How We Met: Carmen Dell'Orefice & David Downton

'She was in curlers and a facepack... She said, "You're lucky I've got anything on"'
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David Downton, 52

A fashion illustrator and visiting professor at the London College of Fashion, Downton published 'Masters of Fashion Illustration' last year. He lives in Sussex

I came to fashion illustration late, so when I first saw Carmen, in a documentary, I hadn't a clue who she was. But I instantly saw that I had to persuade her to sit for me.

I got the usual rebuff at first. But I was persistent and met her agent for tea in New York. Suddenly, she said, "I've got to go out – you might as well come with me." I ended up visiting every hospital on the Upper East Side with her, taking soup to various people and thinking, "What on earth am I doing?" Finally, in the elevator of an apartment block on Park Avenue, she said, "Right, this is Carmen's building. We're taking her some soup because she hasn't been well."

I'd built this up as a meeting with the beauty of the ages, but when Carmen opened the door – and I will never forget this – she was in curlers and a facepack. The agent looked at her feet and I looked at mine. But Carmen, who can deflate any situation, said: "Well! You're lucky I had anything on at all!"

We handed over the soup and scuttled off. But I pursued it, we did the first drawing and, of course, she was amazing. She treated it as seriously as if she were sitting for [Richard] Avedon or [Irving] Penn. That was a huge compliment, because not only has she worked with every important photographer, she's sat for [Salvador] Dali, Eric, [René] Bouché – my illustration heroes.

Carmen gives you the picture – all you have to do is be there and be sober. I fell in love with her across the drawingboard, but over the years – 11 now – we have become really great friends. She is one of a handful of people, beyond my family, whose advice I seek, whose opinion I trust. I feel very protective of her too. I want good things for her.

People often think she is a countess, just blown in from the Riviera. If we go out to dinner, a queue forms, usually of women, wanting to tell her how amazing she is; what hope she has given them. You have to get over her beauty, and you do, because she has extraordinary humour and humanity. People see Carmen as "the legend" in the industry, but I think of her as the legend down the hall.

Carmen Dell'Orefice, 80

A model for 66 years, Dell'Orefice appeared on her first 'Vogue' cover in 1946 and has worked with Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon. She recently modelled for Hermès and received an honorary doctorate from London's University of the Arts. She lives in New York

For a long time, I had a stalker in my life. That's how I remember David at first. He bothered me for two or three years, through my agent Patty, wanting to draw me. My doorbell rang one day – it must have been a weekend because I was in my bathrobe with a clay mask on my face – and standing there was some handsome boy. Patty nearly died with chagrin, realising she should have called. But she was so taken with this David Downton that she brought him up unannounced.

He came again and we met properly, but what I think of as the day of our marriage – when we really cemented our relationship – was when I did a show for Galliano in Paris. I was meant to be a kind of Victorian grandmother of the bride, so after the show, I was outside waiting for my car in some ghastly hat and a lavender corseted dress when I saw this young man. I said, "Don't I know you?" I'm just dreadful that way. He said, "Carmen, it's David!" He'd actually been drawing me at the dress fitting, but I hadn't remembered who he was. Imagine what kind of witness I'd be in a murder trial. But everything fell into place then and we've formed an alliance ever since.

As a model, it's wonderful to sit for him and the proof of the pudding is in how he has caught these old bones. Every artist is suggesting part of themselves – it's not just about me – and I could show you some of the worst drawings of me by great artists. David could draw me as a crochety 80-year-old, because I'm sure she lives in here too, but he's a romantic, looking to find the best in everything.

I love meeting younger people and seeing through their eyes and David is my link to how they view fashion. The world has morphed in strange ways in my lifetime and the friends I made along the way through my work – Penn, Avedon, Beaton – have all died on me. It's a gift from the gods to meet somebody like David so late in my career.

Recently, he's been putting together a retrospective of my career, rooting out every last photograph. He knows my apartment better than any lover ever has. But in fact, I wish he had been my son.

The London College of Fashion will celebrate Dell'Orefice's contribution to the fashion industry with an exhibition curated by Downton in November. Downton is currently fashion artist in residence at Claridge's