Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Carmen Dell'Orefice: living haute couture

I remember the first time I saw Carmen. She was featured in Vogue advertising Rolex. Gorgeous aristocratic looking woman with a quiet smile, amazing hazel eyes and a crown of silver hair. I read her name, Carmen Dell'Orefice, in a corner of the page, but my mind didn't register it.

It was just a name back then. A few months later I read a book called "Model. The ugly business of beautiful women" by Michael Gross and saw the name again. The problem is that my visual memory remembered the face, but couldn't put the two together, so I just finished the chapter and moved on.

I guess, my fashion fate had a different path for me and I was destined to learn more about Carmen because just a few days ago I read about her again. This time it was on Anya's blog and finally I realised that THIS woman and THIS name are the same person. I was stunned, then stared at the photos and, a few minutes later, run upstairs to get the book and re-read her story.

Carmen Dell'Orefice may not have been as popular as some other iconic models including Suzy Parker or Lisa Fonssagrives, but she is definitely the one who stayed in the business the longest. She is even featured in the Guinness World Records. "I am the least important model of my time" she said in her interview in 2008.

One of the things I admire about her is that she still remains as beautiful as she was 40 years ago and turns heads wherever she goes. Horst P. Horst compared her to a painting by Botticelli. Salvador Dali was inspired by her. She worked with the greatest photographers of the golden age of fashion including Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn (who she had a crush on), Erwin Blumenfeld, Francesco Scavullo, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Victor Skrebneski and Frances McLaughlin-Gill. She has modeled gowns for Mainbocher, hats for Mr. John and evening dresses for Galliano and the Emmanuels, who designed Princess Diana's wedding dress. She is still so busy and in demand that the Ford has to have a full-time agent to keep track of her bookings.

"I don't call what I do a career. I am just working. I refer to myself as a body for hire", she said to Pamela Fiori, the Town & Country magazine's editor in chief.

Carmen was born in 1931. A daughter of a Hungarian dancer and an Italian violinist, she grew up with relatives and in foster homes as her parents were continually breaking up and moving back together, but moved back with her mother when she was 7. In 1944 Carmen caught rheumatic fever and was in bed for a year. In 1945, healthy again, she was approached by the wife of photographer Herman Londshoff on her trip to a ballet class. Her mother agreed to let her pose for test pictures on Jones Beach.

"I was a big flop," Carmen says. "The magazine sent my mother a letter saying I was charming and well brought up but totally unphotogenic". Later, her God father with connections introduced her to Vogue and a few weeks later the fourteen-year-old's image was spread across seven pages of the magazine and she signed up a contract with Condé Nast for $7.50 an hour. She was just a skinny kid in love with a neighborhood grocer's son and now she was working for one of the biggest fashion magazines!

Carmen didn't have an agent at first, but then she found out that Powers was trying to reach her. She visited the agency and saw her full-length photos on the wall in Power's office behind his desk. She joined up.

Dorian Leigh was one of her guardian angels or her Big Momma as Carmen calls her to this day. Carmen and her mother, both accomplished seamstresses, also made clothes for Dorian. Carmen rolled-skated everywhere she went. A bus fare was five cents and she didn't have it. Dorian gave her a taxi fare and Carmen took it to her mother to buy food with. In 1947, with Dorian's help, Carmen won a raise from Vogue to $10 an hour and the right to shoot ads for $25 an hour.

She was so undernourished that Penn insisted she get medical treatment and plenty of sleep. After a regimen of iron and B vitamins for her anaemia and hormone shots to force her into puberty prescribed by a Condé Nast doctor, Carmen blossomed into a nymph. "I was 17 and looked 35", she says. Soon after that Mr. John, a milliner, gave a party to introduce her to eligible bachelors. She suddenly realised that she was attracting a number of café society names including DeCicco, the Long Island playboy and Gloria Vanderbult's first husband, Igor Cassini and Joseph P. Kennedy.

At twenty-one she married William Miles, ten years her senior, with whom she had a daughter. The marriage didn't last; neither did her second, to a photographer Richard Haimann, nor her third, to an architect Richard Kaplan who said she was too old for him.

She returned to modeling because it "was only one thing I was qualified for, one thing I had experience at, one thing I loved doing" and succeeded.

Her life story is not a fairy tale, but more of a beautiful haute couture philosophy of living a stylish life and remaining true to yourself no matter what life throws at you. Perhaps, this is her secret of her amazing ageless beauty? Who knows...

Sources: "Town & Country" travel magazine, 2008, "Model. The ugly business of beautiful women" by Michael Gross, images via google images, tfs, fashion model directory.