Country Life. July 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Forgive the radio silence, I migrated to my parents’ in Derbyshire for the weekend and have since been beavering away over the launch of Jewelry for Gentlemen in September. The highlight of the trip was a walk in the grounds of Chatsworth with Mum having dodged a million Chinese tourists as they ruthlessly took selfies in front of every important work of art or dazzling interior in the house. I always think ‘remember you are mortal’ when tourists in London or Derbyshire pose themselves in front of works of art that will still be there when they are so much dust. And on that cheery note…

I enjoy spending time with my parents – plus two friends with four paws – and find the clean air, quiet and lack of stress rather a relief after a prolonged period in London. London in the summertime is swarming with tourists and, my dear, in the recent heat it is difficult not to barrel through them like a well-flung bowling ball as you try to get through Leicester Square to Piccadilly Circus.

Of course sensible people with deep pockets spend the entirety of August out of town Instagramming themselves in tavernas and on beaches. I actually rather like August because you can get so much work done relatively uninterrupted and only the die hards – who can’t abide ankle-biters in airports – stick it out in London. Speaking of Instagram, I have gone back to the app after a few months off and must admit I’ve missed it. Of course you have the occasional ‘my beautiful life’ account that has you hoping that Fate and Nemesis are waiting in the wings. But, by and large, I find Instagram is a way of letting friends and colleagues know that you’re still trucking and like Dolly ‘glowing, crowing and doing swell’.

I wouldn’t say I am doing swell quite yet but have heard on the jungle drums that Jewelry for Gentlemen has had a good response in the Thames & Hudson press office and that we can expect decent reviews. This is so important to me having spent a year pretty much putting words and pictures together with a team of two: photographer Andy Barnham and art director Pete Dawson at Grade Design. Though one shouldn’t pat oneself on the back, I think between us we’ve made a beautiful and relevant book that explores a subject that hasn’t had such in-depth attention before.

As well as planning the launch party for Jewelry for Gentlemen, Pete and I are starting work on gathering the pictures for the Henry Poole & Co house biography. I’m in the archive tomorrow doing a sweep of vintage photographs, letters and books to be scanned at T&H. We already have a decent amount of in-house photography completed and I have been moving mountains to find images of our great and good customers within the time frame of their being customers of Henry Poole. I think the trick with this book will be to balance the contemporary and the vintage photography. Our readers are going to want to see Poole’s craftsmanship today as well as images of the icons such as Emperor Napoleon III, Winston Churchill, Tsar Alexander II of Russia and Lillie Langtry.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching the ladies in the Henry Poole archive. The lion’s share are royal and aristocratic such as Louise the Double Duchess of Manchester and Devonshire, Queen Alexandra, the Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia and Baroness Burdett Coutts. We also have the scandals such as the last Victorian courtesan Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters who was a customer from her teenage years to her dotage long after she had hung up her suspender belt.

The Henry Poole book is the conclusion of what has been going on for a ten-year project. If I hadn’t catalogued all the ledgers there would have been no way I could navigate the pages so quickly now and work out, for example, how much each famous customer paid and the tenure of their account. My personal favourite chapters of the book tell the story of the Poole and the Cundey families and their ongoing battles to keep the company solvent. We have letters, court reports, affidavits, statements and witness declarations about Poole’s many periods of litigation … one that lasted for thirty years after Henry died.

The real hero of the Poole’s book is the present chairman Angus Cundey’s grandfather Howard. It was he who stabilised the debts after Henry died in 1876 and eventually fought-off the other partners named in Henry’s will who were essentially leaching money from the company while Howard was trying to build it into the most famous tailoring concern in the world. Howard’s story is worthy of a novel but I think I have caught the essence of the urgency behind the scenes at Poole’s to fight-off the parasites and see the firm through World War I.

The story of Poole’s is one of survival against odds that closed so many bespoke tailors in the 20th century. It was a privilege to tell the story and I am keen now to get together with Pete and start bringing the story to life with pictures. Until next time…

 

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Finding Prince Albert. July 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Sometimes it is gratifying when your past catches up with you. Not always, granted, but sometimes. About a month ago, I had a call from TV director Ian Denyer. Ian was the man behind the three one-hour documentary about Savile Row in 2007 and someone I consider a friend. Turns out he is directing a BBC documentary about the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. Ian wanted to know if I had come across Prince Albert in any of the Savile Row archives.

