As part of her “Fashion Icons” discussion series, Fern Mallis has already gone tête-à-tête with big fashion names like Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg, and Michael Kors, but last night at the 92nd Street Y, the former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America switched gears and put a journalist in the hot seat.
“I’m not sure what drugs I was on when I thought, what about Suzy Menkes?” Mallis candidly told the mostly female audience.
Simultaneously loved and feared in the fashion industry for her expert criticism and knowing eye, Menkes has held posts at the Daily Express, The Times of London, the Evening Standard, The Independent, and the International Herald Tribune, where she currently serves as fashion editor. She attends hundreds of fashion shows each year and reports on established and burgeoning talent as well as the intersection between fashion and business, culture, and politics. She’s also penned several books, on topics ranging from the knitwear revolution to the style of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. For her long and heralded career, Menkes has received the highest accolades, including the Eugenia Sheppard Award for journalism from the CFDA and, most recently, the Fiorino d’Oro, which honors contributions to the city of Florence during the Pitti Uomo men’s trade shows.
Menkes entered the stage wearing a knee-length metallic silver plaid collared jacket and black kitten-heel boots, clutching a shiny silver Comme des Garçons handbag. Her hair was in her signature upswept coif. For such a formidable critic, she seemed friendly and sincere for the majority of the discussion, save for dodging a few questions toward the end.
The two fashion titans quickly dove into a conversation about Monday’s Met gala, which celebrated the museum’s new Costume Institute exhibit, Punk: Chaos to Couture. Though Menkes confessed that during the punk era she was too busy raising her three children to engage in vices like sex, drugs, and headbanging music, she felt the exhibit lacked the angst that typified the period. “It was a terrific and energetic movement, and I don’t think you get that from the exhibition,” she said. Menkes also commented on the attendees who decided to forgo the evening’s punk theme altogether—like Vogue chieftain Anna Wintour—and opt to wear feminine floral designs: “I don’t recall pink and roses being really punk things, I have to admit,” she quipped. One display item Menkes did enjoy seeing was Elizabeth Hurley’s iconic Versace safety-pin dress, which she wore to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994, but she thought it went downhill from there. “Visually you might see punk,” she said. “But in reality, the spirit is no longer there.” Another lasting memory of the evening outside of the exhibition, she said, was watching Madonna, clad in Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, climb up the edge of the wall of the museum’s Temple of Dendur to cheer on Kanye West as he performed.
Mallis then retreated back to the past with questions about Menkes’s upbringing. Menkes was born in 1943 to a Jewish lawyer father and mother and raised in the countryside in Brighton, England. She developed an interest in fashion at a very young age—and in the 1960s went to Paris, where she lived with a white Russian immigrant family and studied fashion design at Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode, a fashion school in France. She soon discovered that she didn’t enjoy making clothes, and an incident in which a teacher scoffed at her over an incorrectly measured seam propelled her to explore other creative endeavors. But her journalistic tenacity was always there: while in Paris, she and a friend snuck into Karl Lagerfeld’s show for Chloé by pretending to be cleaning ladies.
After ESMOD, Menkes won a scholarship at Cambridge University, where she became the first women’s editor of the college newspaper and wrote a column on fashion and society called “Bird’s Eye View.” Her first big scoop, she said, was a report on British singer Marianne Faithfull and her partner smoking marijuana on university grounds. Upon graduation, she landed a job as a junior reporter at The Times of London, and then at the Evening Standard, where she was recruited by Charles Wintour, father of Anna Wintour.
The conversation eventually shifted to Menkes’s much-discussed story in T Magazine about fashion’s ever-expanding circus surrounding Fashion Week. Surprisingly, Menkes dodged Mallis’s question about whether bloggers should accept free gifts: “I don’t want to talk about that,” she said. “I don’t accept gifts.” She returned to the topic later on, however, when she declared that she was surprised that so many readers interpreted her piece as a negative appraisal of bloggers and professed that she didn’t realize that the people peacocking outside Lincoln Center were, in fact, bloggers. “To be a blogger, you’ve got to be quite dedicated, you’ve got to be quite literate—I’m not sure if you’d be parading around the way people are,” she said.
Menkes closed the evening by addressing a series of controversial topics, including the recent fire at the Bangladeshi clothing factory. In regard to the factory collapse, Menkes advised that the fashion industry change its mindset for the consumer: “There’s something morally wrong about having a swimsuit or a dress that costs the same as a cappuccino,” she said.
But fashion shouldn’t be all about business, Menkes said. In response to her final question of the evening—“Has the business of fashion taken away from the fantasy?”—Menkes expressed her disdain for the fact that the business aspect of the industry often overshadows the fantastical aspects of fashion: “I wish that the world of commerce would ease up a bit on designers,” she said.