LONDON — As fired up now as when she was fashion editor of the London Evening Standard in the Sixties, Suzy Menkes is a free operator for the first time in her long career spent at The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times and Condé Nast International.
A front-row fixture with her signature pompadour, Issey Miyake Pleats Please wardrobe and love of the color purple, the British mother-of-three (and grandmother) remains one of the few who can talk Instagram followers, Apple podcasts — and working for The Standard’s editor Charles Wintour, father of Anna Wintour — in practically the same breath.
Since leaving her job as editor, Vogue International, last October, Menkes hasn’t missed a step, taking her half-a-million Instagram followers into new territory with a podcast series, “Creative Conversations With Suzy Menkes,” which she began earlier this year; writing for Graydon Carter’s Airmail, and mulling a few projects — based on the pictures she took and the diaries she wrote in the pre-digital era.
Asked about the past, she prefers to talk about the future: “I try not to look back. I’m not really interested in how it was. I’m more interested in how it will be,” Menkes related in an interview earlier this month. Here, she talks to WWD about her mentors, why she fell for fashion, and the work that excites her the most.
WWD: Can you talk about the podcast series? Most recently, you’ve interviewed Wes Gordon, Andreas Kronthaler, Giancarlo Giammetti and Bruno Pavlovsky. How do you choose your subjects?
Suzy Menkes: It’s not that I’m trying to change the world, but I think it’s interesting for people to hear voices that they don’t always have an opportunity to hear, and I like the idea of having a mix of people, different ages — different everything. The main thing is that I’m eager to have voices coming from other people. With Andreas Kronthaler, he hasn’t exactly been in the shadow of Vivienne Westwood, but we don’t often hear from him without her interrupting, can I put it that way? I think it’s interesting for people to know a little bit more about him, and it’s interesting for me — that’s the main thing. I’m very interested in talking to him.
WWD: What are you most looking forward to exploring as you embark on this new career chapter?
S.M.: I’m more interested in what people have to say to me, rather than the other way around. And we all know that feeling of feeling that gasp inside of you when you see something that’s really interesting. I long for that. Who doesn’t? Marine Serre would be a really good example of when I felt my heart go pitter-patter. She’s really an exceptional person. I was watching one of her very early shows in the pouring rain — and I didn’t notice the rain. None of us did. We all sat there and watched and that is the thing. Those moments are so rare.
I should also come clean, and tell you that I kept diaries for 24 years until the Internet came along and I stopped writing [by hand]. It was also when I was at The New York Times. It was very difficult at the end of my career trying to fit into The New York Times, and all of their demands and the way they liked to do things. The question is will I, in my lifetime, manage to type them all out or will I find somebody to do it? I’ve been going through them. Lockdown has been a good time to do it. But I don’t know how I’ll handle it. Some of these people are still around, and they might not like what I say. Let’s see.
WWD: Do you have any other book projects in the works?
S.M.: Who knows? I had a wonderful person who digitalized all of the pictures that I took up until I went into the digital world with my camera. I’ve got some amazing pictures from 25 years at the Herald Tribune, and from mostly being in Paris.
WWD: What gives you the most buzz?
S.M.: I often ask myself the same question. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, just when I was leaving the Herald Tribune (which was then the NYT) I would have said, “Well, I’m a writer and that’s what I do,” which is true in many ways. But it’s amazing to me what I’ve done with Instagram. I don’t want to be a show-off, but I think I have over a half-a-million followers. I do it both to amuse myself — and to inform. A lot of people still don’t really understand fashion and how it operates, and above all, they don’t get the joy of it. With my pictures, I’ve always been trying to get some kind of joy. I did it my way and didn’t take anybody’s advice, which was probably very foolish.
WWD: You have penned books about the Windsor family jewels. Would you ever return to writing about the royals or their jewelry?
S.M.: Clearly, I lost the moment didn’t I? Because here we are with “The Crown,” with more mistakes in it in terms of real life than you could find anywhere. The way that the royal family is looked at now is so very different. When I was at Cambridge University, I read history and English, and I’ve always been interested in history, but I’m interested in real history. I don’t think you can play around with it. As far as the royal family is concerned, you can write about their jewels. They’re static things, they’re objects. They come to life when people wear them. As to people’s lives in the royal family, I wouldn’t want to do anything now. I wouldn’t feel comfortable.
WWD: What made you fall for fashion?
S.M.: When I was 18 years old — before I went to Cambridge — my mother arranged for my sister and I to go to Paris, to stay with a woman who was an ex-princess from Russia. She was a bit down on her luck. She took me to a fashion show, and it was the very first one I saw. It was an amazing experience, and I followed it by going to a place in Paris where you could actually learn to sew and where they were incredibly strict. That’s where I learned how things were put together. I learned a lot about fashion and hand work, but from a totally different point of view. I learned the details of making and sewing clothes — that was my early start.
WWD: What made you decide to write about fashion?
S.M.: I was always interested in fashion, really. I edited the Cambridge newspaper, Varsity, and was the first woman, too — and it was a [big] deal in the 1960s. Those were the days! Then I joined the London Times’ women’s page. It was tremendously new and adventurous, and fun to do. There had never been a women’s page before. I was plucked by Anna Wintour’s father [Charles Wintour] to join the Evening Standard, so that was the beginning. He made me fashion editor at the age of 24. He taught me everything.
He was very silent, like Anna, and I’ll always remember that we were all sitting there working at our typewriters, and he had this habit of walking around, and testing everyone. Everyone was nervous of him. He asked us what he should lead on. He walked round the entire office asking whether The Beatles supposedly taking drugs, or Jackie Kennedy marrying Onassis should be front-page lead. The Beatles won! He was a genius editor — but not when he picked me, of course.
