A Samurai in Paris: Suzy Menkes
From The New Yorker
March 17, 2001
It was just before noon on a chilly January
day in Paris when Suzy Menkes, the International Herald Tribune's
influential fashion editor, bustled into the newspaper's headquarters,
in the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The evening before, Menkes had
filed the last of three stories on the weeklong spring/summer couture
shows--stories composed in virtuoso displays of deadline brinkmanship,
begun on her laptop in a front-row seat beside the catwalk, finished
in the back of a cab, as she and a photographer crept through the
Paris traffic, and then transmitted from the cab to the Tribune
using a wireless modem, in time to appear on the streets of Tokyo
and Hong Kong four hours later.
Menkes, who is fifty-nine years old, and who recently
became a grandmother, was dressed in a navy-blue Issey Miyake Pleats
Please pants suit, with a gray-blue pin-striped Mandarin-style silk
jacket lined in pink, and black jodhpur boots. She looked a bit
like an Asian empress on a shooting holiday in the English countryside.
Her personal style, which features pillowy vintage jackets and scarves
and a preference for soft, luxurious fabrics like velvet and silk,
is nearly the opposite of the sleek, clothes-as-combat approach
to dressing favored by the other fashionistas you see at the shows.
Her most distinctive feature is her hair, which she wears with an
odd-looking flip in front: a long demi-pompadour that is coiled
back on the top of her head, creating a dinner-roll-size opening
that you can see through from the side--a style that, combined with
fearless reporting, has inspired people to call her Samurai Suzy.
The elevator rose to two, where the Tribune's
editorial offices, in an undistinguished modern building, take up
the entire floor--news on one side, features on the other. The features
wing had beat-up-looking furniture and a stale smell of cigar smoke.
I had imagined something more glamorous, having seen Jean Seberg,
wearing a T-shirt with the Trib's yellow-and-black logo on
it, selling copies of the paper in Jean-Luc Godard's film "Breathless."
Menkes's desk was strewn with the gilded invitations that fashion
houses send out for the shows. These were to the upcoming men's
collections in Paris, which followed the couture shows, and would
be followed by the Women's Ready to Wear Collections, beginning
in New York, then moving on to London, Milan, and finally Paris.
(New York used to come last, but some American-based designers wanted
the order changed.) On the wall behind her desk were rows of file
boxes with designers' names on them, in alphabetical order, and
there were stacks of magazines everywhere, as well as a case of
champagne, unopened, and shopping bags with gifts from fashion houses,
waiting to be returned. Menkes doesn't accept freebies, and, unlike
most members of the fashion press, does not routinely wear the clothes
of the designers she writes about. (She can't afford them.) When
fashion houses send free items, she gives them to the American Hospital
of Paris or returns them with a note saying, "I was brought up to
believe a girl should never accept anything but flowers and chocolates."
As Menkes sat down at her desk, she made a weary
oufff sound and began to regale her assistant, Jessica Michault,
with the saga of last night's "nightmare" involving her wireless
modem, which had failed to work in the cab and had occasioned a
"frantic dash" back to Menkes's apartment, on the Rue Jean-Goujon,
to use the landline. Menkes has a musical voice with a Wagnerian
range of pitch. She speaks in perfectly formed sentences, as though
dictating copy over the telephone, and her precise diction and British
accent give a note of propriety to her utterances. Although frequently
overwrought by the struggle to make the dilatory and capricious
world of fashion comply with her relentless and unyielding deadlines,
she rarely uses strong language, preferring expressions like "Oh,
bother!" and "What a muddle!" and "Today went pear-shaped!"
"I literally thought I might lose my mind,"
Menkes was saying now, of her technical problems following the show.
She seemed pleased by the prospect. She shot a reproachful look
at her laptop, a cheap machine that she had bought, she said, "in
one of my misbegotten and idiotic attempts to save the Trib some
money." She added, "The truth is I just don't think the thing is
up to the word count I produce."
