Archive for March, 2013


Ed Vaizey: the dedicated Minister of Fashion

Ginny Dougary
March 2013

Ed Vaizey
The British fashion industry makes £20 billion a year for the UK economy, so it’s small wonder that the government wants to get inside your wardrobe. Ginny Dougary meets Ed Vaizey, our MP for high heels and handbags.

Ed Vaizey, as Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, has an alarmingly capacious portfolio, covering film, television, video games, advertising, architecture (pause for breath), broadband, telecoms (the 4G auction last month was his responsibility), all the arts, museums and not forgetting, as we speak while London Fashion Week draws to a close, fashion.

When I ask him if it’s too much, he says: ‘Well, I have twice as many meetings as other ministers, but I enjoy the work and I’m passionate about it.’ Although broadband takes up most of his time, he would like to stress, in his affable way: ‘But I’m absolutely there for fashion!’

We meet at his office on the top floor of a building off Trafalgar Square, soon to move to a smaller space — his department is being downsized as part of the PM’s austerity measures — in the Treasury. The walls of his room are covered in art from the government collection, but Vaizey is rather vague about the artists. He thinks a series of paintings along one wall might be by Richard Long and there’s one of Mark Wallinger’s Mark Wallinger is Innocent works. He once had a Tracey Emin — she cited Vaizey as one of the reasons she abandoned Labour for the Tories — but that’s moved on. By the window is an Oscar statuette, which he proudly informs me was Cecil Beaton’s (in recognition of his costume designs for My Fair Lady in 1964) and next to it are handwritten letters to the minister from Colin Firth and Kevin Spacey. On a round table is a slightly beaten-up brown leather shoulder bag. Aha, could it be that the Minister for Fashion has a ‘man bag’? ‘Yes,’ he says, with no hint of irritation. ‘It’s by Mulberry.’

Vaizey has a slightly Boris-y, rumpled quality and a not dissimilar amusing and often amused manner (our conversation is punctuated with long rolls of laughter, not always at predictable moments), which makes one want to tease him. He patiently lists what he is wearing — he is by now all too accustomed to this conversational foreplay — grey suit (TM Lewin), blue shirt and navy polka-dot tie (both from Charles Tyrwhitt). We move to the boardroom next door and he stretches out a sheet of paper, with a list of points he wishes to use this interview to express. He has old-fashioned loopy writing and says, without false modesty, that his handwriting is terrible.

To start with, he is a bit tense. At the end of the interview, he confesses to having been ‘completely terrified’. In the past, he has (again, like Boris) made the odd off-message comment from Planet Human that has got him into hot water. Like the time he suggested that Samantha Cameron had voted Labour.

His father, Lord Vaizey, an author, educator and political economist, died in 1984 at the age of 55 — Ed was 16 — from a heart condition that had afflicted him most of his life. After 33 years of Labour party membership (he was once described as the party’s ‘éminence grise’ at the rather ungrey age of 34), Lord Vaizey, impressed by Margaret Thatcher and disillusioned by his party, crossed the benches, a decision he later described in a letter to The Times as ‘painful’, leaving his old friends feeling betrayed. Ed’s mother Marina, 74, CBE, is a long-transplanted New Yorker, educated at Harvard and Girton College, Cambridge, an art critic of The Sunday Times, author, curator, judge of the Turner Prize and a fantastic champion for the arts.

I wonder how much of her American can-do-ism has been inherited by her son. ‘The personality trait I’ve inherited most from my mum is that she is quite gregarious — she loves meeting people, she gets on with people and people enjoy her company. She’s very optimistic. She always likes to say good things. One of the things I like about my job is that my mum goes to a lot of events and is so encouraging and I then get all that positive feedback.’

Ed and his older siblings Polly and Tom were taken to exhibitions at an early age. Their house in Chiswick, growing up, was always full of artists and politicians; Shirley Williams, another Labour defector, is a family friend. So it’s hardly surprising that Vaizey has been to see all the big shows — Roy Lichtenstein, the avant-gardists at the Barbican (he was at the Barbican’s annual dinner the previous evening), the Picasso at the Courtauld, and he caught the Manet exhibition in Paris before it came to London.

