As with all my profiles, I give my “subjects” a questionnaire to answer and the models questions, are, of course, different from my other profiles.  Karen, along with the other models I have “interviewed” for nenasnotes, was a total joy to work with, taking professionalism at its true meaning…always on time and show ready, glamorous when the garment called for that, sporty if need be, turning into a businesswoman for our Working Women Seminars, etc. Modeling is really acting and letting your audience think what you have on is the most fabulous garment they have ever seen and they must want to add it to their wardrobe!  It is all about “selling” that is, after all, the end result.  She always listened to instruction, and most importantly respected the designers (again, all my models did this, if they didn’t why book them again!!!!) Karen had a girl next door quality, relatable but with an edginess.


imageKaren Ryan’s first composite.

Let’s see what Karen has to say about her modeling career and what she is up to now….

When did you start your modeling career, was this something you always wanted to do?

I had never even thought about being a model, even though people had always said to me, “with your height (5’8 ½”), you should model”. I had gotten an MA in journalism at the University of Kentucky in 1974, shortly before marrying my husband, Bill, and moving to Chicago.  In Kentucky, I worked for one of the original educational television stations, Kentucky Educational Television (KET).  I got to watch PBS and its wonderful programming years before most of my friends and family.  When we moved to Chicago, I eventually worked for Pioneer Press, the local suburban newspaper chain, and by the mid-’70s, had worked my way up to Promotion Manager.  As such, my staff was responsible for special sections.  We did a fashion section every Fall, and in 1977, it was my responsibility to publish the fashion section with the help of writers and a budget for a photographer we had used in the past.  Ann Taylor was loaning us the clothes, but we had no budget for a model.  My staff and the photographer, Paul McCall said, “what about you, Karen”? I was not really interested in doing it, but I was overruled.

imageFrom another shoot very space age, very of the period!

I went to a makeup shop on Oak Street, learned how to do makeup for black & white photography, and we did it!  I wish I had kept that fashion section, but my first comp has pics from the photo shoot (see comp at top of profile).  I think I looked silly in a couple of them, but that was 40 years ago!  I found out that the camera didn’t love me (my jaw is too square) (Nena’s note, I so don’t agree!!!!), so I didn’t do much print work.  I started auditioning for fashion shows and was very surprised to feel comfortable and natural walking the runway. To use an old expression, the rest is history…I was lucky enough to meet Nena Ivon and work for Saks Fifth Avenue!

imageThis isn’t Karen’s favorite comp but I love it so I am including it…apologies, Karen!

imageFrom Karen’s scrapbook.

What was your favorite Saks Fifth Avenue Show(s)?

My favorite Saks shows were the Misericordia benefit shows.  Backstage we were usually so rushed that we didn’t pay attention to the happenings outside the dressing area curtains.


But I remember the first time I heard the voice of an angel, Sister Rosemary Connelly.  She spoke from the heart and to our hearts about the special people who live and work at Misericordia  I should backtrack here and tell you that before we married, my husband taught special needs adults. We’ve been avid supporters of Misericordia for many years, and I joined the Women’s Auxiliary over 25 years ago. The Auxiliary does many things, but my favorite event is the annual fashion show.  I always get a couple of tables at the show and get to catch up with all my besties from our runway days, including Nena of course. (Nena’s note, I will profile Misericordia in a future post.)

imageSome of the “gang” at this year’s Misericordia Fashion Show, all profiled in nenasnotes with the exception of Debra Balchen (Candace Jordan wasn’t one of my models but did model and was a room mate of Jeaounche).  The gentleman is Avron Fagel, a dear friend to all of us and the “music guru” for all my shows!

Who was your favorite designer and why?

