Carmen dell’Orefice is not only the oldest working model in the business—she may also be the wisest. The octogenarian landed in Berlin for a short stint (the second in five months) to deliver a talk on the art of modeling as part of the Liberatum Berlin summit. We caught up with the white-haired force of nature, in between cocktails and dinner, to learn about that very first shoot with Vogue in 1946, her definition of luxury, and who is the most stylish person she knows.
Carmen dell’Orifice: […] Listen, fashion is a tool, it's not an end in itself. That's my statement, I've said it. That's about it.
AD: Amazing. Done. [laughs]
Okay, so we'll start if that's okay with you. We’ll just converse…
CdO: I thought that's what I'd been doing?
AD: [laughs] I want to start with 1946. Your first Vogue shoot—how was it?
CdO: It was my home. It certainly had more interesting clothes than were in my mother’s closet—that 90th and 3rd Avenue cold-water flat that we lived in—and I loved it! It was every girl's fantasy: wearing a full-length sable, Maximilian coat, and somebody sitting me in a chair, in a chiffon dress, telling me how beautiful I was. I didn't even know what that word meant applied to a human being, much less me. But it made me feel good, because it made me feel like I was doing something right. Because I could sit still for an 8 x 10 camera, with all the hot lights, and not sweat too much, you know?
AD: That's incredible. You're obviously a style icon. What would you say defines your style?
CdO: The world. The world and my perception of how I fit in the world, because style is an ever-changing development of self. You don't want the self to be stagnant; you want it to grow, to expand. You want it to have some colour, some dimension. Fashion for me has always been a tool that I use to experiment and see who I am through what I wear, and how people react to me in what I wear. So I'm always looking for a connection, as a human being, and fashion and style are tools that I use to expand my human world.
It's not an end in itself, fashion is not an end in itself; happiness is, honesty is, you know? I don't get stuck in the rut of labels. I have no agenda. I don't need my own jet. I don't want something unless I understand how it comes to me. I'm not after it. In the book I'm finally going to write, there will be a chapter: "The men I didn't marry and might have, and the world would've been happier about my life." I'm the only one who's truly happy with my life. My friends are always saying, "How could you do that, how could you make such a dumb decision?" Well, but I'm happy, and that's the secret. I'm rather pleased, you know, meeting Carmen at this time in her life, that she is such an honourable, straight, honest, good, fun-loving person, and she never ceases to amaze or disappoint me.
AD: How would you define luxury?
CdO: For me, time is luxury. It's not a place, it's not a thing; it's luxury. Luxury is turning on a faucet, water comes out and I don't have to carry buckets to get it. I don't know, I must have been a serf in another lifetime—if you believe in all that. No, luxury is having people, and having the time to tend to a garden, a garden of friendships. Luxury. If you're talking material things, my up-and-down bed, which I finally got myself—that's luxury. I can put my feet up, my head up. It's fun!
AD: Speaking of beds, what is the first thing you do in the morning?
CdO: I stretch in my bed to wake my body up. That's so I can get up without tweaking my back. It's like warming up before you do exercise, right? Then I go onto my balcony, which is now enclosed, where I have my little Tunturi—it's so old, my little bicycle—and I do five minutes, just peddling, to wake up my brain, to see if I really want coffee. Because now when I drink coffee in the morning, about two hours later, it doesn't feel the same way as it used to feel.
There are simple things to do. Everybody's metabolism is different. I'm born with a metabolism. I've been heavy at times because I went through ice cream periods. I didn't lose enough weight after I was pregnant. I was 22 and I weighed 155 pounds after I had a baby. But I gradually lost the weight, and kept working. So I did flannel night gowns for Macy's then. There's always a job, you know? If you don't have this thing like "I'm somebody. This image has to be there, or else…" No, I'm doing the job. Give me the job, let's see if I can do it.
AD: Yes, absolutely—beautiful. What, in your opinion, are the qualities that a contemporary woman should embody?
CdO: Well, I think it's rather classic and basic—I don't see it that often, because the world has turned so materialistic: to be ready to be a partner; to get over falling in love, and to think about being in love. It's a different scenario. Don't marry because you're scared, and someone wants you because you're attractive and you can get the roof over your head. Self-knowledge is so lacking, because we pick up superficial information and we forget the basics. To do the dirty work, you know. It's how you think and what you do when no one is looking. As Marcus Aurelius said, "As a man thinketh, so is he."
AD: Tell us about a time when you looked around and thought: "Wow, I love my job."
CdO: Four days ago. I was working with Fadil Berisha, the photographer who did my Rolex campaign. He said, "I don't know why they never used you on a make-up campaign." And I said: "You weren't alive when they used me." [laughs]
AD: Who is the most stylish person you know?
CdO: You're going to maybe not like this, but I have a housekeeper who comes in four hours a week on Wednesdays, Karen. I wait for her to arrive, because she's tall, if I fall down she could pick me up and carry me—she's strong. She has a nice shape. She has such a sense of herself. I can't tell you what she has on, but I look for her to come in my door with her straw hat. She has this wonderfully coloured skin, these wonderful arms and tone. She's a grandmother, she's 50-something. She does all my laundry, keeps my ferns watered, and she never ceases to amaze me. Now if you're talking about people in society, or movie stars, you know, it hasn't registered with me since Babs Paley.
AD: What is your wish for the world?
CdO: After survival, to move out of the Tower of Babel that we have become. We are our brothers keeper, but we have forgotten that. We have forgotten how to do that—and myself included to whatever extent. I'm not exempting myself. I have this platform, people notice the career. I take great pleasure in the fact that I can keep feeding a career, and doing a job. I've done what I can for cancer, for the Boy's Town of Italy.
Things would change if we all contributed on a minor scale, if every human being did what they could with the little they have, and if it could be efficiently used and not stolen by the people in charge. Because you contribute, and you don't know where it goes, because the world is corrupt. So I wish for the de-corruption of the world. The epiphany—for something to happen to wake up the consciousness of people. Because when 800,000 Somalians are starving to death, the press covers what makes them money. Nobody speaks about the starving people in this country, which is a big story. And the uneducated children—please, don't get me started. I'm a positive person, but what I'm looking at is pretty grim. I'm glad that I don't have to grow up now. It's a challenge. The arts are the only hope to transform, honestly. When there's a sour note in music, you know it—it's not a lie. It's not slick-willy, like the people on top, who have a dialogue. It's a closed club, and it's ugly. This is fashion, right? But, every day, I try to contribute something, one-on-one, like what I'm doing right now. And maybe there will be a nice message out of all this that you've found.