Back in Vogue
Kate Phelan’s rise to the top ranks of British fashion has been the stuff of fashion fairytale. From growing up in the university town of Exeter, she first studied fashion at the nearby Somerset College of Arts and Technology, before surprising even herself by getting accepted to Saint Martins. On her placement year during her degree in Fashion Communication and Promotion in the late 1980s, a three-month internship at Vogue made her reconsider university. She dropped out before graduating and took the role of Fashion Assistant at the magazine.
Kate Phelan’s rise to the top ranks of British fashion has been the stuff of fashion fairytale. From growing up in the university town of Exeter, she first studied fashion at the nearby Somerset College of Arts and Technology, before surprising even herself by getting accepted to Saint Martins. On her placement year during her degree in Fashion Communication and Promotion in the late 1980s, a three-month internship at Vogue made her reconsider university. She dropped out before graduating and took the role of Fashion Assistant at the magazine. After a stint as Junior Fashion Editor at Marie Claire, she was back at Vogue House in 1992 and was soon responsible for Vogue’s fashion direction. Working with groundbreaking photographers like Nick Knight, Corinne Day and Paolo Roversi, Kate’s name became a by-word for the unique and creative British aesthetic espoused by British Vogue throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Her vision is inseparable from our modern conception of style in this country.
In 2011, Kate shocked some in the industry by moving to Britain’s high-street powerhouse Topshop. As creative director of the company, Kate became responsible for a nation’s fashion habit. Topshop is a brand that speaks to girls and women of all ages, in Britain and overseas. There’s still the element of playing in the dress-up box carried over from the years of those fantastical Vogue shoots, but Topshop put Kate at the helm of a commercial enterprise. In March 2013, after we met her, Condé Nast announced Kate would return to Vogue in a role that would be “significant, but not full-time”, while staying on Topshop. What does this mean for Kate? We can’t tell yet, but we think it spells great things for her vision of British fashion. [ed. note: Phelan has returned to Vogue as contributing editor]
“You think it’s hard to get in to the business now, imagine how it was 30 years ago. It was absolutely shrouded in mystery.”
I was reading about you at Saint Martins, how difficult it was to get in, but then how you dropped out two years later. It’s interesting to see the differences and similarities between when you were at Saint Martins and the students at CSM now.
I was there a long, long time ago. The industry was very different then. It really was. You think it’s hard to get in to the business now, imagine how it was 30 years ago. It was absolutely shrouded in mystery. You couldn’t even pick up a magazine and find out anything about the people who worked in them. The only people who were visible were the photographers and models. Sometimes even the hair and make up weren’t credited.
It was only when I got to a magazine that it started to unravel for me. Who does what, what teams you need to create these things and the whole production. I think I realised fairly quickly after I arrived there, I knew I could never be a designer, I knew I didn’t have the patience to make clothes. I loved fashion, so the only way to get into fashion was to say I wanted to be a designer. Of course, I went in to Saint Martins thinking I was going to be a designer, but then after that first year you specialise into your subjects so I went for FCP [Fashion Communication and Promotion]. That steered me more towards writing, PR and all those other elements, but still not really magazines and styling. It was only when I got to the magazine that I realised I loved fashion but didn’t want to make it – I wanted the clothes to play with.
Did you try styling with friends before Vogue?
No, but I was really into clothes. I was really experimental with the way I looked, I loved dressing up and made a lot of my own clothes. That’s where I got the feeling that I should be a designer, because I’d go and buy remnants of fabric from the fabric shop where I grew up in Exeter and make a pair of trousers or a top.
Do you think you learn styling, or is it something natural?
I actually really believe that there’s something instinctive in you, it’s the way you’re wired. I think it’s something about how you see the world and absorb information. I’m not obsessed with fashion in the way some people are where they will go, “Oh my God, look at the fabric, the colour.” There are people who obsess about clothes as a garment. I always saw clothes as the tools of my trade. They made my dreams come true. If I saw a jacket I’d think, “Oh my God, I’d love to shoot that. With a girl with no hair and make up, I want it to look poor and sort of disheveled.” I would look at clothes and think of an image or picture.
