As a writer, like most others, I tend to draw from my own experiences first. In terms of fashion and beauty, I am a consumer first and an observer second. I try to keep myself in the loop, but I know if I was asked to run an Instagram account for a beauty range for those in the 18-25 demographic, I would fall flat on my face. My language would uncover me as a fraud. And a fraud I would be: how on earth could I know what it feels like to be that young? I have my own memories of being in that age group, but back then we were just learning what MAC was, and a filter was something you put in a coffee machine, if you actually knew someone posh enough to own one.
For my columns for His & Hers, I tend to veer away from pieces that are too much attached to a certain demographic, but it is clear I am more of a fan of classical fashion and beauty than anything too on-trend. If you want to see flesh coloured cycling shorts and lilac hair, you have come to the wrong place. I always hope when I press send, though, that what I present might appeal to readers who aren’t just another version of myself.
During the pandemic, it’s been a case of trying to adapt in an uncertain world, but there has certainly been a feeling of a certain sense of unity. It has led to so many conversations in private about what matters and what doesn’t, and how does my morality sit alongside me talking about lipstick, yet again. In times of economic uncertainty, we do tend to cut back and sit back and wait for calmer seas. And yet, this economic situation is something that is following its own rules. IKEA is certainly not short of customers right now, that’s for sure.
Just as I got my head around trying to write when I am entirely confined to the house, along with so many others, and almost everyone else is adjusting to limited movement, I took in some hugely interesting and eye-opening posts and information. The first was from British Vogue. As magazines run out of studio shot covers of models and celebrities, many of them are relying on the beautiful people to take their own shots, or are moving towards illustrations. British Vogue, under the stewardship of Edward Enninful, has done something entirely different.
Recently, Enninful sent photographer Jamie Hawkesworth out to observe London, from a social distance, to make visual contact with front line workers whose roles are more vital than ever. The results are quite simply astonishing and groundbreaking. The first ever British Vogue I ever bought, in 1987, had Christy Turlington on the cover. She was, and still is, so very beautiful and was just 18 at the time. Dressed in couture, she represented all that Vogue was: privileged, expensive, and stylish. I was the same age as Christy at the time and that magazine represented all that I didn’t have. I still bought it, and it was certainly aspirational, but I presumed that Christy was flying Concorde wearing Chanel, whilst I was busy saving up for a dress from Warehouse with my Saturday job money and trying to cover up my acne with Rimmel’s Hide The Blemish.
Fast forward to 2020 and British Vogue has three new cover stars: Narguis Horsford, a London overground train driver, Anisa Omar, a supermarket assistant, and Rachel Millar, a community midwife. To be quite frank, even if there were couture shows going on, these three ladies would not be getting sent down the runway. Firstly, they are far busier doing something more important and secondly, they don’t quite fit the regular standard of catwalk models. Even as I type that, that statement feels curiously old-fashioned.
If you read British Vogue, then you will already be aware of the sweeping changes made by Enninful. In his version of the style bible, the devilishly chic can wear Prada and anything else they like the look of, and he has thrown the rule book out of the window in terms of a one-size-fits-all notion of beauty. Last month’s cover photo and interview with Judi Dench was genius, but the new issue is something entirely powerful.
None of this has a feeling of being disingenuous. I can remember when Alexandra Shulman stepped down from the editor’s role, and it was rumoured that Samantha Cameron’s sister, Emily Sheffield, would get the job. No disrespect to Emily, but a sea change was needed, and it took someone with the ocean-worthy talent of Edward Enninful to take on the job. He has worked his way up from I-D magazine through to Italian and then American Vogue, and then W magazine, before he took office in Vogue House.
Under his keen eye and wide cultural scope, he has made British Vogue a style bible where all parishioners are welcome, and not just ladies who carry little dogs in Birkin bags and get the front seats in the house. Of course, there are still pages that are more about dreams than startling realities. As I headed towards 50, I was worried I’d feel left behind. I have felt more included than ever. Kathleen Baird-Murray, one of my favourite writers, chronicled her own journey around turning 50 for the magazine. I sat in my pew, and felt right at home.
This issue, and the initial posts around it, however, went to press before the world cried out in horror over the death of George Floyd, in Minnesota. Both British Vogue and Edward Enninful, as well as his team, have been both vocal in their support of the Black Lives Matter campaign and of the immediate and dire need for change to occur. I am sure when Edward planned this issue in response to Covid-19, he could have not predicted that it would be published at such a tragic moment in time.
At the same time as I read about British Vogue’s issue dedicated to front line workers, I also pre-ordered my copy of Andre Leon Talley’s new autobiography, The Chiffon Trenches. Leon Talley is a brilliantly gifted fashion writer, editor and historian. This beautifully stylish man from Georgetown went to New York in 1974 to learn from fashion’s most powerful woman at the time, Diana Vreeland. In the mid-70’s, he was everything your fashion editor wasn’t. He was 6 feet 6 inches, he was male, he was black, and he was gay. He did not arrive in New York without a penny to his name.. A highly gifted student, his talent in languages had earned him a postgraduate place at Brown, on a full scholarship. But he was about to enter a world where talent on its own did not open its gilded doors. In an industry usually peopled at the top by the daughters of wealthy and privileged families, Andre himself charts his journey of not wanting to fit in but still wanting to be seen, and heard, and listened to.
