Evening Standard Magazine
Erin O'Connor's beautiful life
It is hard to label Erin O’Connor’s role in fashion as anything but prevalent, quotes of her beauty echo through the chronicles of couture and the English muse has served as an inspirational fulcrum to top designers, artists and photographers, appearing on the cover of numerous Vogues to i-D, walking every show worth walking from Chanel to Versace. After transforming her look with that iconic crop cut, following her discovery in 1995, she cultivated a steadfast career at the height of supermodeldom, chummy with the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier–who had her personify his creations and eventually had her looking perfectly poised as the face of his fragrance. Her elongated limbs, jutting jawline and ultra femme physique epitomize glam and merit androgyny as always-in-fashion. After having her son, Albert, in 2014, Erin O’ Connor made a splash reentry into the scene walking Marc Jacobs’s F/W 14 show. Wasting no time getting back into a profession she’s immensely passionate about, she subsequently graced the cover of Vogue Italia’s “Age Issue” and landed a spot in LOVE magazine’s “Talents” issue proving she can always embody the now.
David Downton, one of the foremost, contemporary fashion illustrator, has been enlisted by Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Chanel, Dior and Harrods for his artistry and is also a longtime friend of Erin. Since commissioned in 1996 to capture the Paris Couture shows he’s, too, been captivated by her presence as a subject, eagerly drawing her on many occasions, even holding an exhibition dedicated entirely to his illustrations of her at the Rootsen Gallery in 2002. David sat down to catch up with his longtime friend on behalf of Models.com.
Photographer Mark Rabadan for Models.com
Stylist Fannie Schiavoni
Hair Philippe Tholimet (Streeters London)
Makeup Adam de Cruz
Production Marielle Misson
Director Harry Reavley
DOP Ewan Mulligan
Photo Assistants Dominic Cabot, John Cronin
Camera Assistant Chris Steel
Stylist Assistant Greta Strolyte
Make up Assistant Aleksandra Plich
Editor Stephan Moskovic
Text Steven Yatsko
Special thanks to Spring Studios London and Joe Tootal.
Dialogue David Downton + Erin O’Connor
In top picture: Erin is wearing J.W. Anderson hat
Dress Marc Jacobs
DAVID: So, I want to know if you knew (I think you did) that I was drawing you before I knew who you were?
ERIN: I think that’s before I knew who I was too!
D: Okay, 1998? What year did you begin?
E: I began officially in 1996 which would have been my 18th year.
D: How long did it take you to get from that where I saw you, which was in Paris in Gaultier couture, kind of at the very pinnacle of high fashion…
E: So that would have been about three years in. I had a really tough time for the first two and a half years. Lots of rejections from teenage magazines who, on my teenage radar, were the be all and end all of fashion as I knew it.
D: Whoever thought you’d be in a teenage magazine, you? That was you driving that?
E: Well, it wasn’t me driving it but I was of an age where that’s what they considered for me to be a desirable place to land, in the pages of a magazine about teenagers. The point is, I never really looked like a teenager, but at that point I very much felt like one. I had recently left home, a heavy suitcase full of tin food…
D: And you wouldn’t have known what a citizen car or any of those…
E: Of course not! I hadn’t traveled. I hadn’t actually been abroad at that point. The most foreign land I had landed in was London. Culturally, it was so different to anything I had ever experienced. It was the least British thing I think I’d ever known. Just because they spoke the same language it didn’t necessarily mean that I felt understood.
D: If you had, let’s say, two and a half years of rejection and all of that, did you think in that time, “I’m giving up.”? Or did you give yourself a deadline? Like, “If this doesn’t work by Christmas, I’m going to give up.”?
E: No! I was never that organized. I lived day by day. What I did know, with the greatest respect, is that I didn’t want to go home. Home was a happy place that I knew and I felt secure with, and like every other young person at that point, because I had that foundation, I wanted to experience anything and everything else.
“I had a really tough time for the first two and a half years. Lots of rejections from teenage magazines who, on my teenage radar, were the be all and end all of fashion as I knew it. ”
D: It’s interesting, Karen, my great friend and your great friend, too, began at 13 and she was considered too old looking for the only two magazines, one was Junior Bazaar. They said at 13, no. So, she kind of skipped that whole thing, which is almost what happened to you.
