Style councillor … "Fashion magazines can get so high falutin'," says one-time "Vogue Australia" supremo Kirstie Clements. Photo: Tim Bauer
In a village in the Balkans, Kirstie Clements was warding off chickens and watching a toothless fortune teller's green eyes flicker weirdly. She was a bit worried about her handbag. "We were sitting in this dirt patch with these chickens everywhere, and me with my Prada bag," Clements recalls. "It was so funny, like, 'Where am I going to put it where a chicken won't be pecking at it?'"
It was late 2010 and a day or two earlier the Vogue Australia editor and her friend Shemi Alovic had been swanning around the Milan fashion shows. Now they were visiting Alovic's family in Montenegro and feeding Clements's "mad obsession" for the otherworldly. The fortune teller was fiddling with her weathered tarot cards, reading coffee grounds. The editor was taking note of her "Bosnian Gypsy style". Clashing prints, a long coat and skirt. "It was very what we'd just seen at the shows and I remember Kirstie saying, 'Gosh, she looks like she's wearing Marni,' " remembers Alovic, the marketing and communications head for luxury merchant Bally.
The Gypsy worked out that Clements had twin boys and asserted that Alovic would one day have twins, too. What the old crone didn't predict, though, is that, within two years, Clements would be fired from her job as Australia's pre-eminent fashion and style maven.
The main man … Clements with her husband Mourad Ayat (at right) in 1999. Photo: Courtesy of Kirstie Clements
"Rapidly becoming ancient history," Clements says blithely, offering the sparsest details about the day last May when she was called into a meeting with NewsLifeMedia boss Nicole Sheffield: the bombshell dropped, here's someone from HR, collect your handbag (today it's a Gucci), and there's the door. "I don't know why I wasn't allowed to go down and say anything to my staff," she says. Still, she didn't cry. Instead, she headed to Bondi's perennially fashionable Icebergs bar to drink champagne with "Shems" and watch her phone-on-silent-mode go nuts.
Within days, Clements had summoned her sangfroid, tweeting: "Unemployed four days and I'm already in elastic waist pants. At least they're cashmere." And slouching around in cashmere, the rejected fashion editor quickly signed a deal with Melbourne University Press for a memoir before a friend whisked her off to Paris, away from all the awfulness.
Next week, The Vogue Factor will be released. Scandal-mongering fashionistas will be disappointed; instead of an explosive tell-all, it's a breathy recitation of fabulousness. High tea with Estée Lauder at The Plaza in New York. Clubbing with supermodels and Guns N' Roses in Paris. The Valentino fashion show at the Louvre, a private tour of the Sistine Chapel with Louis Vuitton. The fragrance launches in Monte Carlo, the photo shoot on a Club Med cruise ship in the South Pacific, the dinner with Naomi Campbell, the trip to Shanghai with Mr Armani ...
Dancing queen … Clements, aged 10, with her brother Anthony. Photo: Courtesy of Kirstie Clements
Beyond the book's publicity schedule, Clements, 50, has other balls in the air: her friend Napoleon Perdis has appointed her as a non-executive director to the board of his cosmetics company. "I could talk to her about humanity and politics and government and the earth and the universe, right through to a shoe on the runway for an hour, and then I could talk to her about business," says the golden-tanned cosmetics impresario, a man with impeccably arched eyebrows and a fine collection of man-jewels. Clements, who once wrote that she wore eye make-up to bed because she liked the way it looked when she woke up, says of her friend, "It's a tough call to say who loves eyeliner more."
She's also a contributor to a blog for the high-street label, Sportscraft. "Oh gosh, no," she replies when I suggest it might be somewhat of a comedown. "No, it's not Chanel, but I don't have that snobbery about labels." She says that, soon after she lost the job, she had talks with Bauer Media about the editor's gig at the new Elle Australia magazine, launching later this year, but that she withdrew from the running. She needs to earn a living - there's a mortgage and her two boys are doing their HSC this year at a private Catholic high school in Sydney's east - but, for now at least, she says it's fashion and beauty consultancy that interests her. "That's a much better challenge than the challenges that currently exist in the publishing world."