Whilst I enjoyed the stories of the author’s later career, where he really did get to see all that was A-list in fashion up close, it was his humble start that warmed my heart. His wonderful grandmother who encouraged him to study, his love of Jacqueline Kennedy and his hopes that her husband could bring about change, and his first experiences in the Big Apple made me feel as though I was at his feet, with my ears open. He spent a lot of time writing letters to prominent people in fashion, and whizzed around Brown having left his apartment with a smear of Estee Lauder Black Grape lipstick on his cheeks to finish his look. Beauty brands certainly didn’t stock a single product aimed at Andre back in the day.
Andre Leon Talley has gone on to enjoy a fabled and glittering career. As a close friend of Karl Lagerfeld and also Editor-at-Large for American Vogue, where he worked so closely with Anna Wintour, there was not a fashion show or event where this endlessly stylish man was not present. He is, quite simply, a walking encyclopaedia of fashion, and his warm voice and pithy humour was much often needed when the icy Wintour maintained her curious silence.
Not for him, though, the role as Editor-in-Chief. Andre has faced almost every wall of rejection that exists, and yet he has walked through them, or around them, or simply used his talent to upend the bricks. When Beyonce graced the September Issue cover in 2018 and was allowed full artistic control of the shoot and interview, Leon Talley looked on with much pride. He wrote about it in the Washington Post and an email about his piece was sent to many prominent editors, including Wintour. No-one reached out or replied.
Andre Leon Talley found himself frozen out of fashion circles in recent years. If you’d like to know why, you need to read his words and not mine. When he started his virtual promotion of the book, again it was before the world was shook up because of what happened to George Floyd, which is a tragedy I feel ill-equipped to write about here. I wish I had the right words and a strong voice to send them out in the world.
As I sat and read Andre’s book after the event, unrelated though they seem, it felt so much larger than a story about a fashion figure. It spoke of prejudice and being left out in a cultural cold. It is a mesmerising piece of work, and has been much supported, by influential designers and fashion names alike. The final page is a letter from Ralph Lauren, who is so hugely powerful. I think it speaks volumes in itself. It’s not just a ‘thank you’ to Andre but a recognition that this story of just one man is the story of so many. It is a message, I feel, that change is not just going to come, it needs to come.
Closer to home, Naomi Campbell recently celebrated turning 50 and while we could all look back on her glorious career so far, I remembered that she was well into her forties before she won her first major beauty campaign, for NARS. Coming from Liverpool, I have so enjoyed watching on and viewing the success of Justine Mills. Justine, co-founder of Cricket Boutique, was a Saturday girl back when I was, but in different stores, she took that role and turned it into an empire. She is such a sharp observer of fashion, and its history, and has a commercial clarity and her own innate sense of style. Personally, I can speak of her warmth and generosity. She was already a close friend of Edward Enninful when he took on his most powerful role. He certainly recognises her talent and contribution to the fashion industry, and it is a huge point of pride in my home city of Liverpool that this young woman took a leap of faith and backed it up with tireless effort to create something very special.
Both the fashion and beauty industries have done their best, I hope, to respond to recent events. They may be criticised for jumping on a bandwagon, but within each industry, jobbing writers, and stylists, and editors, MUA’s and salon owners, to name but a few, just want to show some support. The beauty industry, I hope, in the last decade has done more to encourage diversity but there is much that needs to be done. The fashion industry is doing more than ever before, too.
Earlier today, I wrote on my personal Instagram about how I can be a better writer. If my style or beauty pieces stay close to home, then I need to do better. And while I follow accounts and read pieces and blogs from members of the BAME communities in both beauty and fashion, I need to work harder than just reading. While it is helpful to read about how any person thinks, I want to have a conversation about how they truly feel. I’m not going to get that sitting behind this keyboard.
Andre Leon Talley says to be a well rounded person with ambition you should follow your dreams and do your homework. He defines that as not just researching your chosen field but every area of life, and not just your own. Like so many of us right now, I want to know what I can do on a practical level and an emotional level. It’s simply not enough to call myself Non-Racist, and go about my day.
I have lived on this planet for half a century. My professional life away from writing has been in teaching. I like to think I am open minded and fairly well read. This past week has shown me about how little I know, and of how willing I have been to carry on regardless.
It is time, in the words of Mr. Andre Leon Talley, that I started doing my homework.
British Vogue is published on Friday 5th June
The Chiffon Trenches, by Andre Leon Talley, is now available from Waterstones, Amazon and other booksellers
About the author: Nancy Buckland Kirk is a writer with a keen interest in fashion and beauty and a career which has spanned modelling, teaching and spreading the word about leading beauty brands.