“I think that there will come a point where we can’t bear to look at our trainers anymore.”

Walpole CEO Helen Brocklebank talks to Lydia Slater, Editor in Chief of Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country about the role of luxury magazines in a pandemic, the importance of women of substance, and why dressing well is an act of generosity.

By Helen Brocklebank

It’s no easy task taking the reins of the UK’s most successful luxury glossy, but Lydia Slater’s career to date could be seen as the perfect apprenticeship for that top job at Harper’s Bazaar. As a teenager, her first foray into journalism was a piece for Harper’s & Queen, as the title was then known, and she went onto become Features Editor under Fiona MacPherson. I was lucky enough to work with her when she returned to Harper’s Bazaar more than a decade later as Deputy Editor where, in addition to the day job, she developed ‘Bazaar at Work’ from a quarterly feature to a multi-platform sub-brand with a starry event at its heart –  the annual Bazaar at Work Summit – which fast became the hot ticket for Harper’s Bazaar’s high-flying, ambitious readers. Famous for her passion for Bazaar, as well as for her perceptive, compelling  interviews with everyone from Nicole Kidman to David Attenborough, when Justine Picardie stepped down as Editor in Chief late in 2019, putting Lydia Slater at the helm of Harper’s was a natural next step, and last October she was confirmed as Editor in Chief.

It’s definitely an evolution not a revolution.

New editors of high-profile fashion magazines are often keen on radical overhauls but, knowing Harper’s Bazaar as intimately as she does, was it easier to know what to preserve and what to change? “It’s definitely an evolution not a revolution.” Slater tells me when we speak over Zoom, “It’s very much a publication I’ve always loved, and what I love about it is the combination of beautiful fashion, but also culture and a touch of wit, so that’s not going to change.”

However, editing a luxury title at the height of global pandemic means changes are part of the new normal, and well-honed plans have to be jettisoned at a minute’s notice. A cover shoot in New York with Ashley Graham looked doomed when it was announced the city was going into lockdown, and Graham and her family would leave immediately for the relative safety of Nebraska. But constraint is the author of creativity and within hours Slater and her team had come up with a new concept. With Bazaar’s Creative Director Jo Goodby giving art direction over zoom, Graham’s cinematographer husband would take the pictures for a shoot inspired by a favourite painting, Christina’s World,  “…they shot it on the farmland that belonged to her uncle and it couldn’t have been further away from a slick New York studio-based shoot. Her mother did her make-up, her mother’s boyfriend was the photographer’s assistant and then I did the interview over Zoom whilst she was there in her kitchen with the baby. So different from anything we’d ever done before but it turned out to be something quite special. It was fresh and it was intimate and I think it reflected what people were feeling at the time.”

Being able to think on your feet is the mark of a good editor, and like many of us, Slater and her team at Bazaar have had to adapt to working remotely; as she says, “I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be glad to go back to having a wonderful smooth process with my staff available to be there on the shoots and so forth. Once we are allowed to do that I think we will go back to that, but it’s great to know that we do have the ability to be more flexible and turn on a sixpence.”

Long print magazine lead times bring an extra layer of complexity in a world where things are constantly shifting: as Slater wrote in her February Editor’s Letter, it’s impossible to know “if by the time it is read the world will be celebrating a joyful breakthrough or mourning some devastating reverse”. Having a celebrity on the cover promoting a film which is then shelved due to Covid would obviously strike a duff note, but it’s striking the right tone of voice that Slater sees as fundamental. The role of a magazine like Bazaar is to be uplifting and joyful, but something that pre-pandemic would simply have been fun and frivolous can land badly in a time of crisis.

People of substance

“At the moment” Slater says, “It’s very difficult to tread the right line when you’re offering people something luxurious, because it can’t feel irrelevant somehow… I wanted to feature people of substance, regardless of whether or not their project might happen: what was important was that they had something to say.” It’s these ‘people of substance’ who are at the heart of Slater’s vision for the magazine: her first ‘Bazaar Women of the Year’ became a kind of manifesto for ‘her’ Bazaar: “I felt like Sarah Gilbert was somebody that wouldn’t have been a Woman of the Year before. And she clearly deserved to be there. Her work with the vaccine was extraordinary and that is the sort of person that we should be highlighting.” For Bazaar, the infinite variety will always help create the magic, “I think the point is a gorgeous intoxicating mix of the sort of beautiful, inspiring well-known women that we love, like Cate Blanchett or Gillian Anderson with people who are breaking the mould, like Lashana Lynch, for example, and then women who are doing great things in fields that maybe slightly less core Bazaar territory but for me are very core to Bazaar At Work.