His most striking ‘fashion moment’ could as easily be described as an art moment. ‘I’ve been privileged to meet great designers and one of my most enjoyable moments was visiting Paul Smith’s office — which is absolutely amazing. It’s full of bric-a-brac, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. I said to him that he should leave it to a museum. Apparently there’s somebody in America who posts him things — like, literally, a traffic cone posted from somewhere in America, not even wrapped up but covered in stamps to his address.’

He always goes to the opening of London Fashion Week (Zoë Jordan’s show opened proceedings this season) and to the reception held by Samantha Cameron at Downing Street ‘which is very similar in many ways to a Westminster event, although it’s a different crowd’. This year it included Victoria Beckham and Donatella Versace. He also tries to take in at least one show; this time round he only managed Anya Hindmarch’s, but he’s pleased that Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and Harriet Harman have all been along to Fashion Week: ‘It’s good that politicians take fashion seriously because fashion is a serious business.’

When I ask him who impresses him most in the fashion world, he goes into a very long speech about the British Fashion Council (one of his four points) and I have to say, ‘That’s enough, Ed.’ A short version is that he thinks it does a fantastic job supporting young designers and getting the message across that to back fashion is to back Britain and that Caroline Rush and Simon Ward, ‘the great leaders of the BFC,’ are jolly good eggs who taught him everything he needs to know about the business.

He was shown around the ‘ateliers’ (he does the inverted commas) of Christopher Kane and Erdem in the East End in 2008 by fashion writer Sarah Mower, when the designers were already known but not the huge stars they are now ‘and you see these people toiling away, they work all hours, and they’re very dedicated and passionate people. So for those who think fashion might be frivolous or whatever, it was illuminating to see these people doing their impressive work and it brings it home to you that it is an industry.

‘On to my second point — actually, what I just said is my second point, but a new point so now I have five points — is that when we see the catwalk and think, “Well, this can’t be serious,” actually, what you’re looking at is a £20 billion a year business, which is part of an eco-system — your readers want to read about fashion, for instance, and then there’s the hairdressers, photographers, stylists, the high street, and all of that is around fashion, so it is a very serious industry. Politicians will happily trot off to a car factory. Fashion is contributing as much to the economy as those factories are,’ he says, sounding a tiny bit defensive.

He mentions Vivienne Westwood as someone clearly impressive: ‘I’ve met her a few times. The fact that she is still an iconic figure, 30 or 40 years at the top of the fashion tree’ — he ticks himself off for not one but two clichés. Did she give you a hard time? ‘Well, I met her at Windsor Castle so she was probably on good behaviour.’

It is always assumed that before going to Oxford, Vaizey went to Eton, like Johnson and Cameron, when, in fact, he went, like George Osborne, to St Paul’s. It was his father’s decision. ‘My dad was on the Public Schools Commission, which was set up to abolish public schools, and he met the Highmaster of St Paul’s, Tom Howarth, who became a friend, and he thought it was the best school going.’

Vaizey’s wife Alex is a lawyer (as Vaizey was before turning to politics) and the couple have two children, Joseph, six, and Martha, four. I wonder what he does to relax. Alex is a good cook and Ed tries his best. They have what he describes as a ‘small’ house in Wantage (where he was elected MP in 2005) where the family often go for weekends. ‘Without wishing to sound too pious, I really enjoy my job. But I also really do like home life. I don’t have any particularly sophisticated ways of relaxing, but I like…’ he screws up his face and sighs, ‘Oh, the trouble with being a politician is that anything you say sounds like artifice.’ Another big sigh. ‘But just going out with the kids to the park is great.’

I don’t know enough about fashion, myself, to judge whether Vaizey knows what he’s talking about, but it’s obvious that, despite his efforts, he is more interested in The Frick than a frock. In truth, he is a bit fazed by the world of high fashion, as he is by the world of classical music. When we talked about his former colleague Louise Mensch’s new blog, Unfashionista, he applauded it for trying to make fashion less frightening. ‘One of my gripes with classical music, like high fashion, is that you can get quite intimidated. So I think anything that can make fashion accessible and say that it’s easy to look good and on a budget is a good thing. Just as anything that says you can come and enjoy classical music without feeling that you need to have four university degrees is a very good thing, too.’


America: the land of second acts for women

By Ginny Dougary
March 2013
The Guardian

Sara Wheeler
Travel writer Sara Wheeler’s latest book chronicles the middle-aged Englishwomen who reinvented themselves in 19th-century America.

