Here, she discusses her enduring success in the fashion industry as she stars in her latest campaign for Airfield
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” said Mark Twain. At 85, Carmen Dell’Orefice is officially one of the world’s oldest working supermodels (the number one slot goes to Daphne Selfe, 88) and as can be seen from her latest campaign with Airfield, she is living by Twain’s ideology. In a further bid to promote its philosophy that “every woman is a superwoman”, the Austrian fashion brand called upon Dell’Orefice to front its A/W16 campaign (replacing 58-year-old actress Sharon Stone, who starred in S/S16).
Beginning her modelling career as a teenager, New York native Dell’Orefice has witnessed seven decades of fashion and is therefore an authority on the ever-evolving industry. She was scouted while riding a bus on the way to ballet class by the wife of photographer Hermann Landshoff. A year later, she did her first of many shoots for Vogue and by 15, she had signed a modelling contract for $7.50 an hour.
She admits how modelling was never her dream – “At the time I still thought I would become a world-famous prima ballerina”– but simply a means of getting food on the table. Her impoverished parents (of Hungarian and Italian descent) struggled to support their only daughter when she was growing up and, without a phone, Vogue sent runners to her home to tell her about jobs and she roller-skated to shoots to save on bus fares.
“I fear that young people are encouraged to buy expensive items that they cannot afford and don’t actually even want. Fashion magazines no longer recount the stories they did when I first started modelling.”
Dell’Orefice worked with fashion legends Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton by day (who reportedly would pin back her dresses and stuff the curves with tissue because she was so malnourished) and by night go home to wash her bed sheets in the bathtub and take sewing jobs with her mother to make rent. What must it have been like leading such a double life? “To be honest at 14 you don’t think that far ahead,” she answers. “You’re just happy that you don’t have to go hungry. And I could afford the things that were important to me. But I never dreamt of diamonds or haute couture.”
From a young age, Dell’Orefice learnt the value of money and as a result believes the fashion industry today encourages women to be too materialistic. “I think that recently it has become quite silly – and everything is expensive,“ she says. “I fear that young people are encouraged to buy expensive items that they cannot afford and don’t actually even want. Fashion magazines no longer recount the stories they did when I first started modelling.”
The model has never been a big shopper, but has long been a fan of Airfield for offering pieces that suit her varied lifestyle. “You have to understand that I go out a great deal; sometimes I might go to a palace to meet a queen, then on another day I’m at home and need to go to the supermarket.”
“When I was 40, I was 40. I didn’t want to be 20. I’ve always done my job – to mirror the look of that respective year. That is precisely why it has always felt wonderful to stand in front of the camera.”
Dell’Orefice has struggled with financial troubles all her life, having been exploited by her first husband (she has been married three times), Bill Miles, with whom she had her only child, Laura. Miles would reportedly pick up her modelling checks and only allow her a $50 allowance. In the 1980s and 1990s, she allegedly became bankrupt after losing all her money in the stock market and then, in 1994, she became close to notorious fraudster Bernie Madoff (who was good friends with her boyfriend Norman F. Levy) and was just one of his unfortunate victims swindled out of her life savings. In 2008, she declared herself bankrupt for the second time and returned to modelling to support herself.
Despite the many upheavals and loves lost, the supermodel has always been comfortable in her own skin. “I’ve always been mindful of my age and how I earn my living,” she says. “When I was 40, I was 40. I didn’t want to be 20. I’ve always done my job – to mirror the look of that respective year. That is precisely why it has always felt wonderful to stand in front of the camera.”
For her 85th birthday in June, American Vogue paid tribute to Dell’Orefice’s impressive career, showcasing 100 photos of the model from its archive. Starting with her first appearance in the magazine as a waifish teenager and incorporating all four of her cover girl shots, each image conveyed her timeless beauty and ability to transform herself like a chameleon.
For Dell’Orefice, the secret to her success lies in the fact that she has always stayed true to herself and this would be her advice to any burgeoning model. “I always say to women that it is more about taste than it is about money when it comes to your looks. Copy nobody and have the courage to express your own personality.”
Dell’Orefice has worked with some of the biggest brands and fashion houses, including Rolex, Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano, not to mention some of the most renowned photographers of the 21st-century. She tells me how working with artist Salvador Dali was the highlight of her career – although to this day she has never seen the picture he did of her. Eileen Ford is her most trusted mentor and close friend, having opened up “the school of life” for Dell’Orefice when she set up her agency.
Today, the model looks arguably even more captivating than she did when she was young; with her chiselled bone structure and striking silver mane, she cuts a fine figure of a sophisticated and worldly woman. She believes her humble upbringing, living off a plant-based diet, is what has kept her in good health all these years, along with the simple lesson she was taught in ballet. “Balance is my mantra. I only understood in my 40s how important it is. I have never taken drugs, never smoked, but I do weigh things up by enjoying a little drink.”
“I always say to women that it is more about taste than it is about money when it comes to your looks. Copy nobody and have the courage to express your own personality.”
Dell’Orefice has always been very open about having had cosmetic surgery over the years. “You can usually tell when people have had a helping hand. So it actually doesn’t make any sense to keep quiet about it. But it’s up to the individual to tell people if they want to, or not.”
In her characteristically matter-of-fact manner, the model notes how it is little wonder the fashion industry is so obsessed by youth, as it is simply perpetuating every consumer’s dream. However, she does hope that one day there will be “a balancing act of bringing together the old and the young” and brands such as Airfield are already taking steps in the right direction.
So the big question: has Carmen Dell’Orefice ever considered reitirement? “No,” she answers, simply. “I want to enjoy every day of my life and work is a part of that.”