So it’s women leading the way in whatever field it might be.”

Luxury’s digital acceleration resonates at Bazaar too, and has helped open up the brand to a wider, more inclusive audience. “There are opportunities in crisis,” says Slater, talking about her brainchild, the Bazaar at Work Summit, “We were able to have Julia Gillard, the former Australian Prime Minister, talking from Australia…it morphed into something slightly different.” Rather than a single day for 250 women in London, it was “four days worth of talks with live chat, where interviewees were able to be part of the discussion [with the audience]… everybody’s events are going to have to be hybrid, but I now see that that’s actually potentially quite exciting for us.”

The Future of Fashion

What about the future of fashion, I ask her. Even before the pandemic, there was a great deal of concern around the environmental impact of the cycle of fashion shows and the sheer number of collections produced – will anything change? It may be a little too early to say, thinks Slater: “I think everybody right now is in crisis management mode and you are seeing all sorts of interesting things like Jonathan Anderson’s show-in-a-box and films [Slater has just been watching Maria Grazia Chiuri’s magical tarot-themed film for Dior’s Couture show].There’s been a lot of really interesting responses. Some brands will probably try to go back to business as usual, but I’m sure that most will want to row back and keep it purer. Whatever they do we will adapt. Part of luxury is having a clear conscience and having that sense of purpose is increasingly important in luxury and this [the pandemic] has made it more so.”

If the long-term response to the pandemic is still a work in progress for the luxury and high-end fashion sector, what of the customer? Will a year of juggling WFH with home-schooling children, and dressing up being nothing more exciting than flinging a jacket over gym kit for a Zoom call, whilst high heels and statement bags gather dust in the wardrobe, change how Bazaar readers feel about fashion forever?  Slater doesn’t think so; “right now everybody is enjoying the UGGs and the elasticated trousers and the comfy jumpers, but I feel like life is all about contrast and just the joy of the Manolo Blahniks and putting something on that gives you a shape, a beautiful red lip and going out. I think there’s something generous about dressing well. It’s a compliment you’re paying to somebody else.

I mean if somebody comes to see me dressed in jeans it doesn’t feel special, whereas if somebody is wearing this fabulous blouse I feel touched. I think that there will come a point where we can’t bear to look at our trainers anymore and we will revel in dressing up, looking fabulous and having that fashion interaction with each other.”

Whilst the crisis may still be full throttle, I can see how mood-enhancing wearing proper clothes can be, for you, and for anyone else that might see you. A tenet of luxury is that the things we treasure most come properly and elegantly packaged. If you aspire to being a woman of substance, are you doing yourself and others a disservice if you don’t dress like one? I ask Slater to tell me a little more about what she means by the generosity of dressing well: “I was walking down the street and a woman was walking towards me wearing beautiful polished black boots and a cashmere wrap and she had lovely blow dried hair and lipstick and sunglasses and I sort of looked at her like she was a creature from outer space. It wasn’t just that she looked amazing, but she also made me feel happy, I just felt it was a sign, there was something really life-enhancing about it.”

And with that, off I go to blow dry my hair (I do the back as well as the front and sides for the first time in months), put proper lipstick on and a hat, and take my good shoes and best coat from the wardrobe before venturing out into the wilds of Shepherds Bush for the daily wander. As I walk, I think about the role of the luxury glossy in a time of necessity, and of the delight and pleasure and escape I have had from Lydia Slater’s latest Harper’s Bazaar, reading the words of great writers and hearing uplifting stories and seeing beautiful photography, amazing fashion and lovely jewellery. It does you a power of good.

An old lady calls out to me – she loves my hat, she says, I look a picture. She’s made my day.

harpersbazaar.com/uk

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