Sunday, 11 October 2009


Described by Karl Lagerfeld as ‘one of the best models in the world’, Erin O’Connor brought a very English sensibility to the Parisian world of haute couture.

Born in Walsall on the 9th of February 1978, Erin O’Connor was born into an ordinary, working-class family and growing up, had her sights set on becoming a school teacher.

This all changed when Erin and her classmates were taken on a school trip to Clothes Show Live in Birmingham. Taking its lead from the iconic 80’s television show, the live event is a yearly trade show with top names from fashion, hair and beauty coming together to exhibit and promote their latest products. The event is also routinely attended by scouts from the top modelling agencies, hoping to find someone who has modelling potential.

This is exactly what happened to Erin: already grazing 6ft tall (without heels), the 17-yr-old stood head and shoulders above the crowd. Scouting agent Fiona Ellis from Models 1 spotted Erin immediately and knew she had found something special. She approached Erin, and with a little persuasion, she was signed up and began the business of becoming a model.

Erin had all the raw materials – angular, androgynous features, phenomenal height and a body built to showcase fashion. But it wasn’t until a photo-shoot in Brazil when Erin had her hair chopped off by master-stylist Guido (often seen working on contestants on ‘America’s Next Top Model’), that things began to happen – and happen rather quickly. Erin’s new, super-cool look grabbed attention from Paris, the home of haute couture.

Where Erin found her home was with Chanel. Walking the ready-to-wear runway for the label in early 1997, and then progressing to Chanel Couture in July the same year, O’Connor had found her niche. That editorial awkwardness, with the help of a confidence boost from booking shows with Fendi and Gucci, transformed into insouciant glamour that was perfect for couture.

Catapulted from her discovery at Clothes Show Live to the very top of the fashion industry, her strong features and faultless posture made haute couture the natural choice for O’Connor.
Possessing an unusual face, Erin lacked the poster girl prettiness of Niki Taylor or Kate Moss, herself just hitting the big time. Erin’s high-fashion, aristocratic bearing whispered of sophisticated, Wallis Simpson-style glamour. Erin had more in common with the Dior couture models of the 1950’s than her own peers: she wasn’t able to rely on perfectly-set features, but for couture this wasn’t necessary. However, a cast-iron self belief would prove essential.

Couture is the most difficult branch of fashion modelling to master, simply because the clothing demands so much of the model. Avant-garde and theatrical, couture demands a powerful performance on the runway: even a hint of self-doubt will show on a model’s face and the illusion is lost. Couture requires nothing less than 100% self-confidence, or it will overpower the model wearing it. Ideally the outfit and the model should work together to create a dream-like state of beauty and elegance which is what sells couture to its tiny but wildly affluent customer-base. They want to see the clothes at their most powerful, persuasive and most seductive, and only a good couture model can deliver that.

O’Connor’s unconventional, swan-like quality made her the ideal candidate for selling a $50,000 gown. In an interview with The Telegraph, Erin admitted that she never saw herself as the type of model who excels at modelling lingerie or swimwear. She was more of a specialist look, and had to tailor her career aspirations accordingly. Not being that classic all-rounder did her no harm whatsoever. By leaning on her strengths, O’Connor made her name by recognising her limits. She would never be anyone’s idea of a lingerie model, and that was just fine with her.

Her career, after the early triumphs of Paris, went on to even greater heights. She won ‘Model of the Year’ at the 1999 Elle Style Awards, and the year after that, signed a fragrance contract with Jean Paul Gaultier. The perfume, ‘Fragile’ played up to Erin’s image as the face of high fashion and even scored her a guest role on sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ in 2001.

Erin continued, for the next five years, to walk ready-to-wear and couture runway shows, even opening the Valentino Couture show in 2005, and closing the Christian Dior Couture show the same year. Erin’s affiliation with the world of couture was firmly set.

Britain doesn’t have a strong track record of producing great couture models, and Erin was not only a working-class heroine to aspiring models, but a tall, proud vision of what Britain had to offer the fashion industry. During the Nineties, the British fashion scene was not on such firm ground as it is now. A few standout names commanded respect, but otherwise it played second fiddle to New York, Paris and Milan. Good, but not quite good enough.

