Train Wrecks. May 2017.

Dear Rowley,

I never usually miss an opportunity to comment on the annual Met Gala ball in New York with US Vogue editor Anna Wintour as ringmaster. I am sure the guests had a horrible sinking feeling on learning that the exhibition being celebrated was Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons label and the dress code avant garde. Not that Rihanna, Madonna, Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga usually need any encouragement to commission a get-up that would have ordinary citizens of Manhattan arrested for gross indecency.

It has taken a week to absorb the crimes of fashion that were committed on the red carpet leading to the Metropolitan Museum and after much chloroform and days in darkened rooms I can give voice. Was I the only one to sink to my knees and ululate for the death of the fashion industry as we know it? Had I been in New York, I would have been knitting on Fifth Avenue like Madame Defarge beneath the guillotine at the sights that I can’t unsee.

Madonna is usually the bellwether of just how dark a turn fashion would take at the Met Gala and she didn’t disappoint this year. Picture a floor-length gown made out of camouflage with a train of webbing that you’d find draped over a British army tent in Kandahar and you’re half way there to the full horror. It was Madonna circa American Life by way of Dad’s Army.

I tell you darling, they came thick and fast after that monstrosity with variations on the avant garde theme that had you questioning the sanity of the organising committee. Katy Perry’s blood red floor-length offering designed by Galliano for Maison Margiela had me wondering whether she hadn’t mistaken the theme for sacrificial offering at the altar of a camp religious cult. Who was her plus one? Aleister Crowley?

We have clearly regressed from the era when Jeanne Lanvin or Madame Vionnet knew how to bias cut satin gowns with manageable trains. A lady called Gigi Hadid wore a nude Tommy Hilfiger dress with a half-train lashed to half a long-sleeve mini dress cut in geometric chunks of bandage-pink fabric. Poor dear Priyanka Chopra wore a super-sized mac cut by Ralph Lauren with a tarpaulin train the length of Fifth Avenue. The upturned collar framed a décolletage that Dolly Parton would have been proud of and she finished the ensemble with ankle length, high heeled boots. It was Pat Butcher meets Cynthia Payne.

I do get Jenners and Hadids mixed-up, don’t you? They’re all dangerously close to crossing the ‘fire the stylist’ line. Bella Hadid wore a black Alexander Wang jumpsuit to the ball. The neckline was pretty but the rest look awfully itchy. Some chafing will occur! I bet she couldn’t wait to change for the after party. Kendall Jenner wore a black garment made by underwear brand La Perla with an interesting cutout from collarbone to belly button. It was fraught with dire consequences.

Whenever I see the Olsen twins I always want to order them a cheeseburger. Still, should The Woman in White ever be remade as a movie they’d make marvellous distressed wraiths. I always consider their style to be granny’s haberdashery box. If it’s in it, it’s on em. Poor Hilary Baldwin in tiered Carolina Herrera looked like a toilet dolly with plastic boobs supplied by Mattel.

Don’t you find that Rita Ora is missing an H at the beginning of her surname? For this year’s Met Gala Rita went the full Gypsy Rose Lee in red satin bows surrounding an hourglass stripper dress that would make a hooker blush. Jennifer Lopez’s stylist must have had notes that read ‘Margot Ledbetter raises her game to Valentino couture’. A sky blue kaftan with train? Really? Really?

Who else distinguished themselves on avant garde night? Comedienne Amy Schumer looked like a Barnsley barmaid in what appeared to be a black leather hourglass gown that pushed her boobs roughly above her earlobes. Nicky Minaj wore H&M. It was red and black and revealing. Comes a time in every Salome’s career when she cannot afford to drop the seventh veil.

The number of children of the famous be they Jackson, Ritchie, Stallone or Osborne was quite striking this year proving the hereditary fame theory that might conceivably cause the death of celebrity sooner rather than later. How depressing to hear that Beckhams and Smiths (as in Will) and the like allow their kids to enter the shark pool at such a young age.

You know it is a state of fashion emergency when one of the most tasteful frocks off the block was designed by Stella McCartney: the patron saint of hereditary celebrity. I thought she did a good job with a silver backless mermaid dress modelled by Gisele Bundchen. Then again, you could put Gisele in a Primark carrier bagged she’d look sensational. My favourite dress of the evening was Gwyneth Paltrow’s minimal pink Calvin Klein. It couldn’t have been less avant garde if it was labelled Jaeger but gosh it was pretty.