Last year, Menkes produced about two hundred
and ninety thousand words for the paper. She is only the Tribune's
third fashion editor in forty years, and, carrying on the tradition
of her predecessors, Eugenia Sheppard and Hebe Dorsey, she offers
Trib readers verbal snapshots from the world of fashion,
written in a staccato and tough-talking journalese--she's a Fleet
Street Diana Vreeland. There are vivid descriptions of the clothes
("a masculine pants suit in a carapace of whiskey brown pearl buttons")
and piquant judgments of their effect ("If you want a pick-me-up
fashion cocktail of color in a tutti-frutti print, gaudy suede Puss-in-Boots
and look-at-me accessories, this show was caricatural Versace"),
and the occasional devastating put-down (as when Menkes wrote, of
last spring's Jil Sander show, that the below-the-knee dresses "looked
like something a woman who had lost her waist would choose from
a mail-order catalogue"). Her byline is closely read both by fashion
insiders--Domenico De Sole, the president of the Gucci Group, says
that during the collections the workday always begins with "Did
you see Suzy?"--and by the general public. Menkes gives you not
just the clothes but the pounding music, the celebrities and society
ladies in the front row, the breasts swaying on the runway, and
the gleaming bare torso of John Galliano, the Dior designer, as,
"dressed for the trapeze," he wriggles and prances down the catwalk
at the end of his show.
Menkes appreciates the humor in a prim and bookish-seeming
British woman, whose personal tastes run to a quiet evening at the
ballet or the opera, continually finding herself in the midst of
"louche" (a favorite word) backstage gatherings of celebrities,
half-naked models, and assorted fashion zanies, and unable to resist
the revelry. "Like a slightly mad auntie, she is," the model Kate
Moss says of Menkes. "Some of these fashion people can be a bit,
you know"--she turned her head to one side and looked down her nose--"funny.
But Suzy's never like that. When you see her backstage, you can
always just have a nice chat about shoes with her."
For some designers, Menkes functions as a proud
but demanding mother--one who wants you to succeed, and takes it
personally when you let her down. Alber Elbaz, the head designer
for Lanvin, says, "When I am designing an invitation for a fashion
show, I will write Suzy's name on the trial proof. If her name looks
good on it, I know I can send it." The night after the show, he
has trouble sleeping, waiting for her review, which he will read
at 6 a.m. "When we designers do a good collection, Suzy is so happy
for us, and when we do a bad one she seems almost to get angry."
Several years ago, Menkes wrote that the classic Chanel bag was
over, and Chanel took out a full-page ad in the Trib to rebut
her. Oscar de la Renta said, "I have gotten as mad at what she has
written as anyone, and while I sometimes feel that she is off in
her judgments of my collections, and she hurts my feelings--very
deeply--in the end I must concede that her knowledge is vast." He
added, "She doesn't base her reviews on what she likes--a lot of
critics can't divorce themselves from their own taste."
The Herald Tribune has three times
as many editors as writers--the opposite of the usual proportion,
reflecting the paper's longtime role as a digest of stories written
by New York Times and Washington Post reporters. The
best-known Tribune bylines tend to be those of the culture
writers (in addition to Menkes, there is Souren Melikian, who writes
about art and auctions, and Patricia Wells, who covers food). Perhaps
this is because while Parisian politics and diplomacy are no longer
so important to American political interests, Parisian culture still
influences our culture, at least as far as clothes, art, and food
The Tribune, which was founded in 1887,
has been struggling financially in recent years (it lost about four
million dollars last year) and has been trying to remake itself
as a newspaper for a new kind of international reader. Twenty-four-hour
global news and sports channels and the Internet have altered the
notion of what an expatriate is--the American in Paris, reading
the box scores before heading out for a day at the Louvre, seems
a relic of the past, perhaps part of the old Europe that Donald
Rumsfeld evoked when he criticized France and Germany for opposing
United States policy on Iraq. The new American empire would be needing
a new imperial newspaper, and, as recent developments at the Tribune
suggest, that paper would see the world less from the point of view
of Paris and more from the perspective of New York.
For thirty-five years, the Tribune was
published as a partnership between the New York Times and
the Washington Post. But, in October 2002, the Times
forced the Post to sell its stake in the paper, for sixty-five
million dollars (according to the Post, the Times
refused to invest in the paper, and threatened to start a rival
publication unless the Post sold). On January 2nd, stories
from the Post stopped appearing. The Times is currently
making decisions about the content and production of the Tribune,
and while "there are no plans at this time to change the name,"
Howell Raines, the Times' executive editor, told me, "that's
not to say that down the road that couldn't happen."
