She is a fashion institution who has lent her just pen, unerring eye and British humor to the Times, the Evening Standard and the International Herald Tribune for the past 30 years. British through and through, Suzy Menkes also boasts a joyous mix of Belgian, Russian and Hungarian roots, a devotion to her house in the Ardèche and addictions to silk and all things purple. As she joins the Vogue international digital editorial team, Suzy Menkes opened up over a lunch of Spring asparagus and crab salad in Paris. Writing in the digital age, fine jewelry and advice from Charles Wintour and Estée Lauder were all on the menu.
Hello, Suzy Menkes. We’re looking forward to your first digital column for Vogue. After several decades of writing for the major dailies, what does this new chapter represent for you?
It means being in tune with the modern world. Gone are the days when we could say «I’m a journalist, but I only write for print». Having said that, it’s not as if I’m taking my first steps in Internet journalism for Vogue. I’ve been working online for years. I love paper, I love books, but I also love what’s going on around me. I think you need to be engaged with the times you’re living in. Just like in fashion, you have to be relevant.
What exactly will this new collaboration entail during Fashion Week, what are you hoping to explore?
I don't decide in advance what I go to. When you work in fashion, you should always keep your eyes open to everything.
You worked on Fleet Street at its height. Do you miss the golden days of the press?
Not at all! I look more to the future. I have some fabulous memories, like when I was working on the Evening Standard under Charles Wintour, Anna’s father. He was an extraordinary editor-in-chief, I learnt a great deal from him, not least his mantra: «start with the information, to draw the reader in», one rule that hasn’t changed and can still be applied to the web today. We should always have something to say, a story to tell to capture the reader’s attention immediately. That’s also what I try to do on my Instagram account, a photo, of course, but also a few words or lines to make people think. Take the image of roses from my garden in the Ardèche that I posted after the recent Versailles-Florence celebrity wedding held behind a floral privacy wall. Flowers are to run wild, not to hide behind.
With English roses, David Beckham and Clare Waight Keller, for the moment, your Instagram account (@suzymenkesvogue) is looking very British.
Yes, no doubt because I am English! But that will likely change, I’m in Paris today after all.
And it was here that you discovered the illustrator who is working on your column.
Absolutely. His name is Craig Redman, he's a New York-based illustrator that I found in an exhibition at colette. I love his style, it's lively, colorful and fun.
What does Vogue mean to you?
Above all, it’s visual. Vogue has produced extraordinary covers since the beginning. Before the International Herald Tribune, I worked on the image side of things as well, I cast the models, booked hairstylists... I’m a real admirer of fashion editorials and the people who create them, even if I don’t have any talent as a stylist myself, unlike someone like Grace Coddington for example, who is a formidable visual story-teller. That didn’t prevent me from enjoying the Papier Glacé exhibition at the Musée Galliera (100 years of Condé Nast photography). It was beautifully put together, not just thrown up in chronological order. The Vogue touch was immediately obvious.
How would you describe the Vogue touch?
That’s difficult to explain. It's something exceptional, a certain kind of glamour, old-style yet very modern at the same time. By «old-style», I mean worlds away from these celebrities who show everything they have on the red carpet.
Don’t you like the red carpet?
Not always, but there are also designers who know very well how to work it and leave a little to the imagination. Valentino does it very well, it’s a real trend. A year ago in Rome, I wrote an article asking whether a new pope would change anything in fashion, as young designers were covering girls up more, we were seeing less exposed skin. New directions are something that really interests me, as well as fresh design talent and fashion education.
Which young designers are you following at the moment?
I try to follow all the young designers, which is difficult, as today everything can be seen by everyone, immediately. Sometimes it’s a shame, because it spoils the surprise. I'm thinking of when I found Raf Simons in a tiny atelier in the 11th arrondissement in Paris making menswear, years ago. When you start to win prizes and have backing, you don’t have any choice but work, work, work. That said, it’s a real chance to have such resources when I think of all those designers who didn’t manage to break through — take Ossie Clark for example, he was great but he just didn’t have that kind of opportunity. Like with everything, there are advantages and disadvantages.
Who do you write for?
That’s a complete mystery, no doubt those who we least expect. For example, I organized a luxury conference in Singapore and got talking to a very stiff banker, who told me «I love your column, I can’t wait until Tuesday, I have to go online on Monday to read it». I was quite surprised and stupidly, rather than asking why he loved fashion so much, all I could manage was «thank you very much»!
After a career spanning several decades, what is your relationship with fashion?
It’s my trade. It’s a mirror on the world that sometimes even comes before changes in society. Think about the power shoulders of the 1980s, in Thierry Mugler’s heyday. Women had started to break through the glass ceiling and take jobs that up until then, had been male territory. Having said that, you shouldn’t read too much history and sociology into it, fashion is there for fun, to bring a lighter side to life.
When did you know that you wanted to work in fashion?
I’m worse than Jean Paul Gaultier, who started making outfits for his teddy bear when he was seven. I started at four with my dolls. I made my own clothes while I was a student, I had a little sewing machine and I did a lot by hand. During my gap year between school and university, I went to Paris to study fashion. I was sure that was what I wanted to do.
What was your Paris experience like?
