Wallis Franken started modeling at 16, when a neighbor in Briarcliff Manor, New York, J. Frederick Smith, showed pictures of her to Eileen Ford of the Ford modeling agency. Wallis’s mother, Dorothy, had been a showroom model in New York, and was known in the suburban community as impeccable. “She never had a shabby moment,” says Smith. Her father, Randolph, was the dapper son of Leo Franken, a German who founded a string of women’s stores at the turn of the century called Lee Franken, Inc. “She had an open, friendly way that made you like her.” Joe Hunter, former president of Ford Models, says, “When she was a kid, there was nobody banging her around. She told me who she should be working for.” In fact, says Hunter, in those days most models in the “ingenue” category were “blonde and blue-eyed with flipped hair.” In contrast, Wallis was one of the first to sport Vidal Sassoon’s 60s-defining geometric haircut. She was “thinner, with dark, short hair—a breakthrough in the modeling business. What carried her forth was her energy and her personality over her looks. Wallis as a Teenage model in 1966-67
1966, when Wallis was 18, she was sent on a job to Greece, and decided to come home via Paris.As soon as she saw the French capital, “her heart was captured,” says Randy Franken. She asked her mother if she could stay. “I said ‘Fine, it’s O.K. if you think you can afford it!'” Dorothy Franken recalls. “Wa-leece” clicked immediately with the French.
She was always a people pleaser and such a graceful dancer that famed French singer and nightclub ownerRégine had her come to her famed disco night after night to help attract a crowd. Women’s Wear Daily would photograph her on the street. Flying around to exotic places, making easy money—the model’s life seemed heavenly. With her Louise Brooks bob, her lithe, androgynous body, and her raucous laugh, Wallis Franken was celebrated for her taste and style, but even more for her sparkling, care-free nature. To the sophisticates of Paris’s couture world, who knew her so well, she was never in a bad mood, but always warm, full of ideas, and ready for a good time. “She did not have the personality of a model but of a woman,” says designer Hervé Léger. “We do not find what she had in girls now. She became a real Parisienne. Even though we all know she didn’t have an easy time, I never saw her anxious or depressed. Wallis projected crème fraîche.”
“Wallis was the first mannequin to give the impression that the image belonged to her, not to the couturier,” says Christian Lacroix’s business partner, Jean-Jacques Picart. “She became an international figure.”Her heyday on the runway was in the 70s, before the era of the supermodel, when lucrative product-endorsement contracts were rare . Wallis and her best friend Tracy Weed were extremely popular with European magazines. Vogue featured them in a spectacular story etching their names into the collective conscience of the Fashion world.
“You could see her person—there was a vulnerability in those eyes. How many models actually reveal that?” says Mark Van Amringe of Details magazine’s Paris office.
Wallis’s life changed dramatically in 1976 after a trip to Japan promoting French fashion. The up-and-coming designer Claude Montana was also there but had yet to become an obsession. Wallis appeared in 21 fashion shows in 21 days and began her rise as the hotshot runway model when she got back to Paris. “She was a legend in her own little world of modeling,” says Monique Pillard, her booker at the time.
Designers clamored for her, and in the 1978 season she reportedly did more shows than any other model. Says Marian McEvoy, editor of Elle Decor, “and she was a breath of fresh air.” . With her edgy bob and boy’s body, Wallis was the perfect showcase for Montana’s meticulously crafted collections.For the newly emerging Claude Montana, it was quite a coup to have Wallis Franken become his muse. The renegade son of a bourgeois family, he produced his first real collection in 1977, and Wallis helped pave the way for him.
Posing for photographer Steven Meisel—she made the cover of Italian Vogue—and working part-time as a muse and fitting model for Fernando Sanchez. She even appeared as the Night Porter in Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video.
Wallis Franken: Early Composites used for model promotion.
At 48 she remained a fixture on the fashion scene, still able to wow them at Montana’s show at the Institute of the Arab World on the Left Bank. She had been his muse and his ally since he started out in the mid-70s, and she thought of him not only as a genius but also as her alter ego.
For the wedding at the town hall in the Seventh Arrondissement, the bride wore a white satin cowboy jacket over a tunic and pants. The groom wore buckskin. The party afterward was trippy, and the press went along.