Suzy Menkes, the queen of fashion journalism

More than an icon, Suzy Menkes is an inspiration, with more energy and stamina than many who are half her age.

by Terry Jones
04 March 2014, 11:45am

Paolo Roversi

It's Saturday in Paris during the spring/summer 10 shows and Suzy Menkes doesn't have copy to file today so meeting for lunch is a rare treat. Her prime concern before we sit down at Café Marly, overlooking the inner courtyard of the Louvre, is that her driver takes his lunch and Jessica Michaul, her right hand for the last eleven years, will make it to the Tao Kurihara show later this afternoon, which conflicts with a show she has to attend at the Carrousel du Louvre. Suzy Menkes' stature within the fashion industry has been recognised by an OBE in the UK and a Légion d'honneur in France. Her respected reviews in the International Herald Tribune are the first read over a morning coffee for virtually everyone in the industry and it is universally acknowledged within the fashion community that catwalk shows don't start until Suzy is safely sat in her seat in the front row. A graduate in English Language and History from Cambridge University, Suzy began her career as a Junior Fashion Reporter at The Times. She was soon promoted to Fashion Editor before moving on to The Independent, The Evening Standard, The Daily Express and then the International Herald Tribune in 1988 - where she has worked ever since, establishing her name as one of the most respected fashion journalists of her time. Suzy describes herself as "energetic, impatient, romantic, enthusiastic and family loving." We caught up with Ms Menkes to find out more about the lady behind the words.

What came first, words or fashion?
They both came together. My mother has a newspaper that l made at the age of five, one little bit of folded paper that has a woman in a pretty dress on the front, so naturally it came together.?

Where did you grow up?
Just outside Brighton, in a village called Rottingdean. One of my main memories of Brighton is going to the Brighton Pavilion. l finally saw in the Brighton Pavilion, everything that l loved. Glamour, colour, exoticism, India, all done in this luxurious silken way. l suppose l knew my destiny wasn't to be in a seaside town!?

What led you to fashion journalism?
My early instincts were towards fashion. When I was eighteen, before l went to university at Cambridge, l went to study in Paris, which had always been my dream. This was not the St. Martin's of Paris; this was an incredibly strict school to teach you how to pattern cut. l didn't touch a piece of toile until l'd been there about six months. Before that we did everything with rice paper in miniature and we had to get everything right. My most terrible moment was when we finally graduated to the toile. l worked incredibly hard to make this gored skirt, which had lots of seams in it. My teacher, who was a complete dragon, called me up in front of the whole class, l thought she was going to congratulate me but she tore it to shreds. I went to the toilet and burst into tears. l came back with my eyes stinging and asked her what was wrong with it and she said 're-measure it'. So l started re-measuring it and she said the fourth seam is one millimetre out of line. 'You must realise that if all eight were out, you would be out on the whole cutting: you have to be precise.' So l thought perhaps it's much better to be a fashion journalist because then you don't have to be as precise as all that!

Was that your first time away from home?
Yes, sort of, but not really because l used to go alone with my sister to visit my grandmother in Brussels. Coming to Paris was an extraordinary experience.

What was your background?
My background wasn't really fashion at all, quite the opposite. The background of my family was very cosmopolitan; my father came over from Dunkirk in the Belgium Calvary and then married my mother. He was killed as a pilot, so we moved to the country to be with my mother's parents, which was not my mother's thing at all. She was an elegant town woman. So l was brought up in the country where fashion wasn't around. Even when the 60s started happening l was in the country and didn't really get it.

Did you go shopping in London in the 60s?
Yes, of course, everything changed for me when I went to Cambridge from 1963-66. My mother moved to London at that point so life was flowering. Everything opened up at once because the world was opening up. England was such a class ridden, stolid society; it was the most exciting time to be young when all the barriers were breaking down. That's why l always felt an affinity with the young Japanese when the first cracks came in their absolutely rigid society. At the time, my sister and l were both considered to be incredibly - what's the word I'm looking for? - 'Exotic'. We were considered exotic because we spoke rudimentary French and went to visit our Grandparents who lived in Brussels, while the majority of my class at that point had never been outside England.

What was the first fashion show you ever went to?
When my Mother arranged for me to go to Paris l stayed with this wonderful woman and her family in Saint-Cloud. She was a Russian aristocrat so down on her luck that she had fled Russia and was having to take students in. The idea was that we were brought up as proper young ladies. She took me to a Nina Ricci show and that was my first experience of a fashion show.

