The Unstoppable Suzy Menkes
At the very end of the last ready-to-wear season, there was a tectonic shift in fashion criticism. Suzy Menkes, we learned amid a sudden crescendo of front-row whispers, was leaving the International New York Times (formerly and still better known as the International Herald Tribune), where for twenty-six years she had served as style editor and chief reviewer. Her destination was perhaps even more of a surprise: Condé Nast International. Her columns will now appear on all the global Vogue websites, with the exception of the American edition. What I admire most about Menkes is that she never seems to play favorites or approach a story with preconceived notions. In her case, the cliché is true: She calls it as she sees it—and because, at 70, she still makes a point of attending every fashion event, from the most obscure presentation to the grandest gala, she sees everything. I called her up in Paris (nominally her home, though she was quick to say she's "based somewhere in the middle of the sky") to discuss her new role, the changing tides of fashion, and how her no-nonsense facade hides the heart of a doting grandmother.
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Congratulations on your new role. How's it going so far?
Well, I'm finding it very exciting. It makes me full of energy, and I've always wanted to be part of the digital world, and that's the big change for me. I think I'm known for my writing, but I want more people out there to know how I write. I think social media is giving me an opportunity already, even in my second week, of reaching out, particularly via all the different Vogues.
In your new role, will you be reviewing every show? Or will you be writing roundups like you would in a newspaper column?
I'm really figuring it out. I'm not doing menswear this season simply because I want to start with the couture and also because I just need some space and time to try and work out my new role, rather than rushing into millions of reviews. And I certainly hope that I can do some thoughtful, maybe provocative, maybe big, researched pieces that will set what I'm writing a little bit apart from just the show season.
I've heard that Condé Nast International will be publishing a print newspaper to be given out during the ready-to-wear shows featuring your writing. Care to comment?
I would love to see a "teaser" in print to draw people to my online presence. But the logistics would have to work—let's see how it goes.
Talking of provocative, in your first column you came out and decried the bitchery that is the lingua franca of the Web and said you're more interested in constructive criticism. Do you think that's a winnable battle?
I'm not looking to "win" or "lose" on this one. I'm just trying to put my thoughts forward. And I've never tried to destroy people, whether they're designers or artists, and I'm going to go on that way. You know, I do appreciate that a lot of people are using a tremendously loud voice—mean comments—in order to get noticed. It's one thing when you're working for Condé Nast and quite another when you're a blogger at home trying just to get out there, so I sort of understand why it's done. I also think it has given an opportunity to people who are perhaps very sort of mean in spirit to have the kind of voice and place to be seen and read and heard where they wouldn't have had it in the past. I mean, everyone has the right to say what they want, but on the whole I think always criticism should be constructive. Otherwise, why are we destroying people?
But is there a sense that the loudest voice wins now, regardless of whether you're with an established company or you're an independent blogger?
I'll tell you what I truthfully think here. At the beginning, I rather envied a lot of the bloggers who I felt had such fantastic freedom which nobody else who's been in the business for a while can possibly have. Not knowing anybody personally, mostly working from looking at things on film and therefore not actually having to face the music, face the CEO, or face the designer. And of course all that changed so incredibly quickly because, you know, people are pretty smart, particularly the companies that feel they want to control the kind of stuff that comes out about them. And we very quickly saw the bloggers who were interesting, perhaps a bit cheeky and certainly off the usual path, we saw them being enfolded into the fashion industry. They're flown in from wherever and put in the front row and I won't say "bought," although considering that a lot of them were boasting about how many things they've been sent…But you know, just a general feeling that their voices were not going to be so fresh and original and just new as when they had started. Of course I'm not saying this happened to all of them, but there is a way that we have seen the corporate fashion body embrace a lot of bloggers and try and—I won't say shut them down, but certainly turn them on their side.
You've been quite outspoken about bloggers and the circus of fashion in the past, and I know some bloggers got upset about that.
