Erin O'Connor. Portrait: Joss McKinley/New Statesman
Do you think we are in a particularly vibrant period for British design and fashion?
The “Best of British” is a positive thing that’s bandied around, but also it’s applied pressure to our country in terms of economic growth. I think we’ve always felt the rest of the world is so much more powerful in terms of being commercially viable, but we can take great pride in our level of creativity. That starts in the fashion colleges, the art colleges, in design – and seems to be unwavering.
Most high-street clothing is made overseas. Did your trip to India with Save the Children show you the downside of a globalised economy?
Most notable are the vulnerable communities. Some of their circumstances have become even more diabolical. The transitional shift of wealth in India has been heavily publicised, and yet it is the vulnerable people [whose] circumstances have become even more challenging. It’s impossible to get your head around the disparity between the two. I don’t want to be too politically aligned to this because I think it’s a humanitarian subject. You’re talking about the welfare of human beings. I want to know how we can support and assist people to make some sort of sustainable change in their lives.
How do you think you can help?
The fact that 300 children under six lose their lives to preventable illnesses every hour is wholly unnecessary. It’s about awareness. I’ve existed in 2D form for the past 15 years as a fashion model, but if that engages people who may recognise me here in the UK, that’s got to help in some way. Ultimately it’s about raising funds and tackling [the subject] in a sensitive way so as not to alienate anybody.
You previously visited Delhi as an ambassador of the Self-Employed Women’s Association [a trade union]. Are you drawn to co-operatives?
It’s helping people help themselves. That trip didn’t feel like a charity mission, more like a collaboration, which seemed to fit well because there was an identifiable purpose for me to be there: to bring back their collective voice, as self-employed women, to speak to retailers in the UK who have influence here. It’s humbling to be welcomed into a space where women are willing to trust you and be open-minded. But really they wanted to [talk] about boys, babies, hair, what colour clothing they would like to put me in. In terms of bonding, that’s a universal thing for all women.
The debate around the UK’s aid funding to India is complex. Does the responsibility for aid lie with individuals or government?
[In India] the disparity grows between the affluent and those below the line, and it’s very difficult to identify where the aid is actually being given and how effective that aid is. [Where I visited] there was immunisation and access to deep-rooted communities, but still a social barrier to awareness. Perhaps there is a lack of trust, understandably, but it falls on [charities] to assist the work of volunteers, the professionals, the doctors, the nurses.
Your career has been based on the visual image. Is telling a real-life story more powerful than statistics?
This is their reality. You come to question a sense of moral alignment and whether or not you are exploiting human vulnerability, or whether you are going in to portray a vital story that needs to be shared. More brutally, I think to raise awareness and funds you have to have that reality.
What shocked you most when faced with that level of vulnerability?
I couldn’t comprehend how it would feel to have to consider those daily options: do I feed myself or do I feed my child? Maternal mortality is so unnecessary but when you’re there it becomes your day-to-day grind of trying to stay alive. There are no options for a lot of women. What we learned was quite startling – the priority of people who get fed first. Primarily it’s the fathers and sons. The highest mortality rate is infant girls, because they aren’t perceived as being as . . . There’s a pecking order.
So is this a feminist issue?
We won’t get economic growth if we don’t look after our mothers and the potential of the next generation. They need to be prioritised.
Were the people you met suspicious or welcoming?
Very welcoming. You can imagine: because I’m six foot and the slums they live in are six foot at most my height was a real point of conversation.
Is there anything you’d rather forget?
No! I love to remember, as I find it so easy to forget these days.
Was there a plan?
My plan growing up was to leave home and try not to panic. I always knew that to strive to be self-sufficient was an important ambition.
Do you vote?
Are we all doomed?
Interview by Alice Gribbin
1978 Born in Walsall, West Midlands
1995 Talented-spotted by modelling agent while on a school trip
1996 First published fashion shoot is for the photographer Juergen Teller in i-D
2007 Is appointed vice-chairman of British Fashion Council
2008 Opens her “models’ sanctuary” in Covent Garden, London
2009 Face of Marks & Spencer with Twiggy
2012 Moves to New York