When Raines visited the Tribune's offices,
in December, he made a point of meeting with Menkes privately. "I
wanted to tell her that she writes our kind of journalism," he said.
As Menkes was studying the menswear calendar, I brought up the subject
of the Times and her place in the new order. Earlier in the
week, the office had been the site of a remarkable announcement
by the Tribune's outgoing chairman, Peter Goldmark, who told
the assembled staff that the Times takeover meant "the end
of the Tribune as an independent newspaper, with its own voice
and its own international outlook." Goldmark had added, "This is
a great loss. . . . At a time when the world is growing to mistrust
America, it needs thoughtful voices and independent perspectives
that see the world whole and are not managed from America."
The Times already has four fashion writers,
headed by Cathy Horyn, who cover the same collections that Menkes
covers. I suggested to Menkes that she might split responsibility
for the collections with the Times writers, but she said
that "the whole thing about fashion is that it's global, and you
can't really follow it unless you see everything." Nor was she interested
in spending less time in Paris; she is forthright about her Francophilia.
"Paris is the breeding ground of fashion at all levels," she said.
"Whether it is Belgian designers out in the burbs putting on cool
shows, bourgeois ladies putting on the chic for Chantilly races,
or those couture seamstresses with their gossamer hand-stitching.
It's the taxi-driver thing: the London cabbies care about sport;
the New York cabs care how many blocks you are going; and the Parisian
taxi-drivers care about how John Galliano is doing at Dior."
On the other hand, she would be happy if the Times
would rationalize the paper's confusing and inefficient international
deadlines. For example, that morning the staff was preparing an
edition for the suburbs of Tokyo, which would then be "replated"
for the Tokyo city edition, three hours later, and replated again
for the next European edition. "As a result of all this speed-of-light
technology," Menkes said, "we all have to work harder than ever."
Menkes first fell in love with Paris as
a teen-ager, when, during her "gap year" between leaving school
and going to university, she studied dressmaking there. "It was
a very stuffy couture place, which is where I learned about bias
cuts and how to make patterns out of paper. Everything was very
proper--I was 'Mademoiselle Menkes.' It was certainly not the louche
Left Bank life I had imagined from reading Jean-Paul Sartre." In
Paris, Menkes lived with a White Russian ╚migr╚ family, whose matriarch
took her to her first couture show, at Nina Ricci. "I just loved
it," Menkes recalled. Later, when she returned to Paris as a university
student, she would sneak into the ready-to-wear venues at five in
the morning and hide under the stage for four hours, until the audience
arrived and she could safely emerge and mingle with the crowd.
She already had a taste for luxury, which she
believes she inherited from her father, a Belgian cavalry officer
who was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. He met and married Menkes's
mother during the war, and then was killed in 1943, several months
before Suzy was born, when the plane he was flying for the R.A.F.
disappeared off Malta. "My mother used to say that the only thing
he brought with him on the boat from Dunkirk was a pair of silk
socks," Menkes recalled. "And that's what I love, real luxury, the
kind of luxury you can feel and smell--I will always spend the extra
money to get a silk vest, not a cotton vest."
During the war, the Menkeses (Suzy has an older
sister, Vivienne, who is a travel writer and a translator) moved
from London to a village near Brighton, not far from the cliffs.
"My mother lived on a widow's pension, so times were hard," Menkes
said. But her mother always made an effort to dress well; one of
Suzy's earliest memories is of her mother's moss-green car coat,
which she wore with matching shoes.
Menkes was a good student and won a scholarship
to Cambridge, where she read history and English literature. She
signed up for Varsity, the university newspaper, and in her final
year became its first woman editor-in-chief. She wrote a fashion
and society column called "A Bird's Eye View," and one of her first
scoops was reporting that Marianne Faithfull's boyfriend at the
time, John Dunbar, had been busted for pot. It was the mid-sixties,
swinging London was the center of the fashion world, and Menkes
wore a miniskirt and white Courr╦ges boots that she had saved up
for. ("Actually, they were knockoffs, but I didn't tell anyone.")