I'd like to put the record straight on that. I was never against bloggers and I'm not against bloggers now. What I was really talking about is just the whole idea that fashion now is for everybody and written about by everybody. It's become an absolutely global thing, and instead of having particular people whose specialty was writing about fashion and judging it and getting interviews and so on, fashion has become something for everybody. And in a lot of ways I think that is terrific. What an opportunity it gives to somebody who is living in the farthest reaches of wherever—Zagreb—that they can actually join the part of the world that fascinates them. And maybe they can build a career because they can do it via the Internet, so in that way I think it's very good. But the idea that everybody has the right to make a judgment and also that everybody has a right to parade around in their clothes in order to be photographed sort of has moved fashion away from being something where the focus was on the few who were tremendously interested and involved in fashion or had tremendous personal style to the great, big world of the Internet. But that piece was not against bloggers—really, it wasn't.
A case of "they can dish it out, but they can't take it"?
Yeah. I mean, it's a long time ago. I've written many words since then.
Do you think that writing for Vogue now there might be more pressure for you to "play nice" with advertisers?
I really don't think that. I don't think that Jonathan Newhouse has hired me in order that I sort of take the tone down and just say that everything's lovely. I don't see what would be the point of that. And anyway, I wouldn't be capable of doing it. It's just I'm trained as a journalist and that's how I'm going to be. I think that there is pressure from corporate people, but I'm much more concerned, not about journalists—journalists, editors, should be able to look after themselves—I'm much more concerned for the designers themselves. I think they're being asked to do an awful lot and a lot more than in previous generations, particularly with all these Resort and inter-season collections. I called up Alber Elbaz to see if he was in Paris this week and we could have lunch, and he was in New York showing his Resort collection. And, I mean, it's like that the whole time. What used to be the quiet months, April or May or even early June, now are these incessant trips around the world. And with all the promotional museum presentations or just fashion shows…After all, designers have quite a delicate psyche. I am so concerned for some of them that they just will find the pace is overwhelming. But, you know, if journalists can't stand the pace, then that's just another thing and that's just too bad.
What's interesting is that, even with all these digital advances, the fashion-show-as-live-experience has not only endured but seems to be growing. There are more shows every season. Why is the live experience of a fashion show so important?
I think the importance of the live experience is completely parallel in music. It becomes very special to see somebody whom you admire and like playing live. And those live concerts are sold out in minutes, not hours. Particularly, of course, I'm talking about the big guys who have become completely legendary, but I think it applies in general—that people want the real thing. I also think there's something else which applies to fashion, which is that social media is a great way for companies who own these fashion brands to see their work sent around the world. However much it costs to put on—say it takes $750,000 to put on a fashion show—if you're going to get 750,000 tweets, Instagrams, and ongoing pictures that are put up on the Internet that the company themselves can use for self-promotion, it actually becomes quite a smart thing to do. And the participation of the Instagram generation is pretty important to these designers.
In fact, we did an interview with Tom Ford recently, and he suggested that Instagram was more powerful than any review or any magazine. If a celebrity puts something in their Instagram feed, that's much more relevant to the consumer than anything that a "professional writer" might have to say.
That's probably all true. If you invite a celebrity to sit and show their legs off and their latest suit and frockette in the front row, my suspicion would be that they're not going to say anything even faintly critical, which is great for the designer. In the long term, if you're an intelligent designer like Tom Ford, I would have thought you'd like a bit of both—the celebrity wearing the dress and looking fabulous, and at the same time somebody making a measured judgment on how your work is developing. And if that judgment is that this is a particularly good show, it's a reason for personal pride and sense of achievement. So I think that there are two sides to this.
Coming back to your new role, did it sort of come out of the blue?
It did sort of actually come out of the blue! I had just come back from Singapore at the International Herald Tribune conference and I got a call from Jonathan Newhouse and I had no idea what it was about. And when I went to see him, I actually thought he was probably going to ask me whether I would consider doing some lessons, perhaps in journalism, at the Vogue college, which has been started in London. But he went right into it, and I was both flabbergasted and excited right from the start.
You were so associated with the Times. Did you think at one point you would end your career there?
No, I've never thought about the end of my career. I've always said that I'll be in a wheelchair fighting my way into the collections, and I hope that that proves true. A lot did change at the Times, but I will never be able to forget or never want to forget the fantastic years that I had at the International Herald Tribune. The power of The New York Times and the decency of the company and the way that there's no question or even any suggestion that you're going to accept freebies or that you're going to have your words cut back because they're not pleasing the advertisers—those things have been drummed into me over many, many years, and I'm profoundly grateful to the International Herald Tribune, later the International New York Times, for that training because it can never leave me.