The worst excesses of women’s fashion did of course allow the men to shine. The dreamy Alexander Skarsgard looked edible in a white Zegna DJ with a sapphire and diamond Cartier pin on the lapel. Ansel Elgort wore a sharp one-button Tom Ford ivory DJ with silk facings that pleased the eye. Even Rami Malek’s red Dior Homme suit wiped the floor with Miss Hora.

The lesson to learn from the Met Gala was never, ever encourage show-offs to be avant garde. The train wreck that ensues might bring down the fashion system entirely.

 

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Well Done That Man. May 2017.

Dear Rowley,

One of the best royal biographies I have ever read was penned in 2011 by Philip Eade. Its title? Young Prince Philip: His Turbulent Early Life. We are all so familiar with the Windsor lineage but over and above his Greek blood, Prince Philip’s family has been largely forgotten. But their story goes some way to explaining why the ninety-six-year old Duke of Edinburgh has been such an exemplary consort to his wife The Queen.

Within eighteen months of his birth in the palace of Mon Repos on Corfu, Prince Philip was forced to flee with his parents Prince Andrew of Greece & Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg who had met at King Edward VII’s coronation. The Greek monarchy rose and fell with alarming regularity in the first half of the 20th century and Prince Andrew barely escaped a court martial and a bullet before a British warship was sent to rescue he and his family.

From early childhood, Prince Philip was sent to boarding schools and holidayed with his uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten. In 1930 his parents separated. Prince Andrew lived in hotels on the French riviera with his mistress while Princess Alice returned to Athens where she suffered great hardship during World War II. Prince Andrew died in Monte Carlo in 1944 not having seen his wife, son or four daughters for five years.

Prince Philip must have developed great self-reliance, resilience and his black sense of humour from his troubled family. All four of his sisters married German princes; three of whom were high ranking Nazis. When his sister Cecile, her husband and two children were killed in a plane crash in 1937, Goering attended the funeral. During the war Prince Philip was a British Naval officer while his in-laws fought with Hitler.

Before he married Princess Elisabeth, Prince Philip’s mother had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, forcibly sectioned and spent two years in a Swiss sanitarium. When Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth did marry despite concerns from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1947 none of his sisters were invited to the wedding. The royal wedding was a love match but one imagines Prince Philip was grateful to find a stable family in the Windsors.

In 1949 Princess Alice founded an order of nuns inspired by her aunt the Grand Duchess Ella of Russia who had been murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) allegedly commented ‘what can y0u say of a nun who chain-smokes and plays canasta?’ Princess Alice sailed down the aisle of Westminster Abbey in her grey nun’s habit when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953. This time Prince Philip’s sisters Theodora, Margarita and Sophie were invited as were their German husbands.

I had no idea that for the last two years of her life, Princess Alice came to live with Prince Philip and The Queen at Buckingham Palace where her presence could be sensed as she walked the corridors puffing on her cigarettes. I don’t think anyone can underestimate the scrutiny Prince Philip was under in the early years of the reign. And yet he passed with flying colours.

Princess Marina told Dickie Mountbatten that she thought her cousin Philip was ‘coping with it in the right way. He has a charming approach with people & an easy manner & speaks it seems very well in public. Never too much in the background & yet not too much in front, He has his own opinions & plays an intelligent part in things. I think & pray they are very happy’.

And so after seventy years of marriage to The Queen, Prince Philip has proved Princess Marina right. For a man of action such as he to accept what was essentially a supporting role was a sacrifice as well as an agreement. But the Duke of Edinburgh never allowed himself to be emasculated or feel self-pity for being The Queen’s plus one. From the few loose lips at the royal households it seems clear that if HM reigns, it is the Duke of Edinburgh who rules behind palace doors.

So now he is set to retire from public life as of Autumn 2017 or, in his words, ‘stand down before I fall down’. It has already been announced that The Queen’s children and grandchildren will accompany her on a full diary of engagements that only recently ceased to include long haul tours. I think now would be a very good moment for Theresa May to commission a new Royal Yacht Britannia as a retirement gift for Prince Philip and The Queen.

I am sure we have not seen the last of the Duke of Edinburgh but I do think he has more than earned a private life this late in the game. I don’t think anyone would blame The Queen for sharing his retirement although HM ruled that out in 1952. The Duke’s stepping down from public service does prepare the way for a time when The Queen may no longer be able to keep-up with her busy calendar.

Once again Prince Philip is acting in The Queen’s best interests and tacitly reminding the nation that both are now in their nineties. Though I hope it is a long way off, I do think King Charles – or George as he may assume a new regnant name – and Queen Camilla will be worthy successors to the British monarchy’s most enduring and successful marriage.

