Suzy Menkes has had quite the career since she began commentating on fashion in the Sixties. Coming up to 60 years on and the veteran hasn’t stopped. Aged 78, the untethered Menkes continues to jet-set around the world for fashion weeks, alongside running a podcast donwnload which she has hosted guests including Andreas Kronthaler, Marine Serre, and Sterling Ruby.
Menkes is respected – and feared – for her candour. This is her style. Impartial. Balanced. Honest. At times, it has gotten the renowned critic banned from fashion shows. “It’s not good because you like it, you like it because it’s good,” she says, famously. To Menkes, it’s bad journalism to take into account personal preference: “If you give a critique judged entirely on what you would wear yourself, it’s hopeless.”
So, what does Menkes classify as good? “Good.” She chews over the word in her mouth, then asks, “Is one ever trying to be good? I’m not sure.” When it comes to fashion, Menkes looks deeply into the why as opposed to the what, and takes pride in seeing the bigger picture. “I think trying to look at fashion and find the meaning behind it or what comes with it, that’s what you need to do if you are a journalist writing about fashion.” Her impartiality manifests in every sentence.
Sitting in a nook at the back of the cafe, partitioned from other cafe-goers by a clear plastic screen (a pandemic-enforced norm), we delve into her career trajectory.
After gap year-ing in Paris and reading English and History at Cambridge University, Menkes started at The Times hot off the press, where she contributed to the newly established women’s page. At the age of 24, she was appointed as fashion editor at The Evening Standard. She returned to The Times and later went on to The Independent, before moving to The International Herald Tribune in 1988 for a stint lasting 26 years. Menkes joined Condé Nast in 2014 where she became the international editor of Vogue, globally – a position she stepped down from in late 2019.
“I am quite shocked to find that during the pandemic, critics would meet with designers digitally, over Zoom. And what the critic will do is simply repeat what the designer has said without even seeing the clothes.” – Suzy Menkes
As the first female editor of Varsity, the Cambridge University newspaper, Menkes was a pioneer during a time when opportunities for women were scarce. “This is in the mid-Sixties. It was a big deal then. It was the era of the first women; the first women to have done a radical, wonderful thing; a woman taking a role that before had not been open to women.” She adds: “Obviously I wasn’t the only one, women, in general, all over England were thinking the same thing,” whilst adjusting the collar of her purple Pleats Please blouse – Issey Miyake is her uniform, ensured by its stylish low-maintenance.
Things have changed in more ways than one since Menkes first set out. In the Diet Prada fashion commentary era, anyone can be a critic. Subsequently, the line between informed critique and personal preference is blurred. Today, informed critics who are unafraid to spar with designers – like Menkes – are seemingly much harder to come by.
It is this that has Menkes worrying about censorship in journalism. “I am quite shocked to find that during the pandemic, critics would meet with designers digitally, over Zoom. And what the critic will do is simply repeat what the designer has said without even seeing the clothes.” Designers can, of course, select who they invite to do this – and Menkes is suspicious. “I have this feeling that there isn’t much willingness to make a strong and powerful comment. Perhaps they are frightened they won’t get invited back.” She quickly repeals: “I can’t prove this. It may not be true.”
“I just never thought [accepting gifts from brands] was the right thing to do.” – Suzy Menkes
But, she’s not wrong. Favours and bribes, or gifting, are a tale as old as time in the fashion industry. Menkes can’t get behind it, never selling out to better her chances nor accepting clothing as a gift. “I suppose I’ve unwillingly become quite famous for this,” she laughs, “I just never thought it was the right thing to do.” She is, however, partial to the occasional flower or chocolate.
Speaking of chocolate, the waiter – my manager, actually – brings over our coffees. A rather delicious-looking cappuccino coated with a duvet of chocolate powder for Menkes. “This will wake me up. What have you got?” she asks, looking unfamiliar with the iced latte. I suppose it is quite a Gen Z drink. Then comes the brownie – a T&C of our meeting.
“When Tom Ford got his hands on Gucci. You look back on it now you feel a bit like saying: ‘Is that all it was?’ But it wasn’t all it was. Because we saw all these clothes worn by women, and men too, exuding sexuality.” – Suzy Menkes
According to Menkes, fashion is about the future so she doesn’t care much to dwell on the past. But, I insist. Nearly six decades of anecdotes, how could I not? She caves.
“Everything was much more local when I first started looking at fashion. I think it took much longer than anyone realised for fashion to become an international situation. When I say international, I mean what we now consider as local – Paris or Italy. This happened much later than we think, coming out of the Eighties maybe,” she nods, wisely. “Then the internet brought about a massive, massive change too, but this wasn’t until the first quarter of the new millennium.”
