A fashionable 15 minutes late for our interview, Suzy Menkes arrives at her surprisingly modestly-sized office at Condé Nast International near Regent Street, trademark high quiff in place and clutching two stylish but practical Longchamp bags. Apologising for the work-related delay and ignoring the constant ringing of her iPhone, Vogue’s first International Editor adds: “I’ll kiss you because you had to wait.”
My own apology is for having worn all-black on a hot day — in contrast to her summer skirt. But she reassuringly responds: “Heavens, I spent so many years in France. If you weren’t wearing black there was something wrong with you. I think having a basic uniform of dress that you dress-up is very intelligent. You have to wear what suits you.
“I have a great deal of sympathy for Jewish women who are looking for something suitable, but covered-up. I broke my knee and am very self-conscious about the scars.
“To find something to cover that up apart from a pair of trousers is quite difficult. But they are out there. I went to Topshop yesterday and there were lots of long skirts — in fact, many of the skirts came down to the ankle. With my knowledge in fashion history, exposure has to be followed by cover up.”
Matters of style have always been paramount to Menkes, who has edited the fashion pages of The Times, Daily Express and Evening Standard — and was a regular JC contributor in the 1970s. Now at the age of 70, her new role places her at the helm of all Vogue websites from Britain to China. Her critical opinion — simultaneously descriptive and romantic — now informs millions of online readers across the globe.
I always felt I hadn't got a presence digitally - it was very difficult
The suitably trend-setting digital role follows 25 years as the International Herald Tribune’s fashion critic and resulted from an approach by International Condé Nast chairman Jonathan Newhouse.
“I always felt that I hadn’t quite got a presence digitally — it was very difficult,” she says. “Jonathan Newhouse said he wanted to speak to me in December, but I had no idea what it was about. Then he proposed this. It seemed something really wonderful. I found it very exciting at this stage of my career.”
Menkes’s warmth, no-nonsense manner and professionalism go some way to explaining why she continues to thrive in a notoriously cut-throat industry.
Explaining the virtues of her quiff, for example, she says: “A woman hairdresser is so good when you say that you want a hairstyle that doesn’t flop over your face when you’re writing. They don’t invent some incredibly complicated up-do. They think of your real life. I can do it anywhere, it’s only one comb,” she adds, offering a demonstration. “Women should have clothes and hairstyles that work as hard as they do.”
In her first week at Vogue, she produced three widely-circulated articles. “Being me, I threw myself in,” she says. “Everybody thought I would write one story every 10 days, but actually I did three stories that week, because I’m that sort of person.
“I think the idea for me is to have a voice, an opinion. To have something interesting and well-researched to say, to shine out from all the other media stuff.”
Menkes’s digital enthusiasm reflects her keen interest in social media. She regularly tweets and posts photos of fellow industry personalities on Instagram — from American rapper Kanye West to Samantha Cameron, who heads luxury British brand Smythson.
It’s a world away from how she used to operate. “When I worked for the Evening Standard, I would run out of a show and call in a story. I would call out, ‘this is Suzy — S for sugar, U for uncle, Z for zebra, Y for yacht’. I can still do all those letters.”
But does she miss the fashion world before the explosion in high street chain retailers took away the middle ground? As an answer, she cites the example of a Jewish mother looking to buy herself something special for a wedding. “You’re faced with a choice of a £1,200 outfit or a £120 one — but not in the silk that you dreamed of. Then there’s the ethical stand. Women in Bangladesh being paid pitiless amounts of money so Western people can wear clothes that are cheap to buy.”
Menkes’s contribution to the industry has been recognised with accolades from an OBE to a Légion d’honneur and an honorary fellowship from Israel’s leading fashion design college, Shenkar.
She still feels “transported when there is a really great show. This is what we long for, we people who love fashion. Sometimes it doesn’t come for a long time. I wouldn’t really call myself a romantic. I like to try and transfer what I see into words, so people understand it.
“You shouldn’t make elaborate judgements. You should try and report what you see, not put yourself into what you’re reporting. For example, Chanel. I don’t look good in the clothes. They don’t suit my character. Yet I’ve seen some of the most heart-stopping shoes by Karl Largerfeld for Chanel. I really put a divide between what I respond to personally and what I see when I’m reporting on the runway.”
Yet having retained a passion for the catwalk sparked by watching her first Nina Ricci show at the age of 17, she regrets that more people don’t make their own clothes — as two of her five grandchildren have started doing.
In recent times, the relationship between the fashion world and the Jewish community has been a tense one.
Designer John Galliano has been welcomed back into the industry fold after an antisemitic outburst which cost him his job at Christian Dior in 2011.
Menkes does not believe Galliano “has the temperament to cope with the enormity of a fashion label. If I had a magic wand, I would like to see him go back to what he loves — making a few beautiful dresses.”
Then there is the ongoing issue of UK retailers selling garments featuring Nazi symbols, sparking fears of a trend towards fascist fashion.
“I don’t think it’s a trend, I think it’s carelessness,” is the view of Menkes. “These horrific symbols are just another print to so many people. I find it hard to believe that people who buy these T-shirts have the depth of knowledge and understanding to think: ‘I feel great because I‘m wearing something that suggests a Nazi uniform.’
“It’s inexcusable for people to use these things. I think it’s very good if people draw attention to it.”
But Menkes, who lives in Primrose Hill, understands why many in the industry have stayed silent.
“People are quite frightened of going to the media and speaking out.” It left them open “to quite scurrilous commentary”.
She speaks from experience. In 2000 and 2010, she respectively refused to attend shows at the Paris and London fashion weeks which fell on Yom Kippur. She remains “shocked that Yom Kippur cannot be taken into the equation of ‘unacceptable to do’ for fashion shows.
“Yom Kippur is a very special day and although there may be a falling number of Jewish people in fashion, there are still more than enough to speak out. I was not supported on this by other people in the fashion world.
“I find the excuses given by fashion companies really galling. They say, ‘we had no idea’. Really?
“I still feel strongly on that but I’m sorry to say, I feel I’ve lost the cause.”
A Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood member, Menkes declines to reveal what Jewish charities she supports for fear of appearing boastful.
However, she is happier to discuss her headwear dilemmas for family celebrations.
“For my son Samson’s barmitzvah, I remember it so clearly. I think all the family tension that surrounds such events was entirely focused on my hat.
“It was a beautiful hat by Christian Lacroix, black and in every way enchanting. I still have it. The whole family turned against me and I meekly agreed that I wouldn’t wear it.
“Then I thought, ‘this hat is me and you have to accept me for who I am’ and I wore it.
“My eldest granddaughter has her batmitzvah coming up but I’m not going to start encouraging concerns about my hat.”