Carmen Dell’Orefice is the style icon to rule them all

Bella Hadid, 21, and Kendall Jenner, 22, frequented Paris Fashion Week like a pro yet there was one stunning beauty to rule them all. Carmen Dell’Orefice, 86, is obviously the only true runway star and style icon of fashion. The renowned model closed the show for Guo Pei (the couturier behind Rihanna’s iconic 2015 Met Gala look) last year being the oldest working model in the world.

Her fairytale starts at the age of 13. While riding a bus to ballet class, she was approached to model by the wife of photographer Herman Landschoff. Her test photos, taken at Jones Beach, were a “flop” according to Dell’Orefice. In 1946, her godfather introduced her to Vogue and the 15-year-old signed a modeling contract for $7.50 an hour. She became a favourite model of photographer Erwin Blumenfeld who shot her first Vogue cover in 1946. She appears in the December 15, 1947 issue of US Vogue as Little Red Riding Hood, Snow Whiteand Cinderella along with model Dorian Leigh, actors Ray Bolger and Jose Ferrer. Dell’Orefice and her mother struggled financially, and her modeling income was not enough to sustain the family. With no telephone, Vogue had to send runners to their apartment to let Dell’Orefice know about modeling jobs. She roller-skated to assignments to save on bus fares. She was so malnourished that famed fashion photographers Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton had to pin back dresses and stuff the curves with tissue.

In 1947, Dell’Orefice’s rate was raised to $10–$25 per hour. She appeared on the October 1947 cover of Vogue, at age 16, one of the youngest Vogue cover models. She was also on the November 1948 cover of Vogue. She worked with the most famous fashion photographers of the era, including Irving Penn, Gleb Derujinsky, Francesco Scavullo, Norman Parkinson, and Richard Avedon. Dell’Orefice was photographed by Melvin Sokolsky for Harper’s Bazaar in 1960.  Mark Shaw photographed her for the classic Vanity Fair lingerie campaign in which Dell’Orefice obscures her face with her hand and she was painter Salvador Dalí’s muse.

Despite her early successes, modeling agent Eileen Ford declined to represent her and Vogue lost interest in her. Her thin frame required medical attention. Doctors prescribed shots to start puberty,[citation needed] and her new curves brought her work in catalogs modeling lingerie at $300 per hour. She joined the Ford Modelling Agency in 1953 yet she retired from modeling after her second marriage in 1958.
After her third divorce[citation needed] and in need of funds, Dell’Orefice returned to modeling in 1978. In 1984 she appeared on the cover of Quarante Magazine, a newsstand quarterly publication subtitled, “For the woman of style and substance” In the 1990s and 2000s, she modeled for Isaac Mizrahi’s clothing line at Target, as well as Cho Cheng and Rolex.

On July 19, 2011 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts London, in recognition of her contribution to the fashion industry. The university sponsored a retrospective exhibition curated by illustrator and long-time friend David Downton, featuring Dell’Orefice’s Vogue covers, career highlights, and photographs from her personal archives.

For 70 years she has graced catwalks and magazine covers, and inspired some of the greatest photographers and artists of the past century, from Parkinson and Avedon to Dalí. After speaking at London College of Fashion’s annual Fashion Matters gala last Thursday, Dell’Orefice, a former ballet dancer and swimmer (she missed the 1948 Olympics because of a broken leg (spoke to Harper’s Bazaar about a life in fashion that spans decades and inspires us all. These are some highlights of her interview.

“I’m totally formed by my mother’s interest in fashion. As a Hungarian immigrant, she couldn’t afford clothes. She made all her clothes from patterns. It was not dépassé to make your own clothes, it was a respected skill and it was financially expedient. I learned that doing it yourself, having self-discipline and working went hand in hand. Sometimes we have to do a job we’d rather not do in order to put food on the table. But to work passionately at something is the key”

“My accidental beginning in fashion happened in the fall of 1945; I was brought to Condé Nast through a staff writer called Carol Phillips who ultimately became the president of Clinique. I was 13, I think, when my first pictures were taken and 14 when they were published… Horst passed me on to Cecil Beaton and in the first three weeks I had worked for Clifford Coffin, Erwin Blumenfeld, Irving Penn, Constantin Joffé… they became my mentors and my surrogate family. They treated me as a human being and I realised I was something. When I was in front of their camera it was a silent language of me paying attention, them paying attention to me… Beaton brought me to Salvador Dalí. I was friends with Dalí until the day he died. They all decided I was in their life permanently. Lucky me. I can’t say why. I didn’t live to be noticed, I lived to enjoy the excitement of doing right that day, and I knew I was doing it right when they would have me back. That was the thrill for me. I yearned to be validated because my mother was stern and I never did much right, that’s how I perceived it. My mother was hard-working; she gave up her theatre life to go take a regular job to feed me during the Thirties in the Depression”.

“We run into adversity, but we don’t have to stay there if we have imagination and a way to help ourselves change course. Sometimes we can’t – knowing the difference is wisdom and the acceptance that we have enough”.

“Fashion matters to the degree that it is, for the sighted person, the first language we speak to each other. We are… “judge” is a very harsh word, but we’re taking in and we’re evaluating. Who is this person? What do I have in common? Do I respect them? All of that is that unspoken visual impact”.

“I try to be an inspiration to the young to respect their older people; we can’t stay the same, but we do the best we can with what’s left. You can’t whine about stuff, you have to learn to eat humble pie along the way and keep going, because the alternative is going to happen”.

“My philosophy is the balance of remembering the past but not living in it, to know where you are in the moment, to project a little in the future and be ready to change. It’s how you experience the grace to enjoy the smell of the pavement after a rain – the little things in life to make you satisfied. I never settle for anything that doesn’t give me a modicum of pleasure if not total joy and satisfaction. It’s allowed, that’s what we’re supposed to feel. How can we, from an empty cup, offer a stranger a drink of water? You have to fill that cup to the brim!”

Read more of her wisdom here.

Cover photo via @carmendellorefice_official / Instagram