Interview: Plum Sykes

She was wearing lilac trousers and she told me I looked lovely; I knew early on that I would like Plum Sykes. Mother, owner of a sheep farm, Oxford alumnus, muse and friend of Alexander McQueen, Contributing Editor to American Vogue and author of two (soon to be three) novels; is there anything this woman can’t do?

Coming from a private school education to a degree in History at Worcester during the growth of the rave culture of the late 80s, where swathes of “posh public school boys were suddenly let loose to wear neon t-shirts, yah man”, proved something of a culture shock. After graduating, she realised that the law career she thought she would go into “because that’s what everyone else was doing” wasn’t her style and instead she made the transition to fashion writing. With her twin a stylist, her mother a fashion designer and her grandfather an author and biographer, she thinks that you could say the the Vogue link was “kind of obvious”.

A questionable, yet auspicious start saw her as Chief Filer & Organiser at British Vogue, working for the likes of Issie Blow and Lisa Armstrong. This led to impromptu introductions to the young Bella Freud and Alexander McQueen.

Even once she had the chance to write something of her own, a very English lack of self-confidence still proved an issue and she feared editors simply dismissing her work as rubbish. Mind you, being offered a position as a fashion writer for US Vogue by none other than Anna Wintour herself does something for the self-confidence. No longer in charge of organising someone else’s life, she set herself to the task of her monthly column: “an email conversation between an up-town Park Avenue Princess and a down-town cool girl” – the characters which would later form the base of her debut novel, Bergdorf Blondes.

As working environments go, Sykes’ descriptions of the US and the UK couldn’t be more different. While the latter is, in some ways “still stuck in the Dark Ages”, the former, (New York in particular) is “an amazing place to work as a woman”. The pressure and the competition associated with US Vogue seems understandably intense, but it clearly works out for the best considering the unrelenting attention to detail which provides a certain sense of “authority”. Even though the novels Plum has written since joining American Vogue are fictional, they’ve certainly benefited from the prioritising of a need for accuracy and care instilled in Editor Anna Wintour’s team.

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There’s a lot at stake with each publication, with 12-hour days not unheard of –and that’s just time spent in the office! When you factor in the events that need to be attended and reported on, and the weekend return flights to Paris, finding time for yourself is no mean feat. In fact, Plum even advised those looking to a career like this to “remember to get married and have a child or two.” Maybe she was joking, maybe not.

Even with all of that to deal with in the office, I wonder what sort of pressure she feels under to look or act in a certain way, given her 20-year Vogue background. She laughed and gave the knee-jerk response: talking of having to get weekly manicures in New York, partly to steer clear of Ms. Wintour’s distaste for scruffy nails.

More generally speaking, she talks of a greater pressure in the US to be very well turned-out, and that working for US Vogue, “of course everyone looks at what you’re wearing”, but she says that, in a way, that’s “part of the job”. When interviewing Rihanna for the March issue, for example, she didn’t expect her to turn up in an old pair of jeans and no make-up; instead, the singer arrived wearing 20cm stilettos and talon-like nails along with a full entourage. Interestingly, Plum says that celebrities and their style choices make up the bulk of the “personal style” of girls in the States, who are often more focused on trends and having “next season’s Prada shoe” – though Plum herself favours Mr Blahnik. As such, it’s the individuality of British styling which holds more allure for Plum – that, and the ever-polished, elegant look of French twenty-somethings in Paris.
So all in all, yes, it’s been a lot of hard work. And yes, it’s taken a fair while, but with a third book in the pipeline and a job she loves, it’s fair to say Plum Sykes is pretty inspiring. Not bad for someone who said they “would never have a career in fashion”.