One of the first articles I wrote after contributing freelance to Hintmag.com, edited then by elegant gossip hound Ben Widdicombe, was an interview with Meredith Etherington-Smith, the formidable London-based fashion and art historian. Author of the first biographies of early 20th century couturiers Lucile and Patou, Meredith is best known today for curating Christie’s celebrity fashion auctions, including those of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
Most recently, Meredith curated Christie’s sale of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s wardrobe, criticized by some as historically uninteresting but praised by others, including designer Vivienne Westwood, as tasteful and relevant.
To commemorate my decade of regularly writing on costume and theater history, I’m sharing the full version of my interview with Meredith, which first appeared in 2005 on the pioneering fashion website Hilary.com, founded and directed by model and style expert Hilary Rowland. Her site is now called Urbanette, where the original, edited version of my story can still be accessed. Dates, ages and other time-related references in the following piece have been updated.
* * *
Fashion & Fate
Journalist and historian Meredith Etherington-Smith delivers the goods on Beaton, Marilyn, Diana and the glorious happenstance of her 50-year career at the center of London’s design world.
Editor-in-chief of venerable Christie’s Magazine, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Art and chairman of the innovative program Art Fortnight London, Meredith Etherington-Smith is still busy reshaping (and shaking up) the London art scene. Many in England are also familiar with her foray into reality television with ‘The Dinner Party Inspectors,’ but Meredith, now 69, first made her mark nearly 50 years ago as one of the hip breed of young journalists responsible for changing the way fashion was reported and featured.
Etherington-Smith grew up in Kent, studied at the Royal College of Art and has since edited and contributed to almost every major publication in the world, from the New York Times Magazine and Women’s Wear Daily to French Vogue and Town & Country.
She’s profiled everyone from Andy Warhol to Ella Fitzgerald, helped launch the careers of Bruce Weber, John Galliano and Joanna Lumley, and befriended the likes of Princess Diana and Karl Lagerfeld. Over tea in the garden of her house in South Kensington, I spoke with her about her career and how it might never have happened.
Randy Bryan Bigham: What’s the importance of personality when it comes to success? Obviously you know fashion, you know art. But how much of your success has been due to personality? You have a posh accent and a commanding voice, so…
Meredith Etherington-Smith: That’s 50 years of smoking, I’m afraid. Well, 45 years! I have a rather old fashioned voice. I go into department stores and ask for something, and people think I’m an actress because you don’t hear this kind of voice very much anymore.
RBB: It’s beautiful.
MES: Well, it’s sort of fun for some people. Not all.
RBB: But it gives an air of chic.
MES: No, I think I get hired because I actually know what I’m doing. I’ve described myself as a graduate of the “1960s hemline school of journalism.” I’ve been doing what I do, adding bits and pieces on, since I became a fashion editor at the end of the ’60s. The only editor who has a longer fashion memory than I have is probably Susie Menkes at the Trib. So we’ve been around a long time and that’s rather reassuring for people in a way. I’ve always been incredibly lucky because I’ve never actually gone after anything. People have always sort of said, “Wouldn’t you like to do this or wouldn’t you like to do that?” I’ve never really applied for a job.
RBB: That’s what I mean by personality. You obviously have confidence in the way you present yourself.
MES: Right! In a t-shirt and ripped jeans.
RBB: So beyond the posh voice and aristocratic name, there’s nothing traditional about Meredith the editor?
MES: Well, I used to see all the other fashion editors at the couture shows in Paris, wearing their little white gloves. I met Carmel Snow and Mrs. Vreeland and their set. But that was never for me. I was a ‘60s kind of a babe.
RBB: More Marianne Faithfull than Jackie O?
RBB: Just a hippie chick from Kent! Then how did it all start for you?
MES: It all started for me in 1962 when I walked into a second-hand shop and bought a wonderful 1924 black beaded Chanel evening dress. Nobody was doing vintage in those days but I loved that old dress, and I left a trail of beads wherever I went! But that began my love of fashion and fashion history, particularly the Deco period of the 20s and 30s.
RBB: After working as a fashion editor for several London newspapers and magazines, you went to America where you were the first woman editor of GQ Magazine.
MES: The only one I think.
RBB: What was the experience like?
MES: It was fun. The publishers of Esquire, who owned GQ then, said, “We want you.” I said, “Excuse me? I live in London.” They said, “So what?” So I went and did it for a year and had quite a time. As you know, all editors in New York are spoiled, so it was great fun!
RBB: It must have been fun, surrounded by pretty boy models.
MES: No, that’s not for me.
RBB: The fashion world is notoriously unsympathetic to women who are more than a size 2. Have you experienced that discrimination?
MES: Well, I used to be slimmer than I am now. But, yes, I think it has probably cost me a few jobs.
RBB: While at GQ you assigned Bruce Weber his first fashion shoot?
MES: I did. I think that was in 1973.
RBB: I understand that later on you gave another legendary photographer his very last assignment.
MES: That was Sir Cecil Beaton. He was very old and was suffering from paralysis by then, but he wanted to work and he still had that wonderful touch. I was London editor of French Vogue at that time –– this was in 1979 –– and we were doing a sort of punk rock theme. He loved it, and the pictures were fantastic. But he died shortly after that, so it was sad.
RBB: What was he like to work with?
MES: He was inspiring, but definitely a man of his generation. In Beaton’s day, actually snapping the picture was thought to be beneath a society photographer, so he always had an assistant whom he’d call to when he was ready. The man working for Beaton when I knew him was named Lee, but he kept calling him Arthur. After he had set up a shot, Beaton would yell, “Take the picture, Arthur.” We learned later that Arthur was the name of his first assistant many moons ago, and that he’d called all his protégés that since!