Was it exciting?
Thrilling! Of course, it was very different then, you had someone reading out all the lists for the show and these ladies sitting font row. I'm glad l experienced it as l did. When l started in fashion at the end of the 60s, although I'm ashamed to admit it, going to a Chanel show and seeing Mademoiselle sitting on the stairs, I thought 'How boring is this?' while everything was going on in the 60s. It was the great wave of the ready-to- wear - Prêt-a-porter - and Paris was at the centre of that. However, I'm glad l saw the end of that formal part of couture. When l went to the Nina Ricci's show just now, that Peter Copping showed at, l certainly had a Proustian moment, as l sat in that same room as I did for my very first fashion show. It looked a bit down at heel and certainly less grand, there weren't any ladies sitting there, but it was the same room.

Do you feel things have changed for the better?
l never see why anyone ever has to be negative about fashion. Fashion was for the very few and in some ways l think the whole concept of couture and making clothes for clients was good in the sense that it gave a reality check to a designer's fantasies. I do feel strongly that fashion is an applied art and not art; it's fine by me if people want to hang their clothes on the wall. In the last round of the incredible thick platform soles in the 1970's, I actually bought a pair of Terry de Havillands l couldn't walk in and l did put them on the mantelpiece. So fashion can be art! l've kept all my things and l pay a fortune in storage, l ought to get them out.?

That would make an amazing exhibition. What are your most memorable moments?
My memorable moments are the same as everybody else's, except now I'm practically the oldest person around and they are now historic moments. André Courrèges was quite extraordinary. He came from a couture background, so brought the incredible skills of geometry to create ready-to- wear. Of course it doesn't seem extraordinary now, but when Courrèges himself (not the models) came out wearing sports clothes and sports shoes, which at that time were called gym shoes, it was a revolution. Hubert De Givenchy wore the white overalls, a bit like Margiela does now, but that's the thing about revolutions, it's only if you live through them that you know they are a revolution. Otherwise - and l notice this when l see other people doing incredibly good research when they write a book about fashion in the 60s and 70s - that when you've lived it, it's different. So you know the great moments like the theatre show of Ossie Clark with all the Beatles and their girls sitting on the front row, I suppose they were the equivalent of the footballers' wives today. That whole phase of Ossie changed everything with his 70s silhouette. I never have to tell anyone in the fashion world what those moments are because they've become legendary... like the early Yves Saint Laurent collections. It's impossible to understand now, when - 'omigod' - how many see-through things have we seen this season with bras visible, bosoms visible, whatever it is. The shock when Yves Saint Laurent sent out the see-through black chiffon blouse was more than a sharp intake of breath. It was an unbelievable acceptance of sexual evolution and the attitude of women to their bodies. There are all sorts of times when you see that in fashion and those are the moments we live for. We certainly don't live for some show with the clothes walking up and down. l try and blank them from my mind!

Did you see the Madeleine Vionnet exhibition whilst in Paris?
Absolutely inspiring! Really wonderful. One thing l will say about myself is that because l had training in Paris, l understand what a bias cut is and how it is done and she was an extraordinary woman in many ways. It is every designer's dream to invent a classic; those Vionnet dresses really are beautiful in their understanding of the woman's body. You couldn't live through the 60s without being a feminist and if you weren't, you are pathetic in my opinion.

How important is diversity on the catwalk?
I find it very difficult to take political issues in relation to fashion. It should not be the leading reason people choose clothes or photographs. I think change is happening very naturally in countries that have very diverse cultures, like London for example. It's still unfortunately an issue in America because of the very difficult polarisation in the country. Let's hope that things will change, but it always seems to be a statement in New York when they put African-American women on the runway. Why?! l don't get it. That l think is a problem, but it's a problem about America not about fashion. I also feel strongly about underage girls being used. Very young girls, whose naturally fawn-like pre- teen or post-teen bodies are being exposed by the fashion industry. I was shocked in Italy recently at how thin the models were. Look at all the fuss that was made about it, about how it was going to change and it has not changed. Also I find it really strange that so many designers are filling out the curves (that should be there on the models) with clothes to create a more normal female shape. I find that quite weird.

