AN OXFORD GIRL RETURNS
By Sophia Jennings
published in the University of Oxford's Industry Magazine, March 2014
In her 2011 Oxford Girl, author Plum Sykes begins:
“Here are three things I really wanted in 1980: 1. To marry Prince Charles
2.To have a pony that actually won rosettes
3. To go to Oxford”
Fortunately for Ms. Sykes, her first wish did not come true. Even more fortunately, her third one did. But what she forgot to add to the list was to become the Plum Sykes, Vogue contributing editor and bestselling novelist.
A mother of two, Sykes has written for both American and British Vogue. Her first book sold a quarter million copies. She was married in Alexander McQueen. She was muse to Alexander McQueen. Goodness, she was even sent to Paris for couture shows with Sean Combs; or “Puff Daddy the rap singer” as she calls him. Yes, Plum Sykes has done alright.
For some, Sykes is a household name. Her debut novel, Bergdorf Blondes followed a New York socialite through the bandeaus and bedrooms of the city’s elite, Sykes is often compared to a sort of “British Carrie Bradshaw.” This, I am afraid, could not be further from the truth. Not only do I doubt Ms. Sykes would ever discuss man-sizes over a mimosa, she is also far more clever than any author of the, dare I say it, “chick lit” genre. Instead, Sykes is former History student from Worcester College who approaches fashion journalism first and foremost as a job, and a very serious one at that.
Last week, at an event hosted by the Oxford Fashion Society, Sykes admitted that while she may have grown up with Evelyn Waugh’s biographer (and dear friend) as her grandfather, she matriculated with only a couple summers of work at the pub on her CV. So, after applying for work experience placements in advertising and publications, Sykes was fortunate enough to get an offer from Tatler. Which they then cancelled. “Nobody can argue with an Oxford degree,” she smiles. “But it doesn’t get you a job.”
As any self-respecting graduate would, she turned to her designer mum, who had only one contact: a friend at Vogue. Assigned a three-week work experience placement, Sykes stayed for four years. She was quickly promoted to fashion assistant for then Editor-in-Chief Isabella Blow, a role that demanded what I believe to be Sykes’ best trait: humility. From just an hour with her, I understand Ms. Sykes to be the type of woman who can charm a room almost instantaneously, whether the valet or Mr. Valentino.
In reflection, Sykes believes many in the fashion industry were worried that her Oxford degree would not have taught her patience. How was a girl like her going to be content packing suitcases, answering the phone, and booking flights? But Ms. Sykes is above all diligent, and her job as an assistant was merely an opportunity to watch. “There are no qualifications in fashion,” she mused. “People learn off other people.”
Which is not to say her History degree was useless. “Oxford isn’t really about writing a history paper,” she confessed. “It’s about making a great argument.” Which she claims, is just like writing on Rihanna’s newest outfit. You convince your Vogue reader just like you convince your tutor. Or perhaps your tutor was reading Vogue too – who knows.
When Sykes visited Paris for couture shows, she was introduced to Anna Wintour, a mentor she describes as a “genuinely good person” with the sort of work ethic the UK could use more of. And just like that Ms. Sykes was off to New York. Remaining modest during her talk, I, for one, know Ms. Sykes as the quintessential British It-Girl in the early 2000s NYC fashion scene. She loved New York. And, more importantly, New York loved her.
“There’s that ‘you go girl!’ mentality in America,” she described. “They really want you to succeed.” Starting as a fashion writer, Sykes rose to contributing editor in two years. In New York there were more resources and the young writer was flown everywhere. Paris, Barbados, Los Angeles. Her days were spent writing and interviewing, her evenings were spent out. Met Gala. Gucci Opening. Olympus Fashion Week. Always sticking to a glass of Perrier because by 8 in the morning she’d be back in the office.
Now with two bestsellers under her wing, the UK-based Sykes sees her background in fashion as a launching pad for her career as a novelist. Which is not to say she has disappeared from the pages of Vogue: just this past September her “Inside Look at Lily Allen’s Cotswalds Home” was published.
But what about us? The student writers facing hundreds of job postings for “social media interns?” Are there still jobs to write? Are there still jobs for the crowd in Worcester drinking Tesco wine with Ms. Sykes? Was that girl at the pub right? Are publications really dead?
They are just different. The insta-model has replaced the supermodel. Net-a-porter is hiring who Vogue would have in the ‘90s. Graduates like Sykes are curating website content and making fashion apps. But that does not mean there are not any jobs for writers. It just means they might need a Twitter handle and some hashtags as well. “There’s no easy way in to fashion,” she mused, “It’s such an unconventional business.”
And, by the looks of Ms. Sykes, it can be quite a full life. Or, oh god, #fulllife.
-- -- -- -- --
To see more of Ms. Sykes, I recommend her 1999 piece “Sister Acts” or her 2014 cover story on Rihanna. And, of course, you can always pick up a copy of Bergdorf Blondes for a bit of lighthearted fun.