Karen Elson made a name for herself as a model when Steven Meisel convinced her to shave her eyebrows for a Vogue Italia cover in 1997. Now, at 37, the model-turned-musician lives in Nashville with her two children, far from the fashion scene. But the Brit still has what it takes to make it in the industry that she describes as “brutal.” She just landed a gig as the new Jo Malone London Girl. Before Poppy Delevingne, Dita Von Teese, Liz Goldwyn and other friends sat down at a table decorated with candles, dark berries and crimson roses at the Chateau Marmont last Thursday in her honor, Elson reflected on her fragrance philosophy, the new generation of Insta-models and the experience of getting cut from a New York runway show in September due to a lack of “body type diversity.”
WWD: Where does fragrance fit in when you make your beauty and fashion choices?
Karen Elson: My fragrance choice is pure instinct. I try to tailor it to how I feel basically. This morning, I wanted to smell like bluebells and that was just great. And tonight, I wanted to smell like dark, blood red roses. But I tailor fragrance in that sense to those scenarios. I’m not the kind of girl who has one signature scent simply because there are so many to choose from in general, and not just Jo Malone. There are so many things that I have. It’s hard to say one thing is one thing. I have my preferences but not one in particular.
WWD: What are your guidelines for social media regarding your kids and your personal life?
K.E.: If I post a picture of my children, their faces are never shown. I keep my personal life pretty private. There are snippets of my personal life, like my cats. They don’t mind being on Instagram. The thing for people with Instagram to understand is it is an idealized version of yourself. It’s not you. I mean, it is you but it’s not really. I just try to keep it charming. Yes, I post personal opinions on there. Yes, I’ll post pictures that I like. But I’ll stop short of sharing too much because you’ve got to keep something to yourself. That’s my philosophy. I don’t think everything needs to be put out there. I don’t believe in it. I think you’ve always got to keep a little mystery. Maybe that’s the biggest difference these days to when I first started is models still had a lot of mystery. Even actresses had a lot of mystery. We all did. And now the mystery has sort of gone with social media. I like to have a little bit of that for my own sanity, where not everyone knows what my favorite shade of blue is or what my favorite this and the other is. It’s one thing with perfume but the deep stuff — yeah, you’ve got to have something that is private and yours.
WWD: How would you describe your career when you first started?
K.E.: At first I was like, wow — how did this all happen? But then I worked really hard. With the photographers, I’ve given it my all. I worked really, really hard. I think people who know me in the business know that I do work hard. But it’s a different time. The thing is, I’m not as hungry as I was 10 years ago. I love fashion, I love having my photograph taken, I love the creative element. Give me a Steven Meisel, Tim Walker, Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh shoot any day. I love that. You know, that’s the joy of it for me — the art of it. I do think the art of having your photograph taken has changed a lot the past few years. But, again, change is inevitable. And I don’t want to sit here and complain about change when I’m sure when I first started modeling, all the girls from the early Nineties probably thought I was — what’s the word — a different generation that they don’t understand. I don’t want to be derogatory toward any of those girls. I think I’ve said this before. They work hard. It’s just a different business. It’s a very different business to what my business was. I’m finding my way in it, finding my way but at the same time I’m at the age where there are certain things I’m committed to that I’m not going to budge.
WWD: What are some of your new projects?
K.E.: I’m sworn to secrecy for another month or two on certain things. There is a lot going on next spring, for sure. It’s a lot of different things, which I’m very happy about.
WWD: That’s admirable you’re still busy. As you said, you’re 37 and you’re from a different era but you’re still busy working.
K.E.: I’m still busy working and not a lot of it is fashion these days. I love fashion photography. I love being a product in a beautiful fashion photograph. What I love about working with Jo Malone is that they want me as me. That’s all I care about these days. Even when I walk on the runway, it’s quite scandalous actually and I’m just going to say this: I was in New York Fashion Week and I got canceled from a fashion show. It was something to do with body stuff. I had a real moment of truth. I was like, you know what, I’m too old for this. It’s not about me. That’s their attitude, not mine. If I don’t work for them, I’m not going to torture myself. That’s really my attitude right now. I still think fashion has a long way to go as far as diversity, be it racial diversity, body type diversity. I think Instagram has helped. A lot has helped in getting different types of beauties in the fashion industry. But I still think, maybe now speaking as a mother — I’m a mother to a pre-teen [girl] — my attitude to the harsh price of being a model, I have really no tolerance for anymore. Someone cancels me from a fashion show, it’s not about me. That’s why doing this with Jo Malone, they’re not looking at me and being like, eh, she’s 37, she’s not a sample size anymore. Of course I’m not. I think if I was 37 and a sample size, I’d be worried. I’d be actually really worried about me because it means I’m obviously not eating.
WWD: Living in Nashville, how do you keep up with the fashion industry?
K.E.: I don’t and that’s beautiful. To be really honest, I go to New York, I see my lovely fashion friends, I figure out what’s going on. Yeah, I look in fashion magazines and I daydream and I think fashion magazines are still very beautiful. But trends come and go so quickly now that I’ve got my own taste. At my age, they’re not going to change. So if I see something that catches my eye, I’m happy about it. But I’m not a slave to the season because seasons don’t exist anymore. My style is my style. I am who I am. I don’t go to Nashville, obsessively looking on style.com, thinking what’s happening. My fashion tastes have become a lot more personal from living in Nashville. Back in the day when I used to go do fashion shows, I would go to Milan and I would have to go to the Prada store, I would have to go get my cashmeres from there. I don’t do any of that now. And I don’t spend a crazy amount of money on clothing either. I’m happy if I get free stuff.
WWD: You’re well on your way to having a second career.
K.E.: My philosophy is if you love it, put your heart in it, work hard at it, wonderful. I think as far as fashion is concerned, these are my people. There’s always going to be some place for me in the fashion community. As a model, there is a point where you get older you do have to start stepping away a little bit because it can be so brutal. And to preserve your sense of self and self-respect, you can’t linger too long unless you’ve transitioned into something else, whatever that may be. It just gets more and more complicated and I’m just not interested in putting myself in that position.