Suzy Menkes is a leading British journalist and fashion critic. Formerly the fashion editor for the International Herald Tribune she is now International Fashion Editor for 19 editions of Vogue online.
Why did you become a fashion editor? Is fashion your lifelong passion?
There’s a difference between having a lifelong passion for fashion and being a fashion editor. I was always interested in fashion, according to my mother I started my passion for fashion at the age of five when I did little drawings which of course she kept until the end of her days. I was also always interested in writing. When I went to Newnham College Cambridge to read English literature and history I joined Varsity, the Cambridge university newspaper, on my first morning. In my third year I became Editor of Varsity. I was the first female editor, making history. I only went to Cambridge because my very bookish sister, who was much cleverer than me and became very much involved with book publishing, went to Oxford. (laughs) Nowadays it’s not something a smart woman from a university would want to do particularly, to edit and write a woman’s page in a newspaper, but when I graduated I joined the Times of London specifically to be a contributor to the woman’s page. This was something incredibly new, because we’re talking about 1967.
Do you consider yourself a journalist, or a critic, or a writer?
A journalist first. I consider that part of all journalism is a kind of curiosity, to find out the why and the how and the where. I put my criticism in the context of what I think is around, whether I see a reflection of what’s happening in society, whether I see in the designer a change in her or his aesthetic or whether it seems a bit stuck in the rut.
You also married a journalist?
My husband David worked for The Times as a foreign correspondent.
Was it easy for the two of you to have parallel careers, two journalists in separate fields?
I think it was very good. That’s why doctors marry doctors. You’ve got to have someone who understands. David was very supportive because obviously I had to travel, particularly to Paris, and remember when I started this was before the Eurostar. You actually had to get on a plane or boat to get to France, but the pace of fashion wasn’t nearly so violent as it is now.
Did Judaism become an important part of your life because of your marriage?
I was always Jewish, but my Belgian grandmother would say, “Religion is a terrible thing, it brings wars, we have no religion in our family.” That’s what she’d say.
Is it true that you don’t go to fashion shows on Jewish holidays?
Yes. Let’s not exaggerate here. I’m not deeply Jewish but that is my religion. I think it’s very disrespectful when they hold fashion shows on the most serious day of the Jewish year, which is Yom Kippur, in particular when they then pretend that they didn’t know it was on that day. I’ve never known anybody give a fashion show on Christmas Day.
You were the fashion voice for The International Herald Tribune for 25 years. Why did you move to Vogue?
I changed before they threw me out when the Herald Tribune became the New York Times. Luckily Jonathan Newhouse offered me a fabulous job at Vogue.
Do you really think that they would have thrown you out?
Yes, I do more or less. I think they never really understood the Herald Tribune or what it stood for in a lot of people’s minds. Right from the beginning I always loved the paper, because I felt it did give a kind of pan-European view of the world; and not just Europe, the world in general. The New York Times is a fantastically strong paper and it has wonderful stories in it, but it has now become about America. I don’t think it has much of an international perspective.
Has journalism changed in the last ten years?
Yes, the world changed. The point about writing is that words are words. They were scratched on Greek marble or in stone, and then they were written with a quill pen in ink on beautiful paper, and then they were turned out in rough printing. Now they’re online in your telephone, but words are still words and I still care about what I read. And I hope that other people care about what I write.
Is impartiality your trademark?
I try to be impartial, and I’ve always tried to tell my assistants that it’s not good because you like it. You like it because it’s good. None of Coco Chanel’s work has ever worked for me personally, but that doesn’t mean I think less of what Coco Chanel invented and what Karl Lagerfeld has continued with. With me it’s not personal. I don’t have to want to wear the clothes personally to give somebody a good review, but the opposite really.
Did you meet Coco Chanel?
I have a shameful story about myself and Coco Chanel. When I was fairly junior I saw what was one of her last collections. There we were in the Rue Cambon, and she sat on the stairway, and she was a very wrinkled up old lady and I thought the clothes were unbelievably boring and total grandmother stuff.
Did she impress you as a person?
I never was introduced to her, I was much too junior for that. What she actually achieved is extraordinary. She foresaw so much of women’s lives, how they wanted to be, and to be more like men and dress more like men.
What do you expect from designers?
