On Philanthropy and Fashion: Q&A with Karen Elson
Iconic supermodel and musician Karen Elson has appeared in global campaigns for designers such as Alexander McQueen, Chanel, and Dior, and released her debut album The Ghost Who Walks in 2010. Elson grew up in Northern England and began modeling after being discovered at the age of 16 and has since worked with the world’s top designers and photographers.
A philanthropist in her own right, Elson is using her influence as a platform to inspire positive change in the world. She has previously traveled to Sierra Leone in her role as ambassador for Save the Children and received the Harper’s Women of the Year Philanthropy Award in 2015. In recent years, Elson has been involved in the Many Hopes organization – a non-profit that rescues Kenyan children from poverty, corruption and abuse by instilling them with a vision for justice and the tools to achieve it. This year on May 23rd, the Many Hopes Gala will be co-hosted by Elson to raise funds to build a school for 900 boy and girls in Kenya with 100% of the proceeds going towards construction of the school. We recently asked Elson about her philanthropic work and the impact it has had on her life.
J.L. SIRISUK: I would like to start out by bringing up The Citizen’s Band. Are you still involved with this project and how did it originally come to be?
ELSON: We haven’t done a show in a while, but I’ll always be a part of The Citizen’s Band. Sarah Sophie Flicker is such a dear friend, and I love everyone involved. Some of us have families and a lot of us don’t live in NYC, thus it makes it a little less easy logistics wise, but I’m sure we have more shows up our sleeves.
SIRISUK: With The Citizen’s Band you often partnered with numerous charities. Can you tell me about some highlights?
ELSON: Honestly our time with Deitch projects was truly a highlight, just as a time and place. The NYC art scene was exploding thanks to Jeffrey Deitch, and it was such a creative time for us all and partnering with Warby Parker during SXSW was also a massive highlight.
SIRISUK: You have traveled to various locations due to your philanthropic work – including a trip to Sierra Leone. How do you feel these experiences have impacted you?
ELSON: Going to Sierra Leone, the Cote D’Ivoire and Zaateri refugee camp has profoundly shaped me as a person. It’s true that I’m in a pretty fickle business and sometimes it’s easy to live in a bubble and not see beyond that. We all have things we struggle with, but to see people who have triumphed over such hardships and have a smile on their face is profoundly inspiring.
SIRISUK: This brings me to your involvement with the organization Many Hopes. How did your involvement begin?
ELSON: I met Thomas [Keown] through the model Jessica Stam. She was hosting an event and I was curious about the organization.
SIRISUK: Tell us about your involvement to date with Many Hopes.
ELSON: When I first went to the Many Hopes Gala, I was moved by what I saw and heard. Thomas [Keown] the founder spoke about Many Hopes’ mission and I was moved by what he was doing, especially for young girls who have been exploited. He was in Nashville not so long ago and I had breakfast with him and a human rights lawyer from Kenya and to hear first-hand the difference that they make for these girls moved me profoundly. Many Hopes is proof that no matter how big or small the NGO is, having a heart above all things can make a difference.
SIRISUK: So much about Many Hopes is focused on empowering young girls. Do you remember one of the first people you encountered while growing up in Greater Lancashire who made you feel empowered?
ELSON: My French teacher Ms. Hayes. She was so cool, had great taste in music and she really believed in me.
SIRISUK: Have you always been involved in community investment? I am very curious to hear about that moment when you decided to invest so much of your time and of yourself to social causes.
ELSON: I guess I had an “a-ha” moment a few years ago. I’ve spent over 20 years in the entertainment business and it can make you become so self-involved. I just started searching for something more meaningful and because I’m a mother, the plight of children profoundly moves me.
SIRISUK: There is this contrast between the glamour and the parties, and then the philanthropic work you do which is very much personal and not in the spotlight. Has this changed your sense of personal style at all?
ELSON: I would say my personal style has changed because I’ve got older not because of anything else. I live in the countryside in Nashville. I am much more comfortable in my skin these days than I ever was. I don’t overthink what I wear, as long as I’m comfortable, it could be a vintage dress or a pair of jeans and I’m fine
SIRISUK: Clothing can tell a story. Who are a few designers whose styles you have often returned to wearing?
ELSON: I love Valentino, McQueen, Marchesa and Marc Jacobs - the dreamy designers where fantasy and fashion meet
SIRISUK: What is coming next for you? What are you most excited about.
ELSON: I’m going to release a record at some point soon, called Double Roses. Very excited about that!
For information on the organization, please visit http://www.manyhopes.org/
Text: J.L. Sirisuk