12:46 p.m.: The Midland Hotel, Manchester
Karen Elson arrives at Chanel’s pre-show prep space at Manchester’s Midland Hotel for her fitting for the Métiers d’Art show—and, appropriately enough, she’s in Chanel. Specifically, Chanel circa 1997; more specifically, a navy zippered dress with tiny pieces of pink-red felted-fabric appliqué around the neckline—inspired by Kandinsky, Chanel’s British head of press will tell her later when she says hello—and black sturdy flat boots. Perhaps the most specific of specific details of all, though: Said ensemble was picked out for her at the house’s Rue Cambon store by Karl Lagerfeld.
“Karl told me, ‘You don’t have anything nice to wear’,” she recalls. “He was literally my fairy godfather—he gave me so many beautiful things, including these woolen pants I’m going to wear to the Manchester United football match later. The dress still fits me, I am happy to say. I am almost 45 years old, so all this was when I was 18,” she continues. “My daughter Scarlett now steals all my clothes. I appreciate that—if anyone is going to steal your clothes, it might as well be your teenage daughter—but I’ve had some funny moments where she’ll be going to school and I’ll see her leaving in pink Chanel short shorts with tights. When I was looking for my old Chanel knitwear I couldn’t find it, so I went into her room, and she said, ‘Stop looking in my bedroom!’ I’m like, ‘I am looking for the things you’ve stolen from me!” Elson laughs affectionately. “She hasn’t worn this yet—well, maybe she has.”
It’s not only Elson’s dress that is enjoying a homecoming—so is she. Elson is in her native (kind of) Manchester from Nashville, where she lives these days, just to walk the show: If home means family, then she’s happy to be back to work with her Chanel family. (“It’s always great to find an opportunity to work with Karen,” Virginie Viard said during Elson’s fitting.) Still, I say kind of because Elson is actually from Oldham, just northeast of Manchester, a city famed for its industry, its enduring music scene, and for being the birthplace of the British suffragette movement.
Manchester was also the birthplace of Elson’s career—the city where she was scouted at 14, before a few diversions and immersions in the industry led her to work with Steven Meisel for an Italian Vogue cover; they chopped her hair, shaved off her eyebrows. Lagerfeld took notice, cast her as the bride of his fall 1997 haute couture show—“Linda [Evangelista] was my bridesmaid, which was terrifying, obviously”—and hello, a star was born. (Evangelista, incidentally, was another early fairy godparent, Elson says: “She came over and said to me: ‘Steven says I have to look after you’.”)
Though Elson nobly endured some early industry sniping about her looks, clearly she is the one who has triumphed, with Meisel and Lagerfeld intuiting early on that hers was a beauty able to project character and individuality like few others. “Karl used to say, ‘You remind me of Louise Brooks’,” she tells me, “and he told me to watch Whatever Happened to Baby Jane because he said I reminded him of Bette Davis.” He might have picked an earlier (and more flattering) moment in her career, I tell her. Elson laughs. “He was getting to where I am going to end up. But to be 18, and to have this absolute crash course in fashion and creativity from Karl and Steven….” The reminiscing has to end for now, though: She’s needed for her make-up test for the show.
1:10 p.m.: Chanel make-up test
One of makeup artist Lisa Butler’s team briefs Elson on the show’s look.
“It’s supposed to be a hard eyebrow, but if you don’t like it, we don’t have to do it,” she says.
“No, let’s try,’ Elson replies. “Let’s start gently, and then we will see, because I’m not necessarily an eyebrow person.” (Hers are naturally barely present.)
“It’s amazing how you look with no brow—amazing.”
“I mean, I love a no-brow-brow, but it’s not popular anymore.”
“Well, you’ll bring it back, Karen.”
“We have to bring it back. So many people are laminating their brows. The other day I was getting a facial in Nashville and the facialist said to me, ‘Oh, you should get your brows laminated.’ Can you imagine if Pat McGrath wants to bleach my eyebrows off and she can’t, because I’ve got these little tattooed brows?”
Elson gets distracted for a moment as the makeup artist applies lip color using a brush with bristles that are a bright shade of blue. “What’s that—your blue brush?!”
“It’s just a natural lip color for the show.”
“You made me nervous for a moment.”
Growing up, Elson was no stranger to a dramatic lip color. During her high school years, listening to the likes of The Cure, she went through a black lipstick phase. “I tried to be a goth, but then fashion got a hold of me,” she recalls. She also loved Chanel’s iconic Rouge Noir nail polish but, she says, “I couldn’t afford Chanel, so I did my version mixing dark red and black polishes. It didn’t look like Rouge Noir—it looked brown—but I thought it was so beautiful, my bargain-basement version.”
Her outfit of choice back then was a big chunky sweater, a long black satin dress from Topshop, and Dr. Martens boots. Like many of her schoolmates, she had an obsession with the label Red or Dead, which made fun, clubby, playful shoes—part utterly cool, part nerdy and awkward. “Red or Dead was such a big part of Manchester,” Elson says. “When I was a teenager, that was all we wanted. It was so reflective of Manchester, of British culture—that’s what I say to my daughter, who’s really into her fashion: Nashville has its own unique style, but northern English style…it’s completely original. People are so unique here, and not afraid to try anything. When I come back home, the originality in this place is gigantic. Mancunians created their own subcultures, particularly with music, as a counterpoint to what was coming from London. I always wished that Wim Wenders had made a movie about Manchester—when you watch Wings of Desire, it’s very Berlin, but I think Berlin and Manchester have a very similar working class, post-industrial identity, and that’s really reflected in our style.”
