How did everything start for you? Tell me about that day you left home on a bus heading for London.
I was spotted when I was just 17 years old. I was living with my family and having two sisters meant that everyday life was never dull. I was a very tall shy teenager but not necessarily granted with model looks – you have to remember that we were in the middle of the original 90’s supermodel era. My life was dominated by my education and music tastes. I was a real indie girl. Although I wasn’t allowed to dye my hair, I dyed my clothes and my tights and hand-painted my Dr. Marten boots instead. It was a brilliant time for teenage girls looking back. There were many positive female role models and I considered my teens as a time for me to self-advocate. I was spotted on a school trip with my friend Michelle. I remember the day I got spotted as clearly as it were yesterday. It is not a day I can ever forget, especially since it changed the course of my life forever. The journey was long and it took three separate buses and a very complicated route to reach the venue which was “The Clothes Show Live” based on the original TV show. It was every teenage girl’s religion. We all clambered around the TV on a Sunday afternoon, just before dinner and after church to watch their TV host, Caryn Franklin who was our GOD of style and fashion on a budget. I do remember wearing wet, clammy jeans on the day I was spotted because we didn’t own a tumble dryer but only these jeans would do! I don’t think I was necessarily a keen fashion follower but definitely an observer of all things creative. One of the great luxuries of having zero money is that your imagination was always in full throttle.
I was aware that girls had been talent-spotted at the CSL before me, but you also have to remember that this was 1996 and it was about supermodels and I mean the original pack – Linda, Naomi, Cindy, Nadia – and I did not look like any of those girls, therefore, I didn’t assume anything. I was quickly aware, however, that I had other peoples’ eyes on me as I walked around… I was spotted by a lady called Fiona Ellis, who I’m lucky enough to call a friend 25 years later and in one simple exchange, she changed the course of my life forever! I don’t think I’d ever had a picture taken of me by myself before aside from a once-yearly school photograph. It was both extremely weird and totally exhilarating to see hundreds of photos of my face popping out of a Polaroid camera from angles unknown even to me. I had lots of opinions thrown at me about my looks, generally from boys at school (which weren’t exactly complimentary) but never had I been referred to as an unusual beauty! I still to this day use my body and my face – for me it’s a language of interpretation and I know my face is quite versatile, therefore, I love playing with make-up and aesthetics BUT I would say it’s more about developing a character and using the human body in motion. 25 years later, I am still honing my craft.
Please share with us an interesting/fun fact from your career in fashion, something that people don’t know about.
For much-needed laughs, the girls and I used to get up to lots of silly antics during show season to help combat the major fatigue we often felt. By the time we got to Paris (which was the last leg of every major fashion capital) we took to copying and interpreting one another’s walks – we all had quite individual, unique walks back then which we were encouraged to do so, and when had really had enough, we would play a game during a live show to see who was pretending to be who. The winner got to lead the finale.
I’ve had lots of slapstick moments. I remember walking for Christian Lacroix and I was the first to exit – with no time to see the set, I remember arriving on stage and walking into a full-on forest scene, however, it got really tricky when I couldn’t find the exit so I remember furiously posing up against the scenic backdrop waiting for the girl who came after me to show me the way off! I remember she just pushed open the door (disguised as a tree) and I literally held onto the back of her coat! I can’t remember what I was wearing, but I remember that my skin was definitely scarlet.
When was the moment that you realized the power of your body as an instrument to communicate fashion?
There have been a couple of career-defining, significant shoots – the first was appearing on a first-class stamp shot by the wonderful Nick Knight. Previously, only the Royals had been allowed to appear on a stamp and it was a moment in history that an ordinary girl (me!) was selected to feature entirely based on my appearance – it was a particularly poignant moment, to see my face on a first-class stamp!
How has your relationship with your body changed having worked within the fashion industry?
My professional face is my trademark so that’s what I associate with being in front of the lens, particularly when I’m shooting an editorial but also when I’m on the red carpet. It’s like presenting the best most powerful version of yourself according to a certain expectation. Whereas when sitting as a subject for an artist there is more of an apparent sensibility between the two of you and you end up revealing a more intimate betrayal of who you really are. I think often the artist is on a mission to reveal what you so want to conceal. I do feel wholly present for both, however, on the one hand it’s quite liberating to channel a different persona professionally, but personally, I see it as a great compliment to be documented just as I am. It
is interesting having being referred to as a muse. It’s partly flattering of course but it really depends on the intention behind it, in other words, define your terms? I’m not interested in being passive or the recipient of someone else’s creativity. I’ve reached a point where standing in the corner in a dress (however spectacular) isn’t exactly stimulating. I like to work with the designer and it often helps if we’ve had a long relationship together. Professionally and personally, I love working with Jean Paul Gaultier as it feels very much like a collaborative process. I think I’ve always been very consciously aware of my body and I’m aware that it tells a story. I love the clothing and it’s an absolute privilege. Often if you think of Haute Couture, when you’re having the clothes literally made on your back, it’s an extraordinarily intimate and precise process, whereas, modeling pret a porter is about the model fitting into a ready-made garment. When I was a teenager, my body acted as a scapegoat to protect the shy girl within – a far cry from the world of Haute Couture which would then become my world. I was extremely elongated and whippet-thin…basically a walking right angle, but I took charge of my perceived personality and set out to entertain people. I didn’t need to be popular but I did want to win people over. I suppose it’s like saying you’re going to stare at me anyway so let’s put on a show. You have to have power and athleticism to walk as many runways as I have. I am a natural introvert at heart so stepping onto the runway after the backstage chaos is very calming, liberating, and a moment of complete and utter serenity for me.