“I’ve learned over the years that when you’ve got this idea in your head, you have to fight to do it with the photographer who can realise that dream. If you pick the wrong photographer, you’ll never, ever get near the picture that you want. “
How much control did you have on photoshoots when you were working with photographers?
You have the odd ones where it doesn’t work, always. Essentially, I’ve learned over the years that when you’ve got this idea in your head, you have to fight to do it with the photographer who can realise that dream. If you pick the wrong photographer, you’ll never, ever get near the picture that you want. The moment you start to try and persuade a photographer to do something they aren’t thinking, it’ll never happen. Then nothing gels. The hair, make up, the model doesn’t work. It doesn’t come together. I think you become more experienced in knowing what to do. I’d know what I’d want something to look like and I’d know who would help me get there. I always work with photographers.
When I first worked at Vogue, I was assistant to Sarajane Hoare. I learned so much from her. I also learned some of the things that she did wrong. Sometimes she was really abrasive with others, she could get their backs up, and she almost became quite unpopular. People would try and do things to not help her – the job would be twice as hard because she’d make it harder just from the way she was.
In a way, I adapted to the complete opposite. If you give everybody the opportunity to have their input, to make something happen, to own something in the pictures – at the same time as them doing something that you want them to do – that itself is a technique. It’s not being greedy with the idea, it’s about giving the idea away. If you give an idea to a hairdresser to help them come to the conclusion of a style that you want them to do, it can be their idea, I don’t need to own the idea. At the end of the day the thrill in my life is to see a picture come to life in front of me. Of course, there are times where you find something disappointing, it lets you down. You wonder what you did wrong – “I had the wrong shoes, I should have had different shoes, all the bloody shoes are wrong!” It can be any one thing that makes it work or not.
“At Vogue I always used to say that I felt they had gotten the wrong person, that they were going to tap me on the shoulder one day and say they’d made a terrible mistake.”
Do you think there are qualities other than talent and taste that you need to succeed?
I really enjoyed working with my generation. It was always more challenging when you were new, young and not very experienced to have to work with the very experienced. That was always the hard thing, but you always learned loads of things from those people as well. I suppose I was literally a tea bag – I absorbed everything. I wanted to know everything, I was curious about everything. I realised I hadn’t come from a fashion background or fashion family. I hadn’t come with any skills from my upbringing whatsoever to help tailor me to this industry. I think my naivety in a way was my strength. I had such preconceived ideas about it. I had no one telling me what it was like or how it was done. Every day was a new adventure. For me that was a really important place to be. I think now information is so available that you’re judged in the wrong way. It’s like anything – naivety makes something pure, original and different.
At Vogue I always used to say that I felt they had gotten the wrong person, that they were going to tap me on the shoulder one day and say they’d made a terrible mistake. I always felt as though I wasn’t deserving of it and it made me work incredibly hard because it was a dream come true.
When I first came to London at Saint Martins, I had a flat in Stoke Newington, a horrible, grim flat as we all would have when starting out as students. Opposite, there was a newsagents with a sign on the side of this building with an advert for Vogue cigarettes. We used to sit on this roof terrace and I’d say, “Do you think I could ever ever, ever work at Vogue magazine?” And my flatmate would go, “Stop it! Don’t be so stupid.”
Was it hard to manage family and finance?
I met my husband when I was at art college in Somerset. He was doing a graphics course while I did a fashion course. When I came to London, we met at a party and have been with each other ever since. We were nineteen when we met. It’s really hard to pin people down now. It’s hard to have a relationship. There is so much strange communication that goes on between text messaging and email, people find it hard to talk to each other now because of the technology. I don’t know if it’s the industry that makes it more difficult.
There are people who have sacrificed, or as I say, the people who forgot to fall in love. They become so obsessed with the world they were working in. I think for us the horror is still to come. When you read on Anna Dello Russo’s website that she lives in Milan with her dog, it’s scary.
