Cover story

Back to Basics


Carolyn Murphy

Carolyn Murphy Talks Family, Fashion & Community

After a staggering three decades as one of the industry’s most sought-after models, CAROLYN MURPHY has walked for the world’s most desirable labels, worked with the biggest names in fashion and traveled the globe. Yet it’s a connection to nature, family and community that really inspires her, as TILLY MACALISTER-SMITH discovers

Photography Alexandra NatafStyling Ilona Hamer
Cover Stories
Main image: blazer, Proenza Schouler; top, bite Studios. Above: blazer and pants, Michael Lo Sordo; shirt, Totême; shoes, Rejina Pyo

It’s International Women’s Day in early March, and around the world ladies in power are speaking out for those who have no voice while social media is alight with messages of solidarity and progress made in recent weeks and decades past. This is a time just before COVID-19 has gripped the west, and sunshine floods a top-floor photo studio in Brooklyn, New York, where the sisterhood is indeed thriving and working. Jill Scott’s Golden riffs over the speakers from photographer Alexandra Nataf’s playlist, while stylist Ilona Hamer paws through rails of elegant tailoring. Padding around in bare feet, slouchy suit trousers and a beaming smile is Carolyn Murphy.

The legendary supermodel has recently returned from walking the FW20 runways for some of fashion’s biggest names, including Isabel Marant, Fendi, Off-White, The Row and Zimmermann. It’s 30 years since Murphy started modeling, then a shy and wholesome anomaly in an era of powerful supers, excess and private jets. Despite being one of the most sought-after faces in the industry, the recent jaunt took her by surprise. “I hadn’t planned on doing shows. I’m 46, I thought I had retired from that!” she laughs. The reality is that, at this point in her career, Murphy can pick her jobs. She closed The Row because “Mary-Kate and Ashley are friends of mine; there’s such a sisterhood with the two of them. I really admire their intellect and design sense.”

“I think the BEAUTY of the industry, and the WORLD, right now is the INCLUSIVITY”

Blazer and pants, Balenciaga; top, Off-White

And although she had been reticent to do too many shows, walking for Virgil Abloh in the Off-White show in Paris was an easy decision. “He’s so intelligent and kind, and interesting. I was chatting with Gigi in the fitting, who I adore, and they brought out the dress!” she exclaims, referring to the skin-tight white knit dress with a cutaway midriff that revealed her perfectly toned abs. “There was such collective energy in the fitting – I felt empowered, actually.” Clearly, Murphy enjoyed the liberation that came from her recent runway stint. “There was this sense of ‘What have I got to lose?’ It was all about having fun. I think the beauty of the industry, and the world, right now is the inclusivity. I think many years ago they wouldn’t have accepted a 46-year-old on the runway, and now it’s open to all age ranges, which is so nice.”

With a stellar three-decade-long career (that shows no signs of slowing) and her daughter Dylan, 19, to be proud of, she seems assuredly comfortable in her own skin as she enters life’s midway point. “In your forties, there is this wisdom that comes. My health is intact, knock on wood, and everything is kind of settled. On the flip side, what is the next 50 years going to bring? It’s an interesting crossroads.”

“In your FORTIES, there is this WISDOM that comes. My health is intact, knock on wood, and everything is kind of SETTLED”

Blazer and pants, Totême; necklace, 1064 Studio
Blazer, JW Anderson; pants, Khaite; belt, Loewe

Despite her experience – which includes fronting campaigns for Prada, Tom Ford and Max Mara to name just a few, a marriage and divorce, and raising her daughter – she registers barely a hint of patina (“I do have lines!” she insists, as I lean in, analyzing). Murphy has the kind of natural beauty that radiates health and inspires campaign tag lines (she holds the longest-ever Estée Lauder contract at 20 years). A believer in her grandmother’s slogan – “beauty is as beauty does” – her recipe is remarkably simple: eating a vegetable-based diet, sleeping with the window open for fresh air, drinking lakes of water (she carries her 64oz water bottle everywhere and downs two of these a day), avoiding alcohol and using “globs of moisturizer when I travel, the thickest I can find”. Without a scrap of makeup, her complexion is flawless.

And as revealed by that cutaway Off-White dress, her body has never looked better. For Murphy, health and wellness is a way of life, rather than a regime. “I have to do something physical to clear my head, but I’m not a gym rat. I’m much more outdoorsy; I like hiking. I don’t surf much anymore, but I do a lot of yoga – Iyengar and Vinyasa.” She grew up as a competitive swimmer and recently took it up again. Her love of animals also keeps her active, although she recently lost her beloved horse Doc, whom she’d had for 18 years. But, happily, she still has her two loyal Labradors, Rupert and Emerson (the latter named after the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson).

