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The Iconoclast: Suzy Menkes


As a young co-ed at Cambridge, Suzy Menkes jumped over a wall for a pair of Courrèges boots, and it’s been a race to get the fashion world scoop and discover new talent ever since. Here, Kate Betts interviews Menkes—the undisputed queen of the front row and a style icon herself—about memorable runway moments, luxury and the thrill of discovery.

KATE BETTS: When did you know, absolutely, that you wanted to be a reporter?
SUZY MENKES: Since my mother still has the “newspaper front page” I drew at age five (and guess what: there is a little fashion drawing of a woman in a hat!). It was a very long time ago. I was pretty focused on the idea of being a journalist. When I went to Cambridge, I signed up to work for Varsity, the university newspaper, on my first day.

KB: I read somewhere about the time you snuck out of Cambridge in the middle of the night to buy a pair of white Courrèges boots. Tell me about your first fashion must-have.
SM: College was formal and restricted back in the day. I was desperate for a pair of white Courrèges “going-to-the-moon” boots. But they were sold only in London, and we had to sign in for lectures and be in our rooms by 9:30 in the evening. I climbed over the wall, breaking my jump with my gown (yes, we had to wear those Harry Potter professor black capes). I got on the 5:30 a.m. milk train to London. I waited outside the shop until it opened, sprinted back to the station and got back to Cambridge in time for a noon tutorial. I wore those boots for the rest of the day!

KB: What was your first big break in fashion?
SM: I was working as a junior reporter at The Times of London. I applied for a fashion editor job at the London Evening Standard, where the editor in chief Charles Wintour gave me the job at age 23. He also introduced me to his daughter Anna. And the rest is fashion history.

KB: This year, you celebrate 25 years at the International Herald Tribune (now called the International New York Times). What was the biggest scoop you’ve had in your career at the newspaper?
SM: I am not sure that fashion “scoops” are the same as in general journalism. [But] yes, I was the first journalist to confirm that Karl Lagerfeld was going to Chanel; that Yves Saint Laurent was retiring; and (from his own lips) that Nicolas [Ghesquière] was definitely signed up for Louis Vuitton. But I am more interested in being there, at the beginning, of so many designers’ careers: Raf Simons, now at Dior, when he was a Belgian kid on the menswear teen scene; Stella McCartney, when she made over vintage lingerie bought from a flea market stall in London’s not-so-glamorous Notting Hill; Azzedine Alaïa when he was a “petit couturier du coin”—a local dressmaker. That’s the real fun of being a fashion editor—feeling the stirring of excitement at the arrival of a newbie.

KB: Can you name your favorite fashion moment?
SM: There are so many! I loved Comme des Garçons’ “gruyère cheese” sweater with holes in it and Marc Jacobs’ beachwear turbans when he was at Perry Ellis. So many fashion moments. Perhaps the most amazing was when Yves Saint Laurent showed his Ballets Russes collection. It was such an amazing shock to the system—visionary—and people really were crying in the front row. (Now they cry only when they are not given a front row seat!)

KB: Is there something in the ever-changing digital landscape of fashion now that really excites you?
SM: The digital world is the most thrilling thing that has happened over the last decade. But after the initial excitement, things have gotten more complicated. Fashion is now so “out there”—it is for everyone, and anyone can post a selfie and become an Instagram hero. On the down side, there is so much turbulence and everything is so instantly available that the fashion excitement often seems to be about getting something first rather than what that item actually is. To me, the great thing about a joined-up world is that fledging designers across the globe can showcase their work. If you live in London, New York or Paris, that does not mean much. But for Kiev, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Lagos, Nairobi, Rio—it is really fantastic that artistic and dedicated people can get out there instantly into the wide world. And that applies to bloggers, too—that open-to-the-world feeling.

KB: What is one piece of advice you’d offer a young fashion journalist today?
SM: Nothing has changed. Journalism is first and foremost about the who/what/when/where/why. Insider reporting, with the assumption that everyone knows who Alexander Wang is, only goes so far. It is much more interesting and worthwhile to dig deeper and ask why there are so many ABC (American-born Chinese) designers making it today? What do they have in common? What are the big differences between them? When are Chinese-born designers going to take over the fashion world? It is about taking something from fashion and developing the idea. For example, not a report on club sandwich-sized shoe soles, but a question: Why has a post-feminist generation accepted shoes that are not made for walking?

KB: Who is your style icon?
SM: A male or female who puts him or herself together in an interesting way—the absolute opposite of free frocks for the red carpet. You know when someone is iconic because it is not fashion but style.

KB: Your idea of luxury?
SM: Beautiful things that have been touched by human hands. And objects that appeal to the senses: touch, stroke, smell. I much prefer a hand-woven scarf than a cashmere sweater churned out in a factory. But, like everyone else in the fashion world, my greatest luxury is time!

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