The fashion industry will always absorb those types of people, the creative thinkers who do see the world in a slightly different way. For me, with my family and life outside, I don’t think like a fashion editor when I go home in the evening. I think like a fashion editor when I’m working but I don’t live it. I like shopping, I like cooking, I like travelling, I read cookbooks in my spare time. I don’t live and breathe fashion all of the time. I love it, but I would never want it to be my whole life. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be the only thing that defined me. I think that’s the mistake, to allow a job to define you as a person. You should be the person you are and do the job that you love.
Have you caught yourself envying designers?
Do you know, I have never envied a designer. Never wanted to be a designer. But I have envied what they produce. I look at what they produce and I respect it. I applaud it and love it but I never felt that being the designer is where my heart would be. I like the finished product.
On NEWGEN designers: “If we’re not helping them build a business and to become successful, other than putting on a good show, I don’t feel like we’re supporting them in the right way.”
Do you compare yourself to others in your field? For example, Grace Coddington at US Vogue would have a similar trajectory.
It’s funny, I never have actually. I think she’s incredible, and of course she has influenced me. Her sensibility is so instinctive and intuitive. I understand every element of what she does in a way. I’m actually jealous. You see something and you think, “I wish I’d done that.”
I think in a way that’s how I look at shoots in magazines. I like to be jealous, I like to see something and wish I had done it. I like seeing what other people do. Do I compare myself to anyone? No. I don’t think you should. I respect everybody and what they do, I don’t paw through magazines and point out if something is awful or rubbish – I know how hard it is to get to where we are.
How did Saint Martins help you develop your way of working?
I think Saint Martins is somewhere that the full and rounded education is actually phenomenal. It is important to instill this in you as a student: to find the evidence, be inquisitive and dig deep, whether it’s historical, musical or art references. You were always expected to think far, deep, and wide. I think that was a great education for me which really switched all of my switches on. I have never, ever not used it for my starting point in my work. Saint Martins really tuned me in to thinking like that, to be able to think and look at clothes in a new way, not to just take them on their commercial stand. It was always to look deeper. I used to love looking at collections on the catwalk and trying to work out what the mood board looked like in the studio before they started designing. It’s finding the reference and the starting point, the trigger that made the designer think that way.
When you dropped out, were you sure about what you were doing?
I was really worried. Obviously, to get to Saint Martins was my dream come true. My tutors were all really against me leaving – they all wanted me to stay and complete the course. You know, yeah, I wanted to finish my course, I wanted to enjoy my time at Saint Martins, but I knew that the reality was that if I didn’t take this job, it didn’t matter if it was a first-class bloody honours degree, I would still want that job. It would be my starting point to get to where I want to be, but that job wouldn’t be there after graduation. That’s really half the problem, I had to do it if I wanted to learn from the experience of being on a magazine. I had to take the chance. I think I knew so clearly that it was where I wanted to be: at Vogue.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been the same if it were any other magazine. In front of me were my dream choices, Saint Martins School of Art and Vogue. It was really difficult, but I have no regrets. I regret not getting my degree, but instead I had the opportunity to work at Vogue. I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now if I hadn’t had taken that chance.
“I think the expectation of British fashion to keep on producing Christopher Kanes every single year is completely stupid.”
What do you think are the best qualities to have to be at Vogue?
If you are going in on a very junior level straight from college, like I did, there was so much I didn’t know. I remember the first thing they said to me was, “Call Manolo and get some brown courts in a size six.” I was thinking, “What is Manolo?” It was more a case of what you didn’t know.
When you’re working with Topshop and NEWGEN, how do you spot new talent?
I think the expectation of British fashion to keep on producing Christopher Kanes every single year is completely stupid. Naturally, you will find designers coming through who will be stars, but they’re not going to come every year. In a way I feel what we need to do with NEWGEN is to nurture new designers. Ultimately, they make London Fashion Week such a special place in the world. If we’re not helping them build a business and to become successful, other than putting on a good show, I don’t feel like we’re supporting them in the right way. In the industry, not just Topshop supporting NEWGEN, we need to be doing more to help them create a business. It can’t just be about entertaining an international jury of press.
