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Monday 24 March 2014

Excellent Women: Mak Gilchrist

Photo: Brett Walker
Mak Gilchrist might not be a name you know, but I bet you've seen her face. You might recognise her from her days modelling for fashion houses like Chanel, but  it's probably her cameo in the music industry that will ring the most bells - remember Robert Palmer's music video for 'Addicted to Love'?

Mak is the leggy bassist stood at the back on Palmer's left. Thirty years on, she and the other models from the shoot are still in touch but it took a while for them to realise that they'd been part of a piece of music history.

'Music videos and MTV were still very much in their early days so how could we know how iconic it would be?'

Mak was eighteen when she was started modelling in between courses at college, after an archetypal 'spotting' story where she stepped on the foot of an agent in the lift at the tube. And the rest is thirty years of fashion history.

It's often hard to judge the level of our own successes at the time, so, with hindsight, did Mak realise she'd 'made it' when she became the face of Chanel's Allure campaign?

'I was aware of how successful I'd become, but I did very little celebrating of it. It's not a profession you can rest on your laurels in. Working with greats like Herb Ritts for Chanel, or Helmut Newton or David Bailey; you know you aren't going to get in front of their lens unless you've got something they feel is worthwhile. That of course was a huge compliment and one I always strived to give my very best for.'

But Mak also had strong beliefs, which wasn't really what was expected of models in those days. Cue a clash with one of the all time fashion greats, and a story I never tire of hearing:

'Helmut Newton and I were destined to not to see eye to eye. I remember asking my agency prior to the booking if they were sure Helmut's team knew I didn't wear fur, pose naked or advertise cigarettes. There was a high chance one of those things would appear on a Helmut shoot. Don't get me wrong, I had enormous respect for the legend that Helmut was but I was concerned somebody wasn't quite on message. Anyway, I get to the shoot in Monte Carlo and am handed a Mink, skimpy lingerie, high heels and a gun! By now I'd turned down huge sums of money on principle, especially regarding my stance on fur and legend or no legend I wasn't about to make a compromise. His agent ended up locking me in a toilet, begging for me to just do as I was told. We agreed to a solution. They would find a fake fur and I would accept the rest of the shoot as part of a character I was playing.'

Photo: Ian Philpott
Mak is still making waves in the fashion community, recently launching the Green Carpet Catwalk as part of London's International PARK(ing) Dayinitiative: reclaiming parking spaces in the city for a day to turn them in to mini gardens. She's also keen to encourage people to shop more ethically.

'Consider everything you buy. Educate yourself, its all online to learn about. For clothes my first choice is always vintage / second hand shops. For food go to farmers markets or local street markets. Be conscious about your spending habits!' 

Mak and Edible Bus Stop partner Will Sandy,
photo by Rosie Collins
This leads us nicely to Mak's other 'green' project, The Edible Bus Stop. After seeing a planning application on a local lamppost, Mak was horrified to discover that the main piece of green space in her area had a proposal to build two houses on it. If this proposal had gone through they'd have lost a bus shelter, a phone booth, a mature Silver Maple tree as well as the flower beds. So she started lobbying the neighbourhood, put together a leaflet and fly posted 400 letterboxes locally.

'I suggested that setting up a community garden would be much better for the neighbourhood than yet more buildings. Inspired by a small guerrilla gardened vegetable patch that had appeared on the site the previous year, I came up with the idea that we should grow edibles and as it was next to a bus stop, why not call it The Edible Bus Stop?'

'I'm not a gardener per se, I am an activist who uses gardening as a tool to get people to talk to each other and break down barriers. Our community gardens are out on the roadside, not hidden behind fences and are open 24/7. They become a landmark of pride and a focal point for the area. They are in effect, urban interventions.'

The future of The Edible Bus Stop is looking bright. They now have a sculptural pop up installations arm, where they create planted installations for festivals. Last year they presented a Roller coaster of Wheelbarrows all planted up with mini edible gardens for The South Bank Centre's Festival of Neighbourhood. This year they have various installations up their sleeves and their next Pocket Park garden is set to open in West Norwood later this spring. You can follow @EdibleBusStop for updates or write to [email protected] to be put on their mailing list to be keep up to date on events.

Photo: Brett Walker
Meanwhile, Mak is still modelling. Does she think the media is getting better at representing older women?

'As a woman, you're still not really allowed to grow old gracefully in the public eye. However, the fact that I am still represented and working as a model 30 years on is a good thing - my agency Models 1 has a section dedicated to older models.'

We love seeing women reinventing themselves and their careers throughout their lives. You can follow Mak on twitter for more tales from a model 'once considered difficult, now championed as ethical'. As we all know, well-behaved women rarely make history.

Know an excellent woman we should be championing? Tell us about her in the comments.


  1. I really, really want to believe that when they all meet up they're wearing their black dresses and red lipstick.

  2. She did tell me a tale of them miming along to the song at one of their weddings last year!


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