The arrival on the scene of not just a passable couture model, but a truly great one, could have not been more fortuitous. Erin O’Connor showed the fashion world that Brits were not just about avant-garde: they could do sophistication too. Ten years on from her discovery at Clothes Show Live, Erin was still an active presence in haute couture: opening and closing shows not as a ‘former name’, but as a working and bookable model.

With the recent celebrations surrounding London Fashion Week’s 25th anniversary, it is clear how far British fashion has come, and how differently it is regarded by the world’s fashion press. Names such as Christopher Kane, Richard Nicoll and Gareth Pugh are at the fore-front of modern fashion. London will always have an avant-garde flavour, but what has happened over the past five years is that it has acquired a level of polish that simply wasn’t there ten years ago.

If Erin’s career finished here, there would be plenty to be proud of. But Erin’s career took an unexpected turn in 2006, when she was invited to take part in a televised ad campaign for British high-street favourite, Marks and Spencer. A hallmark brand, M&S has been a highly visible presence on the high street for 125 years. But with sales falling dramatically, its image needed a drastic overhaul.

Using the best of British modelling talent, the campaign featured Erin alongside Twiggy and Laura Bailey. Loosely based on a ‘James Bond’ theme, the tongue-in-cheek approach won over customers immediately. Glamorous but fun, there was Twiggy flying the flag for the over-50’s, Laura Bailey’s chocolate-box prettiness and Erin’s unique brand of high-fashion, off-centre beauty. The intention was self-evident: the more people M&S could appeal to, the better.
Known chiefly for selling reliable, dependable basics, M&S had no option but to modernise itself and its stock. People’s expectations of fashion stores were evolving rapidly and in order to keep up, M&S had to give the people what they wanted: clothes that were fashion-relevant, fun and good value for money.

The public responded to the advert with immediate effect. Erin’s profile went through the roof. From the rarefied world of Parisian couture, to one of the most recognisable names on the high street, Erin had now done it all. Modelling the revamped high street designs, Erin applied that same couture sensibility to a £99 coat, giving the merchandise a high-fashion gloss that reintroduced the brand to women under 35, a demographic that had previously turned its back on the store. With Erin’s couture cache, M&S made major bank. It was the marketing strategy that saved the store from extinction.

It did Erin’s career no harm either. Applying everything she had learned from haute couture to M&S was a smart move. It gave the store major fashion points for having the guts to hire her in the first place, and made Erin a star. She was no longer the ‘weird-looking’ fashion girl – she had proved that her unconventional look could also take her to the very heart of mainstream fashion. In itself, it was a staggering achievement, but furthermore, was evidence of how fashion had evolved.

Fashion was at last ready to think of modelling in lateral terms: if one of the most successful couture models could sell sweaters to middle-class England, then the idea of segregating models was surely just limiting their potential. The idea of a high-fashion model being unable to do more commercial projects is now a thing of the past.

In 2007, Erin’s career again took a different path. Never afraid to try new things, O’Connor signed on to be Vogue’s blogger. She would write about her own experiences, new projects and offer a true insider’s glimpse into the fashion world.

Two years on, a fashion blog is nothing new. But where Erin’s writing differs from the thousands of commentators out there is that she has lived and breathed the experience. Erin offers a unique viewpoint, and presents a real coup for the Vogue website. In a week where fashion editors have acknowledged that networking site Twitter provided the best running coverage of the Spring / Summer 2010 runway shows, the link between fashion and technology looks set to grow even closer. Those on the inside are well-placed to push fashion further into the digital age as it grapples with survival both now and beyond the recession.

Erin O’Connor’s career has taken her from high-rise to haute couture. Her chance encounter with model scout Fiona Ellis in 1995 took a working-class girl right to the heart of the modelling industry. Erin showed Paris that British girls could master the poise required for couture modelling, and that an aristocratic swagger was not necessarily reliant on a double-barrelled surname.

Defying expectations has been the business of Erin O’Connor’s life. By side-stepping convention, she built a career based on her strengths. Erin surpassed the limitations of her unusual look, and found a home working for the very best designers in contemporary fashion. Doing all this while keeping a cool head is no easy task, but Erin did it. Scour Google for past and present interviews, and time after time, journalists enthuse about a talent that hasn’t lost the will or ability to be nice.

Erin reached those giddy heights in her career precisely because she stayed grounded. By staying true to herself, inside and out, Erin wised up to the fact long ago that nice girls don’t always have to finish last – and just look at where it took her.


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