Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Helena Christensen

It's not easy being a superannuated supermodel. You can sponsor an animal sanctuary. You can become a UN goodwill ambassador. Or - like Helena Christensen - you can open a boutique.

Promptly at noon, as scheduled, Helena Christensen strides, long-legged and efficient, into Butik, her shop in the West Village, New York. Before she's even taken off her coat, she's sat down at a computer, sent an email, made a call and calmly rearranged a conflicting appointment, a model of professionalism and problem-solving in action.

If it weren't for her still-stunning looks - at 37, a bare-faced Helena displays the dewy skin and perfectly full lips found only on the most genetically blessed - it would be hard to imagine that this whirlwind presence ever spent as much time as she did in the relatively passive life of a model. She absent-mindedly clips her brownish-auburn hair into a bun as she sits down to talk, as if doing the female equivalent of rolling up her sleeves for a bit of work.

'I thought, when I stopped modelling and slowed down, I'd want to find peace and settle down somewhere,' she says, talking about this new phase of her life, her accent a blend of American and Scandinavian influences (Christensen's mother is Peruvian; her father, Danish). 'But that didn't happen. I just became more manic about experiencing everything.'

Although she's probably still best known for her work in front of the camera, posing for the likes of Herb Ritts and Peter Lindbergh and Bruce Weber, in recent years Christensen has been revealing much more of herself. No, not the body that Gianni Versace once decreed the most beautiful in the world, but the considerable talent and creativity that happened to come with that perfectly formed package.

She has established herself as a serious photographer in her own right, with shows in Paris, London and New York, as well as regular work shooting for prestigious fashion magazines.
All the while raising her son, Mingus, who's now six, and last year opening Butik, which sells a whimsical mix of fashion, antiques and desirable objets reflecting Christensen's love of the granny chic aesthetic both in decor and clothing.

'I would describe Helena's style as bohemian,' says Leif Sigersen, the Danish friend and flatmate with whom Christensen opened the shop. 'She can take something very expensive and make it look casual, or she can buy something for $2 at a flea market and make it look a million dollars.'
When Christensen walks in, Sigersen gives a quick approving appraisal of her sweater: a Jane Mayle royal-blue cardigan, a chunky knit that looks streamlined thanks to a belt at the waist. She wears it over jeans by Edun - the socially conscious clothing line created by Bono's wife, one of her many rocker friends - with a delicately sexy, brown peasant blouse under the sweater, open just enough at the collar to show a span of tanned d├ęcolletage.

And is the shirt also Jane Mayle? 'It's H&M,' says Christensen. 'A lot of things there, once you wash them, they get better and better.' Everything in the shop has that quality, though heaven forbid it should be mass-produced. A late 19th-century wicker rocker, one of Christensen's favourite finds, purchased at an estate sale in upstate New York, is proudly displayed on a ledge. Elsewhere, a century-old Bulgarian wedding dress, all organza and embroidery, hangs as if it were a piece of art.

Children's clothing and mittens are spread on a white couch; when swept away, they reveal that the couch, which Christensen calls 'the life of the store', also serves as a kind of scrapbook.
'Today I am a star,' someone called Michael has scrawled on the couch - Christensen's friend Michael 'REM' Stipe, it turns out. 'Helena and Leif, it's magic here!' someone called Maggie has written (the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, that is). Meanwhile, Liv (Tyler) writes that she thinks the shop is beautiful.

Similar sentiments come courtesy of Sarah Jessica Parker and Julianne Moore. The couch seems to embody the shop's ethos: lovely objects are also playthings, made to be used, not put behind glass. 'I like the feeling that the pieces are filled with soul,' Christensen says. 'It makes you feel closer to life and nature.'

Christensen herself has never been one to hide behind glass. While other supermodels were too scared to go to the Paris shows in 1991 because of the imminent first Gulf War, Christensen got herself on a plane and landed a great season. 'Of course the designers were happy to see me,' she has said of that successful run. 'I was the only one on the plane.'

Christensen is one of the few supers of her generation not to have attracted tabloid attention for her partying or her attitude problems. But nor has she opted for a safe and staid private life with some billionaire hedge-fund manager or minor royal. She was drawn instead to the INXS star Michael Hutchence, whom she dated for five years. (They broke up in 1995, five years before Hutchence's death.)