E: I think I understand that. Comparatively, when we’re made up and the lights go on. We command a photograph and physically we look very authoritative and I suppose I made the most sense when I looked and was made to look sophisticated. I couldn’t have felt further apart from that world, but that wasn’t really the point.
D: You’re assuming a role. Modeling is cliché I suppose, but silent acting is as close as you can get.
E: It’s cliché, but it’s relevant. I never thought about modeling as posing. I thought of it as a kind of performance. It’s sort of emerging from the wings that’s always been my version of events. It was never about my physical features, it was about the physicality of performance. That was my background, I was a dancer and a singer… and all around show-off, potentially. But I never quite found my medium to express until fashion found me.
D: Because every magazine has a market and so finding where you were best framed, once you did that, did you feel you were flying? Could you feel it? Was there that excitement?
E: I was kind of the last to know in a way. Other people have plans and opinions of who you are. When you first get on to set and you’re surrounded by great people, great creatives, but you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to respond to you, you can initially feel sort of on shaky ground like you’ve got something to perform. The one advantage I’ve always had is that I’ve been very realistic about me and my job. There is a distinct separation between the two and I go back to performance simply because, this isn’t meant to be self deprecating, but I understood very early on that I wasn’t the best looking girl in the room. But, what has always been advantageous to me is to merit my job and what it involves. I really needed to make it count in order for it to have meaning for me. So, I gave it my all. I always went the extra mile, I didn’t just smile at a camera–I felt the emotion and I suppose, not to run off on a tangent, but I never wanted to be empty. I wanted to be very engaged with the audience, whoever they are. Whether they’re in the front row of a couture show or sitting at home in front of their computer, it meant a lot to me to engage with people.
D: Can you, this might be a difficult question, but can you remember the first time you actually, once you start seeing pictures of yourself, start to evaluate and make your own judgements as other people do. Can you remember the first pictures where you thought, “Wow look at her. That’s someone I’d like to be!”?
E: It does boil down to that cliché, particularly used when you talk about models and modeling which is acceptance… self acceptance. And often you play a thousand different characters in order to figure out who you are. Inevitably you’re led back to yourself at some point. For me, it wasn’t so much about fulfilling an expectation but it was about understanding my own identity. Once you know and you understand the person or the persona you’re channeling, you do feel confident and you feel that you have something to offer, something that you want to share.
D: And also, a great picture is its own reward in a way. When there is a great picture, by which I don’t mean necessarily a great picture just of you, there’s a picture that tells the story, then that is a great, presumably, satisfying conclusion to days or a day or however long it takes to get that image.
E: But you see… that’s always a different conversation. When I began, the whole point of creating a story is that you imagined what the ending would be. You never saw it in front of your face as it was happening, and there was a certain magic to that. The digital era hadn’t arrived yet. I danced on film and I never knew the outcome, but that wasn’t the important part. The important part was in the making of. That’s what I really love about my job. When you’re relying upon the subliminal, when you don’t know how a day is going to start and never mind how it might end, that’s a wonderful way to live your life.
D: Isn’t that wonderful then when the pictures are amazing? That’s the payoff in one way. I am so pro-model as you know. Models are the way we understand clothes. You are the body on which an industry hangs! Without you we look at clothes on hangers… inanimate things like curtains on the window. This really needs readdressing because models aren’t always given that credit for a really vital part of the story.
E: Well that’s always good and reassuring to hear because I think at best, accidentally, we’ve been reduced to living a 2D role or a fantasy, projecting something unobtainable. We know the language. Really it’s important to me to hope that people see modeling as a craft. We convey an important message on behalf of a designer or a magazine and that is to tell a story. We almost act as interpreters but when you’re interpreting somebody else’s mind and their imagination, inevitably you come out with your own rules and your own version of what they want to convey. When I think back to my beginnings it’s exciting because I had the best schooling here in London. It was all about theater and drama and feeling very vital, to steal a word from what you had just said. We knew our role had significance because the clothes had so much rich history. They told their own story without a body in them, but they were immediately enhanced when the model or when I went on stage and told a story.
D: In a funny way, except in very extreme circumstances, we can say McQueen or Galliano or Dior, those clothes could almost stand as museum exhibits. But still, it doesn’t make sense until you put it on. You are the lynchpin of an industry, I really believe it.
E: They are! They’re like artistic architectural monuments in their own right. Nothing is real until it is lived by a living person.