What do you think is the future for fashion shows?
I personally find it very unsatisfactory to see clothes only on film, as stills. It is a mystery to me as to why the great doesn't take pictures from the back. So much happens at the back of an outfit. The future of fashion seems to be hanging on the fabrics. When we see people like Alber (Elbaz) using such an extraordinary range of fabrics, or Haider Ackerman using fabrics in such extraordinary ways, the need for touch and understanding of fabrics is much greater. If we were to dump the fashion show in favour of the explanatory video, there would have to be a whole lot more work done on this, a lot more zooming in.

Does technology excite you?
Technology is so exciting. I think it's great that fashion is now available for the whole wide world to see. Fashion should be available to everybody, especially in a global world. Of course in terms of my profession it's quite difficult, with blogging for instance. Anyone can blog and anyone can have an opinion. But traditionally we have referred to 'an educated opinion' or 'an experienced opinion'. So while it is interesting to know what other people think about Tom Ford's movie, what is really interesting is what the critics, who can put it in context, think. Some people do have a tremendous fashion instinct, and blogging can throw up people who are very good writers, so in that way it's very positive.

There's a difference between fashion and style. Who do you think has interesting style?
I think one of the most naturally stylish women l know is a woman who sells herbs in the market in France, where we have a house. My children call her 'The Spice Girl' as a joke! She's probably about 50 and she always wears clothes that go wonderfully together with no effort. I've always been too shy to ask her whether she has dyed the clothes herself with the herbs in her garden. Not at all in a hairy legs and Birkenstock way but very, very chic. l do think that you find that in France more than anywhere else.

How do you make time for your family?
I always put my family first. It has been difficult, especially now my mother is quite elderly, but l am very fortunate to have a career and a family. Although l do often have to make a bigger physical effort than l would like. The other day l had to take the last plane out of Milan to get back for our Jewish holiday the next day. l was with my family for one day, l was then on some God awful train to Paris at the crack of dawn. These are physical efforts you have to make. But it's a no brainer between being with my family, or being on Valentino's yacht - not that he ever asked me!

You recently did a conference talk in India; did India open your eyes?
I've been to India many times. Mostly when my late husband was alive, we both loved India, as l still do. I've done ten conferences in all, but the subject for India, which was 'Sustainable Luxury', was close to my heart. l have found it amazing that for the past decade the food industry has been transformed by 'people power'. People saying 'l want to know where my apples come from, l want this food to be properly grown, l don't want my chickens to be badly treated'. They demanded (and l demanded) that someone do something and somebody did. So why in an industry like fashion, especially at the luxury end of it, do they not give themselves the 'luxury' to think about these things? While people may say 'Oh, l do hope these aren't made by workers earning pathetically low wages...' nobody in the industry seriously seems to ask this. The prices at Primark really concern me. I have not researched this, so l cannot make any fair comment, but if Primark is selling a dress that costs little more than a cappuccino and a croissant, to me there is something worthy of serious debate about that. The whole waste that surrounds the fashion industry also needs to be looked at. I hope, l may be right, that the India conference will stir people up. PPR backed that extraordinary movie Home about how we are destroying the planet. But l still think more can be done, we also need to look at the stores themselves. All these architects who are building these monuments for the future, let them make sure they are actually sustainable buildings that are built wisely. Burberry is a really fine example of that. l think Christopher Bailey, who is so terrific on technology, really understands this; he really lives and breathes it. What has been done in their headquarters in London is what should be done everywhere. I know it's hard if you live in Paris in some gilded palace that you've had for years, but certainly when they are building new boutiques like the Balenciaga boutique in LA it's great if sustainability is built into the thinking behind the luxury.

You've got a great sense of humour. What makes you laugh?
Everybody thinks l am so miserable because l have this severe face in repose. But when l'm thinking about a deadline in seventeen minutes time (or in the case of the Lanvin show, seven minutes after the show's finished) you don't look your most cheery! I have my British irony and that's why there are a lot of things that make me laugh a lot. Very occasionally you can see me going into a spasm of hilarity in the front row but l try to contain myself, failing to have the Anna Wintour sunglasses to hide behind, l put the programme notes up so people can't see I'm shaking with laughter. l also remember reading one of Craig Brown's articles in Private Eye and I'm still laughing when l think of it now... so words make me laugh.

Do you have favourite adjectives?
If you Google my pieces you'll find words l use repeatedly. Someone told me that 'sinuous' is always coming up in my vocabulary.

When you write as many reviews as you do, aren't you tempted to invent words? We invent lots of words at i-D.
That's a great idea, but unfortunately with the kind of fact checkers we have in the institution run by The New York Times, l can assure you they'd come down on me like a ton of bricks. I do sometimes invent words by mistake but they definitely get airbrushed out.