Adolfo, hands down!  He was so nice to the models…before we walked out onto the runway, he would say, “You look so pretty”!  Other favorites were Countess Jacqueline de Ribes, Bob Mackie, Alexander Julian, Halston, Bill Blass (also very nice to the models) I especially remember the elegance of Saks’ Jacqueline, Comtesse de Ribes’ show at The Casino. I never actually worked with Diane von Furstenberg, but she is one of my favorites and I wear her wrap dresses today!


imageNewspaper clipping with Terri D’

What was your most favorite “behind the scenes” story?

Of all the people who assisted backstage at Saks Fifth Avenue, my favorite was Ruth Ivon, who we affectionately called Ruthy.  In 1981 we were doing a series of shows and I wore a full-length strapless gown just one week before this incident. The next week I was to wear the same gown and Ruthy could not get the top of the zipper to go up, even with me pushing it together with both hands. I was 3+ months pregnant at the time, which of course both you and Ruthy knew. She called Nena backstage, and sweet person that you are, you said: “skip it”! Who knew the body could change that much in just one week. (Nena’s note…this doesn’t only happen when we are pregnant but as we age our rib cage settles….its called gravity! and our bodies change and I would have to adjust what I pulled for my models!)

What are you up to now and how did you begin your new career/passion?

My career now is grandmother!  And it’s been my favorite stage of life…the joy and love that my grandchildren bring me are unbelievable.  As I mentioned before, another passion is volunteer work, especially with Misericordia. I also volunteer at a soup kitchen once a month along with hubby Bill.  Another passion is gardening!  We have a summer home in Wisconsin which I have landscaped with very little help from professionals.  The only landscaping I kept from the original plan when we built the house in 2003 were trees and shrubs. I have planted hundreds of flowers and shrubs on my own.

imageWith Ruby when she was a baby.


With the gorgeous grandchildren, Ryan and Ruby.


Karen in her Wisconsin garden with Ryan this Fourth of July.

What did your modeling years teach you that you are using now?

Humility, sometimes I simply didn’t get the gig.  I never asked why, and when one door closed, another usually opened.  Some of my best fashion shows were last minute replacements. This was before the days of cell phones. Early in the business, we worked directly with the fashion director at the store. If a friend could not get in touch with the director, and could not make a show,  she would call me and ask how fast I could get to Saks or wherever.  The models were very supportive of each other, hard to believe for those who don’t know the business, and maybe it’s different in 2017, but we had each other’s back.  Some of my best friends to this day are the people I worked with back then:  Nena, Jeanouche, (I am her son’s godmother and she is mine) Shelley, Shauna, Terri, D’Arry, Dori, Elsa, Diane, Debra … I know I’m forgetting many, please forgive!

imageKaren and Jeanouche in a photo shoot back in the day have no idea what this was for?????? Interesting composition! (Definitely a Nena’s note!)

imageThe best friends having lunch at Jeanouche’s home a couple decades later, from Nena’s photo album.

image A Nena’s note… a “reunion” show when I was doing a “Hooray for Hollywood” lecture and had my model girls in garments from Saks Fifth Avenue to illustrate the garments in the films I was discussing, a fun show.  They still all can, most definitely, walk the catwalk.  Karen leads the parade on the left ombre blue chiffon one shoulder gown.  Of the ten pictured,  I have profiled six in nenasnotes….I hope I can persuade the rest to come on board!!!!  This is from Nena’s photo album.

I also learned patience and grace under pressure…occasionally we had wardrobe malfunctions backstage, and had to make the most of it, walk out on the runway cool, calm and collected. And most important: posture, posture, posture! When I was in high school (back in the stone age), it was not “in” to be tall.  I slouched, but for some reason, when I walked out on the runway, my shoulders were back, my tummy was in, and I felt a confidence that I had never had as a youth.  The models who worked for Saks Fifth Avenue had the best posture on the runway because we had the best example, Nena Ivon!  Thank you, Nena.

No, thank you, Karen, for being the consummate professional, loving friend, caring individual and perfect wife, mother and best gran ever!

All photos, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Karen Ryan.


