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Michael Roberts: Fashion's Mr Outspoken

After more than 30 years on the front row, former Vanity Fair fashion director Michael Roberts still takes no prisoners. Colin McDowell meets the silver-tongued commentator whose first rule of fashion is to always say what he thinks.
Michael Roberts | Photo: Milo Osborn
By
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — Michael Roberts is a member of the fashion world's aristocracy, alongside Anna Wintour, Manolo Blahnik and Stephen Jones. People who have nothing to prove. People who know the fashion world, past and present. People of style. And yet, Roberts' name is not nearly as well known.

That is because he has never submitted to a career plan, preferring to do what interests him at any given moment, and then doing something else when he feels he has exhausted its possibilities. He has variously been a writer, stylist, illustrator, art director, fashion director and photographer for everyone from The Sunday Times to The New Yorker, Nova to Vanity Fair and virtually every major Vogue. He belongs to no camp — he is permanently peripatetic, spending most of his time in London and Paris and devoting considerable amounts of his year to travel, often alone, to gather material for his books of photography.

I imagine that the detached relationships Roberts has with most of his colleagues stem from his public school days (he remembers with grim humour the idiocy of team games), as much as the independence that is referred to as his being a 'loner' or, by some who especially resent his aloofness, 'self absorbed'. Neither is true, in my opinion, although I do know that Michael Roberts does not suffer fools gladly and feels there are far too many of them in fashion now. It is probably also true that he has deliberately positioned himself as an outsider, whereas, in fact, he is a quiet, total insider — Grace Coddington is one of his closest female friends and he attends dinners at Wintour's house in the Hamptons.

Michael Roberts with a selection of his Illustrations | Photo: Milo Osborn

He knows everything that is going on, whether in European, American or British fashion. The problem is that so much of it simply does not interest him. He explains why by referring to his own fashion education at art school in High Wycombe: "I spent three years of hard work learning how to make clothes — how to ease a sleeve, how to put in a bust dart. Today, designing isn't about making the finished garment as perfect as you can. It is about mood boards and we all know that the mood board is a substitute for not knowing how to make something. It makes fashion much less about the designers, because you no longer need to know how to make a garment in order to be a fashion designer. And the proof of that can be seen on the catwalks of famous young designers, with monotonous regularity every season."

There are few fashion commentators so exalted that they can be as rude as they wish and still command a front row seat the next season, as Michael Roberts does. However, he feels less and less of a need to attend more than two or three shows and does not align himself with the front row editors, whom he describes, regardless of sex, as “a gaggle of snippy queens”. Because of his independence, his judgments are normally interesting, often revealing and always fearless.

Of a recent Burberry show, he wrote: "The Burberry runway show brought London Fashion Week to a close in a blaze of, well Burberry…. bustle… bustle… bustle went the fashion crowd… the first row was full of actresses still hanging about after the BAFTA awards…. Kristen Stewart rebelliously jiggling her feet out of time with the music." His readers loved it, but Roberts prefers to be direct — "I thought the show was bad" — and leave it at that.

He is harsh on the 'big business' element of fashion, an example of which he says is Raf Simons, whose pre-Dior work he "really loved", but feels that the designer made a mistake by accepting the Dior job. "When Bernard Arnault says to designers mid-career, 'We love you — and here's the money to prove it,' it's like getting into a warm bath. For Raf, a really creative committed, die-hard anti-establishment figure, it is a tragedy. I'm sorry, but his Dior clothes are ghastly. I was doing better than that in my first year at art school. He has sacrificed his credibility, as, of course, so has Bernard Arnault by his continual denial of John Galliano's Dior days!"

Roberts expresses a wish for more commentators in the fashion industry “who point out that things are not always what they seem.” “One doesn't wish to be a voice crying in the wilderness, but, certainly, one wishes to be a voice that makes a difference: some reparation to get the flow going in a different direction. Fashion departments of serious newspapers are still a ghetto expected to produce some sexy whimsy each Sunday. I was pigeonholed as the Sunday Joan Crawford bitch: ‘Ooh! He never said that, did he? Isn’t he awful!’ It was very discouraging. I have always found writing very hard — words are so treacherous. And to be read for the wrong reasons… what's the point?”

Many of his comments have become part of the rubric of fashion legend. One of my favourites is his terse dismissal of both Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld in the season when they created narrow silhouettes called The Tube and The Tunnel, respectively. Roberts wrote with, I am sure, a world-weary sigh, "I can see no light at the end of it." Of McQueen, he says bluntly, "I didn't like him as a person and I loathed the way he treated Isabella Blow. But he definitely had a unique talent. A very dark one."