 

 

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Bullets over Broadway. April 2017.

Dear Rowley,

As I write, I’m on an American Airlines flight back to London after a spectacular stay in New York. It was a business trip but there was an awful lot of time to play. I had a Museum Mile afternoon revisiting the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum. Despite being a gloomy old barn of a mansion, the Frick is worth the ticket for the Holbein the Younger portraits of Sir Thomas Moore and Thomas Cromwell.

My favourite galleries in the Met are the Jane Wrightsman Galleries of historic interiors rescued from demolished palaces and mansions in Europe then rebuilt in the museum with all the original furniture in place. It always amuses me when Doris from Hoboken nudges Pearl and says ‘I couldn’t live in that’ as she points to an 18th century music room from a Loire chateau. My response? ‘Try me’.

This trip was really all about Broadway for me. First up was War Paint the musical inspired by a book of the same name penned by La Farmer’s friend Lindy Woodhead. The stars are Broadway belters Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole playing rival beauty queens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.

What was right with it? Patti Lupone is a force of nature who plays East European Jewish battle axe Helena Rubenstein with visceral guts, glory and cynicism. Patti’s vibrato is an instrument of such power. She slices notes like chopped liver. Rubinstein’s jewels – presumably Verdura, Boivin and Flato – are spectacular as is the scene where Madame luxuriates in bed with a claw-on-stick to reach jewels, letters and pastries.

Ebersole is the ostensibly patrician Arden whose signature colour is pink and whose lotions and potions are a fraction of the price of the ribbons on the bottles. Arden is a steel butterfly and Ebersole captures a woman with a mind like a steel trap for whom appearances are everything.

It is evident that both Rubinstein and Arden are snake oil saleswomen – particularly when a court orders them to reveal their ingredients – but also that they were capitalist feminist role models in an era when women on top were treated with the deepest suspicion. The book is really rather brilliant and I was reminded of nothing so much as the film biopic of rival Hollywood gossip queens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons called Malice in Wonderland.

There is no attempt to take the spotlight away from Lupone and Ebersole with ingenue love stories. But I would have loved to have seen a lot more of the young Turk Charles ‘Revlon’ Revson and his poster girl Dorian Leigh. Dorian gets a great number when Revlon’s Fire & Ice campaign topples Rubinstein and Arden. It is the sexiest and most memorable song in the show.

It is unforgivable to leave a Broadway show and not have a single tune sung by the leads dancing in your head. There was one eleven o clock number given to Ebersole about Arden Pink. The song was only memorable because the word ‘Pink’ was repeated about 100 times including a mawkish reference to pink being the babe Arden never bore. Pass the sick bucket, Maud.

You cannot fault Lupone or Ebersole for this two-hander but you could see Lupone channelling her Eva Peron and Norma Desmond in frustration that the material was a mite too thin for her talent. Nobody could accuse Hello Dolly! of being thin.

I can’t tell you how excited I was to be leaning on a red velvet balustrade at the back of the stalls in the Schubert Theater with my ‘Sippy Cup’ of Sauvignon in hand waiting for the curtain to go up on Bette Midler’s Dolly! Evidently the role is made for 71-year old Miss M and the supporting cast assembled around her has more power than the national grid.

Lesser stars might not have couched David Hyde Pierce’s scene-stealing as Horace Vandergelder and the juvenile lover quartet being quite so effervescent. Canny Miss Midler knows that this is going to be a sell-out long run and she is going to need to keep her powder dry. So by and large she lets her cast give till it hurts and saves her high notes and high volts for the big numbers.

On the plus side, Dolly appears early in the production (unlike War Paint) with a grin from ear-to-ear underneath a straw boater and delivers patter song Just Leave Everything to Me with chutzpah and laughs. Perhaps justifiably, Bette absorbs the adoration coming in waves from the auditorium and takes the breaks standing ovations allow.

There is  no getting around the fact that Miss M repeatedly saves her voice by mouthing the words when the chorus are at full belt rather than leading them. We got to the end of act one show stopper Before the Parade Passes By happy but not overwhelmed. Parade is one of those Bolero numbers that builds to a big Ethel Merman finish. I saw Bette Midler hit high notes repeatedly at the O2 in London where she gave the show of a lifetime. For Dolly! she vamped it.

Act Two of Hello Dolly! is a basic hold-your-breath for the intro to the title song then a race to Sardi’s for a post-show supper. Whatever you’ve paid for Hello Dolly! it is worth every red cent to watch Bette Midler perform the title number in an off-the-shoulder red beaded Belle Epoque gown and a feather headdress. Miss M gives the definitive rendition of Hello Dolly! and dances up a storm with the boys. Once again it is a big ensemble number with a lot of support for the star.