After university, she got a job as a junior fashion
reporter for the Times of London, and it was there that
she met her husband, David Spanier, then the paper's diplomatic
correspondent, who later became a renowned author of books on chess
and poker. They were married in 1969, and Menkes, whose father was
Jewish, converted to Judaism, Spanier's religion. (Some fashion
designers prefer not to show on Yom Kippur, which usually falls
during the collections: everyone knows that Menkes doesn't attend
fashion shows that day.) She became the fashion editor of the Times
in 1978. "Milan was just coming up, and the nineteen-eighties belonged
to Italy, with the rise of Armani, Versace, and Gigli, and I covered
all that," she recalled. "And then the Japanese started to come
to Paris, and then Lacroix came in with his froufrou, and Calvin
Klein and Helmut Lang with minimalism, and Ralph Lauren, who sensed
people wanted to be defined as much by their habitats as by their
In 1988, the Tribune hired Menkes as Hebe
Dorsey's successor. Menkes, who doesn't look the part of a grande
dame--she's neither tall nor especially regal--needed to invent
a persona to go along with her new status. Her solution was her
hair style, which, as her friend Marion Hume put it, transformed
her from a "North London middle-aged woman with a slightly bouffy
bob into an icon."
As a fashion writer, Menkes says, she lives
"for those moments when there is a sense that nothing after this
show will ever be the same." She goes on, "Prada had a moment in
the mid-nineties, which was the beginning of the ugly aesthetic--the
end of sweet colors, and so forth. Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Gar┴ons,
had a moment like that in the late nineties, with those punk-rock
clothes, and Helmut had a moment when he did feathers under clear
plastic, and another moment when he did his angel-wing collection.
And then there was the Sean John collection, in 2000--a time when
minimalism was big, and everyone was in navy and gray--and there
was Lil' Kim in the front row in a multicolored fur coat."
Unlike some people in the fashion world, who seem
to have no life outside it, Suzy and her husband raised a family
of three boys, Gideon, Joshua, and Samson, who are now thirty, twenty-eight,
and twenty-four. As we drove around between fashion events, she
used her cell phone to keep up with family matters, including the
activities of her oldest son's baby daughter, Jessica (Menkes recently
had a handbag made with her granddaughter's picture silk-screened
on it, "and I intend to show it off among the Guccis all over Milan");
her middle son's upcoming wedding, in California, in August; and
her youngest son's efforts to begin a career in journalism. Sam
was writing a trial piece for the Financial Times about Al-Jazeera's
new English-language Web site, and Menkes was concerned about the
lead. "It seems as though one should at least mention Iraq in the
first paragraph," she said.
Since taking over at the Tribune, Menkes
has covered every set of collections, attending some six hundred
shows a year. She continued to work following the death of her husband,
in April of 2000, which was, by all accounts, a terrible loss. When
I brought it up, her voice got shaky. "He was sixty-seven, in perfect
health, exercised, never smoked, and just dropped dead one day of
a stroke," she said. She paused for a long time and then said with
a laugh, "Maybe that's how I'll go--just pop off at a fashion show."
The men's collections were held in a wide
variety of spaces around Paris--from the dilapidated music hall
where the Belgian hot shot Raf Simons staged his defile, to the
headquarters of UNESCO, where the Herm╦s men's collection was presented
(and where not much else seemed to be going on). I plunged into
the rush and bustle of securing the invitations and getting to the
shows on time, but I soon learned that when you're in Menkes's company
there's no rush, because, as they say in the fashion business, the
show doesn't start until Suzy arrives.
The couture shows had summoned Menkes's rhapsodic,
swooning style. Christian Lacroix's gowns were "rich with mille-feuille
layers and sweet-toothed patterns from a tiny wallpaper print jacket
to lacy hose," and there were Chanel's "wispy hems that, like so
many of the couture special effects, just evaporated into an ethereal
mist." At the Azzedine Alaïa couture show, she had even joined the
flatterers backstage in a moment of fanship with the diminutive
master, before switching back to her reporter persona and hurtling
out the door to make her deadline. But the men's shows, coming after
the high theatre and artistry of the couture shows, were dispiriting--"the
tedium of good-looking guys parading quite nice stuff," as Menkes
Couture preserves the old notion of fashion as
an art, one led from above by a few fantastically gifted designers,
in whose "febrile" (another favorite Suzy word) imaginations are
born important conceptual changes that move fashion forward. These
ideas then filter down to ready-to-wear, and down again to the mass
market--a process, Menkes told me, that takes about seven years.