“..often you play a thousand different characters in order to figure out who you are. Inevitably you’re led back to yourself at some point.”
D: If you asked somebody outside of fashion, a model is that pretty girl who allows herself in a way to be photographed, where as actually, great models–and there are great models–like there are great actresses and great plumbers and great artists and great everything else. So you get the best of the designer, the best of the photographer…
E: We almost connect the final piece of the jigsaw. So, we display everything that everybody wants to excel in. We give it a face.
D: You are the way we understand clothes.
E: Yes, because at the end of the day, commercially, creatively, clothes reflect who you are. And they only ever have value in every sense of the word when they’re worn by a person and a personality.
D: I think, although you’re young, let’s say you’re young…
E: Yes. Even though we were at different stages of our lives, we began our career or our calling, whatever you want to call it, at the same point!
D: Yes, I began in the fashion world almost around, in fact, 1996 was my first season.. they threw me in at the deep end of Couture. And what I feel now is, “Gee! How lucky was I?” To come as that whole shakeup, certainly in the world of high fashion and couture with John Galliano going into Dior and Alexander McQueen going into Givenchy and Saint Laurent still working on their own. So, we saw a kind of whole seismic shift. And you, I have to say, because I’m in the audience of course, and you are a performer, how do I put this… It’s not part of a history, it’s part of a tapestry and I’m not sure we will see the like of that excess and extravagance again.
E: Because we’re not meant to. Because it can’t and it should never happen again. It’s so special and fashion isn’t in the nature of reflection. It’s too busy moving on to the next thing. But what a special time it was…
D: People ask me what’s the most unforgettable show you ever saw, and I have to say that the most unforgettable show that I’ve ever saw was probably in the Opera House with Galliano Couture with the Marchesa and you were in it. There was a tango orchestra, it was really like crash landing on another planet.
E: Yes, that’s exactly how I felt at the time, too. I hope you understand that two years before that I was on a bus with a ruck sack. Then I was metamorphosized into a lady in the Paris Opera House with all eyes on me. Frankly 24 months previously that would have been absolutely my idea of hell. But to have conquered my own limitation and somehow been allowed to be reborn on my own terms was a reward indeed. I realize that I do love to be seen in a specific medium. It has absolutely nothing to do with me in real life, but that’s why it’s so rewarding because you are involved. I think consciously when you understand that, the pure joy and the appreciation you have when you know you’re going to work and you are temporarily going to transform, that’s a wonderful thing to have in your life! I’ve always sort of been so in awe of my industry. Artistically and creatively I’ve kind of danced a lot on the periphery and dipped in and out. That’s been my version of, I don’t know, staying sane I think.
“I hope you understand that two years before that I was on a bus with a ruck sack. Then I was metamorphosized into a lady in the Paris Opera House with all eyes on me. Frankly 24 months previously that would have been absolutely my idea of hell”
D: I think everybody needs to find a way to do that because, in a way, it’s a very extreme and very short performance on the catwalk. Even the couture catwalk.
E: But don’t think that we don’t know, as models, the amount of investment practically and in every other way imaginable goes in to each show and we understand the pressure of that. I always say, “We’ve got one chance to get it wrong,” and that can’t happen. We’re not given direction. We’re given three minutes, perhaps a crescendo, and a moment of drama in music where we rise to the challenge and then the performance is done. Actually, 20 years of being with you, throughout that whole period, I think we’ve both played lots of different roles. I mean, how many different characters have you been in my life?
D: As many as I can think. The one I remember you had done something to your foot skiing or snowboarding–which was a stupid idea…
E: Yes, snowboarding. Which was stupid during show season. I broke a fence actually on the way down.
D: Bad role, once more. There was something and you were on crutches and I remember using the crutches.
E: Couture on crutches!
D: You did couture on crutches, but I remember using that to get into a show where all of the press had been banned. I got in as far as the inner sanctum and then you were whisked away on crutches and everybody turned to me, every face turned to me to say what was I doing there. I was thrown out.
E: Even that is interesting, though, isn’t it! That idea of having a closed world in what is now such a digitally exposed world. The immediacy of getting everything here and now.
D: That’s completely changed.
E: There is still an element of keeping things a secret but it’s almost impossible these days.
D: It used to be, if you wanted to get into that show, you better fight to get into it.
