Every night around 7 P.M. Nashville time, Karen Elson beams onto Instagram. “A song a day keeps the blues away,” types the redhead, before launching into acoustic covers of jazz, rock n’ roll, and folk. The 41-year-old leans against custom wallpaper by the artist Costanza Theodoli-Braschi and wears all kinds of things—a T-shirt from the sadly defunct Deep End Club that reads “GIVE A DAMN,” a black vintage Victorian blouse, a silk floral kimono.
It’s an elevated approach to quarantine style for sure, but besides shirts designed by Jenny Lewis and ruffled silk tanks, her daily wardrobe also includes—to misquote Madonna—“the great equalizer,” which is not actually COVID-19, but sweatpants. “My favorite are these woolen leopard print sweatpants that are incredible and the most comfiest thing,” she says.
Elson’s been wearing a lot of wool lately (see also: February’s Fendi runway…) and with good reason: just before the world shut down, she was on the podium at London’s prestigious Woolmark Prize crowning its winners—Emily Bode and Richard Malone—before heading home to maybe-hopefully-please-please finish her third studio album.
Here’s what’s on Elson’s mind this season, including transformation, nudity, and what happens when your sister steals your clothes.
Sweatpants are saving me right now. You?
I’ve refused to take mine off for like a year. I got them because I love wool and I needed a casual uniform for traveling and hanging out. I knew they had to be wool because it’s a sustainable fabric, obviously, but also because it’s just soooo cozy. You really can’t beat a beautiful, soft wool when you want to feel a little bit better about things.
Sweatpants are cool because nobody borrows them. But when people take a wool sweater, it starts conforming and stretching to their body…
Oh, like when your sister takes your sweater? Believe me, I know! But I think we need to embrace that. One of my favorite things about the Woolmark Prize finalists is that even though they’re obviously so sophisticated in their designs, they still distressed or warped a lot of the products that they were making, and I found that really interesting, because that actually is what gives a piece of clothing life, right? And if we're talking about being sustainable, shouldn’t it be cool that you can see the way a garment has lived? Shouldn’t we let the wool hold more stories than just our own body? I love seeing the wear, honestly.
We just did a piece on how people love the word “sustainable” but it can’t happen without industry change…
Right?! And there is a lot of secrecy within the industry of how things are made. I’m a big Richard Malone fan—I’m so happy he won the Woolmark Prize!—because he’s not just a designer, he’s kind of a historian. He saw me in this Simone Rocha dress today and he goes, “Hey Karen, did you know the color black does not exist in the natural world? So for us to dye a ‘true’ black, we need to be very careful about what we use so it’s not a toxic chemical.”
So you think smaller designers will have to drive the change?
No, I think everyone’s got to do it. We need industry-wise change, and I think honestly we have no choice but to innovate and evolve as an industry… But to me, sustainable doesn’t just mean, can it biodegrade. It also means, “Are people being ethically treated? Are they being paid fairly? Are they healthy while they work?” I’m talking about garment workers, of course, but I’m also talking about my industry. A fashion brand that wants to be sustainable has to consider models in that equation, too.
Like, a girl shouldn't have to stay at a fitting until 2:00 AM in the morning and wake up for her show at 6:00 AM and do it all over again, not getting paid very much, not having anyone checking on her mental or physical health, as long as she fits into the clothes. That’s not sustainable for anyone… and I think we need to do a better job of educating everyone who interacts with models on how to speak with young women. I can’t tell you how many times I’d show up on set in the ‘90s, right? I was a teenager, and someone would say, “Oh, I can’t wait to shoot you nude!” And then the same person would yell at me because my butt was too big for the sample-sized pants. Are you kidding me? Do you know what kind of warped ideas that creates in the minds of young women?
Do you think that would still happen now, even with the fear of being “outed” on social media?
Oh sure. I still hear, every once in a while, an echo back to me like, “Oh, you shouldn’t speak up about being treated badly by people. It could affect your career.” But if you want a sustainable career, you need to keep yourself well. That includes speaking up when something’s wrong. I’m not a huge fan of pointing fingers and going, “You did this!” I think for things like sexual assault, absolutely, you name the person. But for smaller things, I prefer saying, “Hey, I’d like to hold up a mirror to your behavior, and I’d like you to look in it, and we can talk about what we’re seeing.” Whenever it’s possible, being honest but kind is always the way forward. I really, truly believe that’s the way to create lasting change.
That and wool sweatpants.
Oh, and a giant wool sweater to go with them that you can just wear everywhere!
Faran Krentcil Editor at Large, ELLE.com "Her beauty and her brain go not together." —William Shakespeare