How long have you had a house in the Ardeche?
Thirty years l think. It's very, very important in my life. I would not be able to go there if Princess Caroline was shopping in the market and all the fashion people were waving hello, it's what l need to get away and it's a wonderful place to read. Especially after the collections. I always say l want to listen to the silence although of course it isn't silent at all. It's filled with noises, some of them quite scary, from the woods outside.

Have you ever wanted to exit a show because of the soundtrack?
I've only actually walked out once, although l wish I had walked out of this season's Cavalli show because l had a migraine for two days. My mother has very, very sensitive hearing and broke one of her eardrums because of loud noise and one of my granddaughters has inherited it from me. I get a terrible pain in my ears when music is too loud. Even when l was younger l couldn't take loud noises.

I've never seen you covering your ears?
Oh, l have done that, I'm sure there must be pictures of me doing that all over the place! I usually tear up bits of Kleenex and stick them in my ears and then l find out an hour later that nobody's mentioned to me that l still have them sticking out of my ears! These horrible white things emerging.

What do you like to do to relax?
I'm very interested in art. One of the most fortunate things about traveling a lot with the shows is being able to go to a museum if there is a gap. For example when l was in New York and l was going with a friend to have a cup of coffee between the shows, we passed the Whitney Museum of American Art and we saw this sign that said 'Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction' and said 'let's go'. It was a press showing of this absolutely fantastic show that was so heart lifting and thrilling. Of course one never has long enough but l do make a lot of time for looking at different kinds of art.

What else do you enjoy?
My job is pretty full on but l still obviously want to enjoy myself. Nobody did publish those pictures of me dancing on the benches at Lady Gaga with Marc Jacobs at the Marc Jacobs party in New York this September. l went home at 1am and stayed up till 3 or 4am to get my story in and l did get up at 9.15 the next morning and get to the show and felt really terrible.

Who invented your quiff?
Someone called Pauline Beard from John Frieda in London. Everyone said it was Alexandre de Paris who gave me a chignon in my early days but it wasn't. At that time, l used two combs to keep my hair off my face because l cannot work with my hair flopping over my face. Although I've had fringes and so in the past, it doesn't really suit me, so Pauline took one of the combs and re-invented it just like that. People tell me l should change it but l can do my hair walking down the stairs and l'm of a wash 'n' wear generation when it comes to hair and clothes. I'm sorry to be a spoilsport, but I've already been teetering around on constricting shoes and that's hard for anyone who went through the whole feminist revolution. I'm hopeless, l remember to put my laptop in the bag but l forget my flat shoes and then I'm hobbling around. l wasn't made to wear constricting things and l wasn't made to have a hairstyle l couldn't cope with.

You are immediately recognisable with your hairstyle, which must help when you are standing behind ten fans trying to get into a show and are called through.
I'm always pleased when I'm allowed in but l don't feel comfortable with getting pushed ahead of other people when there are colleagues who are very hard working who are there, but the elitist thing lives very strongly in the fashion world.

I'm amazed that you write reviews direct from the front row. Do you ever get writer's block?
The only time l can't write is when I'm not telling the truth. There are moments when I do feel constrained in one way or another. I never like to give a designer a bad review when they are just starting out. This is something new, it never used to be like this, that such young designers come into these big houses and l just think why kill someone when it's their first big show? It's not fair. Also when l know that a designer is going through a very difficult personal situation l might be gentler, although that's usually not that difficult to write. It's usually when one is incapable of facing up to the reality of what one is saying.

How has your style of writing changed over the years?
I never try and hide what I'm trying to say, but recently l have found that people seem to find it more interesting when l introduce a thread of thought rather than just a review. Maybe the designers don't like it so much, but for example looking at Balmain and Balenciaga l am intellectually drawn to Balenciaga because l find the whole thing very interesting and inventive and l am not naturally drawn to Balmain, although l can see where Christophe Decarnin is coming from and l admire him for making tremendous beauty out of vulgarity. But when l was comparing the two of them l didn't want to say outright, l love one of them and l love or don't love the other because l think bloggers do that all the time, whereas the context was what l thought was interesting. What shocked me was when I looked at the public's reaction on the Internet, well, let's put it crudely that tits and arse still has it over more thoughtful, creative work.

Well The Sun sells more copies than The Guardian.
Exactly, l don't know why l should be surprised by this!


Interview: Terry and Tricia Jones

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