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Style scan | Suzy Menkes: Fashion is ahead of politics

The celebrated fashion critic and editor on the close link between fashion and politics, the impact of new technology on the industry, and the story behind her famous quiff

Suzy Menkes. Photo: Abhijit bhatlekar/Mint
Suzy Menkes. Photo: Abhijit bhatlekar/Mint

There aren’t enough hours in a day to squeeze in everything that the celebrated fashion critic and editor for 21 international editions of Vogue online, Suzy Menkes, wants to see and do on her trip to Mumbai. Menkes was in the city to meet Indian designers, get a better understanding of the fashion industry, and promote the Condé Nast International Luxury Conference, “Mindful Luxury", which will be held in Muscat, Oman, in April. She talks about the close link between fashion and politics, the impact of new technology on the industry, and the story behind her famous quiff. Edited excerpts from an interview:

One of your pieces talks about how the fashion industry foretold the rise of Donald Trump. Is there a traceable link between fashion and politics?

It’s not just that there is a link between fashion and politics, but fashion is almost always ahead. Let’s start way back with Marie Antoinette. She decided to go into much softer, less regal clothes and then, a few years later, look what happened with the French Revolution. I really do think it is extraordinary how last year we saw these things happening in fashion which were very strange. The whole (Kim) Kardashian way of extraordinary show-off and, dare I say, vulgar clothing, but not considered so by her and her friends. And then you get Donald Trump voted in. So, it does seem there is a link. On the other side, because nothing ever is simple, Vetements is a brand that suddenly appeared, (and is) very much (about) plain and simple clothes, but it’s sold at incredibly expensive prices and was followed up by the designer of Vetements (Demna Gvasalia) being taken on to do the designs for Balenciaga. So, you’re getting this most grand couture house and someone is in it who is sort of doing street clothes. So, there’s Brexit, there’s the whole Trump thing, and also in Europe you’ve got other countries, France, Germany, where you’ve got people who are rising. I can’t help noticing as a journalist and an ordinary person that what we’re seeing here is that fashion is ahead of what happens in the world…. People are voting for a new kind of politics.

With the advances in digital media, practically anyone can be a fashion critic.

I was very excited about reporting from ordinary people with an eye. Quite a few bloggers have gone on to become successful, if not famous. What concerns me is that I was brought up with very old-fashioned rules about journalism, which is that you don’t accept anything but flowers and chocolates. The way that the fashion and beauty industry has leapt at these successful people and lavished them with gifts, it puts everyone in a difficult position. I don’t blame these people, they’re not being paid for what they write, so maybe they should accept something. But, they are hardly going to do a bad review of someone who has dressed them in a jacket or lipstick or anything.

Indian designers have always put a premium on handcrafted garments. On the other hand, you have technology such as 3D printing.

I think a lot of people, including me, are pretty scared about 3D printing. Particularly designers who have got their own personal vision. Something that takes a long time to produce, they find, can be done under the 3D system and can be turned into clothing at a tremendous speed. It’s scary. All this is now when the system is just being developed! Having said that, you can’t resist change, you must keep up with the world you’re in. On the other side, I do think the hand work in India is exceptional. My sadness is that on the other side of it are sweatshops, where women are made to work like slaves to meet the demands of people who want clothes at the lowest amounts of money.

One of the points you hope to address in the conference is defining luxury for the post-luxury consumer.

There are many ways you can spend money now. If you ask people where they spend their money, one of the first things they would say are smartphones. In the past, nobody would have thought of such a thing as being beautiful. There are many other things that people are investing in: looking after themselves, going to the spa, investing in treatments. People are increasingly realizing how much better they can feel, not by getting yet another thing, but having an experience. This business of experience is what I mean when I say post-luxury. There’s also things we don’t really think about, which is changing your facial features or body. I was in Seoul last year and realized that the average person was spending about $2,500 (around Rs1.7 lakh) on self-improvement, changing their nose or chin. This is the price of a superior Louis Vuitton or Prada bag now. So products are now in competition with experiences, among other things.

What is the story behind Samurai Suzy’s famous quiff?

It’s such a banal story (laughs). I was at the hairdresser, and I said I really can’t stand my hair as it flops around all the time and I didn’t want a fringe because it would look dreadful on me. She reached out for a (hair) comb, I was mortified as old ladies in New York wore that sort of thing, but she asked me to wait till she had finished. And that was that. I can do this (pointing to her hair) running down the stairs to breakfast, on the plane, in the street, anywhere. It really was a practical thing. But over time, it’s grown into a sort of symbol. Don’t know what would happen if I cut it off now… Instagram would go crazy, I imagine (laughs)!

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