More is more
As fashion director of Vogue for 20 years, Lucinda Chambers’ eclectic, magpie style shaped a generation. Jess Cartner-Morley visits her at home to hear what happened next
Lucinda Chambers has the kind of style you just can’t buy. That illusive je ne sais quoi that’s eye-catching without being attention-seeking. See today’s sparkly, dangly earrings worn with her fine blond hair twisted into a perfectly imperfect messy bun. She can make an outfit that sounds chaotic on paper (say, a pleat skirt with a bright print blouse, ribbed socks, chunky pool slider shoes) look a match made in heaven, and make perfectly ordinary pieces (a man’s white shirt and black trousers) look exquisite by dint of a just-so sleeve roll and the ideal number of buttons undone.
The house where she has lived in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, for 30 years is the same. Grand and yet slightly scruffy, it has one room painted pink and another yellow, and yet, somehow, an air of quiet harmony. My visit falls on one of the last warm, sunny mornings of the great summer of 2018 and Chambers has the doors open from her kitchen (garden flowers on the wooden table, seating nooks patchworked with cushions, holiday postcards cheek by jowl with classic photography) on to a veranda, white wooden boards foxed and flecked with age, where wicker chairs look on to a long, green garden. An antique silver candelabra with neon-yellow candles sits in front of a faded curtain of rose and white ticking stripe fabric.
It is slightly bonkers, but surprisingly peaceful. From indoors comes the sound of the tongue-and-groove panelled doors of the many kitchen cupboards banging as Chambers hunts for the cafetiere. She eventually locates it after a phone call to her husband on his mobile upstairs, and brings coffee along with plates of pastries, pushing a huge vase of cut hydrangeas to one side.
For two decades until last summer, it was this idiosyncratic taste for which Chambers was known, as fashion director of British Vogue and consultant at Marni and Prada. And then, in July 2017, two months after her departure from Vogue had been announced, as part of a slew of masthead changes accompanying the change in editor from Alexandra Shulman to Edward Enninful, a bracingly candid interview given to the little-known online journal Vestoj went viral. In it, Chambers burned bridges with the new Vogue regime by describing an unceremonious sacking by Enninful, claiming she “hadn’t read Vogue in years”, describing some of the clothes featured in the magazine as “ridiculously expensive” and a cover image styled by her of Alexa Chung in a “stupid” Michael Kors T-shirt as “crap”, rubbing salt into the wound by explaining “he’s a big advertiser so I knew why I had to do it”.
A year later, Chambers is still reluctant to discuss the interview and the “nightmarish” summer that followed. All she will say is: “Not that I didn’t say those things, but the manner in which I said them was taken entirely out of context.” Reading between the lines, one guesses at a chat in which a story she was playing for laughs was then transcribed as a no-holds-barred exit interview. “Actually, I always understood that [my departure] was healthy and necessary for Vogue. Change is good. [But] it could have been a lot more elegant.” In the aftermath, she was mortified not just at having burned bridges, but at having offended long-standing friends. “The worst thing was that I hurt two people I love. Michael [Kors], and Alex [Shulman, the previous editor].” Are they reconciled? “Oh goodness, yes. Thank God.”
Amid the changing of the guard at Vogue, Chambers was cast as part of the posh, white fashion establishment being dislodged by the new regime. Despite the accent (old-fashioned cut-glass) and being called Lucinda, Chambers does not, in fact, come from money and did not land at Vogue through connections. She inherited her flair for interiors from her mother, a single parent for most of Chambers’ childhood who funded family life by buying houses, doing them up and selling them on.
“Literally doing them up – I mean, physically. My mother could knock down walls and rebuild them. [When I was] a child, we moved every 18 months. Although always on page 58 of the A-Z.” In the interview for her first job at Vogue, as a secretary, she →
‘My departure was healthy for Vogue. But it could have been a lot more elegant’
was asked, “And who do you know here?” The answer – no one – was unusual at the time, but Chambers got the job. Has that attitude moved on? “Oh my God, 100%. That was one of the first things that I actively sought to change when I became fashion director. I couldn’t see another CV with ‘godchild of so-and-so’ on it. It just wasn’t interesting.” Diversity, she says, “did not start with Edward Enninful becoming editor of Vogue. It started a long time ago. But the pace has definitely picked up.”
