I was 22 when my career began, sorting clothes into plastic bags in a windowless cupboard at Britain’s now biggest national newspaper. That was pretty much where we all started before social media could fire you to the front row faster than a double tap on Instagram...
The fashion director would drift in intermittently. “It’s fun, no?” she’d ask/state. Lifting a pair of harem pants, she’d say: “They’re chic, no?” And I would nod/shake my head, unsure if I was living in a parallel fashion universe – or the rest of the style department. The director, of whom I grew to be very fond, was a trailblazer in the late 60s at the visionary fashion magazine, Nova. Edward Enninful recently cited her as an early inspiration when beginning his editorship at British Vogue.
Promoted from bag-duty, I would accompany her to appointments and later the shows. I remember that Grace Coddington quote “Always keep your eyes open. Keep watching because whatever you see can inspire you.” Caroline saw beauty everywhere: the trees changing colour in St James’ park; the graffitied walls in the side streets of Milan. Perhaps that went some way to explain how in a room packed with rails she could select the single coat or bag that would sell out when the magazine hit the stands sometimes six months later.
Being a commercial stylist not everyone appreciated her legacy. I remember a young editor at another publication being ungracious. “Still with us Caroline?” she smirked. But I knew if I watched and listened, I could really learn something.
Two decades on and I think of her and the editors and designers I have interviewed over the years and their advice. I take comfort in Christian Dior’s words that there are elements of style that can be learnt. “There is no key to great style,” he said. “If there were, it would be too easy. Simplicity, grooming and good taste – the three fundamentals of fashion – cannot be bought. But they can be learnt.”
Here are the lessons I take with me.
Plum Sykes, author and contributing editor at US Vogue, on fit:
“Fit is fundamentally more important than fashion,” Plum Sykes told me for Vogue Australia. “It’s much better to accept how you look and retrain your eye to dress it accordingly. Something that does not fit properly on the shoulders or waist will always look wrong, no matter how fashionable it is.”
When it comes to getting dressed I’m like Goldilocks – nothing is ever the perfect fit. I am regularly swayed by an exciting new shape, especially with jeans, when I know I should stick to a variation of the cuts that suit me (straight and cropped especially by Frame, Re/Done and Mother). I’d love to say there is a fast track to finding the perfect fit but I’ve yet to discover it. The only rule I follow is if at first, you don’t succeed try, try and try again. Then take a picture. Not for Instagram, just for you – the camera never lies. And then send it to a friend who doesn’t lie either.
Iris Apfel, fashion muse and jewellery designer, on the importance of accessories:
“My mum worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” Iris Apfel told me for Fenwick’s online magazine. “I grew up in the Depression years, she taught me to choose basic, simple clothes in the best fabric I could afford and the best cut, and to embellish them with accessories. Out of one dress, I could get a million outfits. I could take the same black dress and go from breakfast to business and end up at a cocktail party all by changing the accessories.”
Iris is the nonagenarian fashion It girl I dream one day to be. I would never be able to accessorise to her free-spirited, kaleidoscopic degree, but I pull out my costume Chanel brooches, a cocktail ring and a pair of oversized sunglasses regularly in her honour. I hold dear jewellery that evokes a certain moment in your life; as you get older you appreciate your memories more. It’s a cliché but accessories really are such an easy way to give your outfit individuality. Look at the recent rise of the drop-down gorgeous statement earring. My favourite hunting grounds are Mango, & Other Stories and J. Crew – it doesn’t have to be expensive to bring that element of surprise.
Ines de la Fressange, designer and best-selling author, on how to look sexy:
“I think sexy is a word that has ruined a lot of looks for a lot of women,” Ines de la Fressange told me in an interview for Wardrobe Icons. “Sensuality is much better. When I think of sexy I imagine something very tight and very uncomfortable that will transform you into a sausage. My version is a rather large cashmere sweater that falls on the shoulders, silk pants and nice clean hair. That’s it.”
This is the age-old rule of not letting your clothes wear you. I’m guilty of being trussed up like a turkey trotting around in sample-sale size-seven stilettos (I’m a size five). But the older I get, the less ‘trussed’ I can get away with. The best thing I’ve bought recently was a pair of black, silk contrast-seam trousers from Jigsaw. They are fluid, effortless and I can wear them with a simple crew-neck jumper or a grey T-shirt and I know they look elegant. Over the years I’ve learnt that evening can mean nothing more than lots of smoky eyeshadow and your husband’s dress shirt, a black tux jacket or a simple black turtleneck, and a slick of scarlet lipstick – less is definitely more especially at night.
Stella McCartney, designer, on the importance of underwear:
“People say the beginning of getting dressed is in your shoes but I don’t agree,” Stella McCartney told me for Harper’s BAZAAR Australia. “My mood is in my lingerie – my shoes are the last bit I put on.”
There is one area in which I am merciless since becoming a mother, and that is my underwear. Knickers and bras that require readjustment when I’m chasing after my two-year-old are straight off at the first opportunity and into the bin, never to be worn again. Too many sleepless nights have made me extremely intolerant, especially with regards to my top drawer. I don’t have time for matching lace sets, I want seamless black or second-skin beige. Form and function are fundamental – there is a simple pleasure to be had in a multi-pack of M&S seamless knickers that you don’t get in La Perla. And like Stella, I don’t knock it.
Paloma Picasso, designer, on being yourself:
“You have to look in the mirror and decide what it is that you like about yourself,” Paloma Picasso told me for Vogue Australia. “There is no point highlighting parts that make you feel insecure. And only use fashion as much as it fits in with your style; don’t be pushed into wearing something you don’t feel at ease with.”
“Know first who you are and then adorn yourself accordingly.” That was perhaps the only quote I remember from my Classics degree, it was by Greek philosopher Epictetus. I would say something fashiony here about how you have to discover your own look, but I barely have time to discover the bottom of the washing basket. Instead, I will say if something feels awkward, no matter how fashionable, you are not going to carry it well. I recently bought a gold puffer jacket because I thought it was cool and put it on for my girls and my nephews. They literally lay on the floor laughing and made me promise that I would wear it on the school run. I’d like to be street, but I’m not. So always remember who are and the life you lead, not who you would like to be. For me, that’s not Puff Daddy.