I think that what designers do, or are supposed to be doing, is making clothes. It’s very interesting this thing that Maria Grazia Chiuri did for Dior, taking the message about “we all should be feminists” and putting it on a t-shirt selling at 500 Euros or whatever. I admire her, I think she’s a very energetic woman, a modern woman. She’s married, she has children, she had a great success at Valentino and she’s building her way at Dior. But I don’t want to go out wearing a t-shirt saying “we’re all feminists.” You won’t see me wearing it.
How do you feel about the famous brands that have an endless succession of new designers?
Your question gets to the heart of what is happening in fashion now, and in the world. I think this idea of next… next… next… is very confusing in terms of established brands. There seems to be an idea that nobody can keep an established brand alive for much longer than three or four years. I’m not so sure that it’s going to work in the long term.
Why did Gucci suddenly become such a huge success?
When they started, Gucci were making handbags, they weren’t making clothes. Tom Ford made Gucci into this sex pot, extraordinary, kind of look, a sort of anti-Armani look. You’ve got Alessandro Michele there now, who was in the company all those years before he was allowed to break out. He went to Francois-Henri Pinault and said, “Give me a chance. I believe I can do something. I’ve worked here a long time.” And he was given a chance.
What will happen next in fashion?
I don’t know. If I knew I wouldn’t be a simple journalist, I would be making my fortune by setting up a new fashion world. The huge groups, like Kering which owns Gucci – and Bernard Arnault’s many companies – have decided to have a fashion system. I don’t know whether it is the best thing for fashion.
What is this fashion system?
Finding a new designer – Dior’s getting a bit boring, let’s get John Galliano – or John Galliano is out let’s get Raf Simons – and then he’s out – so let’s get Maria Grazia. I’m not meaning to be dismissive, because these people are very good designers, but the idea of continuity that you have had with Chanel, having one person in Karl Lagerfeld, is clearly not in these brands.
What about Prada?
Miuccia Prada is an exceptional person. Fondazione Prada is proof of how she and her husband Patrizio Bertelli are really cultivated people in terms of art. Nobody who’s worked with Miuccia Prada has come out of that company and made a success on their own. She’s such a strong person in her vision and what she does.
Is there anything new in fashion?
For the first time since the Victorian era bustles are back. You know what I mean by a bustle, things that go under skirts to shape them? Suddenly the back of the woman has become tremendously exciting – the Dernier Cri as they used to say – with Kim Kardashian going around. I’m somebody who from the age of about 14 thought that I had much too large a behind and spent my whole life trying to hide it. And now you go out in the street and you see that Kim Kardashian look is everywhere. Women all get stretch trousers and they’re hoping that they will have a large bottom in order to show it off to the world. It’s a genuine change of fashion.
What does it mean?
This isn’t some fashion designer who invented it. This is something that’s actually happened and I think it goes with quite a big change. It’s really the whole sense of vulgarity, that of course is not just about looking vulgar and waving behind your derriere in fashion, it all goes much deeper than that. You got the Kim Kardashian look first and all that, a general sense of vulgarity – and then you get Donald Trump. In this case, as is so often with fashion, the fashion comes first, except nobody realizes. People in the fashion world are very snooty, they look down and say: “Kim Kardashian has to be the worst dressed person you ever had going down the red carpet.” But there is a whole mass of women now who for their own reasons want to copy that.
Is this vulgarity something that didn’t exist before?
I’m not saying it didn’t exist before, but people didn’t want to display it before.
Has the concept of beauty and elegance changed?
One of the things that I do for Condé Nast are international conferences on luxury, which I also did for the New York Times, The International Herald Tribune. I have been doing conferences on luxury for 17 years. I wanted to do a conference on mindful luxury and last month we went to Oman. I discovered somebody on Instagram, Huda she’s called, and Huda Beauty is the absolute person on Instagram. I believe she now has 18 million followers, probably since yesterday it’s 19. She does beauty, and for as long as I can remember beauty has always been considered fairly unobtainable. If you are a beauty you are blessed. All that the houses selling makeup can do is to help you try and achieve a glimpse of this perfection which you see in the pictures. Huda and Huda Beauty take exactly the opposite view, that if you want to make your eyes look bigger, here’s how to do it. If you want to make your nose look smaller, here’s how to do it. Showing you how to do it. That’s an example to me of how things change and I’m sure if you are the head of whichever company it is you never saw it coming. When Instagram was invented I don’t believe that there’s a single beauty company in the world where they sat down and said: “We are under threat.” And yet in a way that’s what it has become.
Is it Paris that delivers international fame?