As it happened, I had. You might recall that in the Noughties I was asked to curate a new archive room for Gieves & Hawkes at No 1 Savile Row. Robert Gieve was still alive at the beginning of the project but sadly died a matter of months into the task. I was left with keys to a vault in the basement of No 1 and instructions to scour every inch of the building for archive material. Mr Gieve also believed that a sizeable amount of the archive had been shipped out to a warehouse in Surrey.

On a mine sweep of the warehouse I happened to be searching through cardboard boxes full of financial accounts from the 80s and 90s. At the very bottom of one box was a tattered hand-written ledger that proved to be one of the few archive treasures relating to Hawkes & Co. The book was a transcript of letters sent by Hawkes in the 1840s soliciting business from titled customers. One of the customers was Prince Albert.

I never forgot that book because it was one of the very few clues to the illustrious customers of Hawkes & Co. I recall finding the Earl of Cardigan in there a full two decades before the Charge of the Light Brigade and also the Duke of Cambridge who was Queen Victoria’s uncle. What I couldn’t recall was whether the letter sent to Prince Albert pre or post dated his marriage to Queen Victoria.

It was rather lovely to return to Gieves & Hawkes after so many years and find the Hawkes ledger behind glass in a new display. Ian and I did a recce of the ledger and concluded that the Hawkes letter was written a matter of months after the wedding when Prince Albert had been made colonel in chief of the 11th Hussars. We decided to film with the ledger and make some logical conclusions as to whether Hawkes & Co had tailored the Field Marshal’s uniform that Prince Albert wore when he married Queen Victoria in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace.

I won’t spoil any surprises because you’ll have to wait until the programme airs close to Christmas 2018. But we did find evidence in the ledgers that Hawkes & Co had royal provenance that dated back to King George III and included a royal warrant from Prince Albert’s mentor King Leopold of the Belgians. We also found court Svengali Baron Stockmar mentioned in the letters.

I had forgotten discovering King Leopold of the Belgians’ Royal Warrant in the vault underneath No 1 Savile Row not to mention the warrant of Queen Victoria. Sadly Prince Albert’s Royal Warrant didn’t survive though a slip of paper discovered in one of the ledgers confirmed that Hawkes & Co made by royal appointment to Prince Albert and the Duke of Cambridge. On the reverse of this paper was a tailor’s sketch of a lay – where a paper pattern sits on a bolt of cloth – strongly suggesting that the evidence of Prince Albert’s Royal Warrant only survived because the paper had been used for a tailor’s doodle.

It is a miracle to me that so much did survive in Savile Row’s archives despite the businesses being run as such with zero sentimentality towards anything that was not a stock model or was being stored for a customer. There are almost zero Gieves naval uniforms left at No 1 Savile Row. Many were sold-off or sent to International branches as window dressing when they were subsequently lost. I recall a glorious list of Admiral’s Full Dress coats found in Mr Gieve’s files that had simply vanished from the premises. Almost nothing of Hawkes’s history survives except for the Solar Topee helmets that the firm patented and the occasional shako from the mid-19th century.

Having spent so many years working with the Henry Poole Archive, it was gratifying to go back to Gieves & Hawkes and see work done over a decade ago still valued and now kept behind glass in a temperature-controlled room. I feel like I should be kept on a temperature-controlled room these days but, on balance, I can still shake a tail feather in front of a television camera and sound vaguely coherent when asked to revisit history I hadn’t concentrated on for so many years. Until next time…

 

 

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Rumour Has It. June 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Would you agree that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones? The epigram tinged with melancholy was the title for Truman Capote’s never-completed novel Answered Prayers that destroyed the writer socially, financially and mentally.

