WHO CARES WINS. Lily Cole is a British fashion model and acted in films including The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus of Terry Gilliam. Her recent book Who Cares Wins features interviews with Sir Paul McCartney, Elon Musk and Extinction Rebellion co-founder Professor Gail Bradbrook. An entrepreneur, the synthesis of Lily’s thinking is optimism for a more sustainable and peaceful future.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Lily Cole, your life has many different facets. Please tell us what you are doing now and what your plans are?
I’m constantly juggling multiple balls, since I was a teenager. At this point in time, I have a few companies I set up that I’m still an adviser to. I have a big passion for film and filmmaking, and I started directing as well. I stepped away from the fashion world for quite a few years and have recently felt the desire to be open to reembracing that world. The industry is becoming much more responsible. Not the whole industry, but more and more brands are trying to make products in a better way.
On the front cover of Vogue at age 16, you were model of the year in the 2004 British Fashion Awards. How come you then read literature at King’s College, Cambridge and own a share in a bookstore?
I started modelling at 14. It’s a curious job that pulls together a group of humans purely because they had the right genetic make up for that particular moment in time to be asked to model. Most industries pull together a group of people based on an interest, so within the modelling world you have a very eclectic group of human beings. It’s not that I chose modelling. Modelling chose me. And I was bookish. I’ve always enjoyed learning and the studious aspect of school. I made the decision at 16 to carry on with my education and go to university. My brain wanted to be fed by that, and it was a grounding counterbalance to the modelling and fashion world.
In that world you worked for big names like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Gianni Versace; companies like Gucci and Hermès; magazines like Vogue and Harper’s. What experiences were important to you?
I was really inspired by the amount of creativity that manifests in that industry. I’ve had this performing instinct since I was young, and I loved the madness and theatricality of the Couture Fashion Week in Paris. Dior and LaCroix and Galliano and Jean-Paul Gaultier put on elaborate shows. I particularly loved Alexander McQueen, his shows were incredible theatre. I did a thrilling show where it was half models and half dancers, and the whole show was a dance piece. I worked with great photographers too:- Steven Meisel, Tim Walker, Nick Knight.
Was there an element of narcissism in being photographed by these famous photographers?
Inevitably a bit (laughs). A very young, successful model is told you’re amazing and beautiful and gorgeous and fabulous and all these things. But you’re self-employed and you can be hired or fired at any point, based on purely how you look, so it also breeds insecurity. I don’t think the performative element for me personally was narcissism. I was inspired to be part of something that felt theatrical as opposed to industrial.
How did you reconcile all this glamour with the anonymity of being a student at school and reading History of Art at Cambridge University?
The simplicity of school was a nice, healthy counterbalance. My friends didn’t see me in any special way. My good friends from that time are still my good friends today. When I went to Cambridge I was a bit more guarded because there I was sometimes paparazzi’d, but I managed to make a few friends that felt very genuine. It was quite easy to just be real.
“Many humans have the desire to make things better, and that’s where I derive some optimism.”
Lily Cole, in 2009, you were asked by the American film director Terry Gilliam to be a character in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In this fantastical morality tale you played the role of Valentina, working with actors like Christopher Plummer and Heath Ledger. How did you jump from fashion and Cambridge to Terry Gilliam?
You have to ask the gods why it happened (laughs). It was amazing luck. I had to postpone going to Cambridge by a year in order to do Terry’s film. Out of the blue I was asked by Marilyn Manson to be in a film that he was making based on an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. We made a short film, but never made the feature length film. Then I was asked to work on a different project with Sally Potter, another wonderful director who made a film called Rage about the fashion industry. The casting director was also casting Terry Gilliam’s film and put me forward for it. I didn’t have an acting agent, it all happened in a magical, serendipitous way. I was incredibly privileged to work with Terry and the actors that you named on Dr. Parnassus.
Later you played Nina, the lead role of Chekhov’s play The Seagull?
I did that in my last year at Cambridge. I hadn’t been very involved in the drama department at Cambridge because I was travelling and working a lot so I wasn’t there enough to commit to plays.
Are you very concerned by global change and a future more sustainable world?