There are whispers that, behind her back, some Vogue staff, or perhaps former Vogue staff, called Clements "the devil wears Country Road", a reference to the 2006 Hollywood flick The Devil Wears Prada and its depiction of a beastly New York magazine editor. Clements says she hasn't heard that one. "Oh, right, probably. We used to laugh about, 'the devil wears Witchery'. "
Fashionable circles … with Cate Blanchett at the "Vogue Australia" 50th anniversary party in 2009. Photo: Fiora Sacco (courtesy of Melbourne University Publishing)
Another story has it that when she was fired she protested, "But I am Vogue!" Absolutely not true, she says. "I heard I threw a chair ... I mean, I can tell you exactly what I said. I said, 'You're kidding.' And then I said, 'I can't believe you see me as the problem as opposed to part of the solution.' "
Perdis laments the treatment his "muse", his "beautiful strong woman", received at the hands of News Limited's NewsLifeMedia; a woman of such stature, he says, should have been celebrated, given a little dinner or a lunch, paid homage to. Instead it was a frightfully unstylish and unceremonious way to end a 28-year connection with the magazine where she started as a switchboard operator and finished with a 13-year stint as editor. "I feel sad for her on that," says Perdis.
So Clements has turned her back on all that fabulousness. The seriously name-droppable friends and acquaintances. Baz and Cate and Karl and Princess Mary. ("I got an email from her the other day," she tells me.) All that slurping at the international trough of luxury brands' largesse with writers and designers and models and photographers and art directors and make-up artists and hangers-on. All that champagne. All those five-star hotel rooms. All that fun! Even though, in the world of Vogue, those who matter spare barely a thought for Vogue Australia. Why, Anna Wintour never even gave Kirstie Clements the time of day.
Back in black … Clements with sons Sam (at left) and Joe in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
Kirstie Clements's husband Mourad Ayat opens their front door. "Kirstie," he calls behind him. I get a fleeting impression of dark height and bulk before he vanishes. A door off the dim hallway closes behind him. When she lived in Paris in the mid-'90s, Clements called him "Le Vampire". Ayat was a French-Algerian bouncer keeping nightclub hours who, the first time they met, told her they would make beautiful babies. But it was Clements who worked with an architect to turn their Sydney eastern suburbs terrace into a north African fantasme: tiles, a long banquette against one wall upholstered in a velvety stripe (pink, yellow, aqua, purple, green), a canopy of fabric swathed from the ceiling above, a courtyard with a fountain and a little blue door.
We sit at a long dining table and Clements pours mineral water and a pot of tea. She serves me milk. She doesn't ask me if I take milk. That doesn't seem very Vogue. She doesn't offer a refill for either the water glass or the delicate, gold-rimmed, blue-and-white tea cup. That doesn't seem very Vogue. But I excuse her: she seems edgy (dismantling the mineral water bottle top in what seem to be faintly trembling fingers) and guarded. "Frosty" is a word that comes up more than once when I'm talking to people about her. Says a fashion insider, "One minute she'd be all over you like a rash like she's your best friend, and the next time you saw her she would be an icicle." Someone else tells me, "She used to scare the hell out of people."
I need to know what the former Vogue editor is wearing: black Scanlan & Theodore pants, a cream/white Equipment silk shirt and "my Hermès bangles". They're enamel and clank against a silver bracelet, a gift from her husband, and a lacy friendship bracelet from Positano on Italy's Amalfi Coast. "Isn't it chic! It's the chic-est friendship bracelet I've ever seen. Trust the Italians," she says. "Normally I'd be like, 'No, get that friendship bracelet away from me!' "
Clements brightens when I ask about the large professional make-up box at the other end of the table. "War paint," she calls it and she applies it every morning with a cup of tea by her side. "I'm completely obsessed with make-up." I admire her fine, pale, unblemished skin and she's good enough to share contact details for her IPL skin treatment practitioner - intense pulsed light, it "literally wipes away freckles," she says - and for her hairdresser (he loves older women, she says). "You've got to know the right people and that's the whole bloody thing, isn't it? Networking."
One of her beautiful babies, one of her towering twin boys - Joe, or is it Sam? - lopes down the stairs carrying a white towel: "Can you take a beach towel to the beach instead?" she says. "I'm going to the gym," he replies. Clements found motherhood tough when the boys were little but now she's mad about them. "They're just so funny." Damien Woolnough, her friend and the fashion editor for The Australian, reveals that Clements has one of the best handbag collections in the country. "Whoever marries one of those gorgeous twin boys is a very lucky girl," he says.
I wait while Clements makes some calls: her mother, Gloria, elderly and ailing, has a medical appointment and Clements calls her regular driver to arrange a car from his fleet to pick her up. "Oh, isn't he a good boy?" she says, closing her phone's snakeskin case. "He's going to go himself."
She tells me then about her father and one of the only memories she has of him. "Being dumped by a wave and Dad laughing and picking me up out of the wave and me crying." It was at Shelly Beach in Sydney's Sutherland Shire and she wore a gingham cossie. Then there are memories of her engineer father's head being bandaged - he had a brain tumour - and later, a house full of flowers. She was five.