To make their presence felt almost everybody comes to Paris to show. You have to make it in Paris. This was the case, and I think it still is to a large extent. If people like Rei Kawakubo of Comme Des Garcons and Raf Simmons had not come to Paris to show they would have been local heroes. But there again, now it’s different, because using social media you can make yourself known by pushing yourself on the Internet.
Is there still a place for eccentric artisan designers like Gaultier or Lacroix or Alaia or Westwood?
I hope there is always going to be space for the poets and artists of fashion. I mean God help us if there’s not space because it’s only going to be H&M that produces fashion. You’ve got to have somebody who starts something. It’s so easy to criticize people who do super cheap clothes, but Uniqlo for example make a lot of good basic clothes that are very well styled and very well thought of. I certainly remember having an experience with Alber Elbaz, who I am a great admirer of, and he, like so many other designers, worked with H&M to do a collection. And I remember my disappointment when I picked up one of the dresses that they had done – in obviously not pure silk or what Alber would have used for Lanvin, but you know it had nothing of the Lanvin, it was not the same thing. But it’s too easy in fashion to say everything cheap is rubbish and everything expensive is good. I believe more than anything else that you find a lot of really sharply dressed people are mixing the two.
Who still makes artisan craft?
Italians for a start, and I find it interesting in India, where they turn out clothes very cheaply for the mass market but also the Indian Government has decided that craft is one of their strengths. They’re very much encouraging people to take up craft, embroidery for example. Go and ask Alessandro Michele from Gucci. He will tell you, he will be so enthusiastic about the embroideries that he has done in India. When I made my last trip to India I went and saw a studio where they’re making things by hand. Very beautiful, and they make for a lot of the big houses.
Is it a good or a bad thing that Italy invented pret-a-porter and industrialized fashion?
I think it’s good, the question is how is it then used. The problem for Italy, as for any country, is that if you’re only industrializing it then you can always find somebody cheaper somewhere else.
What is chic today?
I am not sure the word still exists does it? It would be a good test to go out in the streets of London and find out if anybody under the age of 24 knows what the word chic means. Fashion is very fluid now, it really is about choice. There are people who put themselves together in a very elegant way, just not with the obvious signs and symbols that were used even 20 years ago. I think so many people wear jeans because however wealthy you are you put on a pair of jeans and then you put on a fabulous jacket and then you are considered to be stylish and you’ll also feel comfortable. So I think that’s the change for women. Of course it’s men as well, because sportswear hardly existed when I started writing about fashion, sportswear was for the tennis court and for whoever played football.
What about your clothes?
I wear a lot of Issey Miyake because it doesn’t require urgent attention all the time. I really feel strongly my clothes have to work as hard as I do. I do not want anything complicated. I don’t want anything that’s going to crease and look a mess before I have even got off the plane. I don’t want anything that’s going to require any attention in the hotel because they’re not as fast as me, and if I ask them to press something I’ll have gone by the time it’s done. That’s the way the world has changed, the speed of everything.
What is an example of a landmark in your professional life?
Often those moments are about two people facing off each other. For example, Rei Kawakubo with the torn things with holes in, we called it the Gruyere Cheese sweater; and Azzedine Alaia at the same time. Rei Kawakubo with these very much plain flat clothes; and Azzedine Alaia with these amazing curves. Two absolute opposites
Who gave you emotions?
Giorgio Armani with the real way that he got tailored clothes, mannish clothes that made them look feminine. Very powerful. Tom Ford at Gucci, when he did all those super-sexy things. Christian Lacroix when he did his amazingly imaginative froufrou decorated kind of clothes in such exquisite taste. Almost anybody who has made it, there’s been a moment when there’s been a fantastic show.
Are you still expecting emotion when you go to a show?
I am. I shall always be. You are looking for talent, but it’s the emotion and the feeling that this is something new. I don’t know that new is the right word. It’s the exceptional, the something rare, the extraordinary. On a wall in my office in my home is a picture of people who cry at fashion shows. Hamish Bowles is one of them, and I am one of them.
When did you last feel that?
The last time I felt that was with a French designer who goes under the name of Jacquemus. There’s something so fresh and so different about his work. You feel: “Yes! This is somebody interesting.”
This is what you’re looking for?
I don’t even know I would say “looking”. I would say “hoping for”.
Is yours an endless passion?
Yes, it’s an endless passion.
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Portrait of Suzy Menkes by Djinane AlSuwayeh for Condé Nast International Luxury Conference
With thanks to Natasha Cowan, Executive Fashion Coordinator to Suzy Menkes