That's how fashion used to work, but men's clothing is actually
much more characteristic of the business today. Men's fashion is
less about design and artistry and more about image and marketing.
What's important in men's clothes is the blend of male archetypes
that the company chooses to create--businessman, hippie, mod, rocker,
gigolo, schoolboy. Making an image isn't like making an amazing
dress; it's a collaborative process involving lots of people, on
both the design and the marketing sides. It is not an accident that
two of the most successful designers in the business, Giorgio Armani
and Ralph Lauren, began in menswear.
Menkes has covered the rise of the image-makers,
but I got the feeling, during our time together, that her heart
was with the vanishing world of "artists" who create "high fashion."
One day, I asked her how she felt about denim. She said, "My weakness
is I can't quite bring myself to really care about jeans. I've tried
everything. Even when Dolce and Gabbana dress them up with all that
embroidery and have Naomi's backside hanging out of them--to me,
jeans are just jeans. There, I've admitted it. And, so long as I'm
being absolutely honest, I don't really find sneakers so fascinating,
On another occasion, while she was sipping tea
at the Hôtel Costes, a trendy spot on the Rue Saint-Honoré, I asked
whether a woman who was almost sixty was too old to cover such a
youth-oriented enterprise as fashion. Menkes replied, "But why should
fashion be the province of youth? Certainly, it shouldn't be exclusively
the province of older people--God forbid--as it was in the nineteen-fifties,
when young girls were encouraged to dress like their mothers as
soon as possible. But nowadays mothers think they must dress like
their daughters, which is, in its way, just as silly."
One night, while we were having dinner at Dav╚,
a Chinese restaurant that is a favorite of the fashionistas, I asked
Menkes whether she thought the fashion industry still served to
reinforce notions of class, or whether class had been replaced by
a kind of tribalism based on brands. "Margaret Thatcher said there
was no such thing as society," Menkes replied, "but, certainly,
where I was brought up there was a society--and everyone knew what
you could get away with and what you couldn't. You could go out
and buy all the right clothes, and you'd still be sneered at, because
you were aspiring to something beyond your place. This is what I
find remarkable about Americans--they believe that if you buy the
right clothes you will be accepted by the right people, regardless
of where you come from. It's quite touching, really. I don't know
if I believe that. But I suppose it's a good thing they think it,
as it keeps the fashion business going."
We saw a few good shows, like the Dior
presentation put on by Hedi Slimane, who Menkes feels is the "buzziest"
young designer of the moment. Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH
(Mo╬t Hennessy Louis Vuitton), which owns Dior, embraced Menkes
before the show, and the two chatted amicably. After Menkes's review
of John Galliano's women's ready-to-wear collection for Dior in
2001, in which she wrote, "Isn't there enough aggression in the
world without models snarling at the audience?" LVMH banned her
from all its shows. (The ban had been lifted by the end of the week.)
When I asked Suzy about Arnault's apparent change of heart, she
reminded me that "this is fashion--people like to make dramas out
Menkes praised Junya Watanabe's collection, where
cowboy-hippie clothes offered an imaginative twist on Sergio Leone
Westerns; Helmut Lang and Louis Vuitton also met with her approval.
After a good show, Menkes would become almost giddy, but when a
show was dull it would drag her spirits down. "Oh, I was so hoping
for a lift from Saint Laurent," she croaked as, at ten on a Sunday
evening, she fought her way through rain to Raf Simons and, clutching
the railing on the slick marble stairs to take the pressure off
her knees, descended into the clammy music hall. (Menkes broke her
kneecap in a fall four years ago, and covered the collections in
a wheelchair.) On hearing that the music was going to be loud, she
rooted around in her bag for a pair of earplugs. At breaks in the
schedule of runway presentations, while other members of the fashion
press knocked off for lunch or went shopping, we visited the showrooms
of lesser-known designers, who were not established enough to show.
