My career has been thanks in part to a cabal of strong women who mentored me throughout my life. In Junior School it was the immaculate Miss Dalton; she of the glossy cottage loaf hair, immaculate make-up and Jaeger silk crepe dresses. The lady was like an airline stewardess on Concorde and trained my eye for good fashion. At Senior School it was the spinster Miss Wragg who continued to dress as she did in the 1950s with hair not dissimilar to Betty Grable. She was my English teacher and quite literally led me towards the 1st class degree I gained at university.
My mentor at university was not a teacher. It was the bewitching Tessa Salma, a mature student with whom I would sip White Russians in OffShore 44 on the Quayside in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Many of my mentors have segued into dear friends. One is legendary Cosmopolitan editor Marcelle d’Argy Smith who taught me how a magazine works when I did placements there for four summer holidays running in my late teens. Another was Sunday Express deputy editor Alison McDonald whose other protégées were A. A. Gill and Christa de Souza. Alison wore black gloves and smoked More menthols: fabulous.
But the most important mentor was a lady who taught me for less than eighteen months and has been a dear friend and guide in the twenty-five years that followed. Bobby Hillson had many lives. In the post-World War II years she was THE fashion illustrator for Vogue. To put this in context, Andy Warhol was her American counterpart closely followed by Joe Eula. Bobby’s sketches have a fine economy of line and she had the ability to watch a Chanel show, dash back to her hotel and reproduce the entire collection line-by-line.
I first met Bobby when I started my MA in fashion journalism at Central Saint Martins when it was still on the Charing Cross Road. I took an instant dislike to the lack of discipline and tutoring at St Martins after the rigours of an English Literature BA. The late Sally Brampton was the course leader but it was Bobby’s classes that fed my creativity the most. She could speak eloquently about my fashion idol Halston and went into raptures over my sketches of vintage Hubert de Givenchy couture.
Bobby and I were not friends at St Martins because the divide had to be maintained between tutor and student. But I valued the advice she would give me in her office when I bemoaned that we were in the era of Grunge when all I longed for in fashion was glamour. I was rather lonely at Saint Martins and found a new family working as a cocktail waitress at a bar called The Yard. But thanks to Bobby I kept my eye on the ball and got a distinction plus a work placement at Tatler.
Though she would hate me saying so, Bobby was and is a class act. With Snow White hair, sophisticated pearl jewellery and a twinkle in the eyes that could blind you when amused, Bobby Hillson was the matriarch of Central Saint Martins. Her critiques were merciless and on a par in wit with the screenplay for All About Eve. This was in stark contrast to the terrorist tactics of the late Louise Wilson who always reminded me of Winnie Mandela surrounded as she always was by her ‘football team’ of favourites who served as the flying monkeys to her Wicked Witch of the West.
Bobby never needed to raise her voice to show disapproval; only an arched eyebrow would have the same effect as Louise’s bellowing. It was Bobby who recognised Alexander McQueen’s talent when he interviewed for a role as a pattern-cutting tutor. Bobby was interested in his sketches and his background as a Savile Row apprentice and offered him a place on her MA course. The rest is genuine fashion history. John Galliano also owes Bobby a debt for steering him into business because an MA would be superfluous.
I have kept in touch with Bobby throughout the highs and lows of my career and her advice is always the one I turn to and trust. A month ago she charmed an audience at Central Saint Martins when she did an ‘in conversation’ organised by fashion journalism tutor and friend Judith Watt. Bobby let her guard down and spoke about the creativity at art schools in London immediately after World War II. She discussed her life as a fashion illustrator and the instinct for fashion being right or wrong which made her such an intuitive tutor.
Personally, I think Bobby need never have retired. Her bravura conversation at college recently showed that her Sword of Damocles approach to fashion is as relevant today as it was when she was sketching Chanel’s comeback collection in the 1950s. Bobby has an elegance that does not exist in the PC, international student-heavy fashion colleges of today. She can scent mendacity at 500 paces and knew instinctively which direction a designer or writer should travel. Bobby is also merciless when challenged but is never cruel. Her criticism is in one’s own best interest.
Of all the sly, back-handed, mendacious recipients of the Honours System, it seems incredible to me that Bobby Hillson has not been awarded an MBE for services to fashion. I would agree that Vivienne Westwood deserves her Damehood and that Paul Smith is a worthy Sir. Not so sure about young British fashion designers getting gongs just so the government of the day seems right-on and relevant. Bobby’s body of work is worthy of an honour and I for one shall be lobbying for it in next year’s New Year’s Honours list. Until next time…