As a multi-talented creative force, Lily Cole wanted to put her profile to good use helping to create change around a host of issues she was passionate about. From immigration to fashion sustainability and womanhood, from running social impact businesses to directing short films about one of Britain’s darkest chapters in history (and it hasn’t been without controversy). It’s a decision which she’s never looked back on and it’s all part of a broader drive to create more compassion in an increasingly complex & hostile world.
But as someone who has had the eyes of the world on her, she now wants to direct our eyes to one issue that affects us all, climate change. And that is an issue which demands all our attention.
Lily Cole behind the camera of the short film Balls.
Eoin McLoughlin and ©️Fury Films
I had no idea about this tragic chapter in British history. Why doesn’t anyone know about this?
That’s a good question. I didn’t know about it until I came to the museum for the first time.
It was a really random thing, I used to come here with my newborn child for baby concerts and once I was here I started looking into the stories and history, and I was kind of blown away to learn what used to happen at the hospital and why it existed. Part of the reason we’re all here, me and the other fellows, is to try and answer that question.
To bring more awareness to the museum, and the history that it represents. There are things that are asking for our attention and unless it’s a BBC thing, how many touch points does the average person get to interact with on a daily level about history? Probably not that many.
And would you say that it has some kind of political relevancy considering the whole immigrant crisis Europe is facing? It was only last year or the year before that babies were washing up on the shore?
It’s interesting, I’ve done work looking at the refugee crisis separately, a short film called Light and Dark spaces, but I haven’t actually connected this work to that in my mind.
One of the reasons for setting the film in contemporary day was to open up the conversation in general. Even you making that comment connecting it to the refugee crisis today is an example of that. That for me is kind of a success, so much has become better and changed but some things haven’t and we also have new challenges that we need to deal with.
"If I found out that I only had a year left on this planet I think climate change would be the one that I'd sing loudest about."
When someone says to you, you’re a humanitarian, does that make you feel uncomfortable?
A little bit, yeah. I’m not called a humanitarian very often. I’m often called an activist, and that also makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.
Because I feel like those words are not something that you ever decide to be. That’s not your job. It’s just a label. I don’t know what it implies, but it always makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable.
So this was a burning issue that you wanted to spotlight?
It came very organically because of the invitation to do the fellowship with the Foundling museum which I accepted. I was really interested in researching that history, with the Brontë Parsonage Museum. They were aware that Wuthering Heights was one of my favourite books, and asked me if I wanted to be what is called the creative partner for the bicentenary of Emily’s birthday.
So the angle I was most interested in was, what was the world like 200 years ago? What was England like at the time she was growing up?
It was a dark place, wasn’t it?
It was really hard. I feel really lucky to be alive now. You look at how it would be to be a woman, to be anyone, but particularly a woman 200 years ago in this country. It would be much more challenging and your options much more than limited. I’ve also always been drawn to Emily Bronte because she published Wuthering Heights under the pseudonym Ellis Bell.
Deciding the fate of a baby through a lottery in the short film Balls
Eoin McLoughlin and ©️Fury Films
Is it heresy to say I’ve never read a Bronte book or Wuthering Heights?
No, not at all. Lots of people haven’t. And that’s partly why we did the project, to try and get new audiences and make the stories relevant. I read it because they gave it to us in school.
What concerns you most about Britain today? Is there a sense of urgency you carry?
If I found out that I only had a year left on this planet I think climate change would be the one that I’d sing loudest about because it’s the one that worries me the most. In the sense that I think it’s the rock beneath our feet and every other issue will be affected and amplified by climate change. It also threatens the existence of many species including our own. That’s not to diminish the other problems we have, they’re not secondary, but it just feels pretty ultimate.
When you look at data on social issues, I’m happy to say that we’re going in the right direction. If you look at infant mortality, women’s rights, racial equality, it’s not to say that any of them are fixed yet but if you look at the trajectory of the past few hundred years most of them are tending in the right direction and have made a lot of progress.
We’ve only just in the last few decades woken up to the problem and have been quite slow to respond to the changes we need to make regarding that problem.
Politically I got quite upset about the refugee crisis, and the dialogue around immigration and those two things may already be dovetailing together because we already have a lot of climate refugees.