When a chapter - La Cote Basque - was published in US Esquire in 1975 the puckish literary genius Capote was technically at the top of his game: the darling of New York’s fashion-leading society dames he christened his ‘Swans’ with immortality as an author guaranteed by his masterpiece In Cold Blood. His 1966 Black and White Ball in New York was remembered as one of THE parties of the 20th century. Yet when that chapter was published, Capote was cut down dead by his beloved jet set and never recovered from the ostracism.

It is the story of Capote’s downfall that Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott fictionalises in her rather brilliant new novel Swan Song. The author imagines the Swans – Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli – as avenging angels hastening Capote to his death. She breathes new life into these Manhattan princesses – including the more forgiving CZ Guest – and makes them so much more than the stereotypical ladies who lunch immortalised in the Stephen Sondheim song.

Capote’s perceived betrayal in La Cote Basque (the eponymous fashionable New York restaurant) was to tell the foulest tales about his Swans’ serially unfaithful husbands. The decision to pen this roman a clef was catastrophic for Capote. Invitations to Marella’s yacht, Babe’s Hamptons home and the Guinness’s private island ceased on publication. So deep was the betrayal of secrets that Babe Paley left instructions that under no circumstance was Capote – once her dearest friend – to attend her funeral.

The picture Greenberg-Jephcott paints of the Swans is bittersweet. Only CZ Guest appears to appreciate her marriage and her status. The others mask disappointment and unfaithfulness with exquisite taste in Mainbocher gowns, hothouse flowers and Verdura jewels. These ladies were the paragon of the American Dream and yet none seemed terribly happy with their lot. Pills, booze and chain-smoked cigarettes are passed between the Swans for the entirety of the novel.

My favourite character in Swan Song is the drawling, wise-cracking, bourbon-slugging, many times married Slim Keith. When married to Howard Hawkes, Slim discovered Lauren ‘Betty’ Bacall and tutored her in the art of effortless perfection. As Mrs Leyland Howard, she consorted with the toast of Broadway. Yet even the worldly-wise Slim lost her husband to man-eating courtesan Pamela Harriman … a villain of the piece in Swan Song.

Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel is a literary in-joke, written as a re-imagining of real people and events just as Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood was. It is a literary conceit that Capote established and Greenberg-Jephcott has developed as a fabulous flight of the imagination.

The author makes the Swans more than a Greek chorus for Capote’s downfall. We inhabit their seemingly glittering worlds and accompany them to the Black and White Ball. You believe every scene imagined by Greenberg-Jephcott. Even the cameo roles such as Diana Vreeland, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Onassis (Lee’s sister) have the ring of truth about them. This is a great skill.

What I appreciate most about Swan Song is the depth of sympathy that Greenberg-Jephcott evidently has for her Swans. Why Capote didn’t extend the same courtesy to these ladies in La Cote Basque is neither explained nor excused. Drug and drink addled as Capote evidently was for the second act of his life, he must on some level have known that publication of his acid drops in Answered Prayers would destroy him. But, then again, wasn’t it Capote who said the only thing that can destroy a writer is himself?

Having read Capote’s complete works including the loose chapters of Answered Prayers I am still at a loss as to why he took aim at his Swans: biting the hand that feeds and reads in one vicious nip. We know he could convert inspiration into great works of fiction such as Breakfast at Tiffanys. Practically every woman known to Capote claimed she was the inspiration for Holly Golightly even though my money is on first of the supermodels Dorian Leigh.

But Capote didn’t even bother to cover his tracks in telling scandalous stories about Babe and Bill Paley or about putting vicious gossip into the mouth of Slim Keith. If it was revenge he was seeking then revenge for what? The Swans treated Capote like a favourite clutch bag: he went everywhere with them and was humoured by their whiskey-slugging husbands.

We will never know why Truman Capote tore the wings from his Swans then feigned incredulity that they ostracised him on publication. According to Swan Song, Capote considered La Cote Basque as revenge on the unfaithful husbands but surely he must have known that washing dirty linen in public equalled social death.

In conclusion, Capote could have chosen different targets with which to discharge poison from his pen. Then again, he had form crucifying Marlon Brando in an essay and painting an ambiguous portrait of his friend Marilyn Monroe in a drugged and drunk state.

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Jewelry for Gentlemen. June 2018.

