It’s hard to imagine a time when Karen Elson—the super who catapulted to fame in the ‘90s for her trademark fiery red strands and striking features—was ever not vocal about the issues she cares about or did not stand up for what she believes. And yet, as a fresh-faced model, she felt as though she was denied of such rights.
“When I was younger, especially in my teenage years, I didn’t realize I could say something whenever I was uncomfortable; I never felt I was allowed to stand up for myself,” Elson confides. “In the past, part of being a good model was not having an opinion and molding yourself into what that person wanted you to be. It’s changing: I can still be the muse, but I can also have a voice.”
Now, she’s course correcting, implementing social causes, mindful consumerism, and ethical behavior into every aspect of her life. She’s tirelessly working to end the mistreatment of models. She openly talks about her personal struggle with body image—an issue that not only plagues the industry, but is also perpetuated by inappropriate, fat-shaming remarks and a skinny-is-superior mentality. And she’s seeking out every opportunity to support other women.
“I’ve literally turned into a bona fide grandmother ranting and raving,” she laughs. “I hit 40 and a curmudgeon has come out.”
Her latest venture arrives in the form of a limited edition bag collection done in collaboration with leather accessories brand Hobo and artist Costanza Theodoli-Braschi, who painstakingly hand-painted totes, cross-body bags, and backpacks, with all proceeds benefiting GirlGaze, the organization founded by Amanda de Cadenet that supports and empowers the next generation of female leaders.
Keep reading for Elson’s refreshingly honest thoughts on feminism, ‘90s nostalgia, and more.
How did your collaboration with Hobo come about?
“For me, it had to have meaning. I thought of my friend Cosi who’s an incredible illustrator and artist. I have to have a strong female perspective with strong female imagery and symbolism. The creative brainstorm for me was effortless because I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted it to be something that empowered women. And the idea that every single one of these bags’ profits go directly to GirlGaze—an incredible organization by my friend Amanda de Cadenet who has built a platform for young women that can help inspire the next generation of creators—was such a motivator to be a part of the project.”
I love that you’re supporting and bringing women together.
“I’m as much of a consumer as anyone else, but these days, I’m finding myself gravitating toward products that have meaning behind them be it beauty products that are clean or organizations that collaborate with clothing brands that have a deeper meaning. In this age that we’re in right now, to be an ethical consumer is just the way it should be. There’s so much waste, especially in fashion.”
The modeling industry has a reputation for being brutal—do you think that’s changing?
“It’s almost fashion’s dirty secret how terrible models are treated. I talked at the Model Alliance event during fashion week and [my friends were surprised by] the lack of rules and regulations; there’s no protection for models. It’s really up to the grace of having a good agent, which thankfully, I have great agents who are very protective. But there have still been moments on set: a snide comment about my weight or a lack of privacy when I’m changing. It’s stuff that makes you feel insecure. You can’t change the industry overnight. It’s going to take time and I think the Model Alliance with the Respect Program, they’re definitely trying to help create a framework.
The worst things that happen in fashion are, clearly, women being sexually exploited, but also the fact that we expect these models to be skinny. Most of these girls are on diets. In order to look good, we have to deny ourselves and punish our bodies—it’s pain and torture. I would say that 75 percent of models have had unkind comments said about their bodies. I wish that all body types are accepted and respected, that models don’t necessarily have to take exercising and dieting to the extreme.”
What was your own experience like?
“If I’m brutally honest, I’ve been on a diet since I was 18 years old in one way shape or form. Fashion has repeatedly made me feel or directly told me I was too big, so when I turned 40, I made the decision that I can no longer do this to my body. When I was doing shows, I was paranoid—I would go to extreme lengths, go to retreats and fast before fashion week under the guise that I’m being healthy. That’s an absolute lie. It’s because I didn’t want to be fat-shamed. It’s a really unhealthy mindset. We live in a microcosm of fashion where so many people do it that it’s been normalized. Why can’t I feel confident and walk on set just as I am?
It has taken therapy, changing my gaze of what’s acceptable, changing the standard I hold myself to, and being kinder to myself. I’m happier, 100 percent. It’s still a struggle when I, as a 40-year-old woman with two children, am expected squeeze into a teeny-tiny sample that a 17-year-old has worn in a show. As a collective, the industry needs to see more diversity, size-wise. It would help a lot of girls feel less hungry.”
We are seeing a bit more diversity on the runway. It’s about time, right?
“We’re in such an inspiring age right now where everything is changing in fashion and the rules are being rewritten. I do see a turn toward something more ethical. I see a lot more big brands gravitating toward meaningful collaborations, like Moncler and Liya Kebede’s lemlem line. The Michael Kors show had women from my age to Kaia Gerber. And that gorgeous Valentino couture show, it was so wonderful to finally see a diverse range of casting.”
How has the definition of feminism evolved for you? When did you know you were a feminist?
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned a lot from women who have taught me what feminism is. There’s something in me that’s roaring once I turned 40. I can no longer accept being treated less than by people, no longer treating myself less than. And I’m recognizing that there’s so much more to be done in fashion to empower women’s voices. I’m unapologetic about it. There’s something about my job where you always feel you have to apologize for standing up for something. I really admire model Edie Campbell because she really has a point of view and she’s not afraid to speak out.”
Why is it more important now than ever to be vocal about the causes you care about?
“I can put something on Instagram and make an impact. I can be vulnerable and say, I have body image issues, and it will encourage other women to share their stories. It’s important for me to connect and for other people to understand that while I’m in the position I am in, I’m also human. It’s also important to have an opinion. I think beauty is a very strange mercurial thing, and it’s not necessarily just about being ‘beautiful,’ but it’s also about having that voice and how you’re using it to say what you’ve got to say.
With the advent of social media, where people can speak out when something bad happens, people have to have a conscience. I love Diet Prada, because it’s tongue-in-cheek and fashion gossip, but at the same time, they definitely hold people accountable for their actions. In today’s world, brands have to be woke. It’s good business to be woke. I hope it continues, but that it becomes less a fear of making a mistake, and more a desire to do good.”
How has the role of the supermodel changed?
“When I first started modeling, there was Naomi [Campbell], Kate [Moss], Linda [Evangelista], Christy [Turlington], Carolyn [Murphy], Amber [Valletta], and Shalom [Harlow]. They were the untouchables. Now, we have Kendall [Jenner], Gigi and Bella [Hadid], and Cara [Delevingne], who represent the era of social media. Every era has its own generation of women that really embody the times we are in.”
What do you think about today’s nostalgia for the ’90s?
“I have chronic nostalgia for the ‘90s. It was a rebellion against the ‘80s, which was all about extreme excess. There was a coolness, a creativity, and a quietness about the ‘90s that created so many fashion images, so many great designers. It felt so vulnerable, introverted, and real. For me, at least, you could let your freak flag fly: I had shaved eyebrows and a crazy red haircut and I would walk around in ripped vintage clothes. Every generation has its style and the next will be a direct result of what’s happening now, and who knows, there might be rebellion against it.”
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