LONDON, United Kingdom — From the moment Suzy Menkes handed me her new business card, with a cute illustration by Darcel featuring her trademark pompadour cleverly placed over the ‘O’ in the famous Vogue logo, it was clear that, while she may have taken on the role of international Vogue editor at the world’s most famous consumer fashion magazine, there is no chance she is going to let it diminish the authority and individuality with which she has approached her writing for more than thirty years. Who else but Suzy Menkes could customise the sacred Vogue logo in her own image?
“It’s extraordinary to be here at Vogue for me,” she said as we sat down in the London offices of Condé Nast International (CNI), where Menkes will be based, surrounded by scores of magazine covers from the company’s broad stable of media brands. “Of course, working for Vogue is wonderful, but when you realise that we’re talking about [many] Vogues — Vogue in India, Vogue in Brazil, Vogue in Moscow and in China; Vogue all around the world — then it is really exciting and a whole new world for me.”
Indeed, Menkes’ new world — where digital comes first — has freed her from the physical and temporal constraints of print. While her full duties will develop over time, she has started by writing a global column several times a week, published on the websites of Vogue titles around the world. (CNI has 19 Vogue websites, including those in the UK, France, Italy, China, India, Russia, Japan, Germany and Spain, reaching millions of unique readers each month.) Starting in 2015, Menkes will also be responsible for organising an annual CNI industry conference, tapping her years of experience hosting a lucrative conference for the Paris-based International New York Times — formerly the International Herald Tribune — where she was style editor for more than 25 years.
In her new capacity at Vogue, Menkes said she was excited about getting her words out to a global audience instantly and as frequently as she wants. And while she has had a Facebook page for some time now, one gets the sense that the intrepid critic is ready to go full-force into being a “digital-first” journalist.
“You have to be relevant. And you have to be relevant, too, in the world of what is going on in media. I felt frustrated, but I [also] felt proud to be linked to a newspaper that is renowned around the world. But at the same time, so much else was going on. Of course I had stuff put up online, but I never got the sense that was the first approach; that the first thing somebody thought when they saw my copy was: ‘Let’s get that up,’ I want to be part of that. This is immediate. People can see me and read me and feel me,” explained the seventy-year-old Menkes who is now an avid user of Instagram. “I didn’t want to have just a blog and retire, effectively. I don’t feel like retiring; I’ve got lots of energy left.”
Menkes’ professional journey started at Cambridge University, long before the digital age of Instagrams, Facebook news feeds and the so-called Twitterverse. “Right from the start I was always fascinated by newsprint and when I went to Cambridge University, the very first thing I did, on my very first day, was to sign up to work for Varsity, the university newspaper,” she said.
But the student newspaper was a long way from the competitive, high-stakes world of fashion, where Menkes carved out her name as one of the most globally respected commentators by approaching fashion journalism with a unique rigour. “In the 1970s, there wasn’t such a division between the idea of being a serious journalist and the idea of being a light-hearted journalist,” she said. “I suppose you could say that what I looked at was the idea of taking what other people — not myself — consider a light-hearted subject and looking at it seriously. Not solemnly, but seriously.”
“When it came to journalism, you know something, I think there’s always a need for somebody who can write well, be efficient, go out and get the stories,” she added. “I think, really, the person who put me on the path was Charles Wintour, Anna Wintour’s father.” Mr Wintour, a highly-respected editor himself, gave Menkes, then only 24, a job as fashion editor of London’s Evening Standard, creating ripples across the industry because of her young age and relative inexperience.
“He was a really good mentor,” she recalled, “and he really made me understand that as a fashion editor, or any other role at the paper, you are conduit to the public. You’re supposed to take in this information and then pass it on — that idea that, as a journalist, you’ve got to really take things in and then explain them in a way that’s comprehensible to other people. That’s the job.”
Of course, in today’s immediate, copy-and-paste media landscape, where the Internet makes information both abundant and, in some sense, commoditised, it is opinion, analysis and a unique point of view that matter most. But how will she maintain her independent and honest point of view at Condé Nast, a publishing empire with advertisers to consider?
“I do not believe that Vogue is going to rein me in. Jonathan Newhouse said to me right from the get-go that this was not the idea, because obviously, what is the point of hiring Suzy Menkes and getting some dumbed down version? I, also, can’t change myself.”
Indeed, as she sets off to explore her new digital world, there is one other area, at least, where Suzy Menkes will maintain her analogue approach. Frequent fashion show-goers will have, no doubt, seen Menkes in action with one of her many disposable cameras, snapping candid shots here and there, whenever the moment feels right. So will this treasure trove of imagery find its way into the public domain? For now, this precious collection will remain her own to enjoy — save for the few that have been published by Self Service magazine.
“You know what I think is the sweetest word in the English language now? Private,” she declared. “I think the idea of privacy — it’s completely gone now — but it was something rather special. I feel that my photos are private. This is not to say that one day they’re not going to come out. I hope that one day some of them will be published, but I’m not in a rush. In a way, I think photographs become more precious with the passing of time.”
The same could be said of Menkes herself.
Watch the highlights video of our conversation with Suzy Menkes above. The full BoF interview will be available on Thursday.