Lupone and Ebersole gave their all but could not overcome so-so material whereas Miss M gave just enough in Broadway gold. If you love musicals, seeing Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! is up there with Ethel Merman in Gypsy and Patti Lupone in Evita.

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New York New York. April 2017.

Dear Rowley,

You know one of my all time favourite Noël Coward songs is Sail Away. Coward lived by the lyrics: ‘when the wind and the weather blow your dreams sky high, sail away, sail away, sail away’. Well, in the years when rather a few of my dreams were blown sky high, I didn’t have Mr Coward’s luxury of boarding a Cunard liner and leaving a sky full of crap behind in London. However, with new dreams came a trip to New York that I have to say was my happiest time in Manhattan to date.

The invitation came courtesy of Evan Yurman whose father David and mother Sybil founded what has become one of the most directional fine men’s jewellers thanks to their ‘son also rising’. I stayed in TriBeCa a cross street away from where I lived with Mr Garland on Greenwich Street when I first came to New York in the late 90s. I am rather a Downtown boy and love the low rise West Village with its brownstones, blossom trees, cobbled streets and Muscle Marys.

I stayed at the Arlo which is a designated Hipster Hotel barely a year old. The room was smaller than Bloomsbury Square but had an absolute peach of a double bed with a TV the size of the Odeon Leicester Square at its foot. I could so live in a hotel though am inherently suspicious of ones with ironic vinyl collections, retro board game cabinets and a Post-It note wall. Oh, and hidden charges behind every 1970s pot plant.

New York is a curious city. Those skyscrapers can make you stand as tall as you ever have in your life or make you feel pitifully small. The billboards in Times Square either suggest you’re losing in life not to be up there or galvanise the ambitious to show some spunk and take Manhattan. Nothing quite says success like staring down on the city lights from the Art Deco Rainbow Room on top of the Rockefeller Center with a martini in your hand.

New York has style but not elegance, attitude but not aggression and as many psychics as shrinks. What I like about New York is that everyone from the bag lady to the Park Avenue matron will instinctively check their reflection in Bergdorfs’ window and do a valedictory hair pat. Just being a part of Manhattan street theatre equals success.

There is a lot of pride in New York City. There’s also an awful lot of poverty. I would imagine 90% of the people on the isle of Manhattan are there to serve the 10% coffee and Danish, shine their shoes, drive their cars and clean their apartments. Respect for the dollar is tantamount to a religion. If you’ve got a few bucks in your pocket to over-tip, New York opens up to you like the first act tap number in 42nd Street.

Now bearing in mind the rain was torrential for two of my three days in New York, I still had a blast. My friend Eric invited me for first night drinks and oysters at Balthazar and treated us to War Paint tickets at the Nederlander of which more in my second dispatch from New York.

The divas ruled this visit: not only Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole as Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden in War Paint but also late night drinks in the bar above Joe Allen and Orso with Eric when a pant-suited Glenn Close still in vestiges of stage make-up blew in with a gaggle of gay men fresh from playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Miss Close has style in spades and I don’t think she’s a stranger to three gawping queens with shy smiles and dancing eyes following her every move. It was Eric who suggested I queue-up for standing tickets the next morning to see Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! The show had only just opened, the reviews have been ululations of joy and I really didn’t think there was a hope.

Well, shows how wrong you can be. I met a charming gang in the line including a Noo Yawk broad who knew more about Broadway than Walter Winchell and a very sweet 71-year old sister called Charles. Turns out Charles used to go to the Continental Baths in the 1970s where Miss Midler’s career began singing to a gaggle of gay men wearing towels lounging round the pool.

The bathhouses in New York were legendary in the 1970s as was the Divine Miss M – or Bathhouse Bette – whose performance has been captured on a grainy YouTube film. Even then, she had it all: the energy, the camp, the belting big voice and the sheer joie de vivre at the absurdity of life. Charles told me that Miss M used to come out after the show and sit by the pool in a dressing gown and towelling turban.

Charles also told me that for an encore Miss M would sing Chattanooga Choo Choo and throw  basket of poppers to the boys around the pool. Oh the 70s. How I wish I’d been a teenager in the 70s. Charles and I were both bemoaning that apart from a few heritage joints on Christopher Street, all the gay bars seem to have vanished.

