The Emperor's new clothes line: Last week the tycoon Conrad Black emerged as a fashion pundit in the pages of his own newspaper

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The Independent Online
CONRAD BLACK is acknowledged as an expert on Napoleon and nobody can doubt that he understands business, and particularly the media business. But nobody had thought of the owner of the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator as an arbiter of fashion - until last week, that is, when he decided that it was time to take a firm line on the fashion industry's move towards longer skirts. He is, unashamedly, against them, and on Thursday told the country so: or at least the part of it that reads the Daily Telegraph.

Readers of the newspaper's fashion page were treated to what was described as 'a personal offensive against the efforts of the long-skirt brigade to kill off the short skirt'. It is believed to be the first time a newspaper proprietor has written for his own fashion page.

Mr Black has never been a man racked by uncertainty. In characteristic style he wrote: 'The frenzied efforts of the long faction to pretend that the short has been exterminated other than among the perverse, the penniless or the reactionary enemies of style is outrageous.'

Some of his fire was directed at his own newspaper. He raged: 'It is bunk to claim that long is in, short is out and anything above the knee, as the Daily Telegraph wrote of the Princess of Wales, is dowdy.'

It is not the first time that Mr Black, who took control of the Telegraph papers in 1985, has criticised his own publications this way. Writing letters and articles of complaint to his own papers appears to be a safety valve for the opinionated millionaire, whose Hollinger group controls more than 260 newspapers, mainly in Canada and the United States.

In 1989 he had a letter published in the Daily Telegraph attacking a previous editorial in the newspaper which had criticised US opposition to the compulsory repatriation of Vietnamese boat people. He said it contained 'disquieting inconsistencies'.

Even more extraordinary was a recent letter to the Spectator, which retracted, and apologised for, some aspects of a letter he had written to the magazine a year previously complaining about three separate articles. He admitted that subsequent events had proved him wrong.

Mr Black, 48, also likes to write in the Daily Telegraph about his homeland. The Canadian elections were the subject of one piece and he was also asked to review The Oxford Book Of Canadian Military Anecdotes.

His preoccupation - some might say obsession - with Napoleon and military history led him to have a three-storey extension built at his Toronto mansion to house 15,000 volumes in a library which is topped by a copper cupola modelled on the dome of St Peter's in Rome.

But what lay behind last week's outburst on fashion from a man with no previously published views on the subject? The immediate reason was that Mr Black was accepting a challenge from Kathryn Samuel, the Daily Telegraph's fashion editor. At a party organised by Max Hastings, the paper's editor, for heads of departments, Mr Black criticised Ms Samuel for writing favourably about long skirts. She suggested that he write a piece putting the opposing view.

He berated her again at a staff lunch next day, but Ms Samuel, showing doughty independence, ran a piece by another journalist on her fashion page on 28 December which advised that 'a long, slim skirt is a basic essential'.

This proved too much for the proprietor, who overcame his initial reluctance to write about such a potentially fraught subject as women's legs.

Trevor Grove, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, said: 'He interferes very little with the paper; he rides us with a very light hand. This is an excellent safety valve that has been devised.'

But if the immediate reason for Mr Black's article is clear, the explanation for his sudden interest in fashion is less so. It may be relevant, however, to remember that in July he overcame his oft-stated dislike of journalists to marry one: Barbara Amiel, 51, who was Canada's first woman newspaper editor and now writes a column for the Sunday Times. Together they form a powerful team. A throwaway line in Mr Black's fashion article about 'anyone visiting Annabel's, any of the more fashionable pre-Christmas parties, or Mortimer's in New York' says much about their lifestyle.

On 6 September, just a few weeks after they married, Ms Amiel's column dealt with the subject of skirt lengths, women's legs and men's attitudes. She lamented that she was being 'confronted with the dilemma of the long skirt' for the third time.

After discussing some men who in past eras had been excited by women wearing jaw bandages, she continued: 'More common are men who like lots of the female form, including thighs and calves, ie, legs. They may join psychoanalysts' casebooks if the attempt this autumn to drop hemlines to the ankle is successful.'

The column concluded: ' 'The amazing thing,' a female-watcher of excellent taste told me, 'is that the short skirt made every woman look better. When it first came in I thought it would be awful on women with big eleph- antine legs but, by heavens, even ugly women looked relatively better in short skirts. Long skirts don't ruin anyone's looks but they don't improve them either.' '

Ms Amiel, incidentally, appears to favour even more minimalist forms of attire, having dressed in a red-and-black basque and high heels for a charity fund-raising evening in Toronto in the mid-1980s. She is also said to have walked through a newspaper office in Toronto with her raincoat open and nothing but a basque underneath.

Mr Black and Ms Amiel are abroad and were not available yesterday to reveal the identity of the 'female-watcher of excellent taste'. Whoever it was, he does not sound quite politically correct. Mr Black has no doubts about the ghastliness of political correctness. In his essay on the hemline he wrote: 'Women above 35 who have worked hard to maintain the shape and tone of their legs are attacked as stick-in-the-muds for not wanting to conceal them like Washington Square or Bloomsbury academic Bohemians. This is unjust and will be fruitless.

'We have watched with confidence as women rejected the politically correct fatuity that to emphasise or reveal becoming shapes and curves was a demeaning pandering to leering men.'

Staff at the Telegraph are waiting with interest to see what his next contribution will be. But at least Mr Black has not yet followed the example of Roland 'Tiny' Rowland, proprietor of the Observer, who recently wrote a piece describing Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya as 'concerned and logical'.

(Photographs omitted)

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