I was at ESMOD/ISEM Guerre-Lavigne fashion school, it was tough! We made patterns from rice paper and after an impossibly long time, we were finally allowed to work with fabric. I can still remember a pleated skirt I made, I was so proud of my efforts. The tutor took one look and didn’t say anything, not a single word. She just tore it apart in front of everyone. I ended up in tears, in the toilet. Then I went to her to ask what I had done wrong and she told me: «you weren’t careful enough. Look, on the fourth pleat you were out by a millimeter». I just replied «yes, Madame» and she retorted «if everything was like that, nothing would fit» and it was a very good lesson — fashion was too complicated, I would do better to stick to writing about it!
Will you change your style for Vogue?
For years, I never wrote in the first person, «I» was forbidden. It was so difficult for me when I had to write «Monsieur» Gaultier, or «Madame» Westwood when the International Herald Tribune became the International New York Times, it was all very old school. Now, my writing can be more free. The only things that I can’t accept, are major faults, even if we all make mistakes, but luckily, I have an exceptional assistant in Natasha.
We have access to information very quickly today. Has that introduced a greater risk of error?
Don't forget that working quickly has always been my thing, deadlines on the daily papers are not to be trifled with! When you have 17 minutes to write up the Prada show before the Asian edition goes to press, you do it in 17 minutes and that's it. But now, the deadline is the world of the Internet itself. rules like everyone else. I understand things have changed, I understand the importance of live-blogging and social media on trips but if your role is that of a critic, you must retain independence. For me, it's not a question of strength of character, I'm much more interested in being honest.
How do you manage to follow dozens of fashion shows every day for weeks on end?
I have a truly exceptional driver, his car is my office. I don't drink — I only drink a little alcohol in general, but during the collections I cut back. I get up early, around 5:30am and try to limit myself to one coffee a day. But the real secret is that it all interests me!
What professional values are most important to you?
Independence is fundamental. When I started out, it was completely normal in newspapers, no-one accepted press gifts or trips, I followed the rules like everyone else. I understand things have changed, I understand the importance of live-blogging and social media on trips but if your role is that of a critic, you must retain independence. For me, it's not a question of strength of character, I'm much more interested in being honest.
Do you still follow the professional codes of serious journalism, even though fashion might seem more frivolous?
Yes. I may not have been a war correspondent, but some Fashion Weeks are a bit like going over the top in the trenches. I remember getting into Jean Paul Gaultier 20 years ago, it was so difficult and there is actually a photo from Kenzo that speaks volumes. There were so many people that I passed out in the crowd and there is photographic evidence of the invitation being taken from my hand while I was out.
You will also be organizing conferences on the luxury industry for Condé Nast.
Yes, but that's for Jonathan Newhouse to tell you about when he's ready. It's true that I invented this kind of conference, we started in Paris in 2001, then decided to go elsewhere because the luxury market was opening up in all sorts of countries, Dubai 10 years ago, Istanbul in 2006. This is a typical Suzy story for you: we had a meeting to decide on the location for the conference and I don't know why, but I thought of Istanbul — I didn't know it, I had only been once to see the museums — anyway, we were in the meeting and I told everyone that I'd found the place, that Istanbul was the next place to be, how great it was. I panicked when I was asked to write a supporting argument for my choice, I hadn't done any research at all, I had gone on my gut instinct. I stayed up until 3am on my laptop researching and what I found confirmed my choice: a big jewelry label was coming, Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue were about to open. I was right and the transformation has been extraordinary.
In 2003, you told the New Yorker that you were not a particular fan of jeans and sneakers. This season, they are everywhere.
Don't forget that I also have a home in the Ardèche, I wear sneakers when I'm there, but I prefer sandals. I wear them when I'm gardening, or to go jogging — it would be silly not to use something so practical. I don't have any fixed ideas, but I think you always have a choice. As for jeans, lots of people tell me that they are the most comfortable garment in the world — but it's not my thing. I prefer silk to cotton, it's terrible: I should have been born a princess.
You also like jewelry.
Baubles, yes, a little. Fine jewelry, a great deal! Not so much the stones, more the way the piece has been made, the volumes and color associations. I like the idea of creating, especially when it is very personal, with jewelers like Suzanne Belperron. Karl Lagerfeld has a magnificent collection of her jewelry, of which I admit — I am quite jealous. But there are others, like these earrings (two baroque grey pearls on long, yellow gold curved stems) that I found at Joyce Gallery. It's also a question of budget, I am more in the market for semi-precious stones in macaroon colors. It's like clothes, just because I don't wear something doesn't mean I don't like it. All I ask of my clothes is that they work as hard as I do.
If you could choose one really exceptional piece of jewelry, what would it be?
A Bulgari Serpenti necklace would be wonderful. But statement pieces don't necessary need to be fine jewelry — I've always really liked Loulou de la Falaise and Christian Lacroix. And today, it's a lot less expensive than a handbag. Having said that, a colored diamond can be something really exceptional. Violet is my favorite color, I wouldn't say no to a lavender colored diamond.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
Charles Wintour told me to write from the heart, but that journalism is about communicating information. He said «a journalist is the conduit who takes the information and makes it understandable to the general public». The second very good piece of advice, was from Estée Lauder. We were having lunch together and she said: «you know, it's always a very good idea when you're not feeling your best, not to wear black round your face. You want to have a red scarf or something, to make yourself feel better». I replied that her make-up could also work miracles and she said «even if your make-up is perfect, my advice is very wise».