I am. It has been a big preoccupation of mine. I was brought up by a very activist mother who impacted me in many ways. When I started working in fashion, I was not only working with big companies, but I was also being approached by different charities and organizations to support different causes. Being a curious person, I would start exploring these ideas and try to learn more about the different issues that we were facing. I quickly came to realise that it didn’t make sense for me to be doing work in the business world with no worries about how stuff was being made, and then separately to do philanthropy or charity work. Business has a huge impact on the planet, and that impact can be very negative or it can be very positive, so I became interested in trying to work with companies and support products that I believed in. That led to me to different ideas of businesses to found, not because I wanted to be a business person at all, but more because I would have ideas and then try and do it, and then accidentally have a business that I needed to manage.
As a top model you had to travel extensively. Today have you discovered the pleasure of a slower life?
I’ve been trying to lower my carbon footprint and make more conscious choices in what I eat and buy. I’ve really struggled with travel. My job required that I travel a lot, and I love the many positives of travelling, seeing new cultures, new places. In the last few years I have adopted a slower approach to travel. I have an electric car, take trains when I can, and when I do fly I try and make it a longer trip and so fly less. It’s not perfect, but that’s been my approach. A philosophy of slowing down can have a positive impact in terms of our footprint, and also in terms of our happiness and our ability to enjoy experiences and appreciate the things we have.
You published Who Cares Wins, with Penguin. What is the philosophy of this book?
I went to Penguin and said, “I’ve been working in this social, environmental, political space for the last 15 years, and I’ve seen so much positive change, so many trends going in a positive direction. The news around the climate crisis is getting ever more scary and there’s a lot of negativity in the news. There’s not enough focus on the solutions and the positive trends that are emerging, which if we as individuals and as communities and as companies and even as politicians help to push, we are more likely to then see succeed.” The book became a compendium of different solutions. I researched a ton and I interviewed one hundred plus people working in different fields, from food to fashion to technology to waste to indigenous communities to feminism, trying to present a comprehensive view of the huge number of people who are working on solutions. If we give them our support, they are more likely to come into being.
Are you always an optimist?
Not necessarily, there are many days and times when I feel pessimistic, but we can choose optimism. It’s something that I try to keep choosing, sometimes more successfully than others. We have the chance to help navigate which direction the future goes in. My philosophy is based on a big belief in the power of every single person put together collectively, and to realise the power we each have in shaping the future and to not feel apathetic and that it’s out of our hands. It’s not to pretend that there aren’t huge challenges we still need to face, but we have legally abolished slavery, we have given women the rights to vote, we’ve built welfare states, we are now creating carbon targets and putting more pressure on companies to perform in a positive way. From the wider perspective there is a lot of positive change underway. Martin Luther King (after Theodore Parker) said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Many humans have the desire to make things better, and that’s where I derive some optimism.
“Being open as a human being is probably a better space to be in than being closed.”
Lily Cole, what do think about the MeToo movement?
I definitely support the underlying premise. I don’t like cancel culture, witch hunts, trials by media. We have judicial processes for a reason, that people are innocent until proven guilty. Sometimes that gets ignored, and so I have mixed feelings about how it’s manifested at times.
Do you have a special relationship with food, different ways of eating, growing your own vegetables etc.?
Very much so. Food is one of the biggest things we can think about when it comes to our impact. Unfortunately, I’m not growing my own vegetables at the moment because we just moved, but I was growing them last year which was fun.
Where did you move?
From England to Portugal. I became vegetarian when I was 10 years old, and then pescatarian, and then cut out dairy and then eggs. Now I’m mostly vegan. In the beginning it was about animal rights, but now it’s also about the environment. Even the risk of pandemics is connected to the animal agricultural industry. I try to buy organic and local and seasonal, but it depends where I am and if that’s accessible or easy.
Are you a good cook?
Not particularly good (laughs), I’m alright. I think I’m a good baker. I love baking.
Did this coronavirus time help you to mature some new ideas?
I hope that we all take stock and learn something from this experience. For me personally, it has had an impact. I’m in Portugal. We weren’t planning to move to Portugal, that was a decision made last year in the midst of the pandemic. I would like to have a place in the countryside that I can nurture. I finished writing my book and then all the ideas I talked about were forced on me. Stop, slow down, simplify.
What about your bookshop, Claire de Rouen Books?
Claire de Rouen Books specializes in photography and art books. It used to be in Soho in London. Now my friend Lucy, who runs it, does different pop ups and off sites, and sells online as well.
Are you very keen to return to modelling?