That black satin dress was what she first wore when, at the age 15, she visited Manchester to see Debra Burns of Boss Model Management. A friend of a friend had given her Burns’s details, but—after holding on to the number for nine months—it was only on her third attempt to call her, during Elson’s summer school break, that she finally got through. She went to the agency one Friday afternoon and was one of ten young women picked to join a how-to-be-a-model course. Elson worked with a local model, Jilly Brent—“She was gorgeous, very petite, had this look that was like how Pamela Anderson is now, natural”—but being tutored to pose commercially wasn’t for her, so Burns found her work in the office just to keep her around and interested.
“Debra saw that I was different, but really different, and it was either going to work for me or not. She persevered with me—I am indebted to her for believing in me. And the reason I believed in myself is that I was looking in fashion magazines and seeing Guinevere (Van Seenus) and Kate (Moss) and Stella (Tennant)—seeing a more subtle, quirky look—and realizing I don’t fit in where I live, but I could fit in in this place. And thank God I did. But Karl was very pivotal in that. Chanel was very pivotal in that.”
1:39 p.m.: Hair test with James Pecis’s team
“What’s the look?” Elson asks.
“Eighties, new wave,” responds a stylist who works with hairdresser James Pecis. “We could work with your natural wave….”
As the stylist busies herself putting extensions into Elson’s hair and then razoring them to match the length of her natural hair—“Keep that razor away from me!” Elson says with a laugh, “I’ve had too many accidental haircuts!”—Charlotte Stockdale and Katie Lyall, who are creative directors of the agency Chaos, among other things, come over to hug and say hello.
2:01 p.m.: Karen Elson, Charlotte Stockdale, and Katie Lyall chat about the Chaos exhibition
Chaos has produced a magazine about Mancunian style and history with Chanel, and has also curated an exhibition of images of Manchester in conjunction with the city’s spiffy newish arts space, Factory International, to be held at the city’s Victoria Baths. (The same venue will be used for the after-show party before being quickly turned into a gallery space ready to open the following morning.) “Its history is mind-blowing,” says Stockdale of Manchester. “I’ve become so in love with the city—it’s extraordinary.” Included in the show will be two photographs of Elson shot locally by filmmaker Elaine Constantine: One of her on Elson Street in Bury, Greater Manchester; the other of her and her dad in a pub.
“They were taken years ago,” says Elson. “They were never published, but the National Portrait Gallery in London has them. I think at the time the images were too on-the-nose, too ‘Northern’”—in other words, too working class—“but I love them; they exist; this is real. The one of my dad is so special, so quintessentially him—I’ll have to tell him to go see them when the exhibition opens.” Her mum, meanwhile, will be coming to the Chanel show. “Talk about northern English parents,” Elson says, recounting their recent dinner. “My mum was like, ‘God, Karen, I can’t believe you’re still modeling—aren’t you too old for that? Why do they still work with you?’”
6:54 p.m.: Car to Old Trafford football stadium, Manchester
Elson, British Vogue’s Laura Ingham, and Instagram’s Eva Chen, among others, are on their way to see Manchester United play Chelsea at Man U’s home ground of Old Trafford. Conversation revolves around: Monday night’s British Fashion Awards—the general consensus is that it was wonderful to see the likes of the Sarahs Burton and Mower be honored, though the rain was an unsurprising downer (“My dress was still a bit damp the next morning,” says Elson, who was in a very Coco tinselly lamé Chanel); how to stay warm in the freezing cold (Chen just bought a super-cool oversized knit hood from Primark); and instructions in how to take the perfect selfie, also courtesy of Chen, later outside the football stadium. Ingham laughs: “I need you to repeat all that!”
Elson—who’s in the vintage Chanel pants, as promised, plus a just-purchased-that-afternoon Barbour jacket to beat the weather, accessorized with a bright green Chanel purse—tells me her fitting went like a dream. The makeshift atelier is lined with colorful tweeds, bags in the shape of guitars or with chain straps inset with gems, and a sea of costume jewelry with enormous pearl drops, safety-pin-embellished necklaces, and strings of intensely colored, almost-neon beads.
The atmosphere is briskly efficient—but also convivial, collaborative and deeply, deeply chill. For a house of Chanel’s magnitude, it’s interesting to see how Viard leads it as an intensely focused yet approachable lead: At one point, Edie Campbell is being fitted in her look (spangly skirt and baseball cap) as Viard and a few assistants walk back and forth with a tray of bijoux which gets passed back and forth as they waltz around the room in perfect synchronization.
“The fitting was lovely—maybe the easiest Chanel fitting I’ve ever done, which is a real testament to Virginie,” says Elson. “They knew exactly what they wanted me in.” She will wear two looks—a vivid green suit with low black Mary Janes with jeweled straps (“It reminds me of pictures of mums in northern England from the ’60s,” she says) and a “very, very Chanel” sparkly black dress. “Because it is Virginie, because it is Chanel, I know I will be in something appropriate. Have I sometimes said to some designers I won’t wear something because it doesn’t suit me? Yes—but this is different. I love what they asked me to wear in the show, and they’ve really respected me in that sense—that this is a homecoming.”
By this point, Elson and I, along with a phalanx of Chanel invitees, are making our way through the turnstiles to take our seats for the match. (Manchester United ended up triumphing over Chelsea, 2-1.) A particularly jovial security guard greets us as we file in. “How do I know that you are who you are?” he asks, and then answers his own question: “Handbags.”
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.