Two photographers with whom Chambers often worked at Vogue, Mario Testino and Patrick Demarchelier, have since been accused of sexual misconduct, which they have denied. Chambers says she never witnessed any wrongdoing by either man. “I ran a tight ship on my shoots. I don’t think people would have dared. Only once in my career have I seen a photographer behave toward a model in a way that I considered unacceptable. I stopped the shoot and never worked with him again.”
By the end of Chambers’ time at Marni, her role had expanded so that she was one of the designers – “there wasn’t a button or a fabric I hadn’t brought to the table” – and soon after leaving Vogue she became a designer officially. Two former designers with whom she had collaborated at Marni, Molly Molloy and Kristin Forss, approached her with an idea for a new label. Colville, in which the three share creative and business responsibility, launched earlier this year, making the kind of colourful, textured, timelessly esoteric pieces that transformed Marni from an obscure fur house into a cult label.
“I am not sure I would ever have left Vogue if what happened hadn’t happened. Now that I’ve got the distance of a year, I can see how a situation that was a bit messy propelled me from a job I loved into something much more exciting. Three women starting a company together as a kind of collective – it feels very right, very much of our time.” In addition to Colville, a second project – a new digital platform – is in the pipeline.
So, a scrape that might have made Chambers fall out of love with fashion renewed her passion for the industry. “When you’ve been in a job for 20 years, you think you’ve identified who the good guys are. But you never know who will be there when you’re not, you know, Lucinda From Vogue. It has been wonderful to find out that, actually, they were all still there.”
One of the first people to pick up the phone during the fallout was Anna Wintour, who commissioned Chambers to shoot Pharrell Williams for last December’s cover of American Vogue. Michael Kors – whose T-shirt Chambers had disparaged – offered a very public olive branch by inviting her to his New York fashion week show, where she was given a prime front-row seat. “What was amazing, after the shock, was the support,” she says now. “You don’t assume that it will be there. It was quite overwhelming, actually.”
At 58, Chambers doesn’t believe in age-appropriate dressing. “I don’t think anyone should ‘dress their age’, whatever that even means. Not in terms of putting a ringfence about what you are allowed to wear. But on the other hand, being stylish is about being at ease with who you are, not trying to be something you’re not. Comfort, to me, is underrated. Carine Roitfeld [the former editor of French Vogue] looks incredible, but I would never dress the way she does, because it doesn’t look comfortable. Her skirts are so tight, her shoes are so high.”
The newest member of Chambers’ household is Tig, a jointed wooden mannequin bought on eBay. Today she is wearing a trench by & Other Stories over a zip-up knit by Zara. (As styled by Chambers, I took the look for Celine.) Dressing herself, dressing Tig, dressing her house, “it all comes from the same place,” she says. “I do it to give myself pleasure, and what gives me pleasure is fabric and colour and texture and pattern.” Ideas can come from anywhere. Today, she’s ruminating over rolls of yellow, blue and red electrical tape that she spotted on a shelf in the post office. “Those colours… I know they will turn up in something I do, although I don’t know yet what form it will be. I don’t think I’m a particularly original person. I get my ideas from the world around me. You have to be on receive mode all the time, that’s the thing. And if you like something, if it makes you happy, then you go for it.”
Even after she disparaged Michael Kors, he gave her a front-row seat at his next show
Previous pages: the living room; and right, the veranda. This page from top: Kartell’s Fly pendant (heals.com); Chambers’ earring collection
Top: art fills the living room – the woman in a red dress is by illustrator Tanya Ling. Left: Tig, a wooden mannequin bought on eBay