Menkes pursued these designers (some of whom were just out of school)
partly in the hope of discovering something new and partly out of
a British sense of fair play. One criticism of Menkes as a fashion
arbiter is that she is too Parisian in her outlook; she doesn't
give young designers in New York the same consideration she devotes
to those working in Paris. But Menkes says this is simply because
working in Paris makes designers better: "Every young designer should
come to Paris at some point in his career--Paris just sharpens you
Christoph Broich, a fledgling German designer,
was so startled to see Menkes at the door that it took him some
minutes to work up the courage to speak. In a showroom in the Marais
district, Veronique Branquinho, a Belgian who was making menswear
for the first time, explained the thinking behind her designs. Menkes
liked her. "I admire people with modest aspirations like this,"
she said. "They seem to get the whole point of clothes, which is
to make things that people just want to wear."
Occasionally, the pressure and consternation of
covering so many shows seemed to overwhelm Menkes, and I'd see her
sitting in the front row, her head in her hands, exhausted. On certain
occasions, she has been known to slide to the floor in a faint.
But, on leaving the venues and entering the streets of Paris, she
always revived a little. "You'll never see anything more beautiful!"
she exclaimed, as we came into the Place de la Concorde after the
Comme des Gar┴ons show, pointing out how the wet, cloudy weather
brought out the different shades of slate and brown in the broad
New York's Fashion Week, which occurred
this year during the frigid second week of February, when the city
was under orange alert, was Menkes's first visit here since the
Times assumed sole possession of her newspaper. She had lunch
with an editor from the Times on Tuesday, and when I saw
her afterward she said, "Do you know, they have forty-one staff
salaried culture writers? It's staggering, really." She did not
think that the fate of the Tribune had been decided, but
hoped that the people at the Times "would let me know when
they do make up their minds."
In New York, Menkes would review shows from nine
in the morning until ten at night, have dinner with colleagues and
friends, get back to the Wyndham Hotel at around midnight, write
until about one-thirty, file, then try unsuccessfully to fall asleep
("After you write, your mind is whirling"), and finally doze off
at around three, only to be awakened at 6 a.m. by her editors in
Paris, who needed to edit her copy in time for the Tokyo deadline.
However, neither fatigue nor the brutal weather could diminish her
zeal for work; she was delighted to have been seated beside P. Diddy's
mother, Janice Combs, at the Sean John show, and she described in
detail Mrs. Combs's champagne mink coat and gold miniskirt. Menkes
also spent an afternoon in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, meeting some young
designers, and an evening in Williamsburg. In the resulting column,
she proclaimed Brooklyn the new downtown.
Outside the tents in Bryant Park, where Fashion
Week is held, the talk was of duct tape and sarin gas, but inside,
once the lights went down and the music started, it was all miniskirts
and sixties innocence--"faux optimism," as Menkes described the
mood--with accompaniment by Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones. Menkes
seemed annoyed by the Americans' empty-headed return to the styles
of her youth; she was outraged by Tommy Hilfiger's "slight and silly
rerun of Courr╦ges and Mary Quant," as she wrote in her column.
(In the same column, she also gave the twenty-two-year-old designer
Zac Posen a short lecture on the meaning of high fashion: "It may
be inevitable that a generation brought up on easy sportswear yearns
for the old-fashioned elegance of couture. But there is a fine line
between complexity and complication.")
"New York is such a vibrant city," Menkes
told me when we met for lunch, not far from the tents, "but that's
not really reflected on the runway. This is partly because, with
so many of the shows, there is no designer behind them at all--it's
just a management team. Also, there's the timing. We always used
to do New York after the European women's collections. It was as
if, after eating this rich meal, New York was a salad or a refreshing
sorbet--it cleansed the palate. But when you do New York before
Europe it seems dull--more like the fag end of last season than
a new one." Menkes continued, "I don't really understand what's
going on in America. I see everything from a Parisian perspective,
and, to me, New York's Fashion Week, with all its sponsors and branding
and whatnot, and its obsession with celebrities--it all seems very
I asked what would become of her Parisian perspective
as the Tribune was branded by the Times. "In my world," Menkes
said, "Paris will always be the center."
Copyright © John Seabrook 2003. All rights
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