LONDON, United Kingdom — There are very few journalists one can imagine being given the run of Chatsworth House, one of Britain’s most stately homes, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. But that is exactly where Hamish Bowles has been working on and off over the last six years, spending weekends exploring the sartorial heritage of the storied Derbyshire estate, its inhabitants and their guests, whenever his day job as American Vogue’s international editor-at-large permitted. The result is the exhibition “House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth.”
That Hamish was asked to help curate the show underscores not only his knowledge, but his charm. And if I tell you that his friendship with the Duke and Duchess’ daughter-in-law, the Countess of Burlington, goes back a long way and survived a slightly rocky start you will begin to understand why he has been so admired and appreciated not only as a fashion advisor but also an amazing weekend house guest.
Their collaboration was memorable for both of them. He trussed Laura Roundell, as she was known before her marriage, in a very tight wasp-waist corset in which she was expected to sit stock still on a high stool to be photographed. Almost inevitably, she fainted. Hamish administered the standard English cure for such a moment: a cup of tea and a biscuit. A bond has existed between them ever since.
Hamish’s weekends at Chatsworth revealed the immense range of unique clothing hidden away for safe keeping in the various rooms and attics of the immense house. Hamish was in paroxisms of delight at each new discovery as the clothes began to amass. Many of the finds were sealed in boxes hundreds of years ago and included clothes by Givenchy and Dior. Add to that the dresses given to Stella Tennant — the model and the granddaughter of Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire and Deborah Mitford — by grateful designers for whom she walked and you have an amazing centuries-long reflection of a family, including Georgiana, who was played by Kiera Knightly in the 2008 film The Duchess; Adele Astaire, sister of Fred Astair; and John F Kennedy's sister Kathleen, always known as Kick, who married Billy Cavendish who was killed in World War II in 1944.
But Hamish was brought up far from the glamour of aristocratic life in Hampstead, an area of north London that was comfortably middle class and rather left wing. His father was Vice Provost of University College, London; his mother was especially interested in photography and antiques. In the words of her son, she was a “deeply intrepid maverick and adventurer” and the family ethos “was distinctly left of centre.” Not perhaps a typical training ground for a future fashion connoisseur and collector.
A former neighbour was a costume academic and she vividly remembers how a young Hamish would show her the things he had bought with his pocket money at charity shops and antique fairs: old lace, Victorian velvet ribbon, pins and dried flowers. She also recalls him appearing in her kitchen one morning with a strange object on his head. It was a dish cloth that he had worn — and arranged just so —having seen a drawing of a fontange, improvised by a future mistress of Louis XIV during a hunt at Versailles. Hamish — he thinks he was possibly nine at the time — needed to be assured that he had copied the design correctly. It was possibly the first manifestation of his need for perfect correctness.
Indeed, even before his tenth birthday, it was clear that Hamish Bowles was a very unusual little boy, which is why his neighbour gave him the little silhouette cut-out paper doll in period costume that he still has today. As he blithely admits, “I don't think I've ever thrown away anything to do with dress, fashion and interior decorating. Ever! Like the Cavendishes at Chatsworth!”
My work has a lot to do with getting out and about and not being constrained by being in an office.
By the time he was 14, Hamish Bowles knew precisely what he wished his future to be. He entered the British Vogue Talent Contest and he won a special mention. “That was the turning point,” his mother claims. But talking to Hamish, I got the strong impression that it was all part of a master plan hatched much earlier. He went on to study fashion journalism at Saint Martin's School of Art (now Central Saint Martins). And this is when his good luck clicked in. “I’ve only had 2 jobs in my life,” Hamish explains. “The first was at Harper’s & Queen and I joined as junior fashion editor replacing Amanda Harlech when she left to go full time with John Galliano.”
It was a remarkable experience. “Harper’s & Queen did a teenage shoot every few years, and when I was on my foundation course at Saint Martins I applied, as it were, and they gave me the men’s pages to do. I was assigned to work with Mario Testino who was a young up-and-coming photographer about town, more or less just arrived from Peru and already making a name for himself. We had a lot of mutual friends socially so that was the beginning of our great friendship.
"My fashion editor was Vanessa de Lisle. She terrified me, but I have a lot to thank her for,” recalls Hamish. “She had seen what I had done with the menswear pages and she gave me the womenswear pages to do as well. I did a story based on the film 'The Women' — Stephen Jones did all the hats and there were all these veiled 1940s concoctions and Anthony Price suits and things.
"Vanessa arrived in the middle of the sitting and didn’t think this related to the teenage debutante story she was expecting. So she got the hairdresser to do a kind of ‘hair in the electric socket style,’ wildly back-combed and teased. It couldn't have been more unlike my original concept. It was my first introduction to the fact that you have to stand up for your idea otherwise it’s going to get trampled underfoot. Anyway, it was a success in that it introduced me to Harper's, and although I stayed on at Saint Martins to study fashion they kept asking me back to do freelance things." Ultimately, Hamish ended up as the fashion style director of Harper's.
