Today a quick scroll on Instagram gives you the minute details of any given supermodel’s breakfast, her pug’s breakfast, her holiday in Tulum and her sage quotes on how to just relax, breathe and follow your dreams. In this age of unprecedented access, it is almost admirable that it took a month to track Kirsten Owen down. The 1990s poster girl doesn’t have a mobile phone, according to her agent, who is tasked with finding her somewhere between her home in Toronto and the Canadian wilderness. “I didn’t want to be connected,” says Owen – by email, eventually – about her decision to forgo modern conveniences.
Remaining reclusive even when in the limelight has long been Owen’s story. Notoriously shy, with an awkward, complex kind of beauty that can make her seem at once strong and melancholy, she found success early, appearing on the covers of Elle in Italy, France and Spain in 1987. She went on to become one of a handful of models whose anti-fashion, grungy look defined an era; a model who was so much more than just a pretty face. One of three sisters, Owen grew up on a farm in rural Ontario where “my mum was working on her log house, chipping away to expose the original work.” It was Owen’s mother who saw her daughter’s potential. “My mum noticed one day when I was wearing a woolly hat. She said, ‘You sure could be a model,’” says Owen. Quite the understatement. In Paris in 1988, revered hairdresser Julien d’Ys befriended Owen and introduced her to photographers Paolo Roversi and Peter Lindbergh. Owen punches out a list of memories that would make most models weak at the knees, recalling, “Guido [Palau] cutting my hair for that Italian Vogue shoot and cover with Steven Meisel. Working with Avedon and Joe McKenna. Epic shoots with Bruce Weber. Doing The Face with Craig McDean, meeting Pat McGrath, hanging out backstage... waiting forever with my colleagues and friends... laughing.” Given Owen’s predilection towards the quiet life, it’s perhaps little wonder that Helmut Lang, the famously reclusive designer, chose her as his muse. In 1997 she became the face of his label; there was no one better for the role. In 2005, Lang retired from fashion, after selling his brand to Prada, and moved to rural New York, where he now works as an artist. What was it like working with Lang? Does Owen still see him? Of their time together, she says only, “Helmut is quiet and cool. His energy is strong.”
To many, it appeared that Owen had followed Lang’s lead, ducking out of the industry. In fact, she was busy juggling her work and two children. “I was working a lot and being a mum. It was hard. It really goes against the grain to leave your kids when they’re that little.” But she’s quick to point out she never really left. “I always worked – it’s just like that. That’s the nature of the work, lulls and busy times.” However, like many fellow supers – Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer and Stella Tennant, to name a few – Owen is having a moment. This year alone she’s modelled in Vogue Italia, Numéro Tokyo and Love, and has walked for Chanel, Rick Owens and Mary Katrantzou. Fashion might favour youth but Owen and her gang offer reputation, expertise and an unobtainable glamour that new girls, for all their Instagram posturing, just can’t match. “I think it could be interesting to be older, for people to relate,” says Owen of growing up in front of the camera. “Of course I think about ageing. I’ve always been interested in being really healthy, so I just go for it!”
This time around, Owen has learned “not to analyse” herself too much and maintains that very little in the industry has changed in the 25-plus years she has been working. Thankfully it seems, neither has she. There’s no clothing line, paparazzi snaps, reality-television stints or yearning for the stage – she simply remains an old-fashioned enigma. §
Nails by Kayo Higuchi at De Facto using Chanel Le Vernis
Styling assistant Caitlyn Leary
Set design by Josephine Shokrian