E: Well, I’ve had too many times where I’ve had to fight to get into the shows that I’ve been booked for. I think that’s the most humbling way of recognizing that you don’t look like the person you’re about to become at 9 o’clock in the morning.
I think there’s a reason why we hang out all of the time. There’s a reason why our families know each other and we exist comfortably in both of our worlds. For me, it has everything and nothing to do with our jobs, but it’s also the way that we interpret each other. When I think about how you’ve illustrated me over the years, it’s the closest to how I feel about myself. So, I’ve always felt more honest and recognizable in illustration form. What have you got to say about that? [laughs]
“I’ve had too many times where I’ve had to fight to get into the shows that I’ve been booked for. I think that’s the most humbling way of recognizing that you don’t look like the person you’re about to become at 9 o’clock in the morning.”
Top and trousers Lucas Nascimento, Sleeveless jacket Hanger
D: I remember, going back to the first thing, I remember seeing you and I didn’t know who you were–you had already been established. I had to nudge someone and say, “Who is that?” and I did. It was at Gaultier and you were wearing a fan and it had a cigarette holder. Being entirely selfish and self involved I recognized you as what I wanted to express on paper. For me and for everyone traditionally that’s done fashion drawing, you always attenuate proportion. You always elongate, you stretch out. You just do. With you, I didn’t have to! To me, you appeared fully formed. And then, of course I did my homework and then your booker came to an exhibition of mine. There was a drawing of you on the wall and Iain Webb had bought it.
E: Good old Iain Webb! I know where this is going…and we ended up meeting for the first time because I had US visa issues. I was grounded in London!
D: You got stuck in London and you didn’t have anything to do because you weren’t supposed to be in London. Where as normally in London you’d be working.
E: How many times do you think you’ve illustrated me over the years? Whether I’ve been there or not?
D: It’s constant! It’s a sort of never ending. People do ask me if I’m obsessed with you in a way.
E: I’m known for my imperfections, so how many times have you tried to perfect my imperfections? Do you think you could almost close your eyes and draw me in one swoop? I really love being illustrated by you. I also I love the idea of being photographed because it’s nice and interesting to get someone else’s interpretation of you. You fulfill a role on that particular day according to how somebody else sees you, or chooses to see you. That’s always fascinated me. The nature of what I do–it’s always overt. I think one of my favorite aspects of my job is to be an observer. I’m a nosy, acute, unapologetic observer.
D: You can also hear someone across a room, I’ve noticed that. You can hear someone say something across a crowded room and it’s a good life skill actually and one we should all develop. So, I read that you’re having a comeback…
E: That’s a dirty word isn’t it?!
D: I know! Because when did you ever go anywhere?
E: If I did come back, I’ve had more than 9 lives and I’ve enjoyed every reinvention, but somehow I don’t know if that’s the way that I would look at it. I never really went away other than…. Ironically modeling gave me a forced confidence to stand up in the world and be counted really… I know that I felt selfish enough to want to go and try other things all within a creative artistic medium, but things I felt I wanted to learn and explore and know more about. So, I guess I did step off for a bit and it really meant a lot to me to attempt other things. I felt more busy than ever before, but I think to try to self-educate on my own terms, which obviously is a life long process and commitment. It was a really valuable experience because actually what it did do, is it sort of reminded me of how much I miss my job, which I love! I kind of forgot. So, I was very lucky in that I became a mom and I’m mommy to Albert who is the most important and my favorite human being of all time.
D: And I say that’s a good thing!
E: Yes! You’re a parent, too. And, within six months of having him my mind was made up for me. I got two emails and one was from Mothercare, which is a childcare company, and the other was from Marc Jacobs and it was an option for me to be in New York to walk in his Autumn 2015 show. I don’t know about any other mommies out there, but having had a baby you feel exposed just walking down the street. Never mind feeling fit enough and well enough in every sense of the word to appear on the catwalk elevated in a room with everybody else’s eyes on you. Having a child reaffirms what’s important in life, I think. I don’t know how to say no anymore. I feel strongly that what I couldn’t do for myself I will always try for him. So, I got on a plane to New York and I checked out Mothercare to see what they had on sale. And, I got the best of both worlds! But what it did was reinforce the love I have for my job, but also kind of reignited the enthusiasm I have to wanting to be and learn to be a good mom, but also to fulfill the things that matter to me in my professional life and to try and find that balance. That’s sort of where I’m at now.