Sara Wheeler’s home is a converted Victorian butcher’s shop, close to Hampstead Heath, with Matisse-blue and Gauguin-orange walls covered in reminders of her travels: an original Herbert Ponting photograph from Captain Scott’s fateful expedition here, a figure of a penguin from one of the research stations on Antarctica there.

The author of four travel books and two biographies has written her first about women after focusing on the “frozen beards” as she calls them, Arctic explorers who tend to be male. She describes the experience of writing O My America! Second Acts in a New World as “like coming home”. The first line of the title is an echo of John Donne’s sensual elegy To His Mistress Going to Bed (part of the pleasure of Wheeler’s books are the many literary and poetical allusions). The second is a reference to what the six subjects of her book have in common: middle-aged women from England, in the mid to late 19th century, who all reinvented themselves in America. “Having second acts,” as the author puts it, “in the Land of Second Acts”.

She started with Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony the famous novelist, who is a wonderful subject – doughty, curious, resourceful and so impressed by another remarkable woman, Fanny Wright, that she made her way to the writer and social reformer’s utopian commune in Tennessee, taking three of her children, and leaving the other two at boarding school in England, along with her husband. When this experiment failed, Trollope endured other hardships in Cincinnati, Ohio, trying to find ways of making money to send back to her impecunious family. She was inventive: coming up with magic shows and creating a doomed entertainment emporium. She made her fortune and fame, finally, with an international bestseller, the Domestic Manners of the Americans, which appalled the subjects and riveted everyone else.

Then there is Fanny Kemble, a well-known actor who fell in love with a plantation owner, leading to a disastrous marriage from which she eventually escaped to write a searing indictment of slavery; Harriet Martineau, a radical and political economist; homesteader Rebecca Burlend. Catherine Hubback, Jane Austen’s niece and a novelist, too, at 52, left her husband in an asylum and their three adult children, and travelled by railway from New York to San Francisco.

Wheeler, in her early 50s, started researching Fanny Trollope after a friend said she would be a good subject. In doing so, she stumbled on other women who were also compelling. “Part of the reason the book became a book was that I was interested in that sort of barren land of post-menopausal women, knowing that it was the next country that I was headed into … and coming to terms with it,” she says.

It is easy to see why Wheeler was beguiled by these women who were thrillingly adventurous. Her book Terra Incognita, about her hitchhiking around Antarctica, became an international bestseller and inspired women to undertake bold journeys of their own. (It is because of her book that I travelled to both poles – and a more unlikely  candidate you would be hard pushed to find.)

Like her subjects, the writer has had her own hurdles in life. Both Wheeler’s parents left school at 14; her father came from a long line of builder-decorators, her mother did shift work in a hospital. There were no books in the house. Her mother gave birth to Wheeler when she was 20 and 18 months later to a second child, Matthew, who was born with brain damage. The couple split up and there were some chaotic years during which Wheeler describes herself as being the parent to her little brother.

“I didn’t know anyone else in that position, so I felt very alone” she says. She is the trustee of a charity, Sibs, which gives support to adult and child siblings. “My shrink said that it’s quite characteristic of siblings of handicapped people to run fast enough for two, and I was very motivated, which is good. That’s a gift my brother gave me. I was a fantastic hard worker and the first in my family to go to college [to Oxford to read classics and modern languages].”

She has suffered from depression and has had problems with alcohol: “I’d say I’m quite a cheerful person but I don’t find life particularly plain sailing.” She has two sons, Wilf and Reg, by her partner, Peter Graham, a dry-humoured man from Quebec.

For her 50th birthday Wheeler was given a large handmade quilt, made by her 10 best women friends. The patches have phrases handstitched by her friends – “In a yurt drinking yak butter,” a private joke by the writer Dea Birkett, “Boys” and “It’s alright for you!” (a phrase that plagued her childhood).

Her latest work, published just ahead of International Women’s Day on Friday, is perfect for women who want to shake a fist at the fading light. I ask Wheeler, finally, what her subjects gave her apart from a fascinating book. “They gave me a great sense of hope and made me feel glad to be alive and that the second act could be as bountiful as the first. I think I did have more fun writing this book than all my other books put together. They were such fantastic company and they reminded me of how wonderful it is to be a woman.”