Walpole Editorial | An interview with our star columnist, Peter Howarth

In today’s interview Walpole’s star columnist Peter Howarth – the founder of creative agency Show Media and former editor of Esquire, Arena and Style Director of GQ –  talks to us about his time at the helm of the UK’s best-known men’s magazines; his most memorable interviews; and what he sees as the future of luxury ahead of publication of his next feature: ‘What is the British Design Aesthetic?’.

Tell us about your typical day?

At the moment it’s still very constrained, so involves a lot of Zoom calls and meetings, cups of coffee, phone calls (I like the phone more than email) and much pestering by my cat Maggie, who likes to remind me when she is hungry. I am trying to do a cycle ride a day for 177 days in a row too, which will land me on holiday in France on day 177 (and I’ll cycle to Provence for that). But compared to my “normal life” which is defined by meeting people and being out and about on my Triumph Thruxton motorbike, this feels like a strange interlude.

What inspires you and your writing?
All sorts of things, but principally people. I love meeting people and finding out what their enthusiasms are and how they see the world. I studied English and found that what I was really interested in was the world of ideas and the psychology of the characters on the page.

You were the editor of Esquire for many years; what was the highlight of your time at the magazine?
Somewhat infamously, I believe, I made the decision to break with the prevailing aesthetic (if you can call it that) of the lad’s mag movement that dominated the late ‘90s, and put men back on the cover of Esquire from the dawn of the new millennium, and stopped chasing readers with the sex-and-jokes formula that had proved so successful for men’s magazines at the time. It was a tough move as it impacted sales, but looking back I know it was the right one. The fact that today men’s magazines have been freed from that reductive approach is a good thing, and I am proud of what we did at Esquire to challenge the received wisdom of the time.

Why did you leave the world of magazines to set up your own creative agency?
I had worked as Style Director of GQ, Editor of Arena and Editor of Esquire for over a decade, and it seemed to me that it was time to try something else. Magazines are amazing things, and I love words and pictures and narrative. So, I thought why not apply everything I had learnt to a new field – and become a content creator? Of course, we didn’t call it that at the time, and digital communication was not even a thing in 2002 when we started, but the principle of knowing what makes a good story and how best to tell it, which, of course, lies at the root of great journalism… that is what I understood. It’s the same skill I use today. In some ways, although everything has changed in the past 20 years, it is also true that many things have not. Occasionally it is worth remembering that.

You’ve interviewed many well-known names in luxury for your Walpole columns; whose story have you found most interesting?
Each story is different, just as each person is different, and I tend to get very caught up in whatever I am trying to understand and explore at the time. I do think that Giorgio Armani’s response to the pandemic was fascinating, though. He has been in this business for decades now and has seen so much, and so is in a position to say what he thinks without worrying about how it will be taken. So, he not only helped fight COVID-19 with practical steps – financial donations and making protective clothing in his factories – but also launched a public assault on the fashion system, which he sees as having taken a wrong turn. His calling out of wastefulness and excess in the industry was refreshing.

What does British luxury mean to you?
I love Britishness as it was portrayed in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony in 2012. For me we are a tolerant, multicultural, creative, unpredictable and surprising nation, with a culture that reflects that. I was lucky enough to be at the ceremony and I remember thinking how wonderful it was to see a celebration of such an eclectic mix of stories – Windrush, The Beatles, Tim Berners-Lee, Mr. Bean, Kenneth Branagh as Brunel, James Bond, the Queen, David Beckham and the Arctic Monkeys. British luxury for me has to have some of that character, some of that creative eclecticism, to be interesting.

The global luxury tropes of quality and craft and good design and authenticity (which doesn’t have to mean old – think of a brand new restaurant serving dishes authentically), these are all important. But what makes it British luxury is a characteristic that is not covered by those things alone. My first job out of university was for Paul Smith, a man for whom I have the utmost fondness and respect, and who taught me so much. His combination of a love of Savile Row tailoring, Midlands manufacturing, the Slade School of Fine Art, British pop and rock, and Monty Python-like surreal humour was, and still is, exhilarating. It reflects something about our national character that is very appealing, not just to ourselves, but to the rest of the world too.

What do you see as the future of luxury?
I hope it will evolve in a way that understands the times we live in. Sustainability and ethical production are factors that are important to consumers and so need to be taken on board by luxury firms. And I would like luxury to reflect true value for money. By which I mean that things should not be deemed luxury products just because they are expensive. If they are expensive, it should be because they warrant the price because of how they are made, what they are made of and how good they are. Luxury should really be about being best in class.

In a parallel life, what would you be doing?
If there’s a job going for a Shakespearian biker tutor who gets time off to paint portraits let me know.

What’s your best luxury under £10?
Maggie my cat was free – she is a rescue cat. Definitely my best luxury. And my favourite.

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