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The Creative Mastermind Behind the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou | Source: Courtesy
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — Fashion catalyst. Earth mother to successful designers. Owner and editor-in-chief of 10 Magazine. Creative director of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. The multi-tasking Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou was born and brought up in North London, but proudly claims to be very much a Greek and a product of her parents, who had a traditional, arranged marriage, when he was 26 and she 16, after knowing each other for only one week.

Her sense of entrepreneurship comes from her father. “My father was a gambler and that’s who I get my risk-taking from. He got up to all sorts of mischief and he took chances in life without ever being afraid of the rules. For example, he used to run a social club and had an illegal gambling den in the back — absolutely the sort of thing he loved doing. He felt that rules are often so silly they are there to be broken. And I agree, at least artistically. He was also never afraid of failure and I certainly get that from him,” she said. “My sensible side comes from my mum.” Sophia's mother was a seamstress and pattern cutter. “She was the grounded one — and that’s who I get my practicality and probably my love of clothes from.”

Early in her career, Sophia found a job in an architectural practice, but soon had a “weird midlife crisis – at 26! I knew that sitting in an office every day was not for me and architecture is a slow process. It takes about three years before you see the final result of your work. I knew that was too long for me to sustain any interest. I am a person who wants to do something with total conviction and then move on, for god's sake!” So move on she did. Through a friend, she found a job at Elle Decoration and soon caught the fashion bug. “I wrote to absolutely every magazine in London. Even though I had no experience and not much knowledge of fashion, I had made up my mind that was what I wanted.”

She was lucky enough to get a placement at British Vogue. “In those days, Vogue had a marvellously bohemian glamour. Isabella Blow walking around the office in holey tights and with lipstick all over her face. Just looking at her was an inspiration. I knew absolutely that I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my working life and, of course, once I had made that decision, I was persistent and determined enough to go for it.”

“Nobody really knew what styling was in those days. You were referred to as an editor. Because I knew that my experience was minimal, I flitted from one department to another, picking up training as I went. But ultimately I made my decision: definitely fashion department; definitely pictures.”

But for Sophia the pace of a monthly magazine was still too slow. “It was always weeks before you could see your work on the newstands. I still had the need for a speedy turn-around of the sort magazines can never have. So, I knew that the next stage was to move on to newspapers.”

I have known Sophia for many years. At one point, we worked together at the Sunday Times, although, like Isabella, she was never entirely happy there. "I was uncomfortable there," she recalled, “because I felt that the upper echelons simply didn't respect fashion, which they appeared to see as something fluffy and marginal. There was an endemic lack of respect for what we were doing in the fashion department. You have to keep coming up with ideas on a weekly basis, which is what I love, but it is too demoralising if others don't share your enthusiasm.”

Isabella Blow once described the job of fashion stylist as nothing better than being an air hostess, there to do the bidding of the pilot — or the photographer, in this case. Sophia does not agree. “I always think that being a stylist is like being a director of a film. You have to understand everybody's priorities and passions and help them, make them, all work together,” she said. "I know there are plenty of cruel and selfish self-serving people in the fashion industry, but I love the fashion business because of the many genuine relationships you make. I've worked with so many wonderful, imaginative, inspiring — and demanding — people whose work has transported me to somewhere magical. And when that happens the difficulties, sulks and tantrums it took to get there are quickly forgotten.”

Sophia routinely puts in days that can start before dawn and not finish until after midnight. Even then, if somebody suggests a night out clubbing, she is there like a shot. She loves to dance, even after a demanding day, and finds it the perfect de-stress therapy, but no matter how late she gets to her hotel room, she fills the bath with hot water and indulges in her tried and tested way of relaxing, singing along with Sixties hits like Frank Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers, a perennial favourite. Indeed, she travels almost weekly and always does so with music. "I love to sing. I am a serious karaoke addict. I find it so freeing. Actually, I would have loved to be an actress or singer. There's still a lot of the theatrical in me.”

For many years, Sophia has been the creative director of the fantastically theatrical Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. “My job is to create a framework for the underwear, to come up with themes — usually 12 — and they could be based on the paintings of Degas or the film Dangerous Liaisons and a million other things. I present 12 ideas to a group of 22 people and everything has to be properly storyboarded. At least six of the outfits have to be sketched in colour and I love that. Then I have to present them as convincingly as I can and they choose which ones they think will work. They know their brand perfectly. Not too sexualised, nothing vulgar. Victoria's Secret is not about raunch. It's about creating a fantasy — and having a dialogue with the customers.”

Sophia also consults for several designers, including Roland Mouret, Elie Saab, Antonio Berardi and Anya Hindmarch. "My job as a consultant to designers is to focus on channelling and convincing them of what I think they should do," she said. "It is almost like being a parent, pointing them in the right direction. But it's up to them whether they take the suggested road and that is right. It is their name on the label, not mine."

Of course, there also Sophia’s very own publishing baby: 10 Magazine and its stablemate 10 Magazine Men, both of which Sophia launched independently and owns in her own right. “Creating and sustaining a magazine is an interesting challenge,” she mused. “You must have a viable product and that means one that generates income. Creativity and all the inspiration in the world are no good without that. It is all about profitability and I don't feel you are contradicting your creativity if you accept that. In fact, in order to survive you must accept it. When I started 10, I knew nothing. My first surprise was to discover that the biggest cost for a magazine is the paper it is printed on! I had no idea. Right at the outset, before doing anything else I had to produce £30,000 in order to set up a deal with the printer. I went to the bank and the manager refused to even consider it. So I went back to the office and phoned the bank to ask for a loan for a car. They gave me £15,000 over the telephone!”

“I couldn't afford a dummy and, in fact, I'm not sure I knew what one was in those days. So I went to Ryman, bought a ringbinder and filled it with photocopies. I was a bit petrified, but I called on designers with whom I had a personal relationship and asked them for their support. What was brilliant for me was that, as I explained what I wanted to do, I could feel the trust grow.  I am very tenacious and having started the ball rolling, I was determined not to be beaten. Funnily enough, I remember saying to my husband that we should also invest in 10. His reaction was quick: ‘I'm telling you now, we are not putting a penny of our own money into it.’ And that was that. The rest of the £30,000 came from advertising. And so, there I was, an independent publisher. I chose the title 10 because, thinking back to school, 10 out of 10 symbolised excellence. It was the top mark.”

Sophia confesses that only once in her career did her confidence dip. That was after her first meeting with Victoria's Secret. “I had a bit of a panic as I came out of the first meeting, but thanks to Dan May, who worked for me then, I got over it. I remember saying, ‘It's so big and I'm not sure I can deliver what they want. In fact, I'm not even sure what it is that they want.’ I was literally trembling inside, but Dan was marvellous. 'Pull yourself together,’ he said. ‘You know you can do this. Focus on each step at a time and attack each moment as it comes.’ And that is exactly what I did.”

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