For a young fashion journalist growing up in a genuinely “new India” like I did, international fashion weeks were par for the course. Thanks to the genius of economist Manmohan Singh, the economy had been open for a decade, and foreign brands and luxury labels had their greedy eye on India’s one-billion-and-growing numbers. I always had a Schengen visa ready, so that when Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior’s India representatives called me over to a fashion capital for a meeting the next day, all I had to do was pack a small bag and leave.
We were invited to at least two fashion weeks a year, and running into any one of the holy trinity of fashion editors — Anna Wintour, Suzy Menkes or Hilary Alexander — was a major stan moment. I met Hilary at Paris Fashion Week for the first time. It was in 2006 and Rajesh Pratap Singh was showing a motorcycle-racing inspired collection at an art gallery. As soon as the show was done, I hopped over and introduced myself. We all wanted to write like her and Menkes, wield that much authority with our pens. But we also followed everything they wrote because they taught us amateurs and shaped our opinions so much.
A Kiwi in London
Hilary Alexander, who died on her birthday on February 5, 2023, was the epitome of fashion’s Fleet Street. Ever-smiling, a cigarette in one hand, itsy glasses sitting loosely on her nose, she was the picture of a buzzing fashion industry. Like a good old newspaper hack, she hailed from New Zealand and became a reporter in Hong Kong before moving to the UK to be fashion director at The Daily Telegraph. She loved ‘breaking’ a story, and even coined the word ‘supermodel’. She was friends with Gianni Versace, Zandhra Rhodes, and Alexander McQueen.
In Paris in 2006, Hilary (she insisted I not call her Ms Alexander) was all smiles and a walking stick thanks to a foot injury. She wore a printed maxi dress with boots, and a silver necklace. “Is it from India?” I enquired. “No, it’s Mayan,” she surprised me. I was too young to know that the world was beyond geographical boundaries where handcrafted traditions were concerned. That chunky silver jewellery traversed Kutch, Egypt, Morocco and South America. And those thick geometrical weaves of the loin loom tie in Northeast India with Thailand, Mexico and Guatemala. Hilary was the queen of ‘exotic’ artisanal crafts, thanks to her Kiwi roots, I assumed. We met a few times thereafter, she always said hello or clinked her champagne flute with mine.
It was at Lahore Fashion Week in 2013 that we really spent some time together. She was 66 then, but so alert, astute and curious, I was blown away by her professionalism. It was new for us in India, where fashion writers were spoilt by the labels and their PR teams that wooed them. I think my tribe was among the first to partake of ‘fashion criticism’ as we know it now.
I remember returning and writing about her for The Indian Express where I worked then. “At 66, she has the energy of a teenager on a chemical substance,” I had said. She was obsessed with Twitter then, and had 2,50,000 followers on it. At the time, she had retired from her post at The Daily Telegraph. She still wrote for them regularly, was a trustee of the Graduate Fashion Week, and hosted at least two television shows. She was also working on a book, she said (Hilary would release Leopard: Fashion’s Most Powerful Print in 2018). And had just been appointed as consultant at Marks & Spencer.
Jugaad and wine from plastic bottles
When Hilary died earlier this week, Wintour stated, “Hilary was irrepressible in everything she did. She lived life to the fullest and her reporting on fashion was just as committed. I threw a party for her in Paris when she retired... except she never retired! Hilary could never quite leave an industry that she loved so much.”
Hilary was delightful to spend time with, a riot as a front-row companion (she guffawed loudly at boutique owner Pradeep Hirani’s one-liners), she absorbed everything. She never spoke about herself or her glory (she would be bestowed with the Order of the British Empire later that year); she only listened to what you had to say. Like me, she wished John Galliano had continued at Dior, and was amazed at how open and politically opinionated Pakistani society was. Her room was next to mine, and she would slip me a note under the door reminding me to be ready on time. She was always five minutes early.
We were plied with presents, but she was determined to pay for her purchases. I had missed designer Sania Maskatiya’s fashion show, so Hilary dragged me to the designer’s boutique the next day to see how amazing the clothes were. She helped me pick a digi-printed kurta.
We drank wine from plastic Pepsi bottles between the shows. Like the Lahoris, she loved a late-night party. She was glad she was allowed to smoke indoors in Pakistan.
I taught her the Indian word ‘jugaad’, and that it meant ‘getting things done anyhow’. When we had to flag down a passing BMW to the airport when our ride broke down, she texted me from her plane seat: “It’s jugaad. XOXO”. And we laughed.
The writer is a seasoned fashion journalist who believes the world’s economy can be ascertained by the length of hemlines.