Her couture experiences were the focus of the interview I conducted with her last week at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, the Nashville museum that is currently home to "The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-1957," a landmark fashion exhibit originated at London's Victoria & Albert in 2007.
When it comes to fashion history, Elson knows her stuff and is as handy with references to post-WWII era photography and the legacy of legendary European designers of the past as she is the with the new kids on modern fashion's front lines.
Our talk – billed as "Modeling Couture: A conversation with supermodel Karen Elson and fashion journalist Libby Callaway" – was supposed to be an hour long; 80 minutes after start time, K.E. was still sharing stories, mesmerizing us with her candid, fact-filled accounts of her life in fashion.
And it's not just her modeling prowess that has garnered her attention as of late. Elson co-owns the famed vintage haven Venus & Mars: The Showroom with partner Amy Patterson, and is also currently touring to support her first album, The Ghost Who Walks. Already a hit among indie circles, it was produced by her husband Jack White for his Nashville-based label, Third Man Records.
Even though Karen and I have known each other awhile, she still manages to bring surprises to the conversation that thrill me as both a journalist and as a dedicated fan of fashion. Here are a few of those fun facts from the chat:
- Karen's first shoot with Steven Meisel – the sitting that produced the February 1997 Italian Vogue cover story that is widely recognized to have jumpstarted her career – was also the first time famed makeup artist Pat McGrath had worked with the photographer. It was their combined creative visions that led to the then 17-year-old year old model shaving her eyebrows and changing her already short red hair into an even shorter, redder crop.
- Her first-ever runway show booking was in the mid-'90s for Versace Couture, one of Gianni Versace's final presentations before his death. This came on the heels of her first shoot with Richard Avedon, in 1997, which was also for Versace. (A few weeks ago when we first talked about her work with Versace, Karen told me that while preparing for the show, Gianni was fond of cupping her face in his hands and cooing "la bambino!" – "the baby!" - much to the consternation of some of the more, um, "experienced" supermodels backstage.)
- She was once directed to "fly" down a runway while attached to a harness. Of course, this was fine with Karen; she just wishes she'd been give a bit more than five minutes notice.
- Among her most memorable couture presentations: a Chanel show in which she was cast as the "Black Swan" alongside Esther de Jong's "White Swan"; covered in gowns cascading with hand-sewn feathers, the pair closed the show. She also adores the creative process that happens in the couture atelier of Jean-Paul Gaultier, who once re-imagined her runway ensemble as that of a living mermaid ... halfway through the fitting. This sent the seamstresses scattering, clamoring to keep up with his vivid creative vision.
- Among her favorite pret-a-porter shows: Alexander McQueen's Spring 2004 homage to "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" in which she performed alongside professional hoofers cast as fellow competitors in a Dust Bowl dance marathon. She also has fond memories of the late designer's fall 2002 show at the Conciergerie, which featured live wolves.