Jo Ellison, fashion editor at the Financial Times and former features director at Vogue, takes time out from her frantic Fashion Week schedule to meet Rachel Marie Walsh.
Chic and willowy in Céline, anyone in The Connaught Hotel bar would pin Jo Ellison as fashion editor. Her skin is flawless and makeup free.
“I do wear makeup but I think it’s very London to want to look as though you haven’t tried too hard.”
Having moved here from Cork not long after she did, I am suddenly very conscious of my mascara and lipgloss. No matter.
As comes across so frequently in her writing, Jo is friendly and down to earth and the nerves I feel about interviewing a former Vogue editor are quickly dispelled.
Her route into the industry was not the typical coffee-making, fashion cupboard-straightening story.
Born in Cambridge and raised between London and Dubai, Jo says many who knew her growing up were surprised she wound up in fashion.
“A lot of people I’ve worked with have stories about saving up for their first designer pieces when they were 12 but as a student I dressed really shambolically, like something out of The Young Ones.”
She studied history at Edinburgh and met her husband, the playwright Enda Walsh, while working in the theatre where Disco Pigs ran during the 1997 Fringe.
She moved to Cork to live with him a year later and began her journalism career at The Irish Examiner.
“I was still doing that stubborn ex-pat thing of listening to Radio 4 all the time, so was very ignorant of Irish politics in my interview with [Examiner editor] Tim Vaughan. Everyone was very nice about it.”
After successfully identifying Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy in a picture test, she was given a sub-editing job and quickly progressed to the features desk.
“I felt very lucky that a national paper was published in the heart of the city and willing to give me a job without my having any experience.”
Fashion was not her focus as features editor (“I edited op-ed pieces and commissioned features on things like fly-fishing”) but she did spend a lot of time in Brown Thomas and working at Vogue was always a dream.
Vogue House got a little closer when Jo returned to London with Enda in 2006.
As features editor of The Independent, she wrote arts reviews and helped shape articles by then fashion ed Susannah Frankel.
Her Vogue opportunity arrived in 2008, when she heard features editor Jo Craven was leaving and pursued editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman for “a couple of months” until she got an interview and ultimately, the job.
Contrary to the awkward atmosphere presented in Richard Macer’s recent behind-the-scenes documentary, she describes the office as “one of the most vibrant, straightforwardly supportive” work environments she’s ever experienced.
As features editor and later features director, she covered more art and celebrity that couture but “everything at Vogue is filtered either towards fashionability or a subject being ‘of the moment’”.
Hence her portfolio includes cover stories with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, a feature on a young Jennifer Lawrence, and one on Carey Mulligan’s West End debut.
She also praises Shulman for allowing her to execute less Vogue-ish ideas, such as an article on the Metropolitan Police’s female DCIs that she cites as her favourite feature “of all time”.
Her celebrity features have less puff than the average women magazine profile and she is equally cool about fashion’s current embrace of reality TV stars.
“I think there’s always been a Kardashian in some form. There were shampoo models, in the past, who became muses and had their profiles elevated through being adopted by the fashion industry. But it’s dangerous to follow the crowd-sourcing method of choosing your muse based on whoever has a huge Instagram following.
"People are incredibly fickle. You risk looking out of date when you sign a four-year contract with a woman the public might lose interest in overnight.”
Jo’s done a lot more fashion writing since joining the Financial Times in 2014. She is the second fashion editor in the broadsheet’s history.
“I’m read by a lot more business-minded 50-something men now. They’re the paper’s core readership, and interesting them is a different proposition. I definitely cover more men’s fashion than I used to and they really care about clothes.”
She describes a feature on office dress codes (‘Sorry JP Morgan, Smart Guys Still Wear Suits,’ June 8, 2016) that went ‘absolutely mental’ on the paper’s website.
“Whether or not you should wear a tie is perhaps the most hackneyed [men’s fashion feature] there is but it still generates a huge response.”
Her sharp, witty fashion coverage also appeals to the young female audience the paper seeks to attract.
Fashion is sometimes written about in overwrought, impenetrable description but she sees shows as opportunities to observe where the industry is now and place it in an accessible context.
“I hope that the writing is interesting enough to be read just because it’s a nice thing to read, whether you’ve come across it accidentally or are very well informed.”
Do she and Enda – parents to a daughter, Ada – bounce ideas off one another?
“Not at all! I’m always reading about other couples who really engage with each other’s work but no, we watch Bake Off and drink wine. I don’t read his work before I see it.”
She does think he influences the rhythm of her articles.
“When he reads something I write the content is less important than how it scans. All he really cares about is the pace, because a playwright is always imagining how writing would sound as a delivered piece.”
How has her personal style evolved?
“I spend a lot more money than I used to! I do love Céline. I try to buy timeless classics but there are only so many of those you need, I tend to repeat buy them. Also, if I write a article on ‘what to buy now,’ like a prairie dress, I wind up convincing myself I need one.”
She also looks forward to seeing the latest from Nicholas Ghesquiere, JW Anderson and Louis Vuitton. Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s creative director and founder of Vetements, is her one-to-watch.
“It is nice to have a new voice that is doing something interesting. Overall, though, the more time I spend interviewing the more I appreciate what they do and really like them all. It’s an exciting job and when someone does it well it’s fascinating to spend time with them.”
Jo’s title gets her access to some amazing international shows. She and the rest of Michael Kors’ front row were serenaded by Rufus Wainwright this month.
The Louis Vuitton Resort 2016 show, held at Niteròi Contemporary Art Museum, a futuristic Niemeyer design in Rio, is another recent highlight.
She also loved the Bleinheim Palace show Christian Dior did in May. They chartered the Orient Express and rebranded it the ‘Di-Orient Express’ for the show’s centrepiece.
“It was a decadent, spoiling thing.”
The new move towards ready-to-buy, which allow consumers to shop collections off the catwalk and skips the clothes’ traditional show-fashion editorial-store progression makes fashion week seem less important, but the editor thinks they’ll remain an important part of the conversation.
“Some truly original looks are not easy on the eye and need months to percolate. On the other hand, things that look extremely commercial on the catwalk can get boring pretty quickly.”
Her first book, Vogue: The Gown, is a love letter to the garment that hooks most women on fashion early.
The research, for which she spent hours poring over the Vogue archive, filled seven lever-arch files with copies of every image of a gown that ever appeared in magazine.
She grouped them thematically, wrote some engaging essays and from there “it was just a massive editing job”. The result is near-impossible to put down.
“I love the Helmut Newton image of Twiggy and all the ones Bruce Weber did with Grace Coddington. Wenda Parkinson standing in the ruins of the Blitz, Lee Miller…There’s so much to love.”
And if you dream of working in fashion editorial, Jo’s advice is to be tenacious but flexible.
“Blogging is great but you’ve still got to intern and do a lot of grunt work. Make the coffee, be a fabulous assistant and put yourself forward at every opportunity.”
Finding a great editor is also key.
“Really grapple with your copy. Look at your edits and apply what you learn. If you want to write for a beautiful long-lead publication you have to learn how to write.”
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