An iconic, scene-stealing model, critically acclaimed musician and mother to two gorgeous kids, Karen Elson is beyond inspiring. Her good work with Save The Children and enthusiasm for her girl friends and fashion cohorts, only make her that much more fun to watch in action. So how does she pull it all off? Karen let us in on some of her career and style secrets in today’s Women of Style interview.
Early Life & Career
Karen and her twin sister, Kate. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"I grew up in a town called Oldham which is near Manchester. My childhood was a typical Northern English childhood; I would play outdoors in the gloomy English weather, the abandoned textile mills looming behind. When I look back it was very interesting time. Britain was exploding culturually - in music, film and more - because of the hardships the country was facing."
Her First Job
Karen at 18. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"My first job was a paper round. My twin sister and I would get a penny per paper, so to earn 10 pounds we had to deliver a LOT of newspapers. I wasn't very good at it. My next job was working at Boss models in Manchester, I was discovered by Debbie Burns at Boss and I think she knew I didn't have much of a shot of being a model in the regular sense so at 15, during the holidays, I was basically an intern for them. When I was 16, I started modeling more seriously and I traveled away from home into the big wide world. I went to Tokyo and met the amazing shoe designer Tabitha Simmons who is one of my best friends. Tabitha was modeling at the time and, thank god I met her, she's been my saving grace for almost 20 years now."
Her Role Models
Karen and Grace. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"Grace Coddington is definitely a role model. Our paths have been quite similar and she has been a constant source of advice, tough love and friendship. I look up to her immensely. She has taught me about fashion, photography and hard work. She has conviction in what she's does and it's very inspiring."
Grace taught me that I will never be like other models, nor have the same career but I must forge my way in the industry as an individual. It's the best, most true advice I've ever received. I think that people still work with me because I am able to be a blank canvas and transform into many different faces but I am also filled with personality and life.
Favorite Modeling Memories
Karen in Alexander McQueen's spring 2004 show. Photo: Style.com.
"One if my favorite memories was the Alexander McQueen "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" inspired show. The famed choreographer Michael Clark created an environment that was very unique for the models. We danced, stumbled, and fell down the runway, it was very dramatic, moving and totally unlike any other show I've ever walked in. McQueen was such a visionary and his shows were more akin to art installations. Fashion often feels empty without his genius."
What Most People Don't Know About Fashion
Karen photographed by Steven Meisel for Vogue's May 2009 issue. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"I think a lot of people see the fashion industry and think we're a bunch of vain and shallow people and that the models are hungry puppets. I know so many artists in fashion, deep and profoundly beautiful people. Of course, like any industry, fashion has its dark side but in my world, it's far from dark."
Steven Meisel is also someone I consider a mentor, he just gets me and he has taught me how to model, working with Steven was my fashion education.
How She Picks Jobs Today
Karen in Sonia Rykiel’s Spring 2014 campaign. Photo: thefashionography.com.
"I feel lucky to be able to pick and choose jobs based on whether it's an interesting project with photographers or designers that I love. That said, I have to play my cards right. My agents Louie, Ali, Christana and James at The Lions in NYC are very careful to keep my image current but also help me make a living. Modeling is my main source of income so I will continue to do it until they tell me not to. I can see myself modeling until the very end."
Her Favorite Musicians Of All Time
Karen's music muses: Joan Baez, Hope Sandoval and Emmylou Harris. Photos: @misskarenelson.
"I love the Rolling Stones. I stood side stage at Glastonbury last year by a fluke of good fortune (the wonderful and direly missed L'Wren Scott gave me her pass) and it was mind blowing. I love The Beatles, and all their solo work; George Harrison's 'All Things Must Pass', Paul McCartney's 'Ram', and Lennon melts me. Other favorites include Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Seriously, the list goes on. I'm into Cat Stevens right now; what a fascinating artist. In terms of modern music, I love Mazzy Star's new record, Spiritualized, Beach House, Father John Misty, Connor Oberst, Jenny Lewis and Laura Marling."
What She Loves About Playing Music
Karen on stage. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"I love the freedom I feel when I sing or play music. It's the ultimate expression for me as a person. I feel connected to my soul. It's uninhibited, pure and I music can take the listener as well as the performer to so many different emotional places. It's literally takes my breath away."
"I'm planning on making another record this year if it kills me. It's been a long time coming and I admit it takes me time to get into the head space but I'm finally there. I have so many broader plans for myself, I want to open my heart to possibilities."
How She Gives Back
Vintage Vanguard dresses by Thakoon, Rag & Bone and Gregory Parkinson. Photo: Moda Operandi.