I’m not dying to. I’ve got a very busy life doing other things with my companies and now I’m writing a script that I want to direct, but I was very closed through much of my 20s and said no to a lot of fashion opportunities. In the last few years I’ve let go of that. To be more receptive to the very many positive experiences and people I worked with feels like a good way to be. Being open as a human being is probably a better space to be in than being closed. It’s not that I’m trying to go back, rather I’m open again to the fact that there will be interesting opportunities. I’m curious to see how the industry has changed, because I’ve heard from friends of mine who work in the industry that it’s changed a lot, both in terms of the people, but also in terms of the values underpinning it. Those changes sound very positive.
Lily Cole meeting the Ghanaian producers of Shea Butter during her time as Ambassador for The Body Shop.
“Who Cares Wins” is a book and podcast by Lily Cole. The paperback will be published by Penguin Life 12th August 2021.
This image and following: Behind the scenes. Lily Cole directing her first short fiction film, Balls, which won Best Film at the London Short Film Festival 2019.
Lily Cole directing her first short fiction film, Balls, which skilfully weaves 18th century fact with contemporary narrative to create a surreal dystopian vision. By setting the stories in the present, the film invites us to consider what has changed in the last few centuries.
Lily Cole directing her first short fiction film, Balls. In writing Balls, Lily researched the real life stories of 18-19th Century foundlings, and the socio-political context that inspired the work of two pioneering individuals, living a century apart – Emily Brontë and Thomas Coram.
Lily Cole directing her first short fiction film, Balls. Some viewers might find disturbing parallels with the many injustices that continue today.
“Very cheap clothes keep other people in poverty, and that’s a painful truth of the situation.”
Lily Cole, are there interesting talents among the new generation of designers?
There are many new young creative voices and ways of thinking. I’ve also read different designers critiquing the relentlessness of the shows and the need to create so many different collections, and a desire for more slow output. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic reshapes the industry and if shows will happen again, or if there are new ways of thinking about showing clothes and collections that don’t require thousands of people to travel to multiple cities multiple times a year to see them.
In the past there was the sustainability of mending things and we kept clothes with much more care. You might go to an expensive tailor, but the suit will last a long time. Will we recover some of that?
I think that’s essential right now. In all industries, not just fashion, as mass production happened and products became cheaper and cheaper, they also became more disposable. We’ve ended up with a huge overconsumption of stuff and huge amounts of landfill. Culturally we have a very wasteful relationship to clothes and to material things that we think we can just buy new and throw away. Something like three quarters of the clothes that are bought every year now end up in landfill, billions and billions of garments. Many consumers think it’s cheap, but it’s actually not cheap because it’s expensive if it only lasts 10 minutes and you have to buy again and buy again and buy again. If we pay more and invest in something that’s very good quality and that we can repair and want to repair, then it ends up being cheaper in the long term even if it’s more expensive in the beginning.
Isn’t this initial extra expense a big factor for many people?
The pricing point is a really important and difficult one, and often comes up in conversations about sustainable choices, because unfortunately, not always but often, sustainable organic choices do cost more. When I was growing up, my mom had hardly any money and when I first found at 12 years old a fast fashion shop that was selling clothes at unbelievably cheap prices I remember it was so exciting. I was suddenly able to buy so much with my pocket money! To me as a kid it was mind blowing. Wow! T-shirts for a pound. I couldn’t believe it, and in the innocence of that moment when I didn’t understand supply chains and production and the environment and any of these issues, I could just enjoy it by buying a bunch of clothes that otherwise I couldn’t afford. Later I started learning and researching and understanding how it’s possible that things can be that cheap, and the human cost in those supply chains, and the environmental cost, let alone the fact that they probably will be made very badly and don’t last very long. That made me open my eyes to the saying: “If it’s cheap, someone else is paying for it.” Those very cheap clothes keep other people in poverty, and that’s a painful truth of the situation.
Do we live in a world which doesn’t really still have a solution?
I’ll keep drumming my drum about optimism, but it is based on the fact that I truly see that these things seem to be going in positive directions. When I was looking at this space initially 15 years ago it felt very niche, whereas now there is so much more awareness. Some of the biggest brands in the world are trying to improve their impact and trying to have these conversations. We haven’t solved the situation yet, but we are on an upward trajectory that makes me hopeful it will continue. Fashion, as you know, has an impact on all other industries, so reflects a wider change.
Portraits of Lily Cole by Patricia Imbarus.
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