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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 are concerned.

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 uniforms."

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 once wrote.

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, either."

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 of things."

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 up."

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 tree-lined boulevards.

 

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 tawdry indeed."

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."

 

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