"I recently became an ambassador for Save the Children in the UK. As a mother it's a cause very precious to my heart. My life and my children's lives are so easy in comparison to so many others. I have nothing to complain about. Sure, being a working mother is hard, but I work because I love my job and I'm lucky enough to afford a lifestyle that supports me and my family to an extreme degree. To meet women and children who don't have access to food, health care or clean water and are constantly subjected to abuse, injustice and hardships has deeply resonated with me."
"I also have a new venture called Vintage Vanguard that I started with my friend Liz Goldwyn. We asked 10 fashion designers re-work our vintage clothing and then sold the one-of-a-kind dresses and at a benefit for Dress For Success, this incredible organization that provides mentorship, clothing and job placements for under privileged women who are trying to reenter the work force. It was truly inspiring as it showed me that fashion and community can go hand in hand."
Style & Personal Life
Her Skincare Secrets
Caudalie Beauty Elixir, $18; Rodin Luxury Face Oil, $150; Eve Lom Morning Cleanser, $60; Sonia Dakar Bergamot Wash, $45; Colbert MD Intensify Facial Disks, $64.
"I mix and match beauty products, depending on what my skin needs. My skin is so pale and so sensitive. I love La Mer as it's so hydrating and I've recently been mixing it with Rodin's face oil. I like Sonia Dakar products; her bergamont cleanser is incredible, and I LOVE her snake venom sunscreen; it's so light and has a little zing to smooth out fine lines. Eve Lom morning cleanser is great, Caudalie Beauty Elixir after flying is a must and I just tried Colbert MD facial disks, which are great for exfoliating. My secret weapon however is Dr Lisa Airan. I had a massive breakout recently and then developed eczema on my eyes and she got rid of it in no time. Pat Wexler is also fabulous, and an excellent doctor."
Her Personal Style
Karen, in Versace. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"My style has really evolved over the years. I used to be a die hard vintage collector and would scour the cities I visited for the best vintage finds. I still love vintage and have a basement filled with clothes but my style has grown up since I became a mother. It's not easy chasing a child in a fragile 1940's shift dress so I'm now more into clothes that are more wearable in the daytime. I love A.P.C., Rag and Bone and BLk Denim. I collect St James striped shirts, Celine flats, Isabel Marant jeans, Tabitha Simmons boots and Converse sneakers. I'll add a vintage head scarf and jewels for some individuality. For nighttime, I love Jason Wu, Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy and Dolce & Gabbana. I have a beautiful collection of L'Wren Scott dresses. Plus, it's easier to wear my vintage in the evening."
Anna Sui was a huge influence on me when it comes to style and fashion. In the early days she would take me to the flea markets and show me around. She got me hooked on vintage.
Karen's Daytime Staples
Stanford Origami-Effect Skinny Jeans
Early Suede Ankle Boots
Silk Printed Scarf
What Makes Her Feel Glamorous
Karen and Tom Ford, photographed by Steven Meisel for Vogue. Photo: Vogue.com.tw.
"For an event in the evening, I tend to go for rich colors; dark blues, emeralds, purple hues. Tom Ford always puts me in the most divine looks for his shows and shoots. I always ask myself before I go out at night whether Tom would put me in the outfit. That's how I know it's right."
Her Parenting Style
Spa night at the Elson household. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"LOVE, LOVE, LOVE! I strive to be a mother who listens, cares and respects my kids opinions. Like all parents I'm trying my best and somedays are more challenging than others. I try to be firm when it's needed and give my kids stability within my hectic work life. I also try to let them shine as individuals and be themselves."
Her Friend-Time M.O.
Baking pies with Zac Posen. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"I can think of nothing better than spending my night either at Bar Pitti, Gemma or il Buco with good friends, good food and good wine. That's all I need. Good conversation and friendship are about as wonderful as life gets."
How She Recovers From A Long Day
Karen's cats. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"I like to do yoga to wind down; a candlelit yoga class is bliss. The exercise then the relaxation sorts out any stress I may have. Playing my guitar relaxes me, and just being quiet at home with my kids and my cats."
How She Finds Balance
Karen with Lily Aldridge and Tabitha Simmons. Photo: @misskarenelson.
"When I'm working hard I won't go out obviously, but when I'm not so busy a fun night out with my friends is welcomed. When I'm with the kids, nothing beats reading stories and talking at bedtime. I cherish that time. I often fall asleep by accident in one of my kid's beds as I get so snuggly and comfortable with them."
Three Things We Didn't Know About Karen
In Zac Posen at the 2014 Met Gala. Photo: @misskarenelson.
1. "I hate scary movies; extreme violence and cruelty I cannot watch."
2. "I am a weather and geology nerd. I love watching shows on tornadoes, volcanos, earthquakes and other extreme weather. I could name every type of cloud as a kid."
3. "It may seem to many like I am an extrovert with a big personality but it's all a cover for the fact that I am actually quite shy. I developed the outgoing side of my personality in order to work as a model and perform on stage but in my personal life I actually love a little silence."