Suzy in her Varsity daySuzy Menkes

Suzy Menkes has just come in from Paris this morning – “I was doing a lot of different things. I saw an exhibition of art, extraordinary art, really, from Africa”. We speak on FaceTime, her trademark Pompadour hairdo – high, neatly-coiffed – bobbing out of the top of the frame as she grapples with the phone.

As International Editor of Vogue – a role created specially for her when she left the International Herald Tribune in 2014 – Menkes writes for 21 international versions of fashion’s most well-known magazine. She travels extensively – from Paris today, but to Oman two weeks ago, to New York soon, to Cambridge (slightly closer to home) this week, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Varsity, the paper she was the first woman to edit back in her student days in the ’60s.

As she rattles off all the things she is doing, seeing, thinking about, the places she is going, and the projects she is working on, I am exhausted. And I am but a student. Menkes, on the other hand, is 73, a long and successful career behind her, now a grandmother of six. No signs of slowing down, though.

“If you have got talent, you really can put it out to the world now, which must be a good thing”

“You know, a lot of people were surprised because – ” She pauses a second to work out how old she was when she left the International Herald Tribune, her home of 23 years, to join Vogue. She might have been 70, or perhaps 69, she can’t remember. Either way, there was an expectation she might take the opportunity for a quiet life: “It would seem absolutely obvious to everybody that I was going to retire and write a book about what happened in the past. But, you know, that’s just not my thing. I’m much more interested in what is happening now, and what is going to happen in the future.”

That is why, she tells me, she takes so much pleasure in Instagram. “I find it fun,” she says. “I like the speed of it.” In fact, she verges on prolific: as I speak to her, she has posted 17 times in just the last 24 hours, tokens from her France trip. It is mostly shots of the art she has enjoyed there, but there is also an obligatory Instagram sunset, as well as a snap of her grinning behind a colourful array of frosting-laden cakes.

Of course, this technological revolution, whereby a successful woman can chronicle her travels, but also whereby a budding photographer, stylist or designer can take their work straight to the public, via social media, is something Menkes has seen emerge only during the later years of her career. She is firm in her approval: “Things are so much better, and the world is open so much more to potential designers.” She adds: “If you have got talent, you really can put it out to the world now, which must be a good thing.”

As we talk, I am struck by a fascinating divide in Menkes’s approach. Unlike many in her world, she refuses free gifts from designers, determined to retain her independence as a critic. (“I’m not talking about flowers and chocolates – jolly, they’re very welcome. I’m talking about actual clothes and things.”) This, she tells me, is down to her Fleet Street training (which is in contradistinction to many others writing about fashion): before the International Herald Tribune, she was at The Times. “All these papers had absolutely rigid rules about accepting any gifts. It just got into my bloodstream, really.” She is admirably old-school in this regard – in fact, she calls herself “a bit of a dinosaur”.

And yet she has thrown herself into new technology. She is nigh-on effusive about it, and the way it has democratised the fashion industry. “It is a wonderful thing now if you are fascinated by fashion and you’re living in Hungary” – a country plucked out of nowhere – “and you don’t have any fashion college, you don’t have your St Martins [Central St Martins, London’s renowned art college] round the corner, whether you’ve got money to go there or not, and now you can do so much more online in every way.”

She is not just talking about social media now, but online courses, too, and her words stem from a pressing concern for British fashion. When I ask her about this, she is quick to remind me that she does not just write about British fashion, but fashion from all over the world. But she is worried about the effect of government cuts on creativity in her native Britain – a country which she says has long been “a really creative seedbed of creativity”.

“My concern about British fashion is not that there aren’t creative people around, but I do think that the increasing amounts of money that parents, or perhaps the students themselves, have got to pay in order to do these courses is a real and major blow to fashion in Great Britain.” This is the Suzy I have become acquainted with via her writing – direct, plain-speaking. She warns me that celebrated British designer Alexander McQueen, the son of a taxi driver, would not have got into fashion school had he come through a few decades later – his family “didn’t have this kind of money”.

I think I have identified a strong whiff of social critique. I put this to her – can she identify a class issue in fashion? – thinking she has surely already answered my question. But I am surprised. “No,” says Menkes, “I don’t think you can identify it very clearly.” At this point, she thinks she may have been too negative in her answers so far, so she promptly turns the conversation to the wonders of the internet. Not not an answer to my question, but I am left wondering how concern for students from poorer backgrounds not being able to afford tuition fees can be separated from the idea of class.

“I also care very much about my family and my friends. You know, when we talk about the ‘work-life balance’, that’s it”

This is a running theme in our conversation. In many ways, Menkes is an interviewer’s dream – warm, charming, forthcoming – but there are certain contradictions to be found in some of her answers. Later on, we discuss what she calls the new trend for “vulgarity”. I ask her how she defines this; she talks about “showing off”, “sexual over-production in clothes” and “revealing clothes”. She draws a line from this to Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency last year: “it’s rather intriguing to try and put these things together and say: ‘was fashion a precursor of what was going to happen in the world?’”

Again, I think I’ve identified a more serious point she is making. Does fashion have some kind of social function that is often overlooked? “I think it’s a bit of a big claim. You know, fashion is fashion, when it comes down to it.”

I detect no hint of disingenuousness here – Menkes speaks conscientiously and passionately about fashion, the subject she has devoted her life to; no sooner have I asked her what she’s been doing recently than she launches into a heartfelt, unprompted discussion of fashion ethics (“people are being exploited, often really badly treated, paid very poor amounts of money, in order that people can have cheap clothes, and this is something that intelligent people should think about”) – but she is certainly reluctant to portray fashion as anything but what it is.

The industry, as she puts it, “trundles along, and it’s quite a, what you might call, frivolous exercise, in relation to so many other things that are going on in the world”.

We come to the end of our slot, and I am mindful of Menkes’s fiercely busy schedule. I begin to thank her for her time when she interrupts me to add something that is “really, really, really important” to her – again, entirely unprompted. She tells me how important family is to her. She lost her husband, fellow journalist David Spanier, in 2000 – she tells me about him, her three sons, and her six grandchildren.

“Although I may be at my advanced age, very silly, putting up jokey Instagrams,” she tells me, “I also care very much about my family and my friends. You know, when we talk about the ‘work-life balance’, that’s it – it’s getting that right, I think. It’s more important than getting the best and newest fashion scoop.”

And on that note, we bid goodbye. I am left with the impression of a warm, generous character, who engages with issues intelligently, and yet also refrains from taking the fashion industry too seriously. And, as the latest in now a thankfully long line of female Varsity Editors, I am in awe of my predecessor, that first pioneer – of her energy, her enthusiasm, her talent and her wit.

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