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Joan Juliet Buck, Former Editor of French Vogue

Joan Juliet Buck headshot

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Joan Juliet Buck, a longtime fashion editor and the only American Editor-in-Chief of French Vogue. The occasion was her new memoir, The Price of Illusion. Quite pleasantly, the interview quickly took on a natural cadence. It felt like she was lounging in a cozy chair by the fireplace, reminiscing about fashion and reflecting on her own sartorial history, and I was merely at sitting at her feet soaking up every word. I hope you enjoy Joan’s wit and wisdom as much as I did.

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Fashionista Lab: I’d like to start by reading a couple of quotes from the book:

“If Nana was shocked by Ricki’s handbag, I could let my clothes take the blame for whatever I chose to do in the future.”

“I bought more clothes. My job was to be seen wearing the latest thing, or better still, the thing no one had yet seen.”

In the later years did you feel like your clothes were taking the blame, was that still your frame of reference?

Joan Juliet Buck: My clothes taking the blame was more when I was wearing my costumes earlier on, when I was running around in distressed suede to look like I had just been in a brawl out west in 1871. Or my fake hippie look or my ‘Chinese factory worker’ look – distracting from me by wearing a costume that was evoking some kind of dramatic moment in history.

But taking the blame, that’s an interesting question. It became that, since I had the job, I had to wear the clothes made by the advertisers. Therefore my clothes were having the relationships with people. The clothes were doing a lot of the work. Which is probably why I got rid of so many of those clothes!

They were like my translators for the fashion world: if I was wearing something that everyone in the fashion world knew and recognized, made, liked, or wanted, I wasn’t wearing something of mine. I talk in the book about my dressing room and how my old clothes from New York seemed like meek, emotional old friends.

(ed note: the full quote is “I bought more clothes. My job was to be seen wearing the latest thing, or better still, the thing no one had yet seen. I owned a profusion of clothes so dense that no job, no event, no memory could stick to anyone thing … My old New York clothes looked meek and emotional among the new things, like old friends with whom I used to laugh and cry.”)

Memoir by former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck[The Vogue clothes] weren’t mine – they were in that I had paid for them. But they were clothes that were not bought because I loved them or really wanted them. I always, from a very young age, would buy fabric in the sale at Liberty’s. Because my father was a producer there was a seamstress from one of the movie studios, Eileen Lake, who would make my clothes. Everything was really cheap. I’d have her copy the old things that I found in flea markets. I had a real relationship with my clothes. I cared about them. They were part of a certain fantasy about how I wanted to feel.

And then when they were business clothes for Vogue, they were for the business of Vogue. And of course the fashion magazines go very fast, the cycles of fashion go very fast. One of the reasons I got rid of so many clothes while I was at Vogue and kept giving them away was, ‘whoops, that was last season. If the Editor-in-Chief of Paris Vogue is wearing last season’s whachamagoogee she’s going to look – oh my God – insane.’ Whereas, for my friends, like my friend the poet, this was like ‘wow, nice warm coat, good-looking jacket, nice trousers.’ My job was to wear the latest thing. This was great because I had a clothing allowance and I had friends who couldn’t afford nice clothes. Fantastic!

There was a point when Hermès showed big country sweaters. Hermès was incredibly expensive, frankly. Even with the clothing allowance I could only afford it in the sale. But when they showed these big big sweaters I went to the cashmere shop in the Burlington arcade, and I bought really big cozy, comfortable sweaters to imitate Hermès. The guy who was in charge of my expenses asked, ‘what are these sweaters you bought in London?’ I said, ‘it’s to look like Hermès.’ There was a real discussion about that. I kept them and I wore them, and God knows I have them still! They’re not fashion, they’re just really good sweaters. Eventually sale time rolled around at Hermès and I was there as soon as I could be. I bought four or five of those really glorious, thick, beautiful cashmere sweaters that looked as if they belonged to a woman who lived in the country and didn’t care about fashion. I was preparing the wardrobe that I wear today, and that’s what I wear today.

I”m very lucky to have a new friend – I’ve only known him for about five years – Zac Posen. I love the way he cuts, I love his imagination, I love his taste. He’s worked out some things that he makes for me that are exactly what I love. It’s obviously not me telling a seamstress what to do. Those are my fancy new clothes. They are wonderful and they’re exactly what I love, the way I love, and the colors I love. and they’re my clothes. It’s not like Zac Posen’s beautiful strapless red carpet dresses – it’s things that look good on me. Things that look like a priest or warrior might wear them. There are evening things like long silk samurai pants that are stiff and beautiful, and look like long skirts but they’re really pants, and they have tight jackets that zip up so you’re dressed in 30 seconds. They’re magnificent. They’re slightly fancy, but also really subtle. That’s perfection. Otherwise, I live upstate so I wear a lot of Polartech hoodies and Heattech undershirts, God bless UNIQLO. In the snow today I’m wearing my three or four year old Jil Sander down coat from UNIQLO.

FL: What is the role of the fashion magazine – how much should people acknowledge and follow the magazine directive vs dressing for yourself?

JJB: We all want to renew ourselves. There’s a moment at the end of winter when your clothes are really tired, sad and saggy. You want something new. Fashion magazines are there to tell you how to be the new you. I think they really do have a role and a purpose. Because I’ve been only a writer the past 5 years, I don’t have the budget to buy fancy new clothes when they come out. I’m incredibly lucky to have Zac Posen as a friend. But I do what I did as a teenager and as a young woman without much money. I poke around the sale racks. I find stuff in the sale racks! The great thing with those sale racks is you take 40 things into your dressing room, and after about two hours you’ve found two or three things that are nice, that you can afford. The fashion magazines are there to tell you which thing to take off the sale rack – or not.

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It was truly a pleasure speaking with Joan. The Price of Illusion is available on Amazon and wherever else you buy books.

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