The Supermodel Poses as Her Best Character Yet, Herself
Photographer/Director: Jennifer Livingston | Stylist: Haidee Findlay-Levin | Words: Ruthie Friedlander
Fashion, in all its many manifestations, has the power to transport you to an entirely different space in time; a different mood, a fantasy life…and few have had the power to do this as well as Karen Elson, the porcelain faced, naturally red-haired supermodel/musician. “Super” being the operative word.
True fashion lovers can trace Elson’s career back through iconic photos: those of Tim Walker in British Vogue, Craig McDean in W, or Meisel in Vogue Italia. She’s walked the runways of Chanel, Gucci, and Vuitton (to name a few) and been a muse to behemoths like Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui. Since 1997, she has graced countless magazine covers around the world. But true fans of Elson, the person, have followed her beyond glossy magazine pages.
British Vogue’s Edward Enninful put it concisely and accurately in the introduction to her book Karen Elson: The Red Flame:
“Karen Elson is the last of the true supermodels–the models who could transport you into a realm of fantasy. The models who, when they came on set, were doing more than selling clothes. They were selling dreams.”
“Karen Elson is the last of the true supermodels."
British Vogue’s Edward Enninful
English-born and presently Tennessee-dwelling, Elson was discovered at 16 years old. Within two years of her career, she was photographed by Steven Meisel for the cover of Vogue Italia. Hers was a meteoric, and well-deserved rise. And in the nearly two decades that have passed since, she’s added: “mother,” “advocate” and “singer/songwriter” to her master-of-all resume.
Elson flew from her home in Nashville to make it to set in New York City for this shoot with little notice. And it wasn’t to “sell the fantasy” of diamonds, but rather the reality. Upon learning the concept of the shoot and the mission of the Natural Diamond Council, she fit it into her schedule, which, in addition to modeling, now includes prepping for a musical residency at The Carlyle Hotel, launching a candle line, raising two teenagers, and advocating for legislation like the Talent Protections Act, which requires talent agencies in California to educate models and other performers about sexual harassment and eating disorders.
And you thought you were busy.
“I feel like there is a bit of a renaissance happening within fashion where people are understanding their impact,” Elson said when I asked her what made this particular shoot worth the trip.
“We can all wear pretty things, but it
doesn't feel so pretty if the byproduct
of having these things is negating
another person's life or creating
damage to the environment.
I'm excited to see this sea change
that's happening. People are trying
to be more mindful about their
footprint as a consumer.”
I feel like there is a bit of
a renaissance happening within
fashion, where people are
understanding their impact.
In February of 2022, Karen Elson leaned into the fantasy of it all creating an arguably iconic Cartier short film where she re-interpreted “Diamonds Are a Girls’ Best Friend” while wearing magnificent diamonds being auctioned off at Phillips auction-house gallery in Berkeley Square in London.
But a more mindful approach to diamond-wearing–and all things in general–is the very thing that drew Elson to the shoot, which she described as Peter Lindbergh-esque in its personal nature. “The idea of this shoot was just about me being me,” Elson says lightheartedly. “Even the jewelry reflected that. Everything was very delicate and very mindful. I appreciated that because it’s about the subtlety, which is how a lot of women wear jewelry.”
When I asked Elson about her own jewelry collection, she admitted to being the sentimental type.
I respond to things
that have that
“I am a big, emotional, bleeding heart,” Elson says over a Zoom call. “I respond to things that have that emotional connection.” That necessary emotional connection is what makes Enninful’s statement so accurate. Because how can you become known as the chameleon that is Karen Elson without being able to transport yourself, time and time again.
This “emotional connection” runs deeply through everything Elson does, from modeling couture to recording her third studio album, GREEN, streaming now. A follow-up to her cult-favorite first two albums, The Ghost Who Walks and Double Roses, GREEN, meets fans in a lighter, brighter space. It is an ideal soundtrack to springtime.
“2021 was a year of reckoning,” she says. “I’ve been finding myself for real, discovering what makes me tick, and taking a chance on who it is I am. Now, it’s time for me to run down the road, live life to the fullest.”
Living life to the fullest for Elson is all about intention in a post-pandemic world. Lockdown was the first time in her adult life that she was not constantly traveling and on the road. She could focus purely on her family.
“I don’t really have time anymore for the sort of shallow nonsense,” she says. “I’ve been around the block and now, everything has to feel like there has meaning behind it. The gravitational pull has to be strong.”
During COVID, things slowed down. Things got quieter. And Karen Elson was able to give herself permission to fall back in love with a past flame. “Music was my escape,” she says, reminiscing of how it provided her the same comfort as a teenager. “It sort of rescued me in these dark moments.”
The pandemic allowed her to experiment by playing a new song each day, posting videos of her music to Instagram under the moniker of ‘Radio Redhead.’ “Slowly but surely, it was the reacquaintance of me being a musician,” she said.
Karen Elson put out her last record in 2017 which The Guardian proclaimed “tidy and tasteful” with a “wonderfully beguiling title track, a swirl of arpeggiated harps and hushed melodies.”
“I had a mixed bag experience with that record,” Elson admitted, saying she felt “disenchanted” with music by the time she got home from touring. “I kept asking myself, Can I make music again? Can I do this? Can I put myself into the fray again? During the height of the pandemic, I realized, yes, I can. This time around, I’ve been doing it all my way.”
Beginning June 7th, Karen Elson will begin a five-day residency at the iconic Café Carlyle, a place that speaks deeply to Elson’s sentimental soul. When she was 21-years-old, she sat in the very audience she’ll sing to. “I went to see Eartha Kitt,” she says, “She walked past me and she had a mint in her mouth and she put the mint on my dinner plate. She looked at me and gave me a good look up and down. I was dying.”
Like heirloom jewelry and tear-inducing music, Café Carlyle is the kind of place you can recall by scent or taste. It’s purely sensory. It’s the perfect place for Karen Elson to perform.
Creative Production: Petty Cash Productions
Director of Photography: Matthew Schroeder
Video: James Demetri
Hair: Peter Gray
Makeup: Steven Canavan
Nails: Yuki Miyakawa
Stylist Assistant: Reinaldo Rivera Nunez
Tailor: Lisa Sanders