In a fickle industry where models can now become 'It' girls merely six months after they are discovered, Erin O'Connor continues to stand the test of time, 18 years after she made her runway debut. Known for her striking androgynous look and short hair, the British model has actually done it all: She's appeared in campaigns for Armani, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior, Chanel, and Givenchy; walked for Alexander McQueen, Valentino couture, Christian Dior couture and too many more to name; appeared on covers of Vogue; worked closely with friend Jean Paul Gaultier, including as the face of his fragrance, Fragile; appeared in films and television shows; produced a hair-care line; and founded Model Sanctuary, a safe haven for young British models and designers, now run by the British Fashion Council.
After giving birth to her son in the summer of 2014, O'Connor made her return to the runway by opening Marc Jacobs's fall 2015 show, followed by an appearance in London at the Giles show. The model, who also appears on the cover of Rankin's Hunger magazine, spoke with Fashionista about modeling post-baby and landing exclusives for some of her favorite designers.
How does it feel to be back on the runway this season?
Well, it's felt like quite a high, actually, and prior to walking again in the collection, I had my baby, so I've been off for quite some time, growing a human -- Albert -- and loving him and knowing him and nurturing him. So in essence, being on the runway felt like an extraordinarily alien place again. I kind of felt like I had to conquer my nerves to get back up there. In the end, it felt like a small but significant triumph for me personally, because when you're a new mom you're used to walking down the road and if everything's intact, you feel like its been a good day. You're just pushing your pram and then all of a sudden, you're on an elevated stage with all eyes on you. It was definitely a bit of a mind reset, I think, to get to that place of being physically looked at.
I wanted to wait until I felt really ready and then, of course, I realized early on that that day was never going to come. Luckily for me I was thrown in the deep end with one of the most extraordinary designers in the world [Marc Jacobs], and also his loyal stylist, who's been very loyal to me, Katie Grand.
What was it like to open that particular show?
It was so empowering, but equally it was a stance. It felt like he was saying -- it doesn't matter who you are, what age you are, what your life circumstances are. This is about a sprit and it's about a certain attitude and he wanted the show to be powerful. And what a great compliment that he felt that by me walking out first it would in some way help to set that tone. I suppose internally, I got to catch up because when I was thrusted onto that runway, I started to really, really enjoy it. That's the thing, it felt very instinctual and a very natural place to be. I suppose it's the anticipation beforehand that can be a head wreck, but when I was out here, I felt very free and able and happy to do my job, which essentially that's what it is -- and of course it helps when the clothes are great, the atmosphere is out of this world and it was a wonderful show to come back to. I had been on maternity leave and I only just got back in the new year so it was a bit of a moment, one of those career-defining moments where the hair goes up on your arms and you know you might never have one of those again. And it's great that I got it 20 years later, having worked for him almost two decades ago for the first time.
Has having a baby changed the way you walk or the way your body moves?
I didn't know how I was going to move until I got out there. You never really get much of a rehearsal, so you're actually rehearsing while the live event is happening. You just wing it and hope for the best. I know what you mean, for me, my body has served me so well not just as a professional model but on a very human level. And so to be a woman and to be working and physically showing that I'm ready and able -- yeah, I think I put a little extra kick in my walk. It felt all of a sudden really powerful to be there. Things like ribs and hips and things like that, they don't necessarily go back in for quite some time post-partum, so I kind of use what I got and make the most of it. You've got to enhance what's there, you can't detract from it. And he was wonderful, he just remade the dress [to fit my body].
What about Giles's show?
Giles is a completely different mood altogether. He's an extremely down to earth person, but his imagination is often quite dark and gothic which I think, image-wise, suits me well. We're a good marriage in that sense, I think. The most apparent differences were that Giles wanted something very theatrical, he wanted us to move as characters and take the stage and come up with our own interpretation, if you will, so that's equally very nice but then again incredibly different. It had more a couture line to it. And it was a really nice experience to be back in London as a Brit model coming on at the end of the show, kind of like a naughty surprise.
Do you have a favorite city for fashion week?
I don't distinguish between cities, but I do favor the designers that I have had loyal relationships with and thus far in both cities I've worked with my favorites. I want to see what Milan holds and Paris, who knows. It's still light years away, we still have ten days before that kicks off.
So we will see you on the runway in Milan?
Yes, and Paris. It's very funny both shows [so far] have been exclusives and I don't think that I have done an exclusive since the '90s. I wasn't sure those still existed, but there's a rumor out there that they do, so I just went with the flow.
Why do you think that is?
I don't know. Essentially, it's not up to me. As a model you do collaborate with a designer, but it is their vision. What you do is you bring it to life -- that's how you support it. So I suppose they have a very defined image that they wanted to portray. In both collections they've felt like I've been relevant to that. And maybe that's why it's ideal for me, because obviously being a relatively new mom too, it's great with child care issues because, of course, I want to be with my son as much as possible. But it is important that I get to do both, I feel very fortunate.
There is so much turnaround in the modeling industry. How have you lasted so long without burning out?
I'm celebrating 20 years this year, so it feels like an absolute feat to still be around and equally I think on both sides, that the industry is still receptive to me and that I still enjoy working with them. I don't feel any restrictions anymore and I want to keep on doing what I know how to do. The pace of the industry has changed a lot and I’m not suggesting I work every day, but when a project has meaning it's really great to be asked to be a part of that. For me, it was different in a sense that when a girl began her career, there was a feeling that you could cultivate and grow into yourself; you had time to do that, you had years of experience to be the best that you could be. I really admire a lot of the new generation of women walking today because they have to learn at such a furious pace. And they don’t often get to exhale, to enjoy the moment and to kind of process what they’ve just done. They are hard-working and it's their time and it's their moment and I think that's really important to acknowledge as an older model coming back now. And how great that we get to share the same stage--there's a reason that we are all there together in all of our diversity.
And the designers who want that diversity recognize how important it is.
They aren’t just supporting it, they are instigating that and I think it's really healthy. They are adopting this freestyle individuality again, that's what I sense, that characters are very much coming through again and they’re embracing women individually.
You started the Model Sanctuary to support young models through the pressures of entering the industry. Do models today still need that support?
It was practical support more than anything else, but what I really hoped to achieve on their behalf was to create a really positive creative space. It was really about getting young models and equally young designers together to brainstorm and to listen to one another and equally to feel heard and so they could understand the pressures on both sides. It's crucial that we appreciate how fast-paced the lives of our young talent can be.
I really believe it's a bit more challenging growing up these days. We have everything so fixated on immediacy, the gratification of having everything upon us. And you’ve moved on to the next before you’ve really allowed yourself to process what's happened, if that makes sense. That's a lot to do with the power of social media and there are two sides to that--there's the positive and, of course, the more challenging side. So really it's about giving some real human physical space.
What's next for you after fashion month in 2015?
I’ve got some really great options on my chart, so lets see what happens. It just feels good to be in that headspace again.
This interview has been edited and condensed.