Authors: Kirstie Clements
Australian designers represented the core of what was shot, because many of them were also our advertisers. Judith, and the other stylists at the time—Victoria “Tory” Collison in Sydney and Mary Otte and Sandra Hirsh in the Melbourne office—would settle on a trend from the shows, and rather than just call the PRs and have it sent in (an option which simply didn’t exist), they would make the rounds of their favorite Australian designers and explain the philosophy of the shoot
and what they envisaged it would look like. This is not to say that designers were asked to copy things. It was a creative collaboration between the stylist and the designer. There would be long meetings complete with inspiration boards, art books, novels, fabrics and maps of exotic locations. Design houses would create the most magical one-offs, and it was always a thrilling moment when they arrived at the office. No one really knew exactly what to expect, because designers could certainly go off brief. But when they got it right, you could see the vision being realized while the story came together before your eyes. And sometimes their “off brief” took the shoot in a whole new and marvelous direction.
Knitter John Macarthur could always be counted upon to conjure up the most wonderful handknitted sweaters and accessories. It was these types of spectacular pieces that were captioned “Made to Order” for the reader who decided she couldn’t live without a blue plastic mermaid dress. Young milliners such as the talented Annabel Ingall in Sydney and Tamasine Dale in Melbourne would create whimsical hats and headpieces, themed to suit. Judith always liked a hat. And a chunky knit. It was a way of approaching fashion shoots that was highly creative and original. It rarely happens today. No one has time to brief a designer, and the important international advertisers have to be accommodated first.
There was always a major issue with shoes: that being there weren’t any. Judith’s biggest lament was that there were not enough good shoes in Australia. We could borrow imports from the top-notch shoe emporium Evelyn Miles but, again, they were stock that had to be sold, so the soles were taped, taped and taped again to prevent wear and tear. The editors used to design the shoes or sandals they needed to complete their vision and then have them made by a small shoe factory in Melbourne.
fashion department’s rabid attention to detail delivered me a sterling life lesson—if the shoe isn’t right, then nothing is right.
Fashion assistants lived in fear of not having the correct shoe to present to the editor. Completed shoots were scrutinized by the senior editors through a magnifying loupe in the art department, and the dreaded question would be asked through pursed lips: “Was that the right shoe, do you think?” If you heard that from June, Nancy or Judith, you were toast.
I walked into the fashion stockroom one day to find the new and gorgeous young fashion assistant Naomi Smith sitting on the floor, surrounded by literally hundreds of pairs of shoes. She turned to me, pale as a ghost, and said, “The shoot is tomorrow. Apparently we don’t have the right shoe.” I tried to joke her out of it, but tears were welling up in her eyes and I could sense the panic was rising. I comforted her by saying she had called in more shoes than I had ever seen. Judith would like one of them, surely?
“No, no, Kirstie, you don’t understand. This is really, really serious. We don’t have the right shoe,” she said gravely. “We need a Louis heel.”
I pointed tentatively to a gold satin shoe I could see sticking out of the knee-high pile of options. “Noooo!” she wailed. “That’s a kitten heel for God’s sake!”
I felt so sorry for her and I walked back to my computer and typed out a piece of paper that said: “No, this is really serious. We don’t have the right shoe.” I then blew it up to poster size and taped it up on the wall in the fashion office. Fortunately Judith saw the humor in it, and decided one of Naomi’s selections fit the bill, but shoes—to this day—remain a make or break factor in the world of high fashion. A well-chosen shoe adds proportion, modernity and newness to a look. Especially if you can’t actually walk in it.
By 1988 my position at
had changed. One day, while Nancy and I were shooting a promotion which required me to iron what seemed like four hundred white linen pants, shirts, jackets and skirts in an overheated studio, I had a mini meltdown. I loathe ironing. I’m terrible at it. I make more wrinkles than I take out. Back then, we used to iron everything to death. Now the art directors just take out every flaw in a photograph in post-production. I think I said something really pretentious to Nancy along the lines of, “I’m too smart to iron for a living. My mother didn’t raise me to do this.”
