Find what you want and work your way through
There was a lot of movement in the job market in London during the 1980s. There were various regulations in the city and money was squashed around. Ideas about luxury goods were coming to the fore. For a couple of years, I managed to get myself on a training scheme at Haymarket publishing. Eventually, I got headhunted by Marie Claire magazine for my first consumer job. I worked through the launch phase of the magazine but the pace of a monthly seemed a little slow to me. So, I joined the Evening Standard in 1989; I knew a lot of people working on their features team. At that time, Evening Standard had just launched a monthly magazine called ES. I wanted the speed of a newspaper and also the gloss and the planning capacity that you get with a magazine. So, that’s how I joined the paper.
Find a mentor
At Marie Claire, I worked for Glenda Bailey who is now editing Harpers Bazaar in New York. She was a great editor because she knew exactly what she wanted. She was very organised and I got a sense of direction under her. The best editors are very clear about what they want from you and what they want delivered to the readers.
Luxury is an experience
Technically and lexically, luxury is simply that what is not necessary. It’s something that goes above the basic and mundane. For me, a lot of luxury is tangible but it’s not as much about the product as it is about how you experience the product. A company CEO once said something that always stayed with me: “Imagine you had saved up for a particular luxury watch, and you went to the store, finally, and they gave you the whole experience. They sat you down on a beautiful chair and offered you a glass of champagne. After a lot of anticipation you decided you wanted to spend all this hard earned money on this one thing. So, they took your card, took the payment and then they just put the watch in a paper bag and said, ‘here you go.’ How awful would you feel?” The whole experience would’ve been ruined because of the circumstances you’ve received the goods in. So, I think it’s the experience of luxury sometimes. It’s that and certain characteristics – things that are rare and require commitment.
Integrity is the most important word in business
People often question our editorial integrity because we are a free title and all our money comes from advertisers. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for an advertiser to expect nice things from a publication they placed an ad in. But we do go and check the products/services we’re talking about and see if it’s in line with our audience and their interests. And since I work for fashion and luxury, it’s easier to do that. We won’t have an editorial piece and then an ad by the brand next to it. That seems incredibly contrived. Besides, we write about a lot of brands that don’t advertise with us at all. It’s a matter of having a lot of integrity. If you lose that, you have lost everything.
Ubiquity is a turn off
There is something called affordable luxury that has surfaced in the past few years. That means the product is luxurious but it’s not made out of the fallopian tubes of 5000 hummingbirds. It’s something that people can get their hands on and spend a little over the odds for it. Now it’s a very dangerous line to walk, and a designer like Michael Kors is currently walking that very line. One of the biggest put offs for a young style conscious person is ubiquity. If you see everyone with something, you don’t want it anymore. But if a brand keeps the price really high-end, that would mean everyone couldn’t afford to have it. So, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s about the balance. If you move your prices into the affordable luxury realm, you have to make sure you don’t tip it into ubiquity. It’s very hard to get a brand back from that precipice.
It’s all about the quality
We were very apprehensive in the beginning when we made the Evening Standard free, because there is this perception that when a thing has no price, it has no value. We set about doing two very specific things to retain that readership. The first was to keep the columnists and the content intact that we always had, so people would still be reading their favorite columns and their favorite weekly features. The other thing was the distribution. We had to give it out in those key locations where the gender profile, the age demographic, etcetera, would stay the same as it was. But we were still worried, and the advertisers were more worried. Advertising becomes a very big deal when you’re free. When we stopped selling the Evening Standard, we said goodbye to 13 million pounds of circulation revenue. That had to be made up for. The circulation eventually went up, so the advertisers realised they needed to pay more for their ads. At the end of the day, it’s all about the quality of the product you’re trying to sell. Keep that unharmed.
It’s the reliable ones who get hired
Mr. Alexander Lebedev, a Russian businessman, bought the paper a few years ago. He hires people who are experienced and who know what they’re doing. He respects that knowledge and expertise. He lets us get on with whatever we want to. At the Evening Standard, we have the journalistic freedom to write anything, even if it’s a piece of news that reflects badly on Russia.
Be sustainable like the French
Sustainability is a very relevant and important debate for our times. In the design sector, companies like Kering have taken these issues very seriously. They have found ways to do challenging things such as tanning of leather. I’m not a particular fan of fast fashion; I go with Vivienne Westwood’s idea of buying something expensive and using it until it wears out. It’s something we can learn particularly from French women: they will buy this one expensive piece that they will wear to death. It’s also about combining high street with high end and letting one piece be the statement.
Thrifting could be the answer to fast fashion
The concept of thrifting has become very popular in the cities; it is this dynamic and new aspect of fashion. I love it because of the things that you can find. Even stores such as Liberty have a section of these beautiful items that they discovered. It’s an important part of fashion but I doubt if it’ll ever take over. It can emerge as a very important and productive alternative to fast fashion, and I hope that happens, because I am completely against fast fashion. I mean, if a dress in Primark costs £9.99, there’s a reason for that. And it isn’t usually a savory reason.
Words by Jeena Sharma
This talk, which took place at Central Saint Martins on 13 May, has been condensed and edited.