How connected are fashion designers today, to the body they design for? In the end, what does clothing serve today?
I realized early on that I was different physically, but instead of self-punishing I looked to an alternative way of thinking in order to accept and represent myself – I feel the same way about young models starting today. They are meant to carve their own career, they should embrace their own path and they will inspire others to do the same just by being themselves! It’s about time that designers have fully appreciated beauty and individuality in all its diversity. I may not have been representative of women traditionally but I created my own version and modelling has really allowed me to explore that. In the end, I realized it felt good not to be so easily categorized. Ultimately, I think if you don’t learn to respect yourself, then how can the world respect you? You have to be quite forthright and make the best of what you are regardless of who you are.
Why are some clothes more demanding than others? How easy it is for you to transmit emotion to the audience watching a show?
Some clothes are more demanding than others – certainly, there is a huge difference between modeling pret a porter and Haute Couture. Even the fitting is a performance – you are literally having the fabric draped on your back and creation is born right in front of your very eyes. it’s like having the most exclusive golden ticket ever and I have a really lovely long-lasting relationship with all the seamstresses of every Haute Couture fashion house, who know and have seen more of my body than I ever will. I often think of the creations we wear for Couture as moving, architectural art. It’s a wonderful thing to showcase but that said they’re not very practical to walk in never mind to move in – you have to be very strong and fit but at the same time have nerves of steel. Just to manoeuvre an outfit and to manipulate your body to interpret a story takes a lot of determination. As I always say “you only have one chance to get it wrong” – it’s an expression I use a lot because it’s true. We are not given a rehearsal nor do we have more than one performance, so it’s important to get everything right first time because it’s the only time! The audience is waiting for magic and we are the purveyors of that.
I often wonder how the designers would feel being in our shoes (literally). When they design, they are thinking of the aesthetic outcome, they are not thinking about how to pour a human body into it and equally how to extract it. We often wear ridiculous shoes on slippery surfaces and it’s like running around an assault course sometimes just to stay on your feet! I am a fan of Maria Grazia Chiuri for Christian Dior as it’s so nice as a woman to see clothing that is ready to wear that feels beautiful, wearable, and special. As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate clothing so much more and she is someone that I really admire for considering both the political alignment of what it is to be a woman today mixed with comfortable luxurious clothing.
How far is too far when walking a show? And how has the fashion industry changed throughout your career
It’s never far enough! I always come off stage thinking I could’ve done better but I guess that’s the whole point. If I felt I had reached my plateau, then there would be no reason for me to carry on working. I’ve experienced very straightforward runways as a 21-year-old and as a 41-year-old, I’ve walked on a runway eight months pregnant and ready to pop! But I can assure you the latter was easier. I’ve always coped better with extreme conditions. Ironically, I think it’s because I really need the adrenaline to start pumping to get me geared up for what’s to come!
Why are models of your generation different from the new generation? What forms a great model at the end?
For me the greatest models are those who take time to consider the clothing as more than just that. They build on the narrative and work with the clothing to create a memorable story. There are many great new models today as there are originals, who are still working hard and maintaining their reputations and their influence in fashion.
I think the main difference for me is that thankfully the whole world has access to fashion and not just a select few. We are bombarded with access in a way like never before, so there is no such thing as a closed world anymore. Everybody’s opinion matters – everybody is an editor, narrator, commentator, expert and you don’t even need to leave the house! In a way, I think that it makes fashion more interesting and it challenges designers to be more considerate in the way they perceive women as diverse and unique individuals. I’ve become quite the photographer myself during this past year, particularly because I’ve had to shoot a lot at home (alone)! We adapt and we evolve and we continue to find ways of working.
I know you have worked very hard as I have been observing you since day one! What has fashion taught you?
I think knowledge is power and if anything, working within the fashion industry has bolstered my self-esteem and most importantly my self-awareness. I feel very privileged to be part of an ephemeral, fast-paced world. My job has offered me liberation and a sense of solidarity in equal measure. In essence, it’s about self-preservation – reflecting, processing then moving onto the next project. It’s the most important thing I’ve learned as a model and as a woman living in the world today.
The conversation between Erin O’Connor and Filep Motwary was originally published on digital Vogue Greece under the title” Erin O’Connor, The Swan of Haute Couture” on May 26th 2021.