It's also quite new, I think, the way that your work's going to appear on a variety of Vogue sites. Traditionally, in some ways the magazines, even though it was all the same company, have competed against each other.
Yes! It's unprecedented, a word much used in journalism. Yes. I mean, nineteen Vogues. I find it very exciting. And the most exciting thing of all is that people have been so enthusiastic about this idea. Because in one way we are all one. We all love fashion. We're all fascinated by it and interested in it. That is why we do the job. So there actually is a much bigger gulf between me and someone who lives next door to me and is getting terribly excited about the World Cup or whatever it's called. There's a much bigger gulf between me and that person than there is between the Brazilian Vogue editor or Russian Vogue editor. We are the horde—the fashion horde—and we love what we do. And so really, why not be writing for lots of countries?
So everyone's on board?
Pretty much so. American Vogue obviously has a different rationale. It is, after all, the master ship, and I think that's just fine. Anna and I are actually giving a talk, a joint talk to students, on Friday at BAFTA in London. And I must say I much admire Anna for the force and effort she's put in to helping young designers, and we're going to talk jointly with them in London, really to be both enthusiastic and realistic about the possibilities of building a fashion business in the year 2014.
What do you think of the New York scene in terms of designers these days?
Well, in New York, there again Anna has made a tremendous effort, and all of the people involved in the whole CFDA have made a tremendous effort to support young talent, and I admire them for that. I'd like to see a little bit more daring, a little bit more shock waves going through me. I think you get it from Alexander Wang, or did get it, not much from anybody else. Perhaps there's something in England especially, or perhaps there was something under the teaching of Louise Wilson, late lamented, that brought out the wild side. And you know, in a way designers need to be wild and full of crazy, manic energy, and then they start to be tamed. If they start off tame, I'm not sure whether that's quite as strong.
I read your recent column on the fashion schools and Louise. Is it going to come back to bite the industry in the future if attending these schools keeps getting more expensive?
I don't really know enough about it to be a spokesperson on this subject, but all I know is that nearly all fashion schools now—and I go to a lot across the world—nearly all of them have a pretty high ratio of international students, so it's bound to be different because the culture is different. It's a mixed culture, which in some ways is very, very good because you can't just stay in your own little area. But on the other hand, because the cost is so horrendous, it does mean that there is going to be a lot of children of rich families, wealthy families, particularly from abroad. And there's nothing wrong with coming from a wealthy family, but there is a history in art and in fashion of people from very simple homes, ones pushing themselves forward. Perhaps they have more to feel angry about and feel crazy about, but we just have to see.
In general, is fashion too expensive now?
I don't think fashion is too expensive. I think fashion is far, far too cheap. I am disgusted about people running in to buy dresses that cost the same as a cappuccino and a croissant. It's not right. We know it's not right. The terrible things that have come out and shown us that these people are working like slaves. It's wrong. Of course it's good that people with low incomes can dress fashionably, but it's not good that people who have got enough money to pay double what they're paying—I'm talking about the $10 dress here…People have got into a state of mind that the cheaper it is, the better it is, and they don't want to think beyond that. So, yes, fashion is "too expensive" if you're talking about couture that the majority of people never think of buying in a million years, but to me the too-cheap fashion is far worse for the world.
Sounds like the subject of a future column possibly. But it's to do with the disposable nature of the consumer—
I know what it has to do with, but you asked me if I think fashion's too expensive and I told you what I think. The only other thing that I'd like to say to you is that I think there's a sort of misunderstanding about me because my face is so grim in repose. People who don't know me think I'm this miserable person sitting there, making nasty comments about whomever. And what I am actually is I'm now a grandmother, I'm the mother of three sons. My family is absolutely central—it's the heart of my life—and that's also a very important part of me, and I would like more people to know that. I'm not going to go so far as to put up pictures of my beautiful and talented granddaughters on Instagram, because some things in life should stay private. But I still think people should know that although fashion is a hugely important part of my life, the major part is taken up with my family life.
Where do you get the energy from, Suzy?
I don't know where I get the energy from. I'm just a curious person. I always want to see new things and hear new things. That's what it is. It's the energy of curiosity.