20 Sense

20 SENSE: Carolyn Murphy, Model & Design Director


In a time when huge swaths of models seem cookie cut from the same cloth—underage, underfed, lacking in (or being forced to hide) personality—I find myself gravitating towards those who don’t fit the mold. Those who have been around the block a bit longer—who are actual WOMEN, not girls pretending to be so—are especially appealing to me when seeking inspiration in fashion. Carolyn Murphy has always been a favorite—hers is a classic beauty, but one that strikes you in a way you can’t forget. Beyond that, every image of her conveys that there’s more beneath the surface—thoughts and feelings (whether pleasant or pained) present, though held back from the viewer. She’s the picture of intriguing (take this 2013 VOGUE spread where she plays the part of Hitchcock icon). It’s no surprise that she was chosen as one of VOGUE’s Modern Muses for their 1999 Millennium cover, and it appears she’s triumphed over the fickle whims of time—still wholly relevant, still 100% muse-worthy, and kicking even more ass with a new gig as design director at the Detroit-revitalizing brand Shinola. Below, Murphy talks to me about what she learned from her twenties that helped turn her into the woman she is today.


How old are you? 41

Describe your trajectory since turning 20 up until now. The trajectory since I was twenty to now has been steady in [following] “with age comes experience and with experience comes wisdom.”

What surprised you most about your twenties? What went exactly as expected? What surprised me most about my 20s is that I ended up modeling and becoming the face of brands I grew up with. I was also surprised at the money I was earning and lifestyle I was experiencing, it felt like a dream! What went as expected was marrying in my late twenties and then having my first child. I had always wanted the white picket fence and a family by the time I turned 30.

Do you feel like you’ve found your niche or are you still searching? I’m forever searching for my niche, but I think it can be multifaceted, especially as a modern women–we can do so much! However, I would say motherhood is one niche that I feel most comfortable in.

What excites you more about life: the enigmatic experiences or those with extreme clarity? I love a bit of both! That combination keeps me balanced and keeps life interesting. I’d be bored if it was too black and white.

What did your twenties teach taught you about romantic love? Friendship? My twenties taught me that romantic love is not a John Hughes film–not to see every man through rose colored glasses, to dip one toe in at a time rather than diving right [into a romance]. Fantasy is different from reality. Friendship is key, it’s what gives you your core strength, besides family. For me, my tribe of friendships is my go to–it takes a village.

What motivates you? I’m motivated by the joy I get from motherhood and am always striving to be the best I can be for both myself and my family. I am not motivated by fame and fortune–I am much more driven by people with interesting stories, as well as authenticity and compassion.

Where do you get the most inspiration? How do you snap out of a creative rut? I get the most inspiration from my daughter and from nature. [My daughter] Dylan is so free, full of innocence and wonder (even though she’s quickly morphing into a teenager). Spending time with her jolts everything back into perspective. Nature, on the other hand, is where I find solace–where I recharge and gain clarity. When I’m in a creative rut, I turn to my journal and energy work as well–clearing any blocks by exploring how I feel through writing or by clearing chakras is monumental.

Biggest pet peeve about the fashion world? Favorite aspect of it? I have many pet peeves about the fashion world, but if I had to chose one I’d say the [negative] judgements and attitude. We are not saving the world here, so be creative and be an artist in your own respect–there’s no need to be mean and “holier than thou.” My favorite aspect of it is the actual creative expression through fashion, and the many unique walks of life that different artists bring together. I have so much admiration for the hard work and artistry that goes into garments, photography, styling, hair and makeup, etc. It’s a beautiful circus!

If you had to create a twenties survival kit what would it include? My 20s survival kit would include a book/guideline of what to expect. I would base it on the anthroposophical findings of Rudolf Steiner, who says that in our 20s we seek heroes outside of our family, we are seeking our own identity. I would include an aromatherapy kit, a nutrition guide and an assortment of spiritual workbooks. It’s by going inward that we find the important answers, not by looking outward.

Did you always know you wanted to work in the fashion sphere? Or was it more serendipitous? I had zero clue or goal of working in the fashion sphere. It was serendipitous because I was such a tomboy and my mom had to put me in “finishing school.” Thankfully so!

Though you juggle numerous roles today, your first gig was as a model. What would you say are the upsides and downsides of that specific career? My first gigs were actually working in retail stores, as a lifeguard, a horse groomer and hostess at a restaurant, which I think gave me more of an appreciation for my job as a model. That’s the upside of having to pound the pavement for a few years before being discovered by the best photographers, stylists, magazines, etc. But that was a downside as well, because I felt like giving up many times over after being rejected endlessly–it put me on a roller coaster of high and low self esteem.

How has your acting experience been in comparison? My one acting experience also gave me an appreciation for my modeling career. It was such hard work, to go to the emotional depths and bring a new character to life, not to mention being on set for long hours, sometimes days into nights. I decided that acting was not for me, but I have a lot of respect for diehard actors, they have an indescribable passion.

On top of all this, you’re now the Women’s Design Director at Shinola–how did that partnership come about? Is it refreshing to work in a space that’s less in the spotlight? The partnership with Shinola came about after I was suggested by photographer Bruce Weber for their advertising campaign, and while on set I met the owner of the company. He and I clicked instantly and bonded over a shared passion for the revival of industry in America. He’s a no bullshit kind of guy and it was so refreshing to be around someone like that, who wants to change peoples lives, create jobs and rebuild an entire city. Also, I could just [relax] and be myself while focusing on this larger, necessary movement. At Shinola, we all work as a team–it’s not about me.

And, finally, what is the best advice you could give someone just starting out who wants to follow a similar career path? My best advice would be to stay true to yourself–don’t bend, be kind to everyone and, most important, be kind to yourself–even if that means not doing what everyone else wants or thinks you should do.

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