Dear Rowley,

One of the greatest pleasures for an author is the moment when advance copies of work that has taken the best part of a year to write and photograph finally lands in Thames & Hudson’s office in London. You can see the layouts on screen for months and even get the proof print-out but nothing quite prepares for the images printed on high quality glossy paper with all the layouts as pristine as you would have hoped.

Jewelry for Gentlemen – so titled because it is one of Thames & Hudson’s conventions to take the American spelling for jewelry – landed at Bloomsbury Towers a couple of days ago. I am absolutely thrilled with the result because I think we’ve really gone in deep into uncharted territory: the black tie brooch, the stickpin as lapel decoration, gem-set cufflinks and contemporary jewellery collections by the greats Shaun Leane, Theo Fennell, Stephen Webster, Solange Azagury-Partridge and David Yurman.

We’ve got antique and modern pieces by the masters – Cartier, Tiffany & Co, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron – and pieces of jewellery made for the last Tsar of Russia, the Maharaja of Patiala, Cole Porter, Winston Churchill and Marlon Brando. Thanks to antique jewellers Bentley & Skinner, Hancocks, Wartski, Lucas Rarities and Harry Fane I was loaned pieces by Fabergé, Paul Flato, Fulco di Verdura and Pierre Sterlé to style on the best of British bespoke tailoring courtesy of Henry Poole, Turnbull & Asser and Sir Tom Baker.

Getting an early copy when publication isn’t until the end of August is rather like delivering a baby or getting a new pup and not being able to let it out of the house for two months. Needless to say, this doesn’t stop me showing the advance copy to all of the jewellers or from signing review copies for friendly magazine and newspaper journalists.

Jewelry for Gentlemen is a return to a subject I covered in newsprint and the glossies for many years that took second place when I was fully immersed in Savile Row. The purpose for the book was not only to show off the incredible contemporary jewellers dedicating their talents to men but also to reimagine antique jewels that might have been set for women in a world where there is much more fluidity in taste and less judgement about what constitutes a man’s jewel or a woman’s.

This doesn’t mean that I have been photographing tiaras on male models even though a precedent for that has been set. What I chose to concentrate on was the naturalistic style of brooch popular in the late Victorian era – the bees, spiders, starbursts and floral motifs – that have legitimacy of scale and design to be worn with pride on a man’s lapel. I was also interested in how a jewel such as a stickpin – originally created to hold the folds of a cravat – can migrate to decorate the cape of a cocktail suit or black tie.

Jewelry for Gentlemen is a risk as was Savile Row when I wrote it. There is a similar buzz in the media about jewellery for men and I was able to find exquisite photographs of contemporary idols such as Lewis Hamilton, Alexander Skarsgard, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine, Jared Leto and John Hamm who are all early adopters of seriously good men’s jewellery. I was also seeing a boom in high street costume jewellery for the young that falls into a similar category as a tattoo … only body adornment that you can take off at the end of an evening.

The book made some bold choices and doesn’t shy away from expensive pieces by great historic jewel houses that already have great value on the secondary market. The mission was to inspire men as well as reflecting what is happening in the broader cultures around the world. What I was keen to establish was that whatever culture you consider be that imperial Chinese, Romanov Russian or Victorian England there could always be found a strong tradition of male adornment in precious metals and gemstones.

What I don’t see is men being furnished with a jewellery wardrobe like the Duchess of Windsor or Elizabeth Taylor. Men tend to wear pieces of huge sentimental value be that old family jewellery or pieces bought by spouses of both sexes. This hit home to me when, at the beginning of the year, I had a sizeable amount of family jewellery stolen from my apartment. To borrow a Harry Potterism, it was like destroying my horcruxes: losing items of jewellery that were so important to me that they had become a part of daily life and external indications of who I am.

I suppose the onus now is on re-building a collection of precious jewellery and re-making an exceptional diamond and ruby ring that had belonged to my grandmother. I rarely took that ring off my finger and it was fated that the night I chose to wear silver instead was the evening of the first burglary. I’m still trying to get over the loss and won’t fully until I commission one of the jewellers in the book to bring the piece back to life.

