Alexander the great
INTERVIEW: After 26 years as fashion editor at the ‘Daily Telegraph’, Hilary Alexander is retiring from journalism – though not leaving the industry behind, writes ROSEMARY MAC CABE
IN 2011, HILARY ALEXANDER – fashion journalist, agony aunt to a nation and flag-bearer for fashionable over-50s – retired as fashion editor of the Daily Telegraph, a position she had held for 26 years. But she has not spent the past year reading travel guides and planning her time in the sun; the grand dame of British fashion has been busier than ever, she says, and has “no intentions of giving up any time soon”.
“I really had to [retire] – I turned 65,” she says, cheerfully, sipping a double espresso and sitting daintily on the edge of her chair in Brown Thomas’s private shopping suite. “And it’s better to go before you’re pushed. So I thought, I’m 65, I’ll go and collect my bus pass.”
At this stage, scepticism sets in. It’s hard to imagine many top fashion editors (Anna Wintour springs to mind) hurrying down to collect a bus pass. “Look!” she says, rooting through her purse. “It’s here, my freedom pass!” She waves it in the air happily, and dumps the whole lot on the floor.
Alexander is in Dublin to introduce the new collections from Italian sister brands Sportmax and Max Mara for whom she is a close associate and consultant. She says she hasn’t had a chance to see whether Irish women have much style, but “Andrea Corr always dresses well and John Rocha’s wife [Odette] always looks fantastic”.
She is smaller than she appears on TV, yet somehow a larger presence. She speaks slowly, with purpose, and each sentence peters out, rather than ending definitively, leaving you literally hanging onto every word.
She established herself early on in her career in the UK – which she came to from a position as fashion editor on the China Mail, a role she stepped into at the ripe age of 19 “or 20” (more on that later) – as a champion of the people, an advocate of the “real woman”, writing and talking about fashion for the 40- and 50-somethings who were otherwise being left behind.
“I started [answering readers’ fashion queries] at the Telegraph, I guess, when I was about 42,” she says. “I was very aware of how many magazines and newspapers really looked at fashion for pretty much the under-25s, and people my age, or older, felt very hard done by. Being able to answer their queries was quite liberating.
“I don’t think fashion is only for the young . . . it’s for everybody. And you can have fun with fashion, even if you’re 90 or 100. As long as you’re not making a fool of yourself, exposing too much flesh or wearing something too tight . . . but that can happen whether you’re 20 or 92. It’s about clothes that you look good in, feel good in and that make you happy.”
Alexander has always recommended that women shop on the high street, but surely a woman who counts some of the world’s top designers as friends and drops their last names when referring to them – Karl [Lagerfeld], John [Galliano], Yoji [Yamamoto] – buys her own clothes after-hours in Harrods with a personal shopper while sitting on a chaise longue and being served grapes by members of staff?
“I shop at Marks Spencer, Topshop and Fenwick, New Bond Street,” she says, matter-of-factly. “And occasionally, Dorothy Perkins or Miss Selfridge. Most of where I shop is high street. And it’s not just because I’ve retired and I’m now trying to live on a pension and occasional freelance commissions. I always have shopped on the high street.”
Alexander was born in New Zealand – “I was a Kiwi, I mean, New Zealand is about as far away from the capitals of fashion as you can get” – where she worked as a news reporter, and it was when she went to Hong Kong at the age of “19 or 20” that a fellow journalist met her at the airport and ushered her into an entirely new era. “He said, ‘You’ve got to come meet the editor of the China Mail, because the fashion editor’s leaving today’. I remember saying, ‘Oh God, I don’t know anything about fashion’.
“But I went to the interview and the editor said, ‘You’re fine, you’re a girl, you know these things’. And I remember thinking to myself, well hang on, what can be different? It’s like covering a fire, except you write about what the firemen are wearing. Fashion is a news story.”
While many fashion lovers today learn their trade online, from surfing through hours of show footage and reading report after report, Alexander credits history with giving her an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of traditional garb. “I’m fascinated with archaeology, ancient civilisations,” she says. “It’s such a vanishing part of human life. One hundred years ago, there must have been so many countries where people wore national dress all of the time. So it’s sort of like preserving something.”
