Sunday 18 August 2019

Model citizen - supermodel Erin O'Connor to receive MBE

Supermodel Erin O'Connor will strike a pose in Buckingham Palace this month when she's presented with her MBE - an award her little son Albert calls her "good-girl sticker". Our fashion editor meets her to talk about work, her deep Irish roots and why she's thrilled to be turning 40

Rosy outlook: Erin in Dublin for the 2017 ISPCC Brown Thomas Fashion Show. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Rosy outlook: Erin in Dublin for the 2017 ISPCC Brown Thomas Fashion Show. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Erin with hat designer Philip Treacy in Galway
Erin O'Connor portraits by illustrator David Downton done in The Fumoir Bar at London's Claridge's hotel, where he has been artist in residence since 2011.
An Erin O'Connor portrait by illustrator David Downton
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

Who's taking bets on which hat designer Erin O'Connor will wear to Buckingham Palace this month, when she collects her MBE for services to fashion and charity?

Now, if I were a betting woman, I'd say her head might well be dressed by Irish hat designer Philip Treacy. The two have become such good pals over the years, with the Galway man choosing Erin to model some of his most dramatic headpieces.

But hard as I might try, Erin is giving nothing away about 'the outfit', and her lips - slicked a dramatic red today - are positively sealed.

We're meeting up to discuss her work at the Brown Thomas Fashion Show in aid of the ISPCC (Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). Other than the secret details of her outfit for the palace, everything is up for discussion. When it comes to celebrity interviews, that in itself is unusual, along with the fact that our private conversation is deliciously free of managers, agents and PRs.

Erin with hat designer Philip Treacy in Galway
Erin with hat designer Philip Treacy in Galway

Now 39, Erin O'Connor is refreshingly devoid of supermodel pretensions. This is the woman Karl Lagerfeld described as "one of the best models in the world". But the model who was 'discovered' attending the BBC's Clothes Show Live in Birmingham as a teen in 1995, is one of four children from an Irish Catholic family who grew up on a council estate in Walsall with a furnaceman dad. That upbringing provided major ballast, and joy, in Erin's life. "I'm Irish through and through," she says. "Most people know the O'Connor bit, but we have the Gallaghers, the Dunnes and the Redmonds in my heritage too." Her extended Irish family stretch from Clare to Newry and up to Ballycastle, Co Antrim. "We spread ourselves well - we like to make ourselves comfortable all over the country," laughs Erin, who goes on to explain how "twice a year we congregate en masse and we end up in Ballycastle, where my dad, Cahal, grew up, and we still have a lot of links there".

Indeed, anyone who watched Erin's Instagram feed over Halloween last weekend will have seen the family gathering - filled with fun and dressing up as pirates on the beach with her three-year-old son, Albert, and his dad, Erin's long-term partner Steve Gibson, a tech entrepreneur.

That solid Irish upbringing stood Erin in good stead when she went off to model for the likes of John Galliano, Christian Dior, Prada, Versace, Jasper Conran, Giorgio Armani, Jean Paul Gaultier and Dolce & Gabbana. Of her parents' reaction to her journey into the world of modelling, she says, "They were and are very brave.

"With me, there was a sense of... isolation, because they weren't able to be with me on my adventure. It was beyond the capacity of anything any of us had ever experienced, or thought we would ever experience, and they trusted me to be their very well-behaved middle child and to venture out into the world - and hopefully come home one day and bring something back that enhanced us all in all sorts of different ways."

Continuing the tale, Erin says, "Talking about Mum and Dad and myself and my son, we are off to [Buckingham] Palace in November because, as my son calls it, I'm getting a 'good-girl sticker' from Her Majesty."

It was announced in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in June that Erin would be receiving an MBE for her service to the worlds of fashion and charity.

Erin O'Connor portraits by illustrator David Downton done in The Fumoir Bar at London's Claridge's hotel, where he has been artist in residence since 2011.
Erin O'Connor portraits by illustrator David Downton done in The Fumoir Bar at London's Claridge's hotel, where he has been artist in residence since 2011.

"It will be special and it will be the first time that my two very different worlds have collided in terms of being who I am in our lives as a family. I'm really honoured and I have a designer who has very kindly offered to make me something, so I have a nice hat, pair of shoes and an outfit."

One thing is for certain, Erin wouldn't have been short of offers, given her incredible contacts in the world of couture and designers. One of the lasting friendships she has made has been with fashion illustrator and portrait artist David Downton whose work (above and right) is among the most recognised in the fashion industry.

When I interviewed David for the release of his book of portraits - drawn in Claridge's, where he is artist in residence - he described to me how he first noticed Erin at a Gaultier show and was "immediately transfixed".

He said Erin had all the qualities he was trying to achieve in his drawings: "tall, linear, graphic, black and white. She looked like no one else. I engineered a meeting and have drawn her countless times since, becoming great friends in the process".

Erin explains her own attitude to her work as a model.

"I found it was a good approach to have: that no matter how terrifying, I always made sure I said yes before I allowed myself to say no to new projects I was offered. The assumption that other people thought I was capable and ready - even if I didn't feel myself I was ready - has been brilliant.

"It's allowed me to write if I wanted to express my own views and opinions, and it's allowed me to share my own imagery in a way that I would choose to be seen," she says.

"I started out when I was 18 and how great that I'm still walking in shows and doing the work I always hoped to do - and just keeping busy balancing [being] a mum [with being] a woman in my profession."

A swan-like beauty, standing 6ft tall without heels, Erin is dressed in a black velvet Peter Pilotto dress the day we meet. The look is sleek and sharp but there is a kindness and warmth in her hazel eyes.

Happy to be in Dublin, Erin says, "I've just started my relationship with the ISPCC so I'm willing to assist in any capacity; it's really about trying to raise funds to go directly to the charity. I've been lucky to be asked to represent Save the Children, and my own private charity is called Born: they both focus awareness on raising funds for premature babies, so I guess we are going right from the beginning of life to adulthood."

Erin hopes she is using her profile to improve the lives of children. "Children are our most important people: they will replace us. We've all been there and so it feels right to give back."

Unlike others models who have made the career transition from the catwalk into clothing design, Erin says she didn't presume she would "follow on to be a designer".

Maybe it's because I've had the fortune to really see what the designer process is. Many of the garments have literally been made on my back so you understand what it takes to design - the hours and the creativity. I think I would be more comfortable performing rather than creating."

However, she was involved in the creation of a T-shirt range for charity. "For me it was about the incentive [Fairtrade]."

When I nosily enquire about her own wardrobe and whether she has archived her pieces, Erin laughs out loud.

"You would be absolutely appalled," she says. "It lives in a tomb-like state in my attic at home. I will A-Z it one day. I just didn't get there yet."

While acknowledging social media is "always going to be a double-edged sword", Erin says, "I do use social media professionally and actually, in recent times, I've decided I'm okay with it: it's a comfortable narrative for me to speak in terms of imagery and I've archived images that I've never seen.

"It's nice to be able to control my own output." With her 40th birthday coming up in February next year, Erin says she is "having fun planning that party. "Turning 40, for me... it's a great exercise in displaying a woman growing in every possible way. That's the platform I have. We all respond to fashion. It is a very powerful tool: it's universal. I'm happy to fly the flag.

"I think I would be genuinely very worried if I picked a moment, and a decade, and stuck to my guns because I thought that was the best piece of me. That would be a real damn shame."

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