  1. Jo Ellen Madden July 31, 2017 / 1:10 pm

    Nena – this was a wonderful article on our beloved Karen. She is definitely one of the sweetest women I know and the hottest grandma for sure! Thanks for this post!

    • nenasnotes July 31, 2017 / 2:05 pm

      Thanks Jo Ellen. Yes, Karen is one special lady in all ways!!!!

      • Dana Beall August 5, 2017 / 2:09 am

        Thank you Nena for posting such a beautiful article about my lovely cousin Karen.

      • nenasnotes August 5, 2017 / 1:01 pm

        Truly my pleasure. She is THE best.

  2. Clare Gardella July 31, 2017 / 3:38 pm

    Wonderful article! Wonderful woman!

    • nenasnotes July 31, 2017 / 3:59 pm

      Could not agree more Clare. Thanks for your comments.

    • nenasnotes July 31, 2017 / 10:22 pm

      Thanks she is one of the good ones in all ways!!

  3. Shelley Farley August 1, 2017 / 3:03 pm

    Nena, great write up…as always!

    Karen, so much fun to read all about you!! Who knew!? You had great pictures from our “good old days”!


    • nenasnotes August 1, 2017 / 3:07 pm

      Thanks Shelley… to get more of our gals to come on board….I must say the model’s memories are rewiring my brain and quite frankly that was the plan!!!!

  4. Karen Ryan August 1, 2017 / 7:24 pm

    Nena – Thank you! I am so flattered. I’ve heard from many friends and family.

    • nenasnotes August 1, 2017 / 7:42 pm

      I am so pleased….I am the one who is flattered that you let me profile you! Thanks my dear!

  5. Jeanouche wopinski August 2, 2017 / 2:17 pm

    Karen you haven’t changed at all.
    Still the prettiest southern girl at the table.
    Loved your story
    Keep the profiles coming so much fun to read them.
    Love your blog Nena

    • nenasnotes August 2, 2017 / 2:22 pm

      Jeanouche you only speak the truth and how we all feel about Karen. Just heard from another of my wonderful model “girls” who is completing the questionnaire
      Yay!!! I’m so pleased you love nenasnotes means the world to me!!!

  6. Becky August 3, 2017 / 2:49 am

    Great write up and Karen so fun to get to read all about you and to see all of these beautiful pics!!

    • nenasnotes August 3, 2017 / 3:00 am

      Thanks Becky.

    • nenasnotes August 3, 2017 / 12:32 pm

      Thanks so much, I. So pleased you enjoyed the post.

  7. Donna De St Aubin August 3, 2017 / 6:42 pm

    Karen still turns heads today! She is lovely and gracious and still a model in many ways!

    • nenasnotes August 3, 2017 / 6:47 pm

      So true…thanks for your comments !!!

  8. Debbi Miles August 4, 2017 / 12:32 am

    I love reading all your notes Nena. I remember working with Karen as well…so long ago! Even though I am still at Saks, it’s nothing like it used to be! I was so fortunate to be able to be part of that culture at Saks back then. And I still remember my very first interview with you and Helen for the Oakbrook opening. – Debbi Miles

    • nenasnotes August 4, 2017 / 12:59 am

      I’m so pleased you are enjoying nenasnotes. Yes, I know you are still at SFA we are Facebook friends. Yes, I fondly remember the Oakbrook opening. Great store totally the wrong mix of merchandise for that clientele, oh well. Hope all is good with you and hope you enjoy tomorrow’s post a bit about Judith Leiber. All best N

  9. Elsa August 4, 2017 / 4:48 pm

    Karen my friend,

    Just lovely. Thanks so much for sharing your story. You are beautiful inside and out. I never knew how you got started in modeling. It’s fun to hear all the very different model stories, how we started, and Yay!!!! We’re still here!!!



    • nenasnotes August 4, 2017 / 8:17 pm

      Exactly we are all still here. This was the premise of nenasnotes hopefully I can get more of my models on board, I live in hope!!!!

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