There are apparently more climate refugees than the refugees of war and poverty. And while it’s been nice to have a hot balmy summer in London, if you live in countries where you don’t have access to tap water, and you don’t have air conditioning or freezers, changes in climate will force bigger questions around immigration.
Some scientists say that climate change is a runaway train, that we’ve hit a peak threshold and there’s not going to be much that we can do, we can only try to manage it. There’s another group of people who say one and a half degrees is just the beginning and we can improve on that. Is that also a part of you that has to embrace acceptance beyond the activists part, and say, “what can I really do?”
That’s a good question. I think I have gone on that journey. When I was younger, I felt I was much more responsible for solving problems.
By yourself or with other people?
Oh with other people. But ultimately I can only take responsibility for myself. I felt a lot of responsibility, and I tried a few different projects, and I felt like I failed in some ways. And I think over time I’ve taken a bit more peace and acceptance and realized actually the only thing I can control is my own actions, and my own philosophy, and just try to work on that.
Anything beyond that is a plus. But the onus is not on me, it’s on everyone. I’m not fatalistic. I know that some scientists are but the reality is we’re not in an apocalyptic situation yet. There are millions of species still left on the planet that can be preserved. I think individual agency is the most powerful way of creating change so I’m still optimistic about the potential for change.
"A lot of women think that using your body to sell things is actually quite anti-feminist. For me, it was quite feminist in that I was able to earn money and have agency over my own decisions."
Looking back on her modelling career
Can I ask you a strange question? What is your necklace? I’m trying to work out if that’s an insect or –
You should be ashamed of yourself for not knowing.
I do know, but I’m too scared to say. [laughs]
What do you think it is?
Is it a womb?
Yeah. I’m glad you got that. It’s usually men who don’t understand what that is.
I’m trying to work out what you’re saying with that.
My friend made it and gave it to me. She’s a really great sculptor and artist her name is Charlotte Colbert (Colbert studio). It obviously references the crucifix but it’s the womb. I love it, the other day I was filming something and the director said, “Lily, do you think you should take your crucifix off?” And I said, “it is not a crucifix, it’s a uterix”
I made that name up.
I like it.
It’s a good word, isn’t it?
Would you say that part of your personality, to confront something head-on?
To call you out?
No just the fact that it’s a very confrontational symbol.
I’m so proud of it and I just wear it because my friend gave it to me. I feel like the womb is so amazing if you think about what the womb does. I’ve had a child and I’ve seen the capacity of what the womb can do. I’m really in awe of the womb. Also if you think about women’s rights historically the womb has been the reason that women have been suppressed largely because of childbirth we were more likely to die before contraception came along. You’re at the mercy of getting pregnant, you’re considered a weaker sex as a consequence. I think we’re turning the tide on that narrative and celebrating how amazing women’s bodies are.
Yes, It’s interesting, I feel like there’s such a push back right now against masculinity as a response, men are having a really hard time right now. So I’m wondering with you wearing the necklace, does it play into any of that?
Do you feel threatened by it?
I don’t feel threatened but I think is important that men are allowed to say that perhaps, and I think it’s being silenced at the moment.
Yeah celebrating women should never feel anti-men, that’s definitely not a place I come from. There is a danger of repeating oppression the other way around.
So obviously a lot of the work you do is around the feminine and females?
I don’t know. Is it?
Well, you spent many years as a model, espousing female looks and working on this project etc.
Although loads of feminists would probably critique that.
And what would they say?
Well, feminism is divided up into so many different versions of itself.
A haunting still taken from Balls
Eoin McLoughlin and ©️Fury Films
Would you call yourself a feminist?
I didn’t used to. I thought it was a horrible word. But actually, I think it’s really important to own it and reclaim it, and find a version of it that fits me. To me, feminism is simply the equality of women, and to me, it’s so important that men are also feminists, but there are lots of versions of that idea.
It’s interesting with fashion, I think that a lot of women think that using your body or your looks to sell things is actually quite anti-feminist. For me it was quite feminist in the sense that I was able to earn money and have an independent life, and have agency over my own decisions. And I think I became more conscious overtime about the kind images I wanted to make, and the brands I wanted to sell.
Do you often look back at your body of work as a model?
No, I’ve never done that but I do see stuff, like on Instagram, when someone tags me in a picture I’ll see that. That happens quite often, that I get throwbacks. And it’s quite funny because I see it and it feels like a past life.
Do you ever have any cringe moments where you go – oh my God what was that outfit?