What I’d like is for the book to be embraced by the fashion industry and fashion and jewellery colleges as well as dedicated collectors of men’s jewellery. The tone is a ‘yes you can’ rather than a ‘so you should’ and I think that’s appropriate in a day and age when there are so few limits on self-expression. What I’d really love is for the book to inspire men (and women) to commission jewels special to them. If this is the case then my work has been worthwhile.

 

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Frida: An Extraordinary Life. June 2018.

Dear Rowley,

To the Victoria & Albert Museum this week to view the press preview of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up which brings together 20o objects sealed in the bathroom of Kahlo’s place of birth and death the Blue House by husband Diego Rivera for over fifty years. The exhibit brings the Mexican surrealist artist back to life after her death in 1954 aged just forty-seven. And what a life!

My knowledge of Kahlo was purely based on image: the Revlon-painted unibrow, the flowers and jewels woven into her upswept hair, the elaborately embroidered and beaded tunics and floor-length pelmet skirts and the indigenous Mexican woven gold chain jewels embellished with freshwater pearls.

What I didn’t realise was the reason Kahlo painted herself as brightly as a butterfly’s wing and from whence her dreamlike magic realist style of portraiture came. As a child, Frida was bed-ridden with polio. Aged eighteen her body was shattered in a trolley car accident that confined her to plaster cast corsets that resembled instruments of torture. In later life gangrene deprived her of a leg. In short, the woman beneath the carnival clothing was at war with her body.

Kahlo’s tempestuous marriage to celebrated artist Rivera and numerous affairs – with French surrealist André Breton, sculptor Isamu Noguchi and Leon Trotsky to name a very few – psychologically complicated a life already blighted by physical pain. And yet the woman staring from fifty-five self-portraits depicts a Valkyrie of the Mexican Communist party who is as emblematic of South American dissidence as Che Guevara.

The pain is in the pictures and yet Frida Kahlo seems to transcend the tortures of her life. As she said of Rivera, ‘there have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst’. Pictures of Rivera in the exhibition display a bulldog of a man who matched his wife infidelity for infidelity even having an affair with her sister Cristina.

And yet Rivera seemed to instinctively know that after her death, Frida’s reputation as an artist would far exceed his own. She had modest success with exhibitions in New York, Paris and Mexico – and was the first Mexican artist to be acquired by the Louvre – but Frida’s work was seldom bought until after her death. Now of course her canvases are exceeding the $10 million mark, Madonna is a collector and Salma Hayek played her in a movie.

One only has to look at the gift shop at the V&A to see how effectively Frida transcended her own physical pain and mental anguish having divorced and remarried Rivera and miscarried of three children. There are gaily coloured paper rose hair ornaments, canvas bags printed with her photograph and Frida-inspired bold gold jewels.

Had the exhibition not taught one so much about this complicated woman, you’d have thought she was a goddess of fashion who had danced a tarantella through life. The exhibit pulses with life and colour. Even Frida’s used Revlon cosmetics, her empty bottle of Guerlain’s Shalimar and the prosthetic leg fitted with intricately embellished red high-heeled boots evoke a glamazon rather than a woman crippled almost from birth who fought with her own body her entire life.

The curators Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrona – not to mention main sponsor the Grosvenor Estates – tell a story of beauty being found in the darkest of places. The final room fitted with a huge vitrine of Frida’s clothing is as celebratory as a Mardi Gras parade. No artist before or since is so instantly recognisable from the identity Frida crafted for herself. Her story cuts so much deeper than the posturing of contemporary peacocks such as Gilbert & George or Grayson Perry.

I would predict that Frida Kahlo will inspire fashion collections in seasons to come. She was a master image creator and the collection of her personal possessions so much more magical for having disappeared for the best part of fifty years after Rivera sealed them in the Blue House.

The Victoria & Albert is so proficient in delivering these magnificent fashion-led exhibitions that they almost make it look effortless. Gift shop aside, what I appreciate most about the V&A’s work is the cultural connections they make with collections worldwide that bring such treasures to London’s feet. For sheer overwhelming impact, Frida is up there with the marvellous McQueen exhibit.

 

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