Alexander’s own dress sense is, she will admit, far from conservative. “I’m the furthest from minimal it’s possible to be,” she says. “I love print and pattern. I love decorative things – my house looks like a sort of flea market. It’s not necessarily chic” – a word she pronounces as if in italics, with a slight element of distaste – “but it suits me.”
Her all-time favourite items? “A monk’s jacket from Bhutan that comes from the Tak Sang monastery, that would be one. My Moroccan necklace from the Atlas mountains, which is made of great silver discs with coral . . . my Rajasthan coat, which I actually bought from East around 21 years ago but I’ve still got it, and my red poppy-print dress from Whistles, which is probably 24 years old and I still wear . . . and probably this Masai necklace.”
She points to the piece she is wearing, in battered metal, repurposed, she says, from old car parts: “A carburettor, I think, but a mechanic would probably tell me I’m wrong.”
Though her own taste is strongly influenced by tribal prints, patterns and world travel, Alexander is more conservative when it comes to her ideal capsule wardrobe, to an extent (see panel).
And she is not out of touch with the realities of modern life. When asked if it’s necessary to have money to look stylish, she looks as if I have asked whether she would ever appear in The Only Way is Essex. “In fact,” she says, “sometimes having tonnes of money makes it more difficult because you’re buying too much and it’s easy to be swayed by every shop assistant who says you look fabulous.” She is a fan of fast, cut-price fashion such as that found in chains Zara and Penneys, and maintains that it can cost very little to dress well. “I think, for £100 (€125), you could get a little black dress, a decent pair of court shoes, opaque tights and a string of pearls. For under a hundred – probably less if you went to Primark.” That said, the Coco Chanel look is not Alexander’s cup of tea.
Though Chanel is famed to have advised women to look in the mirror before leaving the house and take one item off, Alexander recommends you “put something else on”.
She has learned, from her days answering questions from the female populace, and the male – “I used to get letters from transvestites asking where to buy the best tights” – that there are a few things women want, and they are not complicated.
“Sizing is a main issue,” she says. “The fact that a 10 at Marks Spencer is not the same as a size 10 at Topshop or a 10 at Jaeger. And I think, also: no sleeves.” She shakes her head, a silent “tut, tut”.
“I just can’t understand why manufacturers haven’t got it through their heads. We don’t all want to walk around with arms like Madonna – veiny, muscular, pulsating. A lot of women want to cover their arms, even if they’re thin.”
She does not look upon Kate Middleton as a style icon (“I think she dresses extremely well and appropriately for the job she’s doing, but I don’t think doing that and being a style icon go hand in hand”).
She hopes fashion’s enfant terrible John Galliano will make a comeback (“he’s a fantastic talent – and yes, it was a terrible lapse, but we all make mistakes”) and she is unapologetic about the fashion industry’s role in the body image debate (“I don’t think we should compare catwalk to real life; catwalk is a fantasy, just like the theatre is a fantasy”). But that does not mean she is unsympathetic to the plight of women struggling with issues about their bodies; her advice is, ultimately, delightfully practical.
“The important thing is to be happy, and healthy. And not to obsess about your size, or your shape, just as you shouldn’t obsess about anything,” she says, takes a breath, trails off and begins anew. “And think of all of the fantastic things in life that are happening to you – all the good things. And look around at Syria or Somalia or somewhere another bomb’s just gone off, and thank your lucky stars, and then go out and buy a red T-shirt.”
She laughs, and it would be easy to get the impression that, for Hilary Alexander, fashion is one great joke – it’s just one that she is most definitely in on.
Hilary Alexander's five wardrobe essentials
* A black blazer, quite lightweight
* A really good pair of black stretch jeans
* A camel coat, but long, you know, like those lovely ones they used to wear in the 1920s
* An incredible tribal necklace
* A wonderful maxi dress, patchworked and covered in beads and sequins