Interview: Hamish Bowles

Having worked at Vogue for over twenty years, Hamish Bowles is a treasure chest of ideas and information about the protean world of fashion. “My interest in fashion came out of an interest in costume history”, he explains. As a child, he went to ballet, attended exhibitions at the V&A museum, and frequented the theatre, captivated by the costumes. “It was in my tweens that I started reading British Vogue and I became interested in contemporary fashion”. His first important couture purchase was an early 60s Balenciaga suit, found in a rummage sale, but he tells me that some of his most historically important pieces to date are a 1926 beaded Chanel gown and an iconic 1952 Charles James Lampshade dress.

On 8th May, The Costume Institute’s new Anna Wintour Centre will open with its inaugural exhibition, Charles James: Beyond Fashion. “This is going to be a really fascinating opportunity for people to reassess the work of an extraordinary designer who has become almost forgotten through the years, and who was so significant in his day”, Hamish assures me. “It’s going to be a revelation for people”. Charles James is often described as the greatest American couturier, influencing the likes of Christian Dior and Zac Posen. For Hamish, “Vintage fashion holds a mirror up to its time. It is so potent, and then there is the memory of the women who wore it”.

The Museum’s Costume Institute Benefit will be held on 5th May to celebrate the opening of the exhibition three days later. One of the co-chairs is icon Sarah Jessica Parker, who has recently brought out her own shoe line, collaborating with George Malkemus, the CEO of Manolo Blahnik. “When legitimate brand extension, like SJP and shoes, is something where you really have a sense of design integrity and the named creator is very much involved, it is an interesting idea”.

Bowles was pictured with the actress at the 2013 Annual Met Gala, about which he says, “It is always extraordinary because it is a real confluence of fashion and celebrity, and extraordinary clothes and entertainment, and really wonderful visuals in terms of the décor. It is an annual high point.” Meeting all of these celebrities must be quite the experience, but does the International Editor-at-Large ever get star-struck? “Oh, constantly, yes! Certainly at the Costume Institute Gala!” What about the first time he met Anna Wintour? Was she anything like Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada?! “Well, when I met her for the first time, I think I was wearing a Chanel suit, so she might have been more intimidated than I was! But certainly, her reputation preceded her.”

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As part of his job, Hamish gets to travel the world, which he loves. “I go back to Tangier in Morocco all the time, and Greece. Personally, I just got back from Qatar, which I thought was a completely fascinating and compelling place. I am always fascinated to go somewhere that I have never been before”. Travelling to such diverse places, Hamish has a good idea about the ever changing fashion world and the up-and-coming fashion cities. “I’ve been to see the fashion scenes in Copenhagan, and I certainly think Scandinavia is interesting. I’m intrigued to see what happens in China; there are already some very interesting people coming out of there. What is exciting is that fashion is so global and that people are so engaged with fashion around the world.” This all sounds wonderful, but, are there any downsides I ask? “Jet lag is a downside, and deadlines!” The latter is certainly something we can all relate to.

English born and bred, Bowles moved to New York in the 90s, accepting Anna’s job offer at US Vogue. “The street style is livelier in London”, he tells me, “There seems to be a lot of young designer energy there. It’s more like Brooklyn than NYC. But I’m also very excited by the Upper East Side groomed fashion that you see here”. He does explain, however, how over the years the differences between the two cities have somewhat eroded, making them more similar in terms of fashion style. I ask his opinion of the Duchess of Cambridge: “Kate Middleton’s style is absolutely appropriate in every way and thoughtfully considered”.

Not only has Bowles made a name for himself in the fashion and interior design industries, he has also found time to act. Appearing in Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, an episode of Gossip Girl, and the fashion documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor, Bowles says, “Acting has been a lot of fun, I’d love to do more of that!” But, if he were doing anything other than working at Vogue, he explains how he would like to design costumes for the theatre or the movies, as fashion design is what he began studying at St Martins. A man of many talents indeed.

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Hamish Bowles was also involved in the now infamous Kim Kardashian and Kanye West cover for the April Edition of Vogue. “Well, I wrote the story, so I obviously feel very connected to it. It has provoked more dialogue than any other cover I can think of since I have been here, which is exciting. As a couple, they are a part of the contemporary zeitgeist and it’s important for Vogue to respect that.” When asked whether he thought it was a good idea to put a reality star on the cover of such a prestigious fashion magazine, he responded “This particular reality star and her fiancé are part of the fibre of today’s fashionable world. I think they are both very engaged with fashion and style, and that’s something we celebrate.”

Hamish is currently working on a personal fashion memoir, and says, “I hope to continue to work at Vogue. I’m having a lot of fun doing it!” Well, we certainly enjoy following his fashion journey and cannot wait to read the memoirs.

Charles James: Beyond Fashion Exhibition will run from 8th May to 10th August in the Anna Wintour Costume Center in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

@HBVogue

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