Hilary Alexander interview

by Diana Wichtel / 23 July, 2011
New Zealand-born Hilary Alexander, the “retired” fashion director of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, does more than make fashion statements.
Hilary Alexander, photo/Getty Images

It’s frustrating, really. A phone call can’t possibly do Hilary Alexander justice. She hasn’t put in 26 years as the influential fashion editor, then fashion director, of Britain’s Daily Telegraph without evolving an arresting visual presence. The photos reveal a woman who, at an age when some might be throttling it back a little, is unafraid to rock leather pants and a Masai necklace or show a bit of leg. She’s so tiny she needs a fascinator to reach 5’3’’, but snapped alongside Kate Moss or Vivienne Westwood, it’s often Alexander who draws your startled eye.

There’s one shot where she’s wearing a patterned ethnic coat, with what looks like fresh roadkill on her head and her trademark spectacles perched on the end of her nose. “Oh yes, that coat’s from Rajasthan,” she tells me. “And the fur hat is … recycled.” Which is appropriate considering the overall effect is of a particularly fashion-forward Womble. Alexander’s audacious look has served her well at decades of glittering events. Many of us have had our pictures taken snuggled up to George Clooney. In hers he’s not made of wax.

And yet she’s from here. You wouldn’t instantly pick it from her London-inflected phone voice. She says “Know what I mean?” a lot, and “Yah”. But there’s more than a hint of No 8 wire in her artfully cobbled together style – part designer, part High Street, part hippie bazaar. And she has the Antipodean can-do attitude. As well as filing prodigiously from fashion weeks from Milan to Pakistan, she has appeared on the likes of Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Next Top Model and does interviews for cable channels. Her style is zippy, chatty, often funny. Her first fake-tan adventure: “I … managed to wash my hair over the side of the bath, releasing a gush of mud-coloured dye, which trickled down my cleavage, staining my heart surgery scar the colour of mahogany; very attractive,” she writes. “That,” she shudders, “was hysterical.”

Words like “unstoppable” and “workaholic” get used. “Oh, yah, definitely. I often think perhaps it’s that New Zealand, Presbyterian-­Scottish background. The work ethic lingers on!”

If she had stayed in New Zealand, Alexander might be collecting her SuperGold Card. Instead, she’s just back from New York, where she collected the Eugenia Sheppard Media Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. The CFDA awards are, apparently, the Oscars of the fashion world. Among those honoured that night were: American designer Marc Jacobs; British designer for Celine, Phoebe Philo; and Lady Gaga. Goodness. “There was quite a good cast attending,” she says modestly. No, she wasn’t nervous. “I wrote my speech in the car on the way to the awards,” she says. “It was a very short speech.”

Alexander is so fashionably late for our interview that by the time she answers her phone at the Telegraph office, the best style statement I can muster is pyjamas and a cup of Milo. So it’s good to hear even she can have a wardrobe malfunction. She didn’t quite do a Janet Jackson at the CFDA awards, but she did find herself, after a fashion, topless. “I had this wonderful gold, hand-painted skirt from Rajasthan that I wanted to wear and a green brocade jacket.” She’d asked someone to make her a top. “It arrived on the morning before I was leaving and was a complete disaster. Fortunately, I met someone from one of the fashion magazines out there and she found a gold leotard, which was perfect, at the last minute. So the outfit was saved.” The only surprise was that she was first up on stage. “That was a bit of a shock. But at least I got it over with quickly.”

In its way, Alexander’s achievement puts her up there with such eminent New Zealanders as Janet Frame, who certainly had her distinctive style. Or perhaps Sir Ed: summiting Mt Fashion without oxygen. “It is the first time that’s gone to somebody outside of America,” she says, of her award. “Obviously it’s the first time it’s gone to a New Zealander, which is quite nice.”

The evening had its share of elliptical fashionista communications. “How do you feel?” a reporter asked Marc Jacobs. “With my hands,” he replied. For Alexander, the accolades flowed. Diane von Furstenberg declared her a great sport.

“Once she came to one of my shows and a light hit her and she still gave me a good review!”

The perils of the front row. How long did it take her to plant her flag in that desirable location? “Probably about two years. It was a bit of a struggle. I just kept on reminding people the Telegraph was the largest-selling English language quality broadsheet in the world.” This is pure Alexander. Beneath the fuzzy headgear and flighty manner – she once asked Karl Lagerfeld if he’d ever wanted to be a fireman – is a hard-headed promoter of the fashion industry. “I try not to be too harsh,” she says, of her catwalk critiques. “I don’t want to waste column inches on something which is frightful. And very often at a show there’s something positive you can find, whether it’s just the staging or the music or the accessories.”

So, she’s a bit like Vogue’s Anna “Nuclear” Wintour, only nice? “Well, Anna’s got a hugely responsible job, much more so than mine,” says Alexander diplomatically. “It’s probably a lot easier when you’re simply writing and organising fashion shoots and things like that. I don’t sort of have to carry the weight.”

She is fiercely loyal. One of her favourite designers, John Galliano, is in strife over that Paris cafe fracas, which allegedly involved wild ethnic slurs and the line “I love Hitler”. Oh dear, Hilary. “Frightful,” she says. “I do feel very sorry for him.”

