Karen Elson is one of the most prolific models of the 21st century. Discovered at age 16 in Manchester by the owner of Boss Models, Elson's career was launched globally in 1997 when Steven Meisel captured her for the cover of Vogue Italia on her 18th birthday. Speaking of the historic shoot, Elson said in a Subjective interview with Nick Knight, 'As a model, that's what my job is. To be a canvas and to walk into a shoot and be transformed.'
Elson has published an orange-bound tome, The Red Flame, expanding upon her thoughts and experiences within the fashion world. Written in her own words, the book chronicles Elson's life as a supermodel via the iconic fashion imagery that made her, with photographs included by Mert and Marcus, Tim Walker, Harley Weir and more. Detailing her childhood and subsequent upbringing in Manchester, Elson gives insight into her rise to stardom as a model and singer-songwriter. Shattering the veneer that fashion is all glamour, the memoir also tells the stories behind the fashion imagery that is often taken at face value. Elson is frank about the plights of modelling as a career, talking candidly about a former eating disorder, struggles with body image and instances of sexual harassment she has faced while working in the industry.
'When a women’s worth is quantified solely by her weight and appearance it can create havoc on the inside. Fashion is an interesting microcosm in which these things are heightened to an extreme and normalised. I sincerely hope that people find the humanity of my struggles in the book and as the fashion industry evolves that models are given more rights, protections, transparency and are more than just “seen” but “heard” too, as the models I know and love are all brilliant women who are more than just a picture,' wrote Elson in an Instagram post promoting her new book.
Elson has been vocal about the need for the fashion industry to do more to protect models from sexual harrassment. Amidst the #MeToo movement in 2018, Elson joined the board of the Model Alliance, a New-York based nonprofit organisation dedicated to fair treatment, equal opportunity and sustainable practices in the fashion industry. In an interview with Knight about posing nude for Mario Sorrenti, Elson says of one image, 'I never was starved. You usually see hip bones jutting. I've got a soft belly and I like it. That's the way my body is.'
Elson's book is the most recent in a fleet of fashion memoirs from the past decade: there was Grace Coddington's Grace: A Memoir (2012), chronicling her career change from model to Vogue fashion editor (Coddington wrote the afterword for The Red Flame), Fashion Climbing: A Memoir (2018), a posthumously published memoir by beloved street style photographer Bill Cunningham and Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon (2018), a collection of anecdotes and observations by the American fashion icon and interior designer.
The Red Flame is available to buy from Rizzoli.
SHOWstudio's Subjective series presents the history of contemporary fashion photography as told from the subjects' perspectives. Watch all the interviews here.