Blazer and pants, The Row; necklace worn as bracelet, Loren Stewart; ring, Saskia Diez

“It wasn’t always EASY to juggle my CAREER and being a single mother, but I had support from my FAMILY and community”

Blazer and pants, Jil Sander; watch, Cartier

A self-confessed homebody, she prefers to cook than dine out, grows a lot of her own food and knows her farmers personally, clocking up trips to the markets even in the middle of winter – an impressive feat for a New Yorker surrounded by convenient options. Hers is a nourishing approach rather than one of abstinence. “I’m not into anything bonkers like fasting or cleansing. I’m all about food. I recently spent a month with my dear friend Shalom Harlow in Hawaii, connecting with these agroforestry, biodynamic organic farmers and visiting their different farms.”

Cooking has provided an important way of connecting with Dylan, too. Murphy learnt the skill from her own mother, who would cook organic vegetables from the family farm in Virginia. “Dylan went to a Rudolf Steiner Waldorf School, and a big part of the philosophy is that you are connected to everything in the natural world. Steiner really predicted this technological age after the industrial age, and emphasized the importance of mind, body and spirit, a connection to nature, and that’s what we are going back to now. For me, it was second nature for Dylan to have that.”

Is the missive true that we all become our parents in the end? “Dylan is much more together than I was,” Murphy admits. “She’s not on social media. She toiled with it for years then got off. She appreciates fashion like any other young woman, but she has no interest in the industry itself. She’s just very wise. She came into the world like that. I had a home birth on the farm I had in Upstate New York and I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘Wow, she’s going to teach me.’”

Blazer, Deveaux; pants, Salvatore Ferragamo; necklace worn as bracelet, Balenciaga

Murphy will soon be entering a new chapter of motherhood, as Dylan prepares to head off to college. “Oh gosh! I can’t even… it is so tough,” she says, playfully shaking her head in her hands. “It wasn’t always easy to juggle my career and being a single mother, but I had support from my family and community, and the luxury of a career that didn’t demand me full time. I tailored my career around motherhood, even if it meant taking fewer jobs and earning less money. Now I’m at a different place where I can do whatever I want, when I want, and it feels a bit foreign to me. I guess I should start dating again!” Dating apps spook her, but she has on occasion been seeing friends of friends. “We’ll see. I do need to get out there, but I also just want to be quiet and curl up with a good book and cook and watch great movies at home.”

Even before quarantine restrictions shut down much of normal life across the globe, there was an underlying, perhaps growing, sense of turbulence perpetuated by political uncertainty, climate warming and hour-by-hour headlines. How does she keep her unflappable composure? “I’m human. Even though I meditate and do yoga, the mind is always going. I think about the polarity in our world right now and I don’t think the messaging is healthy. It’s what’s going on around us with the weather, with politics. The best thing you can do is try to stay centered and healed in our own way, because if we are not centered in ourselves, then how can we expect the rest of the world to be?”

Her aptitude for positivity relays to philanthropy. “I’m not an activist, I’m an advocate,” she states. Her approach is authentically baked in from a childhood, with a focus on the ocean, animals, nourishment and children. “Animals and children don’t always have a voice, we have to protect them, and I’m passionate about the ocean because I grew up around the water and surfing.” Specifically, she supports the Surfrider Foundation, The Wellness Foundation, Animal Haven, Edible Schoolyard NYC, Ocean Unite and No More Plastic and has also worked with Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project.

“I like my WARDROBE to be like my HOME – uncluttered and simple, neutral colors, QUALITY versus quantity”

Blazer and pants, Totême; necklace, 1064 Studio

Murphy’s instinctive tendency is all about paring things back to their natural state, an approach she also applies to her style, which feels particularly pertinent right now. “I like my wardrobe to be like my home – uncluttered and simple, neutral colors, quality versus quantity.” Her knack for stripping things back extends to houses: she has an effortless and intuitive talent for making beautiful, understated homes – both her own and occasionally for friends. Often, she sustainably repurposes materials for her interiors, enjoying the community-building aspects of working with local suppliers and artisans. However, she winks, “a can of white paint cures almost anything”.

Murphy lives in Brooklyn, preferring it to Manhattan, as “there are trees and I have a garden and can open my windows to birds singing”. She is close to finishing the renovation of her 1800s townhouse. “This one was challenging because there were so many layers – toile and chintz from the ’70s, from the ’80s.” She also has a home in the Hamptons and splits her time between the two. Her country-beach-city life today reflects that of her childhood: born in Florida, Murphy’s upbringing played out on sunny beaches, the bucolic Oxfordshire countryside in England and the family farm in Virginia.

Looking ahead, what does she hope for? There will be the launch of her website, called Mama Murphy’s, an idea for practical advice and guidance that came to her a decade ago, inspired by the simple concept of going back to basics and living simply, which feels more necessary than ever. “It’s interesting how foreign the idea of simplicity can be to some people. It’s a lifestyle brand for modern folk.” And her plans for herself? “To have a really good time, to laugh a lot, to open myself up to new possibilities and new things. I don’t ever want to stop learning because that’s where I thrive. There’s that great quote, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’”

Blazer, Acne Studios; top, Re/Done; pants, Bottega Veneta; sneakers, New Balance