The Intelligent Consumer: People in Fashion - Straight from the hip

Chris Maume meets Vogue's outspoken fashion features director, Lisa Armstrong
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the dark-panelled Polo Lounge of London's Westbury Hotel, Lisa Armstrong looks a little out of place amid the plumped-up richesse, an invader from the real world - which is roughly the position she occupies in the fashion firmament. She wasn't at all sure why I wanted to interview her. When I tell her that a senior insider in the fashion industry rates her as one of the best writers around, she says, with a wry smile, "Yes, she told me that. But she also said it wasn't saying much."

Yet, the fashion features director of Vogue is not prepared to rubbish rival writers. "There's an attitude among journalists that if you're intelligent you won't want to write about fashion. I still get people saying to me, `Don't you find it boring? Don't you want to do something else?'"

In journalistic terms, Lisa Armstrong has already done the something else. She grew up in Dorset, and after studying English at Bristol, she began in arts and features, part of the Elle team in the Eighties that was "trashing" Vogue, as she puts it. "But I noticed that the fashion girls would be having so much fun. They were always wearing fantastic clothes and swanning off to Milan or New York." Like several Elle-raisers, she decamped to Vogue, becoming deputy features editor, until Liz Tilberis [then Vogue editor] intervened. "She said, `D'you want to be a fashion writer?', and I went, `Whoopee!'"

All too comfortable as fashion's journal of record, Vogue at that time was reluctant to dirty its overalls in the marketplace. "I'd ask about circulation and someone would say, `Oh, don't worry about that.' There was a perception that people didn't actually read the magazine. I used to think you could write in Latin and no one would comment."

Armstrong has been in the vanguard of the transformation the magazine required in order to fend off the arrivistes. "She's an original voice," says editor Alexandra Shulman. "And she's humorous, which is rare in fashion. She provides a bridge between fashion and the rest of what's going on in life - she can take a feature on, say Calvin Klein, and relate it to politics or architecture or design. In that sense, she's the main artery of the magazine."

In fashion's hermetically sealed environment, the writer's role is complicated by the struggle for objectivity. "There is a tendency to be either a cynic or a sop because you're fed so much," Armstrong says. "I don't think there's another branch of journalism where you become so much a part of the event itself. Fashion editors are part of the colour of a show. No-one watches the journalists at a football match ." There is also the problem of access. "It's fine to get banned from a show - it makes you a quasi-hero - but if you don't see all the stuff you can get cut off." There are ways and means of being critical: "I used to write in the Independent and I thought, `I'm never going to be invited to another show.' And they just didn't spot the irony at all."

It is possible to lose one's head - "I can get very excited at shows where the clothes are not remotely wearable" - but she has common sense as a last line of defence. "I ask boring questions - can you wear this? Where are you going to wear it?" It's that real world out there intruding again.

Armstrong's real world includes an architect-husband and two young daughters, and there's a novel in progress. Not quite a roman a clef, she says. "Not Primary Colors, more Pastel Colours," but "full of things I've never been able to write about, heavily disguised. When I did the synopsis, there were some fairly ridiculous things in it, and they've all come true. It's hard to parody the fashion world."

Does she ever get ridiculous about clothes? What's the most she's ever paid for something? There's a long, long pause and a wry smile. "I think that's a secret between me and my bank manager," she says finally. "I never tell my husband. But it's great when you get palpitations about something, when you really, really, really, really want it." But, I ask, would the world be a worse place if high fashion ceased to exist? She laughs, thinks hard, then says firmly, "Yes. I really..." and bursts out laughing again. She stares at the tablecloth. "I do. I do. I think it's important in any area to have a standard bearer of excellence. I mean, I don't give a toss about Formula One racing, but, as my husband has frequently pointed out to me, all the research makes the Polo you drive a better car."

Which goes some way to summing up Lisa Armstrong: capable of breathlessness at the cut of a Jil Sander suit, but rooted in real life. Perhaps fashion's closed orders need further interventions from Planet Earth.

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