In 1999 she met, through Herb Ritts - possibly the world's most glamorous matchmaker - the former Prada model and actor Norman Reedus, with whom she had Mingus. The two have since separated, but live around the corner from each other and remain friends.
As for why the romance ended, Christensen is vague. 'You couldn't say whether it was one thing or another,' she says. It's seems, though, that the pressures of child-rearing might have played their part.

Asked how couples can stay close throughout that first difficult year of parenting, Christensen looks weary. 'It's something everyone has to work out for themselves, and all I can say is good luck.' Christensen has primary custody of Mingus, although Reedus steps in when she's away with work. If they're both working, her mother, who has already taught Mingus to speak Spanish, flies in to help out.

Mingus is now old enough to have his own opinions about fashion, to his mother's pride and dismay. 'I like to put him in beautiful old-fashioned children's clothing, but he goes, "You've got to be kidding!"

'He wants to wear the sporty, hip-hop look. I'm like, "What do you mean you don't want braces any more, they're so cute!" And he says, "They're for a baby." And I say, "You are a baby! You shouldn't even be able to form the sentence to tell me you don't want to wear it!"'

Not that Christensen is in a position to complain: she herself was an early starter in experimental fashion. At high school, a typical outfit would consist of a vintage dress worn over a hospital gown worn over long underwear - with sneakers.

'The boys would say to me, "Maybe you should get up a little bit earlier so you don't come to school in your pyjamas,"' she says, laughing. But her mother never stopped her as she walked out of the door. 'She might not have said, "That looks beautiful," but she might have said, "That's really interesting."'

These days, Christensen travels for three months of the year, and spends four with Mingus in Copenhagen, where he was raised for the first two years of his life. Although she divides her time between New York, Copenhagen and her home in Monaco, she's also a frequent visitor to London, usually squeezing in a trip to Topshop, where no one so much as asks for her autograph, let alone an opinion on the stock. 'I don't get stopped, because everyone is so manically shopping.

No one gives a shit who's next to them - all they care about is who's going to get to that piece first,' she says. 'It's very hectic - the music is pumping, you really feel they are all teenagers, and you're not. But I like wearing new things. I'm not talking about expensive new things, but there's just something joyful about putting on something new, walking out of Topshop with ten things.'

Christensen says she looks for straight, clean lines, rather than tight, fitted skirts or trousers. 'There's a lot of man in me,' she adds, mentioning a Dior men's suit she recently had lightly tailored to fit. 'Or maybe it's that I don't want to wear anything too tight because I need to feel
like I can eat. Food is the most important thing to me.'

As Christensen is talking, the photographer gears up for the shoot and a make-up artist applies the lightest of touches to her face.

'I like it to look natural,' she says. 'I'm always telling young models to take all that shit off their faces. They're so much more beautiful without it.' Some shimmer on her eyes, a little mascara that she applies herself, a touch of lip stain, and the striking, 37-year-old beauty suddenly gives way to a full-blown supermodel, her green-blue eyes emphasised so they take on an otherworldly quality.

For the first of the shots she puts on a dress and jacket by one of her favourite Danish labels, R├╝tzou, which she stocks in the shop. It's a springy, loose-flowing look with a bit of spangle at the waist, a combination typical of the designers at Butik: even the chunky-knit sweaters have a bit of glitter woven through them, giving a girlish influence to the otherwise faded, sea-worn colours Christensen favours.

Although she clearly loves the freshness of the Danish designer's work, it is a delicate vintage dress in taupe that gets Christensen most excited. Tightly fitted above the waist and flowing below, it's sheer enough that it needs to be positioned just-so for the embroidered flowers to cover her decently.

The dress hangs on display in her home and every six months, she says, she takes it down to make sure it still fits (it does, thanks to a fast metabolism and a recent interest in boxing). 'I keep thinking it has to be worn at the most exquisite event ever. If I was going to get married, I'd wear it, but that probably means I'll keep it for ever. Or I'll probably get married when I'm 92, and then the dress won't fit me any more.'

Letting her favourite vintage fashion finds go to the shop has been a bit of a struggle, she admits. 'Sometimes Leif comes home, and he seems really quiet, and he'll say, "You know that dress you loved? Well, I'm sorry to tell you it was sold today." And we'll both be like, "Oooh." And it will be a really sombre evening.'

source: Telegraph


Blogger A Novelist said...

Thanks for the post...I love Helena. :)

10:00 AM  
Blogger Miss V said...

Me Too! Always nice to have *new* news on semi-retired models.

10:48 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home