‘Carmen: A Life in Fashion’ at London College of Fashion

by Katie on November 18, 2011

80 year old Carme Dell’Orefice is a living fashion legend. A model from the age of 13 (she made her first Vogue cover by the time she was 15), Madame Dell’ Orifice has been photographed by the likes of Horst, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Norman Parkinson and has even been painted by Dali. 

Born of poor immigrant parents, Carmen was in and out of foster homes, took rheumatic fever at 12 which ended her budding ballet career and, after modelling, made unfortunate husband choices (three) as well as disastrous financial choices c/o Bernie Madoff which resultantly means this hardy octogenarian still treads the fashion boards and works her old school glamour.
By a stroke of luck and persistence, her friend, illustrator David Downton persuaded Carmen to put her astounding back catalogue in order instead of lingering unloved beneath her bed and the result has been an exhibition worthily hosted by London College of Fashion’s Space Gallery (16 Nov 2011-14 Jan 2012).
Using photographs from Carmen’s archive, the exhibition tells the story of a shy, skinny New Yorker who blossomed into a high fashion muse in the 1950s, retired and came back in the 80s busier, more celebrated (and more beautiful) than ever – a megamodel rather than a supermodel.  Her humour is still razor sharp as she observes that today, she gets a bit bored with “the bad designers who try to put me in leather pants that I’d never wear”. 
Along the way Dell’Orifice worked with the defining photographers of each successive generation, made her catwalk debut in her sixties, wrote a best selling beauty book and took cameo roles in movies by Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

Curated for the Fashion Space Gallery by David Downton, the exhibition features images by Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Norman Parkinson, Horst P Horst and Lillian Bassman among others. Bringing the portfolio up to date is a stunning set of photographs by Ali Mahdavi, commissioned by London College of Fashion to celebrate Carmen’s 80th birthday earlier this year.

Downton comments, “Carmen is a born image maker and an expert editor of herself, as you can see in this exhibition. In an industry built on hype, hyperbole and the lure of passing fad Carmen’s astonishing 66 year career is testament not only to her beauty, but to her wit, wisdom, professionalism and unshakeable resolve.”

Carmen herself is sanguine about her achievements and her advice is simple: “Show up for the job. Be careful of the company you keep and have fun…If it’s not fun, it’s no fun!”  Wise words indeed.

Professor Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion comments: “It is a great honour to have access to such personal archives…We hope ‘Carmen: A life in Fashion’ will capture the public imagination and give a rare insight into the world of fashion through the lens of extraordinary photographers such as Avedon and Penn. It has also given us the amazing opportunity to work with Ali Mahdavi whose images of Carmen will be shown for the first time.”

Photographs by photographers in order: Leonard McCombie, Norman Parkinson, unknown photographer, Gleb Derujinsky, and Tim Petersen.

Carmen: A Life In Fashion’ runs from Wednesday, November 16, 2011 to Saturday, January 14, 2012 at the Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion, John Princes Street, London W1G.  Opening hours: Monday–Friday: 10am–6pm, Saturday: 10am–4pm, Sunday: Closed
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