Not really with fashion because usually that’s not my decision, it’s someone else’s decision to put me in that dress, or give me a particular hairstyle or whatever. And often they’re quite good decisions. My cringe moments are more about how I dress myself in real life. I’m like, oh my god do you remember when I went through that phase?
As someone who worked in the image world, I guess you can see we construct so much of our world right now, it’s almost like a crime scene, if you didn’t take a picture of it you weren’t there.
I think Madonna said, “if it’s not on film it didn’t happen.”
So how do you reconcile the body of work that you created, being in the fashion world? Some critics would say that there is a vacuous element to the fashion world. Do you see your life as two totally different paths that you’ve led, or is there a continuity between them?
I’m totally at peace with it. I don’t overthink that stuff. Life is a journey, right? We have different options and opportunities at different stages in our lives and we make decisions based on the options and opportunities that we can see. If I was given the opportunities that I was given when I was like, 14 or 15 years old, now I would probably have different choices because I’m a different person and I have other options.
But at that time in my life, it was amazing and was just what I needed. And it helped me move into other ways of learning, and thinking, and seeing. And it’s informed everything I’ve done since. I actually think there are some amazing people in fashion and amazing ideas that come out of it.
I didn’t ever really love modelling as a job, the literal part of being in front of a camera and posing, walking down a plank of wood in an outfit and then getting changed really quickly. Maybe it was exciting at the beginning but quite quickly I was wanting to do other things with my time. But as an industry, for its problems, there are also some really amazing sides to it that I still appreciate.
Have you ever thought about turning a spotlight on the fashion world? It feels like there is a lot of nastiness to it, especially with the documentary on Alexander McQueen which came out recently. I felt sorry for him.
Why did you feel sorry for him?
Because of the mental health issues they exploited.
I feel like the real conversation, not just the fashion industry, should be about how much pressure there is to produce and sell sell sell, create, create, create. What you have in fashion is a collision between creative people, who might otherwise have been artists.
Alexander Mcqueen could have in another life been a sculptor or a painter. He was a real artist. And you have a collision between him as an artist and an industry that’s saying you have to create.
Which leads to my next question, you’re a big advocate of sustainable fashion?
Yeah just slow these things down, and think about consumption in a slightly more old-fashioned way.
And do you think the conversation is changing?
I think it has to. Whether it’s done in a kind of peaceful and voluntary way, which is happening but happening really slowly, or whether it’s just really disruptive at some point because it’s not possible to keep producing this much and putting this much in the landfill.
"I'm really in awe of the womb."
On being a mother
But I think it’s also Impossible to have those discussions with companies like H&M. They want to change but at the same time a byproduct of being successful is pleasing your shareholders and generating profit.
Have you come across B-Corp, as a legal structure?
So one of the problems you might argue with capitalism as it is right now is that the companies when they become really large are legally fully responsible for their shareholder’s profit, that’s the only point of reference that you can assume all the shareholders have.
It might be that the group of shareholders actually really care about the environment and don’t want to exploit people in the supply chain. But when you are that large there’s no way of asking all of their opinions.
That’s how you get in a situation where a company will make what seems like really awful decisions but the CEO says, “well I’m doing what I’m legally obliged to do, maximizing shareholder profit first and foremost,” which means exploiting tax loopholes and crushing everyone in the supply chain as much as you can to deliver on that obligation.
I think what’s really interesting about the B-Corp is that it’s changing that legal framework. So shareholder profit is one thing but it’s not the only thing that the company is legally bound to. It’s the environment, the community, the customers, there are multiple stakeholders that need to be considered when the company runs its operations.
And what percentage of Fortune 500 companies are B-Corps?
I would imagine 0 to 1%, I don’t have the answer to that. But there are a lot of big companies, last week I found out about one and I can’t say what it is but it’s a very big company and it’s about to become a B Corp. So it’s happening but it’s a minority for sure.
You do so many things. You’re a filmmaker, you run Impossible. What’s the next big project you have?
Well, I don’t run Impossible, I set it up. For a few years I did but now I stepped back from it and do more of this creative stuff I’m much happier doing. The social impact stuff just feeds into whatever medium makes sense, sometimes it’s business, sometimes it’s filmmaking. I’m happiest when I’m being creative is what I’ve discovered.
Feature image by Jessie Lily Adams