“If I did come back, I’ve had more than 9 lives and I’ve enjoyed every reinvention.”
Top Hanger, knitwear dress Joseph
D: Years ago, the fashion world gasped and got very panicky around a 30 year old.
E: As in, that’s it, you’ve had your moment and you can go.
D: Whether you want to take credit for this, I’m going to give you credit for this… that you are not about any specific time or group. You are entirely in a group of one because you refer to the past but you’re very contemporary.
E: That’s interesting because I’ve always understood that there’s a hint of bygone era to my professional persona, but while respecting that, I’ve always tried to honor that but make it relevant to today.
D: You have an air of something, while being entirely of now and it’s very interesting…
E: Are you calling me old? Or ageless?
D: I’m calling you beyond age! Beyond time! Because your physicality refers to something then, but you’re absolutely of this moment. It’s a very rare combination… It’s not that you are in any way retro.
E: I certainly don’t search for the past. I want to honor it and breathe fresh life into it because I think we can all be inspired by the past and that’s not necessarily the point of fashion. But what is fashionable is to embrace it.
D: Also character. The things that you accrue along the way, the character, the experience. All of those things informed so much of what you do. They inform your choices. You have always done things on your own terms wherever you could.
E: I didn’t recognize that at the time. I think I was hit on the head by instinct often. Anything that didn’t sit comfortable, I think, I don’t know, maybe I tried to stay home and figure it out. But I’m always pleasurably surprised and inspired by fashion. I think it will be an ongoing commitment for me if they’ll have me.
D: It is a dance. It changes, but it goes on and there is no reason… I don’t think I want to say this so we’ll go to the next thing!
E: It’s just a continuous dance! It should never end if you enjoy it!
“I’m always pleasurably surprised and inspired by fashion. I think it will be an ongoing commitment for me if they’ll have me.”
Jacket Lucas Nascimento, top Charlie May, trousers JS Lee, shoes Lucas Nascimento
D: I suppose that’s an underlying point: If you enjoy it and there is no reason now for it to end, if you have that thing to bring and you want to do it, there is no reason not to do it. In the distant past, modeling was something that society girls did before marriage. It wasn’t a profession even, it was just something that if you were pretty and…
E: As in ladies of leisure.
D: Yes, it wasn’t even really a career. It wasn’t even a job really, it was just something… I’m talking back in the 30’s and 40’s. The idea of it as a profession…
E: Well actually, David, I think it was scandalous. It was considered to be a bit fast and a lot loose! I think we’ve come full circle.
D: Talking of full circle, since you did decide that you missed modeling more; ever since then you’ve seem to have been just flying, you’ve been working with Tim Walker and Meisel and LOVE magazine. By the way I loved you in LOVE magazine, I loved you in… well I suppose, I just do love you, so we’ll count that. But, it seems like… it must feel slightly like coming home even though you never really left, does it feel great to be doing those things again?
E: Oh god. It just feels great to be working with what I would consider to be fashion greats. People who intimidate me. Because I have so much admiration for them and I’m always really really grateful to be working with people that are creatively willing to push boundaries in the way that I’ve always enjoyed pushing boundaries and, actually, it’s almost like a shared comfort zone. When you find likeminded people who you admire for their talent amongst other things, it’s not only brilliant to be in their company, but to just be a part of what story they’re telling–It’s nice to be a part of that.
D: I always say I want to work with people who know as much or more than me. And that’s the thing, when I began art directors were god. Now because I’m so old, they’re kids.
E: That’s the nature of fashion!
D: That’s the nature of everything! But I think when you’re working with extraordinary talents…
E: It’s humbling. It’s never taken for granted, believe you me.
D: Well how exciting. What a great time to be you.
E: Yes! And in some way that new version of me is a version that I know well. Gone are the extremities of corsets and angry eyebrows and somehow a softer me has emerged. I don’t know whether it’s motherhood or evolving in general, but it just feels right. It feels like the moment to present myself just as I am.
“It just feels great to be working with what I would consider to be fashion greats. People who intimidate me. Because I have so much admiration for them and I’m always really really grateful to be working with people that are creatively willing to push boundaries in the way that I’ve always enjoyed pushing boundaries.”
Top Joseph, skirt KTZ
Erin O’Connor by David Downton