"It was John Galliano who was really interesting. Especially when Amanda Harlech was with him. I would sit there and listen to them talking. It was fascinating to see their imagination racing as they made up the story of every dress. Real fairytale stuff, but riveting. And I'd be thinking, 'Oh my God! These two are just extraordinary.' They were fabulous because they always went that extra step and you never knew where they might take you. If you've been privy to that, there's very little today that can excite your interest. When John did his show in Sao Schlumberger's house in Paris, Steven Meisel came out of it and said, 'That's the greatest fashion show I've ever seen.' We could hardly speak, we were so emotionally overwhelmed. When you've seen that sort of thing, what we get now just seems small potatoes, even though the money spent on designers, collections and shows has rocketed."

“McQueen’s clothes are full of interesting ideas, but are mainly for galleries and collectors. I find his clothes distant — psychologically of interest, but it seems to me that the idea is all. The woman and even the dress are secondary. John [Galliano] is a designer of clothes. He is in a line of British fantasy that goes back to Ossie Clark, who could create an incredible bias-cut dress even whilst you were chatting together. Lee made more demands of the wearer. His clothes were hard to wear. That is why John is the greater designer in fashion terms.”

“The problem with clothes for clothes’ sake is that I might like them, but the translation from a good idea into something to wear is often forgotten. YSL did that so well: extraordinary on the catwalk, also extraordinary and beguiling on the person. A woman in his clothes never looked as if she was dressed in an experiment. His creativity was a circular movement, especially at the beginning. He got it from the street, changed it, sent it out on the catwalk, and then it went back on the street. Much of the experiments we see today are just ridiculous, just as so much of the McQueen stuff was.”

I have always found writing very hard — words are so treacherous. And to be read for the wrong reasons… what's the point?

Roberts was born in England in 1948. His father was from St Lucia; his mother, English. He went to art school in High Wycombe, where he won a fashion illustration competition sponsored by the advertising agency J Walter Thompson. The prize was a trip to New York, where he met Andy Warhol and had his work published in Women's Wear Daily.

He is a quiet and self-effacing man but has a naughty schoolboy element to him, especially when it comes to subverting the status quo, a skill he learned from Mollie Parkin, the shamelessly sexual extrovert who edited both British Vogue and Nova, and who employed Roberts on his return from New York.

When Tina Brown gave him his fashion director roles at both Tatler in London and Vanity Fair in New York in the eighties, it was a time of poetic, sylvan fantasies: girls with twigs in their hair, a resurgence of black and white photography, and a bold humour that saw Tina Turner photographed wearing Alaïa, cavorting with pretty teenage boys from Eton. It also saw Vivienne Westwood on the cover of Tatler, so convincingly styled and shot by Roberts that she looked exactly like Mrs Thatcher, a trick that Roberts also brought off with the designer Rifat Özbek, whom he photographed as Diana Vreeland.

Prio to joining Tatler, Roberts was the fashion editor of The Sunday Times, where his copy was so scathing and to the point — especially in interviews with stars like Joan Collins, whom he dubbed “Our Joan” — that lawsuits always seemed to be hovering in the air. “I was getting so much flack over my Sunday Times pieces, endless writs. I was always having to defend myself! It's just not fun. Horrible, actually.” As he says now, “I lost interest because I felt I was being read for all the wrong reasons. I didn't feel I was doing anything of value, apart from entertaining.”

But there is another reason why Michael Roberts has become disenchanted with working for newspapers and magazines: “Firstly, with very few exceptions, the level of editing has dropped and I feel that having work tinkered with by an editor and mangled by an art department before being throttled by some person putting in his opinion of which picture he’d like… it’s just soul-destroying!”

He makes one exception: Anna Wintour. “I admire her,” he declares, “because her priority is always American Vogue. It is her first love, although she is now involved with all the Vogues… However, I am not always entirely happy with her influence when it comes to choosing young designers to take over established houses.”

At the moment, Roberts is working on two fashion-related projects: a new book with Coddington about her work, due to be published by Phaidon in a year’s time, and a docudrama with Manolo Blahnik. The film, which Roberts is directing, already has a distributor and is due out next year in time for the Cannes film festival. "Working with Manolo, one is very reliant on his mood, so it often becomes 'one step forward, three steps back,'" he says. Blahnik and Roberts are long-term friends and collaborators — their most recent project is a new book of Roberts’ photographs of the designer’s shoes, called Manolo Blahnik: Fleeting Gestures and Obsessions. Roberts’ other book ventures include Shot in Sicily, a compendium of his photographs of the island’s muscular young men and voluptuous women.

This is Michael Roberts, the Complete Fashion Insider. Soft-voiced and multi-talented, but as sharp with his apercus as Gore Vidal, Roberts is one of the most diverse talents we have seen in fashion since Cecil Beaton. True recognition of his value by the fashion establishment is long overdue. But he almost certainly doesn’t care.

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