Not that she excuses behaviour she has described as “vile and unaccountable”. But she thinks the reaction – he’s being tried in a French court under a public insult law – has been extreme.

Galliano has blamed addiction. The fashion world is certainly not immune to the perils of celebrity culture. “There’s simply no privacy. If you go out and get drunk and say things you don’t mean or get drawn into an argument that you probably shouldn’t get drawn into, there’s always going to be someone around with a mobile phone. That’s unfortunately the life we live in,” sighs Alexander. “I don’t know what the answer is; whether celebrities are meant to live in a complete bubble and never emerge so they can never let their hair down.” Interviewed at the time of the incident, Alexander said, of Galliano’s collection for Dior, that the show must go on. “Yah. It’s a shame it will now go on without him. Because we have lost one of Britain’s most talented, most imaginative designers.”

She’s known a few tragic figures. There was the late Alexander McQueen – “Yes, that was shocking.” And Isabella Blow, the magazine editor and style icon who also committed suicide. “She suffered shockingly from depression and just really didn’t have a happy life in the last four to five years. She couldn’t cope. Even though she was loved and kind of famous.”

There’s a small, sad pause. But Alexander doesn’t really do sad. Or pauses. She’s soon back on proactive message. “You’ve got to be very tough, you’ve got to be disciplined, you’ve got to maintain enthusiasm, and you’ve got to believe 100% in what you’re doing,” she says, reciting what may well be her own survival mantra. “You’ve got to never give up hope.”

Sparkling or sad, it’s all, as she says, a long way from the Manawatu Standard in Palmerston North. Alexander was 16 when her father sent her along for a job. “I hadn’t done very well in my University Entrance exams and he was reluctant to keep on subsidising my education.” She desperately wanted to be an archaeologist. Instead, she reported the meetings of the Fire Board. She soon won a scholarship and did time on papers, including the Evening Post, the Dominion and the Ballarat ­Courier. On her OE in Hong Kong she became fashion editor for the China Mail. In those days this was not a job for a serious journo. She decided to write about fashion as she would about real news. “It’s about ‘who, what, when, where’, then adding what they were wearing when they did it.”

She took time out to hitch-hike intrepidly around South America, worked for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council and did a university course in art and design. “In the evenings I worked as a disc jockey or as a model for life drawing classes.” What, taking her clothes off? “Yes, of course!” she says briskly. “It was only life drawing. It was something to do.”

Eventually, her impressive grab bag of experience and taste for the exotic – “I’m not really a minimalist,” she explains unnecessarily – found a happy home at the Telegraph. “I’ve been lucky to be able to organise fashion shoots to places like Cambodia, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Peru, Kenya … Which I hasten to say the Telegraph doesn’t have to pay for.” She gets sponsors and is happy to bed down in a yurt. “They are amazing locations to shoot fashion, but also good places to pick up sarongs, jewellery and hunks of fabric.”

At the 2011 CFDA Fashion Awards, photo/Getty Images

When we speak, she’s putting in her last few weeks before resigning. After a fashion. “I’ve signed a one-year freelance contract with the Daily Telegraph. I’m going to be writing one fashion page a month for the paper and one column a week for the website.” Her memoirs beckon – they would, you imagine, after her life, write themselves. There’s a trip planned to New Zealand later this year for her mother’s 90th birthday and to catch up on local fashion. As we talk, she sends a minion to fetch a coffee-table book she wrote an introduction for, to remind herself of New Zealand designers she rates. “Elisabeth something …” Findlay? “Yes! Zambesi.” There’s Nom*D, Kate Sylvester, Sabatini White, Liz Mitchell, Karen Walker … “A lot of black.” Some say that’s our gloomy Kiwi psyche, I suggest. She’s not having anything so downbeat. “Oh, I don’t think so! Black is just always seen as edgy. I don’t know why.”

We may not see her here often, but there are ways of keeping up with her. Ever quick off the blocks with a trend, Alexander is a dedicated tweeter, of not only fashion but football. Sample: “The ref is blind! Or else he’s German!” She has 182,000 followers. “I can’t come anywhere near Lady Gaga, I’m afraid. I think she’s got a million and a half.”

Give her time. Her energy is ferocious. Of her work she has said, “It’s my life.” That single-mindedness can have its costs. “Yes, relationships. That would be one, definitely,” she says. “And, secondly, cats. For the past 10 years I haven’t been able to have any cats just simply because of travelling so much,” she muses. “I do adore cats.”

She’ll possibly have time to remedy those deficits once she retires. “I hope so. The cat, definitely. As for relationships, that’s really up to fate,” she says. “I have no immediate plans to join an internet dating site.”

She does have plans to go to university – Cambridge, possibly. To do archaeology. At last. Things might have worked out very differently if Alexander’s father had stumped up for her degree back in the 60s but, unaware she was unstoppable, he wasn’t about to let his daughter do her own thing. “He was worried,” she recalls a little wistfully, “that I’d turn into a beatnik with long hair and sandals.” The sandals may be designer and the look more boho than beat, but in a kind of way that’s exactly what she has done. “Yes,” she says happily, “in a kind of way I have.”
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