RBB: You have worked with and made friends with some of the greats of the fashion and design worlds. Tell about Karl Lagerfeld, with whom you worked on the documentary ‘The Story of Fashion?’
MES: I haven’t seen him in a while but he’s brilliant, of course. I have enormous respect for the man. He knows so much and misses nothing. He adores fashion history, as I do, and you can see that in his own dress and art collection. He reminds me of the Victorian couturier Jacques Doucet, who amassed a huge collection of 18th century art.
RBB: And Anouska Hempel?
MES: She’s a style Nazi!
RBB: Leaving no stone undesigned!
MES: Quite literally, actually. Do you know that she once had her employees paint faux veins into rocks to match a rare marble at her summer house? She has so much energy, and a nose for what’s next, that one. I did three big articles on her that I’m proud of.
MES: He’s great. I wrote the very first article on Galliano when I was deputy editor of Harper’s & Queen in the ’80s.
RBB: What do you think of other top fashion editors –– like Colin McDowell of The Sunday Times?
MES: Oh, he’s extraordinary, with a tremendous knowledge and understanding of contemporary as well as historic fashion.
RBB: Hamish Bowles of American Vogue?
MES: He’s a true lover of fashion, very passionate about it and really lives it. I first met him at H&Q, where he was just starting out as a fashion editor.
RBB: Who are your favorite designers today? (2005)
MES: Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga, whose clothes are absolutely beautiful. I’m a fan of Alber Elbaz at Lanvin; his work is perfection. And I will always be crazy about Christian La Croix. No one can do what he does.
RBB: You have written a biography of Surrealist painter Salvador Dali, who influenced 1930s fashion by collaborating with couturier Elsa Schiaparelli. What inspired you to research him?
MES: I was initially drawn to him because of his work in fashion but my book chronicles his whole life, not only his design collaborations.
RBB: You also wrote the first biographies of designers Patou in 1983 and Lucile in 1986. Talk about them.
MES: As you know, Lucile was one of the greatest couturiers of the Edwardian years. She’s not as well remembered as Poiret is today but was every bit as important at that time. Her influence was tremendous in so many areas of fashion that are taken for granted now.
RBB: What are those, in your opinion?
MES: Well, Lucile did catwalk shows and retail spinoffs in much the way they are handled nowadays. As to Patou, he was really responsible for the chic, sporty look of the 1920s; some will tell you Chanel did that but she didn’t, not to the extent Patou did.
RBB: In curating for Christie’s, how closely did you work with the late Princess of Wales while planning the 1997 auction of her gowns?
MES: I met with Princess Diana once a week during the preparation of the show and then during the auction phase.
RBB: You also got to know her well personally but unlike some of her friends, you haven’t exploited that.
MES: No, I won’t be divulging secrets. But you can ask me questions, and if I can answer them, I will.
RBB: What stands out about her in your memory that might surprise the public?
MES: Her sense of humor. She was hysterically funny. I was astonished at how wonderfully, naturally funny she was.
RBB: When did you see her last?
MES: I saw Diana last at a party she gave for my family at Kensington Palace. I was to have had lunch with her on the Tuesday after her accident.
RBB: What will you remember most about her?
MES: Her laugh.
RBB: You also organized the high-profile 1999 Christie’s auction of Marilyn Monroe’s dresses. What did you learn about the star while preparing that show?
MES: That she was tiny. The famous “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress that everyone assumed was a large-size, was not. Although Marilyn looked fleshy in that gown, her frame was actually very small. The dress was so iconic, we knew we had to display it prominently, and it was my idea to have it suspended in space in that dramatic way.
RBB: The Marilyn auction was televised live around the world, giving you wide exposure as a commentator. What was that like?
MES: It went wrong, as live TV always does. My co-host and I were not supposed to talk so much. The show was to be intercut with clips from Marilyn’s movies. But that didn’t happen, and we were left to ad-lib because we had no script to help us.
RBB: Speaking of broadcasting, did you know that you were up for the cameo that Mariella Frostrup was given in a season of ‘Absolutely Fabulous?’
MES: Me? No, I had no idea.
RBB: According to a source close to Joanna Lumley, you and Mariella were recommended for the part of a “chic journalist commentator type.”
MES: I know Jo. We grew up together in Kent. She’s one of the few people around who know my nickname from those days, which is not for print! And I edited Jo’s first big mag spread when she was modeling for Jean Muir.
RBB: Well, Mariella got the part supposedly because she ran into Jennifer Saunders at a party.
MES: That’s one that got away!
RBB: Would you consider a walk-on if there’s another season of ‘AbFab’ and you’re asked?
MES: Of course! I’m a ham.
RBB: The fashion world has been galvanized behind the cause of breast cancer research. You know first hand about that, being a breast cancer survivor yourself.
RBB: You were diagnosed with breast cancer about 20 years ago, right?
MES: Yes. You know, regular worries don’t matter anymore when you realize you might otherwise be pushing up daisies. My attitude to life changed immediately. Now I don’t let normal stresses worry me. If I get a nasty email, I don’t worry about it!
RBB: You’ve made your name in fashion but have now gone back to your roots in art.
MES: Well, I like what Lorelei Lee’s maid says in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: “Always leave them while you’re looking good.”
RBB: Are you where you envisioned yourself?
MES: I never thought about where I’d end up. When I went into journalism, the only jobs for women were as fashion editors, so that’s where I had to go. I still love fashion but I have made my way into other areas now.
RBB: But are you where you want to be? What will you do next?
MES: I’m happy with my life but I don’t know where I’m going from here. And I don’t want to. That’s half the fun –– not knowing. I will do what I’m doing till I’m not able to do it.
RBB: Meredith, there’s another saying in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: “Fate keeps on happening.”
MES: I like that one, too!