Suzy Menkes is a legendary voice in fashion criticism. Widely acknowledged for her unique skills in unveiling new talents and commenting on every fashion show, she embodies a demanding stance to relevant fashion. The author of numerous books and essays, most recently on Hussein Chalayan, she serves as the fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune.
How would you connect fashion to elegance?
I don’t really believe in elegance. Ever since I first came to France, many years ago, to do the Chambre Syndicale course, I always felt I was somehow lacking, first of all being British – obviously a disaster! But I was also puzzled with this idea that you have to tie your Hermès scarf just right or you can only wear black. I always felt that this kind of rule should only be made to be broken. So I don’t really believe in elegance. However, I believe in natural elegance: the way certain people can put on their clothes and wear them in what looks like an unstudied way. Jacqueline Kennedy would have been a great example of somebody who always looked fabulous even with something very simple. When I actually saw the clothes on display at the Metropolitan Museum, I realised that a lot of work went into those clothes, and that they didn’t look much until she peopled them. So I don’t set elegance as a high standard in anything that I review or anything that I wear myself.
What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
I’m fascinated about how fashion is so often a bell-weather for what is happening in the world, although you don’t see it at the time. I’ve now lived through quite a lot of generations and I think that even I would have realised in the 1920s that, as women cut off their hair and wore short skirts for the first time in recorded history, something was happening in the world. Other things are much more subtle: certainly the sexual freedom of the 1960s was perhaps fairly obvious, but the broad shoulders, I think I only connected with them afterwards, after we’d seen them on television and people actually started to wear them. It was only then that I connected them with the idea of women trying to take place into a man’s world, trying to break the glass ceiling.
"The way that people dress makes them part of an army, dressed in their own uniform, determined to do something"
Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did it?
Fashion is a language, particularly now, when nothing is forced on anyone, people, male and female, want to express themselves through what they wear. The whole subject of people who go to art galleries is particularly relevant in that sense: they certainly dress in a slightly bohemian way in order to fit in with the surroundings, in order to send out in their language the idea that they are part of a certain club.
The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress.
Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
There’s the obvious way that fashion is political in the way people dress in a political context: there is this immense farce in France about somebody turning up in a flowered dress to a meeting at the Elysée, and of course, in England, endless discussions about what people wear, what women wear, more than men, but that also comes into the equation. I certainly think that fashion can be a political statement, which is much more important. The way that people dress makes them part of an army, dressed in their own uniform, determined to do something.
Would you relate the idea of 'fashion' to the one of 'style'?
I don’t really know how these different names work. They go in and out of fashion, that’s the truth. The whole idea that “fashion is for now, style is forever”, is a bit cliché. It is obviously true, but it is also obviously not true: fashion can be extraordinarily stylish, and it can tell us an enormous amount, it can be beautifully crafted, and done with amazing materials. So to me these sentences become cliché. It’s just like “luxury”: it’s now a word people spit over, except perhaps in different countries, where they haven’t seen so much of it. Now they say they need to invent a new word... Now they want a new word for “fashion” too, because fashion seems to be too connected with “fast fashion”, in other words something frivolous, something that you throw away immediately, something that doesn’t have any lasting value.
What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
I think there’s too much mixing fashion and intellect. Fashion ultimately is designed to cover the human body, to give you joy, to make you feel better. I don’t think it has to have a great intellectual meaning. Yes, you can see meaning in it afterwards, because fashion history so often comes ahead of what happens in the world, so it is a precursor. But to intellectualise fashion too much, to me, is just going the wrong way.
"Fashion ultimately is designed to cover the human body, to give you joy, to make you feel better. I don’t think it has to have a great intellectual meaning"
You are a leading fashion critic. Where does fashion criticism stand in
relation to art criticism and literary criticism?
It’s very hard for publications that print fashion criticism really to take it very seriously. Not solemnly, because I never think that criticism should be solemn, but in my own paper, the International Herald Tribune, I have the chance, because of our own history, to be able to look at fashion as other critics in our paper might look at fine arts. It’s not true in most places. I was just looking at one of the Rizzoli books that came out, and I noticed that it is absolutely wonderfully produced, wonderful pictures, and all the type is in white on light grey. It is impossible to read. That sets out the fact that it’s hard to be a fashion critic in an arena where the image means so much more to so many people.
As you are someone widely acknowledged for your unique eye, what leads to
recognise novelty in fashion?
Novelty is another of those words that is out of fashion: it is another of those words that is light-weight, something that isn’t going to last. The whole idea of what is new is fascinating in art and in fashion. I believe you could know it instinctively and emotionally. However much I strive, when I sit in front of a collection, because I like the designer, because I want it to be a great epiphany moment, if it doesn’t happen, the emotion is not there. On the other hand, it is quite hard these days, because so much criticism and so much journalism is based on the I-factor. I was trained as journalist never to use the word “I”, never to put my own opinion there. In fact, if you had a dollar or a euro for every time I use the word “I”, you would be a poor person. But this is not true in general. I like the idea of being able to stand away and make a judgement.
In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the fashion designer Erdem