I probably would have shown me the door, but the gracious Nancy worked her magic back in the office, and convinced the powers that be to create a position for me that involved assisting the beauty editor Karin Upton, and writing fashion stories, headings and captions. It was my dream job—the majority of the role was writing, and I enjoyed the beauty world. It also meant the occasional shoot. It was everything I loved doing. I would have worked for free.
Naturally, like everything at
, this move was not taken lightly. I was interviewed by June and asked to produce two designer profiles, a thousand words each, which would be duly appraised. I pounded them out with confidence and was offered the post.
I was now installed in the fashion office, privy to all the conversations, the fun, the hysteria and the drama. We were not highly staffed by any means, so it was vital to work together and keep the bitching to a minimum in order to get through the workload. At any given period there would be a fashion director, one or two fashion editors, one fashion assistant and an office coordinator. Normally there would be only one editor in beauty, but because Karin and I could write across all areas the department was expanded.
Karin proved to be a wonderful mentor and colleague. She was elegant and attractive, expensively dressed and wildly materialistic on
the outside, but underneath she was witty and generous and quite self-deprecating. She owned the job of beauty editor, investing it with unparalleled glamour and importance.
Karin was renowned for driving a black vintage Mercedes with quilted seats while wearing white leather driving gloves. Her hair and nails were always perfect. Her wardrobe consisted of Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Armani. She smoked St. Moritz menthols in her office and constantly drank Diet Coke out of a wine glass, leaving a perpetual red lipstick mark. She was larger than life.
Beauty advertising far outstripped fashion advertising at that time, and our area was crucial. I began to attend beauty functions either with Karin or on her behalf, mingling with other magazine editors and our advertisers. I started to understand exactly how the relationship between client and journalist worked, and how to work a creative vision into that equation for the reader. You cannot make an impactful or interesting product if you are merely regurgitating a press release, or being coerced into covering something you consider inappropriate. An editor or journalist has to go the extra distance and work out a new angle, a new spin, and in some cases push back and say no, let’s think of something else. It is what the reader deserves. It’s not a popular viewpoint today, but I do believe there is a middle ground that can be found where everyone wins.
’s publisher was Lesley Wild, who was tough, brash and confident. She certainly had her battles with the editorial team in the cut and thrust that comes with that role but she was damn good at her job, the clients loved her, and she had respect for the magazine’s editorial integrity. There seems to be a common perception today that editors who have regard for the consumer are arrogant dinosaurs, standing in the way of
“commerciality.” But I question what will be considered “commercial” about zero sales when the intelligent and skeptical reader realizes full well you sold out, in order to please an advertiser.
The chairman of Condé Nast in Australia was Bernard Leser, who had originally founded
in 1959. He was based in the Condé Nast offices in New York, but would regularly visit Sydney and was often seen leaping out of his car (with driver) sporting a safari suit. He had a particularly fetching one in pale blue that Judith loved, given her penchant for creating shoots around them. Bernie, as he was known, was a true gentleman, with his shock of white hair and mellifluous voice. He had old-school charm. But by 1989 it seemed that there was now a perceptible shift in the priorities of management.
had always been very arts focused, with a major amount of excellent editorial devoted to theater, books, film, dance and opera. I was not privy to the exact reasons for the change of guard, but I suspect the all-encompassing and conveniently amorphous “commerciality” argument played a part. It always does. Unless you are an axe-wielding psycho and need to be escorted off the premises, most exits come down to money. In fact, if profits were significantly up, I suggest even a psycho and their axe could stay and be given a bonus.
Suddenly, June and Eve were ousted and a new managing director installed, Verne Westerburg, who hailed from US Condé Nast. Nancy Pilcher was given the position of editor, and a new era began.