Clements' mother went out to work, opening an up-market children's boutique. Her grandmother, Violet, moved in to the Sylvania family home, drinking Scotch, chain-smoking and making after-school sandwiches for Clements and her older brother, Anthony - cheese and tomato on white bread, the crusts cut off, triangles, arranged on a plate, cafeteria-style. "It was always the women who held everything together: that was how I was brought up and it was always going to be that I'd be the breadwinner and make my own decisions."
But for Clements, the Shire was no sun-kissed nirvana. "I wasn't that sort of beach girl, you know. I didn't have the perfect figure, I didn't go brown, and the boys, it was like Puberty Blues; they were really vicious, and sexist, and would bark at you when you walked past." It can't have endeared Clements to the barking blokes and local molls that she was a reader - Famous Five, ghost stories, later her mum's Jackie Collins novels - and a regular at Caringbah library. "She was smart and funny," says her oldest friend, Jenny Power, now a University of NSW administrator. She remembers Clements at her 10th birthday party in a black smock with checks and flared jeans. "She was always pretty flash."
She was ready to leave the Shire almost before she knew there was somewhere to leave for. Then she found it: the Sydney club scene of the late '70s. One time she had bright pink hair and another time it was peroxided white. Skinny jeans, ripped leather jackets, sandshoes and eye make-up applied with a trowel. "The fashion was fun, you'd take hours to get dressed up," recalls Clements of her "punk stage", of her days frequenting pub band rooms and jumping up and down to the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees and gazing at skinny boys in op-shop suits. But as punks go, Clements was a polite one. No piercings, and she didn't get drunk.
Soon enough she'd got a job as a clerk in a stockbroker's office and moved into her B-grade movie-star stage: '50s skirts, angora sweaters, stilettos and diamanté drop earrings. By 1985, when she started as a receptionist in the Vogue office, she was channelling a "1950s Fellini vibe". Think black cigarette pants, ballet slippers and cat's-eye glasses.
Former Vogue editor Nancy Pilcher remembers Clements as an eager junior who would always be asking if there was anything she could do to help. And anything she did, she did meticulously. It's the Aries in her, says Pilcher. "An Aries is very driven and has a very definite point of view that they stick to; I used to say, 'Oh, here comes the Aries' ... you don't cross an Aries."
But even a woman born under the sign of the ram can have her heart broken. "I was madly in love with someone who tortured me for 15 years, yep. His name was Michael. I was madly in love with him and it wasn't reciprocated," says Clements. On-again, off-again with a guy who looked like her father. "Yeah," she says softly, "he was really tall."
A woman scorned, Michael's cashmere overcoat met a terrible fate: Clements upended a bottle of Estée Lauder's cloying Youth Dew-scented bath oil over it. "Father issues, issues of abandonment, I don't know," she says.
Michael's on her mind, and perhaps her brother Anthony is, too. She doesn't know where Anthony is. "He estranged himself about 10 years ago from my mother and me." She thinks her father's death affected her brother terribly. "He had to man up too quick."
Mourad Ayat has been a steadier figure. Clements, wearing a Cacharel frock and fishnet stockings, met him at a Paris nightclub in the early hours of a June morning in 1992 - by then she was drowning in lipstick and blush as Vogue's beauty editor - and two years later she quit to move to Paris. "Every night we mingled with celebrities, aristocrats, artists, drag queens, designers and criminals, and it was fabulous," Clements writes of her "crazy nightclub existence". Ayat was the doorman at one of the city's top clubs and everywhere they went "doors opened".
But the arrival of the twins in 1995 brought that life to an end: Clements wanted to stay in the inner-inner circle but Ayat moved his new family to an outlying Paris suburb to be near his parents. "It was very chic, it was very bourgeois; it's got a big chateau ... and so I was like, 'All right, I'll settle,' " Clements says. "I compromised. And then he compromised big time by coming back to Australia."
Ayat is not beside Clements in any of the images floating in the ether that show her at fancy parties and launches and openings. While Clements worked rooms (when they moved to Australia at the end of 1997, she returned to Vogue briefly as beauty editor before crossing to arch rival Harper's Bazaar to be associate editor), Ayat worked the door at clubs like the Grand Pacific Blue Room or was a house husband. "We've had our ups and downs, for sure," says Clements, who admits they lead very separate lives. "That works for us as a partnership."