Some designers you choose are amazing, but they’re uncommercial, such as Meadham Kirchhoff who lost two collections.
Meadham Kirchhoff to me, it breaks my heart that they have been designing for ten years, they have made London Fashion Week the most incredible platform for designers to show and yet they still are struggling. I think it’s criminal that the industry hasn’t managed to find a way to support their creativity.
We just don’t have people who are prepared to put financial backing behind these designers, when we should. They need investment because they can’t do it by themselves. You can see when they’re trying to be everything in their business, they’re trying to design their collections, control the creative direction but also control finances, production, do the sales – how can they be experts at all of those things? It’s a shame that we can’t support them more.
“We used to sit on this roof terrace and I’d say, “Do you think I could ever ever, ever work at Vogue magazine?” And my flatmate would go, “Stop it! Don’t be so stupid.”
How was working with Alexandra Shulman?
I think what was really lovely about Alex is that she did say she wasn’t a visual person, but she still had some really strong ideas. She had come from a background where her communication was through written word, whereas other people communicate through the visual sense. She has very strong opinions about visuals. She knew what she liked and what she didn’t like. That’s the role of an editor of a magazine – to have a vision and know what is right for your magazine, whether it was written word or a printed picture. It still has to work within the context of what she wants for that issue or month.
We all need to be edited. We all need boundaries. Ultimately, I think I learned that there is a difference between a Vogue picture and another magazine’s picture. You have to imagine that the way a picture worked in Vogue was the expectation that you wouldn’t see it in any other magazine. That’s how I would judge it and how I’d create a Vogue image.
What about working with young models, those girls of fifteen or sixteen? Was it like working with kids?
I think models work incredibly hard, they spend their life on planes, they’re sleeping in airplane seats. It’s a really tough business to be in. With all the glamour and exposure that you get with it, it is a really grueling job. They miss the birthdays, the parties, they’re not seeing their families, they’re constantly travelling, they’re eating airplane food more often than something decent. It’s a really tough industry. If someone turns up tired and edgy then you make them feel as comfortable as you can. If they need good food or affection or need to feel something like motherly love then that’s your role as a fashion editor.
You need to feel how they’re feeling. If you want them to be transformed and part of your vision for that day then you need to make them feel fantastic. I never found it difficult to do it any other way. You have no shoot if your model isn’t feeling fantastic. If they don’t want to be who you want them to be, then involve them. They are part of the shoot, not the clothes-horse. Casting for shoots is such an important part of what an image is. So often it can make or break the image.
“We all need to be edited. We all need boundaries.”
From what I see of you as a person you seem to be someone that skipped that druggy time in fashion. What was it like in London in the 1990s?
I think if you really wanted to know when they were partying, they were partying in the 1980s. The 1980s in the fashion industry is when it was absolutely crazy. It was rock ‘n’ roll. You could see it was rock ‘n’ roll, supermodels had suddenly exploded on to the stage. There was a new energy and glamour around fashion. There was an energy and appetite for it, and a lot of people having fun. Business was successful, people were making lots of money and there was glamour. People were starting to get recognised and became known, those big names in the industry. It had already started in the 1980s. The music industry is no different to the art world. Wherever you have creative people you will always have people expressing themselves one way or another.
Do you think it was vital to be part of it?
I think we were all young. It is incredibly exciting, it’s fun and you’re invited to incredible parties where you meet incredible people and see incredible things – it’s all part of the world. I don’t think it’s exclusive to the fashion industry. I think it’s funny now that the models come to shoots with a book. Gone are the days where they would arrive wide awake after not going to bed.
All the models we meet are healthy eating vegetarians who call Mum all the time – the change is weird. I say bring back the rock ‘n’ roll! I think the industry is so big. It used to be a small elite group of people. It’s so much wider and so much more of an industry. The appearance changes along with it. There was a freedom back then, you weren’t being scrutinised as much. I think now the industry is always being looked at, people will always tweet or blog about it. I think that has changed how people work forever.