WWD: You spent your career at newspapers. What was it like joining Condé Nast after leaving The New York Times?
S.M.: Jonathan Newhouse was super supportive to me. First, he would ferry me around in his car knowing that the International Herald Tribune was always short of cash. Then he gave me a job! It was very different to go into an organization that speaks its language in pictures and through magazines. When I went in, I found it fascinating going around to the different countries and talking to the different editors. You really get a feeling of the character of the country in the different Vogues. I found that very interesting.
WWD: You are one of the originators of the luxury business summit, which has proven a major revenue stream for newspapers and magazines alike. You started them in 2000 at the IHT, and did a similar job for Condé Nast, with your last luxury conference taking place in South Africa in 2019.
S.M.: I would have gone on had I been able to, but Condé Nast realized, quite rightly, that unfortunately this pandemic killed everything dead. It’s very disappointing and disappointing for the people I worked with and it made me sad that everybody had to leave because there was no job.
WWD: What sort of approach did you take to organizing these events and why have they become so important?
S.M.: We always tried to think of unusual places for people to go, and one of the main [aims] is for people to meet other people. We journalists have the ability to meet all sorts of people and speak to them, but this is not true of a lot of people in the business. Let’s take Gabriela Hearst. She spoke at the Lisbon conference [in 2018]. I followed her [career] all the way through. I really like that idea of following people and I think the fact she spoke at the conference brought her into the sight of a lot of international people, especially since she was working out of New York. It was a great opportunity. I am very proud that the last one I did was in South Africa. A couple of people who I engaged are moving forward, and that is very heartwarming.
WWD: What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in fashion during your career?
S.M.: Don’t you think that the point is that fashion is now for everybody? You do a click and you find the whole thing. It’s just a different world. I came into the last of the era when fashion was something special for people who had the occasion to dress up. That was the major, major change I think that happened. Things became much more international. That was another major change.
S.M.: You’re talking to a great failure on streetwear. I’m just not interested and I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but I just can’t look at a pair of sneakers and think, “Oh my God, these are so wonderful; I just can’t wait to have them.” I don’t feel for them. The feeling, the touch of a fabric is terribly important for me. I need to stroke the material which I’m wearing. I love shapes, I’m interested in shapes and the way clothes relate to the body. The two things I’m saying make me useless when it comes to streetwear.
I get streetwear — absolutely, and I’m not criticizing people for wearing it. It’s just never given me a buzz. I still have to get a buzz from beautiful things. Duro Olowu — his dresses in these silks. I love them. I feel so good in them. They’re not something exceptional and extraordinary, but they are to me because they’re so touchable and they’re so colorful and so original.
WWD: You are untethered for the first time in your career, and don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself. How does that feel?
S.M.: I’d probably shock my ex-editors by saying this, but I always felt like a free person. When I was at the IHT, I wrote all sorts of things I don’t want to talk about right now. There were some very nasty and difficult moments when I was criticized — and all the rest of it — but most of the companies concerned have survived.
I think journalists should stand up for themselves, and that’s why in my secret heart I don’t really want the whole of a review of mine to come from the mouth of the designer. I’m fascinated about what the designers have to say, and what they think, and I’m absolutely eager to talk to them. But in the actual review, somewhere, you have to bring yourself in as a writer. There’s no doubt about it, there’s been a tremendous change in the way that the fashion shows are reported. First, you go and see the designer, get all the stuff from the designer — and then go and look at the show. I find that slightly strange after all my 48 years of looking at things and then making a judgment call.
WWD: Why did you decide to write for Airmail?
S.M.: Graydon Carter is someone I’ve always admired so much, and it’s a pleasure to write for him. He’s always interested in everything — and that makes it easier. He’s somebody who I’ve known most of my working life and really do think what he’s doing now is terrifically strong. I don’t think there’s any question of me writing for him every week. I wouldn’t dream of thinking that I would be doing that.
WWD: Why do you keep working?
S.M.: The reason why I continued is a very sad one: 20 years ago this year, my husband [the diplomatic journalist, and poker expert] David Spanier, died unexpectedly, with no warning. Of course, it was the most terrible shock to my whole family, and it’s fairly obvious that I wanted to keep my life moving somehow or other. I haven’t found this lockdown much fun, sitting there all on my own. It’s not my style.
I think that was the primary reason for continuing. On the upside, I’ve felt so excited about the new things that were happening. When it came to the Internet, I was far from the first person on it, but at least I wasn’t scared by it. I always wanted to be part of it, and to share it. Also, I love my work. Lockdown has meant that we see things by sitting in rooms at home and watching. It isn’t the same for me. Fashion isn’t the same for me. I can’t feel it, can’t feel how clothes move on the body. Of course, all of the photography has been absolutely amazing, but I’d rather be there. I’m hoping to get back for haute couture — that would be a joy — but I don’t know what the situation will be. We’re talking about people dying so we can’t be frivolous about it. But I’m interested to see whether we go back to a certain degree. I do hope so.
WWD: Aside from Duro Olowu, which designers do you love wearing?
S.M.: Who is the Japanese designer who does Pleats Please? I think that [Issey Miyake’s] are the most wonderful garments. For a start, they seem to last forever. You can wash them in the washing machine. They don’t crumple or crease. You can walk off a plane after 12 hours and go to an event wearing them. I think he should have got every award from the feminist world, the world of women, because he made our lives so easy.