Ayat was not at his wife's 50th birthday at Karma Kandara resort in Bali last year. "He wanted me to go and do my thing with the fashion industry people," says Clements. Former GQ editor and Vogue publisher Grant Pearce and former David Jones womenswear honcho David Bush threw her a soirée on the first night (dress code: "print"). During the beach party on the following night (dress code: "beach chic") there was a Balinese dance troupe, dancing on the tables, and a crate of Moët mysteriously vanished.
Clements loves a party. "I'm always the first one to arrive and the last one to leave," she says. She loved that about the Vogue job. Working a room, how to ditch a bore ("Could you excuse me for a moment? I need to speak to that person over there"), how to be a good guest. Damien Woolnough has seen her in action. "You would end up at a long lunch ... having the time of your life and then you'd discover she'd nabbed an exclusive with [Net-a-Porter founder] Natalie Massenet or stitched up [model] Lara Stone for a cover while you were downing sauvignon blanc."
The list of friends is as long as an Edwardian hemline - from writer Lee Tulloch to former Women's Weekly editor Deborah Thomas. Picture this: Kirstie Clements in a "bloody ugly" rash vest, kayaking with Thomas on the harbour near Thomas's Point Piper apartment. The great thing about kayaking, says Clements, is that you can gossip at the same time.
When Napoleon Perdis is in town they have a little meal at Bistro Moncur, or afternoon tea at his place. "Kirstie and I have a very strong, psychic/mental connection," says Perdis. (In her pursuit of the world beyond, Clements reads tarot cards and, when in London, visits Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng's psychic.) "Even though she was running such a luxury title I would often have to say to her, 'Now do your hair the way I want it when you come out with me and wear the heels,' " he says. "She would just want to be very simple." Clements has never suggested to her friend that he tone down his tan, "I like that he's so flamboyant - be a character rather than a bore."
No surprise then that Clements has a fashion editor's obligatory retinue of gay handbags - Grant Pearce, Damien Woolnough, Chanel's Ian Clark. In January she tweeted, "Ian and I ate a hamburger and chips at the Ballina takeaway in our wet cossies. We didn't eat the buns." Clark has a holiday house up that way. Clements tells me she didn't wear thongs during the break: "I think you can do better than a rubber thong." Nevertheless, a few days later, back in Sydney, she tweeted a photograph of her well-groomed feet: "Navy/black pedicure to match Valentino thongs. $400 rubber thongs. Anyhoo ..."
Says a fashion insider of Kirstie Clements's reign as Vogue editor, "She settled things down but she was by no means a flag bearer for a new era." She could not have taken the job at a more ghastly point in the title's history. It was the late '90s, a time of sliding circulation, advertisers deserting its pages in droves, two editors in two years. The first was English fashion writer Marion Hume, who celebrated her new home by putting huntsman spiders in handbags and models next to barbecues, and lasted 18 awkward months. "All the good taste had left the building," Clements observes of the magazine under Hume's command, which started in 1997. Hume's successor, fashion outsider Juliet Ashworth, survived just 10 months.
Newly appointed Vogue managing director Robyn Holt was looking for someone who wasn't going to be in tears in the bathroom when, in 1999, she raised the idea of the editorship with Clements. "It was a really tough gig," Holt recalls. "We had to go out into the market and reclaim ground that was once ours."
Clements went out and bought a black Helmut Lang pant suit and another in beige, and prepared to put herself under the microscope. "Everyone's always got an opinion about Vogue; it's the one magazine that everyone loves to pull apart," says former Vogue fashion editor Tory Collison, who worked with Clements for years.
Fashion fans will remember Clements' triumphs: the Princess Mary cover in 2004, guest editors Karl Lagerfeld and Kylie Minogue, the illustrated covers of Cate Blanchett. They'll remember her bitchy persona as a judge on Australia's Next Top Model and her decision to ban models under 16 from her pages.
But by the time Clements and her Gucci bag were shown the NewsLifeMedia door last year, the whispers had been building for a while: that Vogue had lost its lustre, had become workmanlike, safe, beige even. "A very mediocre editor" is one industry veteran's assessment of Clements. "Everyone in the industry had been saying that she needed to move on," says another. And there are other theories: that she had been slow to embrace the digital revolution; she'd used too many "lifts" from overseas Vogue editions; that all NewsLifeMedia editors had been told there would be a zero tolerance for circulation drops. NewsLifeMedia chief executive Nicole Sheffield did not make herself available to comment on the matter.
"In that last year, when I had Paul Meany on board as my art director, I think Vogue was looking really strong," says Clements. "We won magazine of the year, we had the highest readership we'd ever had; circulation was steady but in a bad market ... so was it slipping? I really truly don't believe so."
