Elsa Tullos came to Saks Fifth Avenue in the mid-1980’s. She was one of my favorites for many years (obviously, I didn’t book anyone who wasn’t the best, but like children you do have favorites….and they know who they are!) Elsa checks in with us here for an update and a flashback on her story then and now as well as sharing some photos of her modeling career.
“I began a 16-year modeling career as a teenager doing commercial print and television spots. My first job was a McDonald’s television commercial that aired during the Super Bowl providing immediate entry to the Screen Actors Guild and six years of residuals.
Elsa’s Early Composite
During the early 1980’s I worked every day as a print model for Sears, Montgomery Wards, JC Penney, Marshall Field’s and catalog production studios around the Midwest. Every six months I had to reinvent myself to stay in business. I wore long hair, short hair, bobbed cuts, pixies, bushy eyebrows, pencil thin eyebrows, the wholesome look, the sophisticated look, the girl next door, the glamour girl and business person looks. I portrayed a range of ages from 17 to 32, depending on wardrobe and makeup. I even changed my name a couple of times as a strategic shift in direction.
In the mid-’80’s I transitioned from being a busy print model to a runway model. The Chicago apparel industry was thriving. Chicago fashion designers were gaining critical acclaim nationally, and I quickly established myself on the runway in all of the major shows: Oprah Winfrey Show fashion segments, Oak Street shows, the Chicago Apparel Mart shows, Marshall Fields, I. Magnin, Bonwit Teller, Neiman Marcus…and most often, Saks Fifth Avenue.
Elsa’s Runway composite
Already known as a print model, I didn’t want to appear as a novice on the runway. With that in mind, I sought the services of choreographer, Kathleen Keith Burg, as a movement coach. who drilled me on all the standard mannequin moves. Runway models at the time were quite serious, very sophisticated and typically did not smile. I decided to smile, and differentiated myself as the model who smiled! For the next ten years, I was in high demand for all the top fashion shows, Actor training, smiling, the movement coach and tai chi (believe it or not) contributed to my success on the runway. Tai chi enhanced my ability to fully project and connect with the audience. While always based in Chicago, 10 years on the runway took me to Italy, Switzerland, and France with extended assignments in New York and location work throughout North America. I toured nationally showing Ralph Lauren and Liz Claiborne collections and worked many other ready-to-wear labels including Albert Nipon, Norma Kamali, Donna Karan, Zandra Rhodes, Calvin Klein and Ellen Tracy.
For Saks, I showed Jacqueline de Ribes, Pauline Trigere, Adolfo, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and Bob Mackie, all memorable experiences. My favorite, most transformative “couture” collection experience at Saks was Christian Lacroix.
Elsa photographed at Saks Fifth Avenue’s Jacqueline de Ribes personal appearance and fashion show at a black tie sit down dinner to benefit the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum. Photo by Robert Carl.
Also notable, an Apparel Mart showing of Paris Collections in which I wore Karl Lagerfeld’s haute couture, Pirate. The choreographer directed me to walk the runway straight-faced, no smile and turn at the end with a smile. Well, I thought to myself, “Pirates do not smile.” So, I did the straight face down the runway as instructed, then, on the way back at the end of the run, I walked up the three stairs near the stage wall, turned around and belted out the biggest, loudest, “in your face” wicked, back bending, open mouth pirate laugh that I could imagine! (Lights fade to black.) It was stunning, quite dramatic, memorable for all (in a good way), and the most fun EVER for me on the runway. (Thanks, Susan Glick, show producer.)
Just prior to “hanging up the pumps” and calling an end to runway work, I fondly recall Saks’ weekly fashion seminars for business women. The series was a great time working with Nena and Ruth (Ivon), and the small group of models who did the weekly luncheon shows…Working Women Seminars: Jeanouche, Lou May, Karen, Connie, Gail, Ingeborg, and Marilyn. I listened while showing and learned a lot, loved it!
By the mid-1990’s, I reinvented myself, yet again, this time as a public relations practitioner. I began my PR work at the Edelman Worldwide agency and from there went on manage public relations and events for the Chicago Tourism Office, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, and other government agencies. Along the way, I completed an MBA in Management and shifted from governmental affairs to higher education. I taught Business and Arts Management at Columbia College Chicago for a few years, and currently, manage communications and development programs for Columbia’s School of Media Arts.
Elsa with 44th President Barack Obama during her governmental affairs work
Contemplating this blog post, I realized skills, qualities, and subtle behaviors from the modeling days that continue to work for me today. As a part of the fashion community, I gained a keen sense of timing and visual sophistication, as well as experience in collaboration and teamwork. The early exposure to standards of excellence helped prepare me for the broader business world.
As I morphed from teenager to print model and the fashion stage to PR, in retrospect I see that it was not reinvention at all, but rather the peeling away of layers, refining me—my evolution to now!
I am excited about the possibilities of my next chapter and things to come. There may be a book, a screenplay or regional theater in my future. There will likely be nonprofit fundraising and grant writing. Experiencing art in its various forms is important to me, as is, spiritual growth, leisure travel and spending quality time with my family. I am happy to reflect here on the great run so far and to imagine the many possibilities of what is next. I still live in Chicago and am restoring my 100-year-old family home and enjoying interior decorating. I also actively pursue philanthropic projects.
From Nena….I think you can see why I wanted to profile Elsa and her journey from model to educator. Not only has she had a fascinating career but she is one of the nicest most considerate people you will meet.
Elsa has remained a dear friend and when I was retiring from Saks Fifth Avenue, she had the idea of having a model reunion retirement party for me. She took total control over the event inviting models I hadn’t seen in years. The Palmer House arranged for the party to be held in their Presidential Suite. Over 50 models from the beginning of my career to the time I was retiring (the prerequisite was that you couldn’t be one of my current models…). They all came show ready, in black, hair and make-up done. My concern was that many of them didn’t know each other and would feel uncomfortable, they were from different eras, in minutes..no seconds, of meeting each other they were friends. It was like a sorority reunion. ABC news covered the event (I have the B-roll) and, I must admit, it was one of the best parties ever! I will share more, along with photos, with you in an upcoming post.