So, while we’re reflecting, what moments stand out the most to Menkes? As expected, her fashion knowledge is encyclopedic. Critic or not, she speaks fondly of her acquainted designers. “When Tom Ford got his hands on Gucci. You look back on it now you feel a bit like saying: ‘Is that all it was?’ But it wasn’t all it was. Because we saw all these clothes worn by women, and men too, exuding sexuality. And the shows were incredibly different and had a mad sort of happiness about them. The clothes and the aura have to be all these sorts of things.”
Three decades prior to Tom Ford’s sexual revolution came the madness – and political undercurrent – of Mary Quant’s mini skirt, which Menkes frequently references. To some, a short skirt is nothing more than a short skirt. To others, like Menkes, it is an emblem of sexual liberation for women that came with the conception of the contraceptive pill and the possibility of protection against unwanted pregnancy. “I certainly never wrote it like that. But, you know, that was behind the whole story.”
Next up, Yves. “There was one of Yves Saint Laurent’s shows when we were expecting him to send out women in manish suits. I was expecting to be sitting there yawning. But it was a collection inspired by Russia and it was incredibly colourful. It was so unexpected and those are the sort of things that just catch you by surprise and jump the heart,” she says. She moves on to Alexander McQueen; how his shows were cloaked by a powerful sense of foreboding. “There was something quite disconcerting, a great sadness. It was extraordinary, effective, and very heart-wrenching. None of us were expecting the terrible ending that came for Alexander.”
“I suddenly realised that not the designers so much as the people who organise the shows, they are much more in control than they’ve ever been, which concerns me slightly.” – Suzy Menkes
Fast forwarding in time to the present day. The swell of the pandemic has forced the fashion show to breach the digital realm. And, Menkes has noticed something. “The way that it is filmed, or built, is done deliberately and understandably by people who often pay a fortune to have these things made. But watch the models coming towards you – you begin to see there is a pattern,” she says. “There is a view of the head and hair, looking exceptional, then you go down pretty fast, all the way down, past a belt to the arm where a handbag is hanging. Probably two minutes is spent on the handbag, tilting in different directions, then you go down and a lot of attention is spent on the shoes, particularly if they are very exciting. But, I don’t think I’ve seen a single outfit from a back view.”
“I suddenly realised that not the designers so much as the people who organise them [the shows], they are much more in control than they’ve ever been, which concerns me slightly. Though I mustn’t exaggerate as after all you must make your own judgement of something. But they are able to express whatever they want to express, however they want to express it,” says Menkes.
After pausing for a short moment, she adds: “I’m not criticising it. But it’s changed. The world has changed.” The coffee machine whirs away in the background.
This is not to say she hasn’t enjoyed the unknowingness of the new-age show. We all have. Emphasis on ‘we’ because the digital show welcomes everyone to the front row. Last June, Menkes found Balenciaga’s Spring 22 collection ‘Clones’, in which digital models strutted down a virtual runway, to be “both extraordinary and unextraordinary but very much in the spirit of the original designer in a very modern way.”
Post-COP26 summit, it’s almost impossible to talk about current affairs in fashion without touching on the industry’s controversial dark side. Menkes is hesitant to answer my questions, explaining that she finds the implications surrounding fast fashion and sweatshop manufacturing to be a complex and nuanced topic.
“Students and many other people can’t afford expensive clothes or sustainably and ethically produced clothes, making this a very complicated and unfair matter.” – Suzy Menkes
“Start with the most simple thing, the idea that someone is paid nothing to produce clothes for the high street in a store which I won’t name. And they [the store] boast that they’ve got a dress for £15. You know that some poor people – no doubt almost entirely women – have been obliged to accept an extraordinarily small sum of money. It isn’t right that the cost of my cappuccino is the same as a shirt in a shop on Oxford Street,” says Menkes.
“The more people know, the more they’ll question. And, the more they question, the better things will be.” – Suzy Menkes
“Yet at the same time, I was once speaking to some students and I asked them whether they knew where their T-shirts had come from and I was shouted at, like some sort of pariah. Because students and many other people can’t afford expensive clothes or sustainably and ethically produced clothes, making this a very complicated and unfair matter.”
Menkes hopes a more sustainable future is achievable, putting forward education and information as a potential solution. “The more people know, the more they’ll question. And, the more they question, the better things will be,” she says.
Our arranged 30 minutes quickly becomes an hour. As the end of the interview approaches, I feel at ease in her presence. I wonder, what has kept Menkes hooked for so long? The garments themselves or putting them into words? “I’ve always been interested in writing. I know a musician is completely different, yet somebody who plays music very beautifully – it’s just a part of them. If you have it, you can’t change yourself.”
Frank and fearless she might be, but what is clear, and, perhaps, occasionally misjudged, is that she is an empathetic and caring person. “Now, you’ve got one more challenging thing to do,” she smiles, looking down to the half brownie left on her plate. “Get this wrapped up for me to take home.”