The clear blue sky is morphing into a dusky blush pink as Shalom Harlow sips ginger tea in a rustic Californian backyard. In her Patagonia flannel, Jungmaven hemp T-shirt, vintage Levi’s and scruffy boots, she looks more like a modern farmer than an off-duty supermodel who has graced every fashion magazine imaginable. A hippie at heart, Harlow is clearly content in her surroundings. “I spent my summers at a cottage in Canada, where I roamed like a little wild creature,” she recalls. “I was barefoot the whole time. I just was oriented toward nature, always.”
The fashion world, however, cast Harlow in a very different role: that of catwalk queen and designer muse. Discovered at a The Cure concert in Toronto in 1989 at age 15, she became one of the defining faces of the ’90s. The industry fell for the former ballet dancer, whose expressiveness and poise made everything she wore look like a work of art.
Harlow seemed so at ease on the runways of Chanel, Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent that she wore couture as casually as sweats. “I really gave so much of myself to it,” she says. “I let my animal nature guide me, and that’s why I’ve been a dynamic cohort to these artists. I used to get scolded because I would be so insistent on being part of the creative process.”
When Harlow thinks back to her younger self, she laughs. “I was sassy as shit,” she says. “A super little foot stomper.” She grew up fast in this strange new world and took on responsibilities— and earned pay cheques—she never would have imagined. “For someone who came from a family run by a working-class single mum raising three children while cleaning houses, delivering pizza and putting herself through night school, the financial rewards were significant,” she explains. “It allowed me a stability I didn’t have during my childhood, and it let me stabilise my family’s finances to a degree as well.”
Despite all the trappings, Harlow held on to the New Age sensibilities instilled in her by her mother, a proponent of Ayurvedic medicine and ozone therapies decades before they were trending. As a young model, Harlow talked about sustainability before it was a buzzword and later pushed clients to support environmental initiatives, like a tree-planting program with Lancôme in 2007 and a green fashion show with Earth Pledge in 2008. She bought carbon offsets to lessen the impact of her jet-set lifestyle, and even used washable and reusable feminine-hygiene products. “Nobody wanted to hear about that back then,” she says, grinning. “They would have gagged.”
In 1997, Harlow added acting to her résumé. She made her debut in a Kevin Kline film, In & Out, and appeared in a number of projects over the years, the biggest being How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a 2003 rom-com starring Kate Hudson. But despite it's mean-girl reputation, the fashion world turned out to be a kinder place than pre–MeToo Hollywood. “I was told in casting rooms—to my face—that I could read because I looked fuckable enough,” Harlow says, shaking her head. “And that’s how the audition began. After that experience, I was like, ‘I’ll go back and play with my sweet friends over here because that sandbox looks much safer.’”
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