When we last spoke to Suzy Menkes in 2010, she was reigning as Style Editor at the International Herald Tribune. Now, she’s sharing her unflinching wisdom as the newly appointed International Editor of Vogue.
To celebrate her new role we select some of the best moments from ‘Strictly Speaking Suzy’, a feature that saw some of the industry’s most inquiring minds, ask the esteemed fashion critic about the lessons she’s learnt from the front row and beyond.
Interview by Alexia Niedzielski and Elizabeth von Guttman
Photography by Tung Walsh
Issue 5, Industrie Magazine
A: We have a question from Vanessa Friedman. She wants to know what was the hardest question you ever had to ask?
S: I think my answer is that I don’t ask hard questions when I know there’s something really very difficult to cope with. I mean, I don’t say to a designer, “How would you explain to your Catholic and very religious parents that you were gay?” I wouldn’t ask a question in that way. I would put it quite another way and say, “Tell me about your family,” and, “When you decided to go to London, Paris or whatever, was there a reason for it?” Designers will open up more to that than to a difficult question, because it’s very personal. I don’t really say, “How do you feel now that your company has gone bust?”
A: You need to be bit more diplomatic.
S: No, it’s not about being diplomatic. It’s just, to me, it’s a dumb question.
A: Diane von Furstenberg has a question: In so many years of witnessing fashion, what has been the one thing that has had the biggest impact?
S: One thing? Ok, this is really difficult. If I had to write it as an article of 98 words, what would I choose? Maybe Courrèges’ “Go to the Moon” because it was such an extraordinary moment when fashion seemed to mirror the world we were in. And the clothes… You’d never seen anything like it before, you’d never seen anything like the way he looked. Courrèges was wearing these extraordinary white canvas shoes, sneakers as we call them now, and just the whole way he was dressed was so strange. There were some amazing Margiela shows and in a way the Black Candle, White Candle shows were extraordinary. I think the memorable shows are the ones that get their spark from something that is happening in the world.
A: An echo.
S: Is it an echo or is it an early warning signal? You know, that’s always my question – does fashion follow what’s going on in the world? Or does it often actually anticipate it?
A: Renzo Rosso wants to know what you do with all the pictures that you take. Actually I saw you giving him one of your pictures at the Margiela show in Paris…
S: I give people pictures if I like them, and I am very proud that Anna Wintour told me that she has a picture that I took of her and her two children somewhere in her home. Because you know the great thing about those [film] cameras is that people aren’t fearful of them in the way they are now about digital, fearful about where the picture is going. Everyone knows that this isn’t going anywhere. And I put them in boxes with the date and the name of the person on the back, and one day my dream is to sort them out.
E: What is the best one you’ve taken?
S: Well one of my best ones is on Karl Largerfeld’s wall. It was pouring with rain and he was sitting in his car while I was plodding along, and I waved to him, and he lowered the window a tiny bit, so as not to get wet, and I snapped this great picture. Those cameras are so speedy. I have a digital camera but it doesn’t have the speed to snap somebody before their face changes.
A: That takes us into the digital world – Mesh Chhibber asks, “How has the role of the critic changed in the age of digital and social media?”
S: I start from the premise that new things are always good – at least until proven otherwise. So to reject the whole idea of digital media is “pathetic”. You know, so many good things have come out of it, like Susie Bubble with her enthusiasm and intelligence; that is somebody who might not have had a forum if it were not for the digital age. So I’m not critical of that.
What I do find difficult is… I trained as a historian before I did English Literature and I am interested in history, so I actually knew who Schiaparelli was before she was Miuccia Prada’s best friend. And I find it ridiculous that some people don’t think it’s worth looking to the past… however I don’t think one should look too much to the past as that can also be bad. But I was brought up on the Times in London in an era where I was told you could never check too many times – and we still do that. We do let mistakes through sometimes but it’s not for lack of trying. We check the names, we check the details… I’m about to get on a plane to Africa, but naturally I was up until whatever hour, doing my story about Alta Roma, with my very good new assistant and I goingthrough every single name to check we’ve not got anything wrong. I don’t think that this is sewn into the culture of the blogosphere.
E: Joseph Altuzarra wanted to know: when you are reviewing a collection; does it help it to know what the designer’s, process, intent and inspiration was?
S: Yes, of course it helps. That’s why I often go backstage – sometimes before the show, although I prefer it afterwards. I must say many a time a designer has said to me “Cartier Bresson”… I’m mesmerised by those pictures, and I’m expecting some black and white lean architectural people to walk out; but out comes something with pink, blue and red flowers all over it. So I think the process is quite complex, and that if it’s literal, it’s easy to explain, it’s probably not that interesting. And if it has come through a very interesting process of inspiration, it’s harder for a designer to explain that in just a few words.