"My life is like an episode of Hoarders: the vintage edition," quips singer-songwriter and top fashion model Karen Elson, surveying the racks upon racks of slinky silk and velvet dresses and exquisite sheer garments dating from the 1920s to 1950s, all of which she keeps in her colorful Nashville home.
Back in the music spotlight after a seven-year hiatus, the British-born, flame-haired Elson, 38, just released her soulful sophomore album, Double Roses, on H.O.T. Records. It's a delicate, dreamy meditation on life's meaning that is worlds away from her organ-heavy, murder-ballad-laden 2010 debut, The Ghost Who Walks, which her then-husband Jack White produced.
Before Elson linked up with White (they were married for seven years, divorcing in 2013), she was performing as a founding member of the downtown New York cabaret collective The Citizens Band. Her solo outing didn't occur until she was working with her ex-husband, and she shyly wrote the songs for her first album while self-sequestered inside a pink-walled closet in the couple's Nashville house.
This time around, she has resettled in a 1940s country home on Nashville's outskirts, where she lives with her two children (she shares custody with White). As a songwriter, she is now fully "out of the closet," she says with a chuckle. It's a good thing, too, as all of her enviable closet space is now put to use housing color-coordinated racks of vintage garments and a shoe collection to rival any New York or Los Angeles counterpart's. (More than half of her shoes come from footwear designer Tabitha Simmons, who has been one of Elson's closest friends since their early days as models living in Tokyo.)
Elson was scouted by an agent on the streets of Manchester, England, and became a fashion phenomenon by age 18, thanks largely to the Steven Meisel-shot Italian Vogue cover for which she shaved her eyebrows. Her love of vintage, she says, came early on. "Being part of the fashion world, I really don't follow trends -- they come and go so quickly. When I put a vintage dress on, it just has this timeless quality that you can't replicate."
A perk of the job for a model who regularly graces the pages of Vogue and walks the runways of Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs: expert guidance. Legendary downtown New York designer Anna Sui would see Elson rummaging for pieces when she lived in Manhattan before moving to Nashville with White, and taught her the ins and outs of scavenging. "She helped me figure out what good vintage was and where to shop. There's a real distinction between just a ratty old cotton dress and a beautiful, first-class vintage dress."
Elson's home also includes an attic full of garments from her Nashville shop Venus and Mars, which she closed in 2010. "I realized that a lot of people in Nashville might want to find a beautiful dress for the night out, but they are not really as interested in the magical vintage 1920s dress as I am; they wanted a good rock T-shirt, and I didn't have any of those," she admits. Whether onstage, where she favors vintage slip dresses or vintage-inspired frocks from The Vampire's Wife, a line by Nick Cave's wife Susie Cave, or during downtime (today she is wearing a pleated dusty rose crepe-silk vintage skirt paired with a black vintage camisole), Elson is still most at home in garments that are from or evoke earlier eras. "There's mystery in it -- you don't know where it is from, you don't know what story it has had -- and there's a charm to it. Sure, me in jeans and a T-shirt is fine, but it's not me in a beautiful vintage dress."
Elson finds her treasures, which can cost a few hundred dollars and up, wherever she goes. While in Milan during Fashion Week in 2016, she picked up a '70s-era Valentino number at Cavalli e Nastri (a fashion-world favorite vintage store she deems "next level") that she wore to Mumford & Sons guitarist Winston Marshall and friend Dianna Agron's wedding in Morocco. A stunning deep blue velvet dress she scored at the now-shuttered Virginia Bates shop on London's Portobello Road -- where John Galliano and Donatella Versace were regulars -- was so delicately aged that raindrops shredded it when she wore it to another wedding in Kauai, Hawaii. "With each drop, the dress would split," she recalls. "I was like a shipwreck on the dancefloor at the wedding. I loved every second of it. It's only the last few years that I realized that's the only way to live. I think it's because I'm getting older, there's a lot less f - cks I give these days."
Of course, Elson has weathered other storms since her divorce. But while her new album -- largely helmed by producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty) and recorded in Los Angeles to help achieve that "sorrowful" Laurel Canyon feel -- explores matters of the heart, "it's more about the aftermath of divorce than the divorce itself," she says. "It was that Eat, Pray, Love moment in my life where you're just alone and trying to figure out what it's all about." Allowing herself to be so vulnerable in the music has come naturally. "Writing from the heart, people listen to it from the heart," she says. "Because I'm a model, people primarily see me in a magazine, where I'm so untouchable. Music helps bridge that gap. I don't want to be so untouchable at this point. I'm 38 years old, and for the first time in my life, I feel completely comfortable in my own skin." And in vintage dresses, dancefloor-shredded or otherwise.
Where She Shops
"Nikki Lane is an amazing singer who also has this vintage store in Nashville, and she has the best taste. I just did a music video for 'Call Your Name' and borrowed a bunch of stuff."
"Every time I go to L.A., I make a pilgrimage here. It's a culture as well. The people who go and shop for vintage -- we're all a bit rough around the edges."
9th Street Haberdashery
"There are lots of little vintage shops in the East Village in New York, but this is a special one I always return to."
This article originally appeared in the April 29 issue of Billboard.