There were other whispers: Clements had never been considered particularly chic or to have her own distinctive personal style, but as time went on, some had noticed some slippage in her appearance. "She'd become a little bit shambolic; physically she wasn't taking as good care of herself," says one observer. "There were rumours that she was unravelling a little bit. You'd go to events and it'd be like, 'Oh, she could have run a comb through her hair.' "
For her part, Clements says she was "never a head-to-toe Givenchy fashion plate". "Maybe sometimes I was too normal to be at Vogue ... I think sometimes people thought I wasn't fabulous enough." She likes to mix things up, she says, a bit of this and a bit of that, simple things - a really well-cut black pant and a silk shirt, or a man's cashmere sweater. She pronounces "cashmere" as "cajmere" in a breathy sort of transatlantic-inflected accent. "Not every piece has to be expensive and I'm not a big fan of the head-to-toe victim." Says Damien Woolnough, "The great thing about Kirstie is ... she knows fashion, but I think she'd rather poke pins in her eyes than talk about a handbag for an hour, and I know girls who can."
Instead, Clements likes to talk about books and films and pop culture: her literary heroines are Madame Bovary and A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois. "Oh look," she says to me, "aren't we all one step off being a Tennessee Williams' heroine?" I laugh when she adds, "I hope I'm not as fragile as Blanche. She got led away at the end." Later, reading her book, I find a passage in which Clements describes a 2009 meeting with Cate Blanchett shortly before her appearance in Streetcar at the Sydney Theatre Company. Clements has appropriated Blanchett's line, "You know, there's a little bit of Blanche in all of us."
It can't be easy for her though; watching former Harper's Bazaar arch rival Edwina McCann in her old job. Can McCann edit Vogue well? There's a long pause. "I can't answer that ... can I ponder on that a minute?" says Clements. It must be impossible not to dwell on the ideas she had been working on - the online strategy now being executed by a new team, the cover she'd planned of androgynous male model Andrej Pejic, who has modelled women's fashion on the catwalks of Europe.
Yes, Kirstie Clements can well see that fashion is a bit ridiculous, a bit of nonsense, pretentious. "Fashion magazines can get so high-falutin' and completely lose sight of what's actually true information for a reader," Clements says. But then again ... "when you're getting to the real masters and the really clever people, your Valentinos and your Karl Lagerfelds, it's poetry, it's theatre; it's the grand theatre that just makes life better and the thickness of the stationery and how thin the glass is, it's just magnificent."
Extracts from The Vogue Factor
On growing up in Sutherland Shire and Dr Scholl’s sandals: “My mother refused to buy me any. She had noticed all the surfie chicks shuffling down the street in them, and had apparently been revolted by their dry, cracked heels.”
On her first trips overseas: “No backpacks, I would like to clarify that straight away. No hippie stuff. Always a suitcase. And always in full make-up.”
On having babies: “The twins were identical, and a handy tip I learnt … was to paint the toenails of one baby, so you wouldn’t mix them up … Chanel stepped in, supplying me with the popular Rouge Noir nail lacquer, which I thought was a good, strong, masculine shade.”
On having children in Paris: “It’s all very well dressing tiny babies up in beige Bonpoint cashmere for the first six months, but when the child is two, and fighting like a Tasmanian devil as you try to force him into his padded ‘combinasion’, visions of T-shirts and bare feet at Bronte are never far from your thoughts.”
On couture: “Witness a Valentino couture show and you can imagine you are a princess at a dinner party in Rome in 1969 … I was chatting to a British fashion journalist after one Valentino showing at the Louvre and she said grumpily, ‘I thought all that was boring.’ I can’t begin to describe how badly dressed and ill-groomed the woman was.”
On sitting next to Naomi Campbell at dinner: “Naomi has a reputation for being tricky, but I found her to have a charm that was completely disarming. She had recently been to New Zealand, and we chatted over dinner about Maori culture, and life in general.”
On the Princess Mary shoot in Denmark: “Back in my room, I switched on the television to the abject horror that was the aftermath of the Beslan school massacre [in Russia in 2004]. I quickly turned it off, and I cancelled the Herald Tribune [newspaper]. I needed this week to be a magical fairy tale. The grim reality of the world could wait.”
On fashion bloggers: “I couldn’t manage to get to the coffee being served at the MaxMara show last season because a blogger was blocking the way, taking an Instagram of the croissants.”
On shoes: “The Vogue fashion department’s rabid attention to detail delivered me a sterling life lesson – if the shoe isn’t right, then nothing is right.”
On Vogue culture: “We once spent a good 15 minutes at our Monday morning meeting settling on which Royal Doulton tableware we should order for the boardroom.”
Lead-in photo by Tim Bauer.
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