Not that New York lacks a camp theatrical sensibility. One such joint is Chez Josephine on 42nd and 9th where Sally Morrison treated me to a late lunch. Chez Josephine belongs to one of Miss Baker’s Rainbow Tribe of children that she adopted in Paris. It is an exuberant piano bar that’s been around for thirty years.

You can read all about the Evan Yurman interview when Sartorial Treasures: Jewellery for Gentlemen comes out next year. Until next time…

 

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Heads Together. April 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Do you think we’ve reached the tipping point with cookbooks? To quote Kath & Kim, we’ve had Nude Food, Crude Food and Rude Food. We’ve endured Helmsley sisters, Simply Allsopps, Deliciously Ellas and now (God forbid) the Midlife Diet to add to the Clean Diet, Mean Diet and Green Diet. Of course what it all boils down to is the same old nuts, kale, mackerel and birdseed that came in on the Arc: that and don’t be such a lardy load of greedy fat guzzlers.

Now H is around I am much more guns-ho about wielding the old Le Creuset every so often and throwing another slab of sirloin onto the grill. Hand on heart, I’d much rather devour a dozen oysters on a bed of shaved ice at J. Sheekey’s any day of the week but it is rather nice to cook again. That said, I think the last cookbook I bought was Mrs Beeton, darling. And don’t get me started on baking bores…

In other news, I have written endlessly that Mrs May should call an election and now she has. For all the opposition politicians calling foul because Mrs May has chosen to go to the people when the Labour party is an abject chaos I have one thing to say. Wouldn’t you? It seems incredible t0 me that ex-PM Tony Blair feels compelled to whip-up tactical voting amongst the Remainers. Hearing Mr Blair trying to manipulate the country to undermine Mrs May is like the gurgling of a U-bend as political credibility is flushed down the lavatory.

Still, we can’t be complacent. Much mischief will be made in the lead-up to the General Election not least from that gurning can of Irn Bru Nicola Sturgeon. I loved the photo op when the kittenish Sturgeon – who is let’s face it about as kittenish as Les Dawson – had her stocking feet tucked under a pencil skirt on a sofa in imitation of Mrs Thatcher. It was like watching John Prescott do a Betty Grable over-the-shoulder swimsuit shot.

I do believe Mrs May has the moxie to outwit the opposition from within and without her party. Panic over that Mr Osborne has decided to stand down and concentrate on his other more lucrative contracts. If I were Mrs May, I would be concerned to see Osborne at the helm of the Evening Standard: a tactical appointment if ever there was one on behalf of Mr Lebedev. If only Evelyn Waugh was alive to fictionalise it.

Now, what do we think about the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry’s Heads Together campaign to promote awareness of mental health? Today they waved-off Heads Together runners in the London Marathon. Both Princes William and Harry have spoken movingly about the emotional maelstrom following their mother Diana, Princess of Wales’s death. The Duchess has spoken about post-natal anxiety.

So trust all the ghastly Wednesday Witch columnists in the tabloids and broadsheets making snide remarks about the Duchess living in palaces surrounded by servants and having no right to mental health issues. Well, anyone who has lived with mania and depression can tell you they have no respect of class, culture or circumstance. The removal of financial difficulties can of course ease depression but good God should’t the princes and the duchess deserve credit for highlighting an illness that is no less of a killer than cancer?

Despite the press needling Heads Together it has been made known that The Queen approves of her grandsons’ charitable activities. Good for Her Majesty taking care of the Windsor cubs. Inevitably Heads Together has brought back the spirit of the late Diana, Princess of Wales who made no secret that she suffered from crippling anxieties, bulimia and self-harming episodes as a young woman. I was a big fan of Diana not least for her work with HIV and AIDS and her candour about mental health. The Duke and Duchess and Prince Harry are continuing her legacy.

Well, what else is new on the Rialto? I’m off to New York for the first time in about a decade on Tuesday to interview David Yurman creative director Evan Yurman. I am so looking forward to New York and will hopefully catch-up with friends, see a bit of Broadway and revisit some old haunts in the West Village. I love New York if you have a purpose for being there and tonnes of friends to see. I never thought the Jewellery for Gentleman book would take me so far this year. Can I get an Amen in here?

It is miraculous to me that after some very lean years, life has suddenly gone from black and white to Glorious Technicolor. H has a lot to do with this breath of fresh air and renewed lust for life. I’ve also had something of an epiphany about putting work in its place. It’s not that I care less but rather that there is so much more to happiness to be found elsewhere. You can’t curl up with a career on a cold night as Bette Davis wisely said.

 

 

 

 

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