Then Anna Wintour came knocking. “She said: ‘I see you really like interiors and decorating, why don’t you come and write about it for Vogue?’ I had a lot of friends in New York at that point, because I was there all the time on shoots, and I was certainly fascinated by her. I had gone in for a very unsuccessful interview at Vogue when she was editor-in-chief. I’d put all my previous fantastical shoots in there and she looked at two pages and closed the book with great finality. And then changed the subject by asking what I was reading. We had a very engaging chat. I was more than a little intimidated and I did not get the job. Then she called me up. ‘Hi, this is Anna Wintour,’ she says. The Harper’s & Queen offices were open plan so telephone calls were excruciating. This was even worse because in a Hearst office I was taking a phone call from the boss at Vogue. I went white with terror.”
Eventually, Hamish began doing a few fashion shoots for American Vogue. “I always understood who the Harper’s & Queen reader was and the parameters of what I could do. I initiated ideas, I chose the clothes,” recalls Hamish. “But suddenly at Vogue there was a very, very different hierarchy where the editor-in-chief is connected and concerned about every aspect — about every caption, every pair of earrings, every model! It was a steep learning curve and I was happy at that point to move into the world of interiors and lifestyle and art, where there was more personal freedom.
My role now is being Hamish for Vogue. I think there is a certain amount of an ambassadorial thing in it.
“My role now is being Hamish for Vogue. I think there is a certain amount of an ambassadorial thing in it,” he explains. “Now that Condé Nast is amplifying in all kinds of ways, I'm also more informally involved in Architectural Digest and all sorts of things across the brand platforms. And we are doing a lot of thinking outside the box, like consultancy. I'm going to different kinds of areas like film and obviously the website. So my role is very exciting.”
Indeed, Hamish has developed into the sort of creative polymath. “Obviously it's extremely unusual and exceptional that I would be given permission to work on something as time-consuming as the Chatsworth project, although, one of the reasons it's taken so long to bring to fruition is that it's been literally weekends in between being in Europe for the collections,” he says. “In the last 10 days of preparing the exhibition I had to write my May cover girl story for Vogue. I did five pieces for the website and two frontal books stories. It's the joy of the laptop and intermittent signals in a way that things can be a movable feast. I mean it's a miracle to live in the stage where you can literally be on a Greek Island and sending in copy. As a largely peripatetic worker, I think that what I do for the stories and generate for the magazine has a lot to do with getting out and about and not being constrained by being in an office.
“When we did Vogue Living, I was immensely hands on and doing a lot of the stories myself. Styling and writing and so on. Generating things, as well as matching creative types together to produce their own things,” says Hamish. “I also do these insane 'fish out of the water person' stories which began first about five or six years ago when we were doing a great American outdoors issue and some wag at the office thought that it would be an amazing idea to take me on an outdoor survival course in sunny Utah — grizzly bear country.
"I did it. And I did survive; I was quite proud of myself. But unfortunately the result of the story was that it was such a huge success and a hoot of laughter for everyone that they've done nothing but invent fiendish scenarios for me since. So I went to learn how to play basketball with the New York Knicks and soccer with the American Olympic women's team,” he laughs. “I think Anna is determined to 'man me up' somehow. Not entirely successfully, but she has brought out hidden qualities in me. And I think what gave me more courage than anything was auditioning for ‘X-Factor.’ That is by far the most frightening thing she's sort of blindly signed me up for.”
On Wintour, Hamish is clear: “I think Anna is a profoundly inspirational figure in a sense that she juggles all the worlds the magazine touches. She is extremely involved in the political scene. She has been an amazing fundraiser; plus breast cancer awareness, teenage anxiety. HIV/AIDS from the very beginning and she’s a great ambassador and fundraiser and profile raiser for the British theatre in America… It's working out how to mesh and link those things together that maximises the impact for her and the Vogue brand.”
Hamish is a collector of fashion and is working on plans to display his trove of garments. “My next extramural but related project would be to focus on my own collection and get that out there. It goes back to Charles Frederick Worth, who I think is the father of fashion design, imposing a vision on a customer rather than the other way around.”
His collection goes right up to autumn/winter 2017. “My very latest acquisition is one of those leaves of paper dresses by Christopher Kane, the pink one, it was one of those pieces that gave me goosebumps when it came down the runway because I just thought, 'You know, I've seen his technique.' I have a Jean Desses dress that has a similar thing and Valentino has done it because of course he worked with Desses. But I'd never seen it used in this way. Such discoveries are electrifying when you have a sense of fashion construction history. Seeing a designer taking something which is familiar and doing something unfamiliar with it. Those are the great moments.
"The very latest thing I bought — and I'm speaking literally as of today — is a Paquin cape, trimmed with embroidery. A total dream. When I first saw it I was just in tears… Mine is not an immense immense immense collection. I think it's between 3500 and 4000 pieces. Quite a lot to choose from for an exhibition. I’ve also frequently been told to do a book and we have one in the works.”
Such discoveries are electrifying: seeing a designer taking something which is familiar and doing something unfamiliar with it.
But despite his extracurricular activities, Hamish is still a key figure at American Vogue to such an extent that he is often referred to as “Hamish Vogue.” As Wintour told The New York Times, “he brings to the magazine a compelling voice that brings the reader into the world of fashion, travel and all the extraordinary places Hamish goes and all the people he sees.”
Larger than life characters are usually showbiz constructs. But Hamish is a natural. As we said goodbye, I asked him where he was going next. "To Huntsman," (his Savile Row tailor). "They have designed a special Hamish tweed for me and I can't wait to see how it looks made up."
How very Hamish — and how perfectly right for the man who has reinvented the concept of the fashionable dandy with conviction, courage and chutzpah.