rest of her life.

Through her job as a stewardess for Panagra Airlines, which took Machado over the Andes from Argentina to Chile and Peru, she met Luis Dominguín, then the most famous bullfighter in the world. Machado ran away to Rome at 20 with Dominguín, much to the chagrin of her family. “It was a very fast-living life,” she told WWD in September. “You’re traveling all over the world. He knew everybody.”

Eventually, Dominguín left Machado for Ava Gardner. “I cried for two years over a man,” she said. “Never again.” Among Machado’s few regrets was not trying harder to make her marriage to actor Martin LaSalle, who she married in 1957, work. The couple divorced in 1965.

China Machado on the runway at the Pitti Palace.

China Machado on the runway at the Pitti Palace. 

After Machado’s affair with Dominguín ended, she moved to Paris, where she stayed with a friend who was working as a runway model. Hearing that Cristobal Balenciaga was hiring runway models, she reported to work only to learn that the designer was out of town. But she was sent to Givenchy, who hired her.

“I never thought I was good looking because I didn’t look like anybody else, ” she said. The fashion world disagreed.

Machado was able to gain regular work as a runway model for Givenchy and was soon in demand with other prominent designers, eventually becoming the highest paid runway model in Europe.

Oleg Cassini in 1958 saw Machado on Pierre Cardin’s Paris runway and offered to fly her to New York to walk in one of his shows. The day Machado arrived in New York she saw Diana Vreeland, then the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. “The next day, almost, I was in Dick Avedon’s studio,” she said. “He made my career. Avedon broke all the race barriers. We were friends for 50 years.”

Machado’s work with Avedon led to her becoming the first non-Caucasian model to appear on the cover of a major fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine’s executives didn’t want to publish her photo, but Avedon gave them an ultimatum: run the photo or he’d break his contract with the magazine. The cover was published. Machado never knew about the drama surrounding her photograph — that is, until Avedon finally told her years later.

Avedon photographed Machado for three years before she joined Harper’s as senior fashion editor. She eventually became fashion director, staying at the magazine for 11 years. Machado in the Eighties helped Frances Lear launch her eponymous magazine, geared toward women over 45.

China Machado photographed by Daniel Jackson.

China Machado in a Cole-Haan ad campaign photographed by Daniel Jackson. 

In recent years, Machado enjoyed a return to modeling with a campaign for Cole Haan in 2013, as well as editorial spreads by photographers including Bruce Weber, Nick Moore, Brigitte Lacombe and Steven Meisel. Her last photo shoot, with Steven Klein for a Ray-Ban campaign, was only last month.

Machado is survived by her husband, Ricardo Rosa; daughters Blanche LaSalle and Emmanuelle LaSalle-Hill, and grandsons Malcolm and Montgomery Hill.