I had taken over most of the fashion writing at that point, which was reasonably daunting given I was following in the very impressive footsteps of Marion von Adlerstein, who had moved to predominately writing travel. Marion had been an advertising copywriter before she joined
and she was white-hot at the perfect par. I always remember one heading, or what is called a “pull out,” on a Spanish flamenco-inspired
fashion story where she wrote: “The lines of a dress, as emphatic as the click of stiletto heels on a tiled floor.” And for a menswear story: “In this suit, you’ll get the job, the girl and the table.” I think witty copy on a fashion page is a must. I’ve always labored over them. Generic cover lines such as “Great shoes and bags!” are a terrible, tired cop out.
Adding to the pressure of being even half as good as Marion was the fact that we had to write to character count. It seems unbelievable now, but in those days there were still no computers in the art department. Layouts were done on paper, and copy was pasted on using bromides—type that had been painstakingly cut out with a scalpel and stuck down. There was some sort of medieval-style box contraption into which the artists would thrust their hands to spray the glue on the pages. In retrospect it was an occupational health and safety nightmare but, then again, so were all the staff who chain-smoked cigarettes in the office until the laws banned it.
To make sure that the art layout was not changed too frequently, writers had to be character perfect. Unfortunately,
layouts had become a design benchmark, and were frequently referenced, so I would end up having to form a heading that had words of one letter, two, two and then three. I did try to explain to the art department that the English language was a little more limited than Italian in terms of words of one or two letters. But I also tried my hardest to fit the layouts, and I was very proud when one day the impeccably mannered art assistant Eric Matthews came to my desk and awarded me The Golden Scalpel Award for Exactitude.
With such a varied, smart and opinionated group of people working in one office on tight deadlines, it was natural that things could sometimes be fraught, but the camaraderie among the team was strong and supportive. The media portrayal of women who work at fashion magazines has always painted us as being bitchy and catty towards each
other. That exists, definitely, but do bitchy, catty environments not exist in other businesses? Given the amount of unsubstantiated, puerile mudslinging I’ve witnessed emanating from other media outlets over the years, fashion magazine environments seem like a somewhat Sapphic utopia in comparison. At the core of these stereotypes is a tired belief that all women in fashion are shallow, lazy, pea-brained and self-serving. And yes, there are some. But from what I have observed they never last the distance. It’s a very, very tough business.
Putting the magazine out each month, to the exacting standard that was expected, was damn hard work. The office juniors would almost always work until 9 or 10 p.m. On many occasions I would put my head in the stockroom to check on Naomi, worried that she was going to be smothered,
–style, by the raft of suitcases that would arrive from the Melbourne office each day, filled with John Smedley sweaters, Comme des Garcons skirts and kilos of jewelry from Castalia Antiques. As the fashion assistant in the early nineties, Naomi had to suffer through the fashion period where everything was piled high with multiple necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. Judith was in a “navy Armani jacket and a batik skirt, put back with silver ethnic necklaces and oversize amber beads” moment, and the jewelry influx was torturous. One earring lost in a sea of tissue paper could cost you your job. Luckily, the fashion winds shifted not long afterwards and years of minimalism followed, where one lone Elsa Peretti bangle from Tiffany was often sufficient.
Given that our bosses were some of the chicest women in the country, the junior staff also, by osmosis, began to imitate the way they dressed. We’d arrived on the first day in what we thought were our best clothes, only to be swiftly influenced by their sartorial style, albeit on our tiny budgets. If you wanted to be rich, it was best not to work at
. Nancy, who owned a vast wardrobe of designer clothes, very generously
gave me a navy Giorgio Armani jacket, knowing I couldn’t afford one. I wore that jacket for years until I finally had to retire it because it had gone shiny from too much dry-cleaning, but it made me feel so
. I remember looking around the fashion office once and we were all wearing navy jackets, with white Hanes or Fruit of the Loom T-shirts from the United States, batik-sarong skirts, amber beads and woven tote bags from Bali, with silver-hoop earrings. Still not a bad look today, in fact.