Cover Story: Fashion She Wrote

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 17, 2017 - April 23, 2017.
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Known for her impeccable sense of style, talent and charm, the ageless Plum Sykes has added a delicious new twist to her writing repertoire. 

Synonymous with American Vogue as one of its beloved, long-time contributing editors, Plum Sykes has come a long way, literally, since she was plucked from her native England as a young journalist for a covetable position at the fashion bible helmed by the legendary Anna Wintour. “I was working at British Vogue. In fact, it was my first job, which I got by going there for work experience, and after I had worked there for about four years, I got offered a job at American Vogue,” she says.

Arriving in New York City in 1997, Sykes — a willowy English rose educated in Oxford’s Worcester College — quickly became an It Girl around town. Without intending to sound flippant, she says, “In the Nineties, we went to lots of parties and drank lots of cocktails, and we had a really good time. I still think New York is a good fun city but 9/11 changed it dramatically.”

Working for the world’s most high-profile fashion magazine must come with plenty of perks and free access to the most exclusive events. When asked about her most unforgettable moment during her NYC stint, she says, “Probably the first time I went to the Met Ball. Anna Wintour gave me a table and I invited all my friends. I remember wearing a John Galliano dress that I had borrowed from the Vogue closet, and my twin sister Lucy came along. Puff Daddy played at the party with a choir of 50 sweet little African-American boys.”

Life these days for Sykes — whose real name is Victoria but her nickname, Plum, in reference to the Victoria plum fruit found in England, stuck with her — revolves around her two cherubs, Ursula, 10, and Tess, 6, and Toby Rowlands, her husband of over a decade. The family leads an idyllic existence in the English countryside, on what Sykes calls “a remote sheep farm in the Cotswold Hills”. In reality, it is a wildly beautiful and stone-clad country home built around an old cottage that nestles in 100 acres of pastureland in pretty Gloucestershire.

In an old issue of American Vogue and also on, she says, “I write every morning in my tiny, second-floor, light-filled writing room with its wild valley views. I try to walk the dogs, muck out a stable, garden, or exercise my horse in the afternoons. What’s the point of living in the country, after all, if you don’t get into it every day?”

It is easy to imagine Sykes in that exact room, penning her latest book that is to be launched on June 1 by Bloomsbury.

Her first book, Bergdorf Blondes, published in 2004, was listed by both The Sunday Times and The New York Times as a top 10 bestseller. It sold over 250,000 copies. The Debutante Divorcée, a New York Times bestseller, followed suit in 2006 before Sykes released a digital-only 10,000-word memoir called Oxford Girl in 2011. Her latest book is, in a way, a departure from the romantic comedy-cum-social satire theme of her first two books. “Bergdorf Blondes and The Debutante Divorcée are spoofs of that New York Park Avenue Princess world and the book I’ve written just now is a comic murder mystery, so it has still got the romantic comedy element but it has also got a murder to solve.”

Sykes says Party Girls Die in Pearls is the first of a new series and that there will be a few of them going forward. How difficult was it to write a murder mystery, even for someone who had read plenty of Agatha Christie and P.D. James growing up? “It was a really big challenge at first. I kept wondering if I was going to be able to pull it off and if everyone was going to guess who did it. But no one seems to guess until right to the end when I tell you who did it,” she says. She believes a murder mystery gives the book a good spine to structure a story around and, in a way, makes it much simpler to maintain the narrative and keep it flowing.

“You have this very strong question, ‘Who did it? Who did it?’ That’s what you’re asking all the time. The reader hopefully doesn’t get bored if you can keep that question going in an interesting way through the whole book.”

For fans who adore Sykes’ writing, or what some call “chic lit”, rest assured that she has not dispensed with her light-hearted prose laced with affectionate satire in her upcoming work. “It’s still very high society and although everyone is 18, 19, 20 or so, it still has that same kind of elite group that we all love to read about, those who’re fabulous, exciting, glamorous. It’s still those people but I’ve just added that murder mystery element,” she explains, before adding, “I think it’s really a good fun read. I think anyone who loved Bergdorf Blondes and The Debutante Divorcée will love this too, and they would have this added murder mystery. It’s very similar territory in many ways.”

Party Girls Die in Pearls is set in Oxford, one of Sykes’ favourite places in England, besides London and the Cotswolds. Like her, her father and grandfather, Christopher Sykes — official biographer of the novelist Evelyn Waugh and son of diplomat Sir Mark Sykes — were also educated at Oxford.

“I always thought it was kind of a romantic place and a great place of learning. From quite an early age, like 11 or 12, I wanted to try and go, but I knew it was very difficult. I never thought I would get in really.”

But Sykes did get into Oxford, where she read modern history, thanks to her love of “stories, people who told stories and the stories in British history” and the influence of Our Island Story, a famous English history book for children.

“I had a brilliant time, met lots of people and went to lots of parties, wearing a lot of ball gowns. I worked really hard and generally learnt how to grow up,” Sykes recounts. In fact, in an article by Hadley Freeman in The Guardian, friend Katie Collins describes Sykes as “ridiculously glamorous and incredibly organised. She never had an essay crisis and she was involved in absolutely everything, such as films, plays and every party there was”. When asked to comment, Sykes simply says, “I was a conscientious worker.”

In a 2006 article by Gaby Wood also in The Guardian, fashion publishing’s most powerful woman, Anna Wintour, has this to say about Sykes: “I think sometimes people think she’s just a sort of society girl around town, but she’s not at all. She’s super-smart, super-observant, incredibly hardworking.”

Sykes’ response when reminded of Wintour’s praise reveals her no-nonsense side. “You have to work really hard if you work at American Vogue. You can’t get away with not.

“Working at American Vogue became my whole career. You can’t do it and not have it as your whole career. You’ve got to be serious about it. I would say it completely altered the course of my life. American Vogue offered me the opportunity to meet and interview amazing people, do interesting work, travel and do loads of those things I would never have done in my life had I not worked there.”

Though literally everyone must have asked Sykes what it was like to work for the formidable Wintour, her answer does not come across as jaded. “I still work there as a contributor, so I still work with her. She is very decisive, a very good manager of creative people. She gives you a yes or no immediately, so you always know where you stand. She is actually a very easy person to work for because she is a good communicator but obviously what’s hard about it is her standards are extremely high. So, the tough part of the job is reaching the expectations she might have but she will always tell you what she wants and that’s very clear, and it’s very easy to understand.”

In her seven years in New York while working at American Vogue — from the late Nineties to the early Noughties, Sykes was a fixture in the city’s social circuit, admired for her impeccable style and appearance. “I love Helmut Lang, I love that very simple way of dressing. I remember I bought myself a white Helmut Lang suit. That was one of the first things I bought when I reached New York, and that was really, really chic to wear to work.”

What does she consider stylish, being the arbiter of style herself? “I think really stylish people are not necessarily wearing the most fashionable clothes. They definitely have a look that is unique to them. Dita Von Teese doesn’t look at all on trend but she looks incredibly glamorous and chic in what she’s wearing. Isabella Blow, whom I worked for at British Vogue, had an extreme sense of style. I think having your own taste is a stylish thing to have.

“My personal style has evolved because I’m a mother now. I’m not wearing lots of high heels and I tend to have a uniform — a chic pair of skinny jeans, little black trousers, Chanel ballet flats, a white shirt. Very simple but I do like to look well put together.”

After her marriage in 2005 to British entrepreneur Toby Rowlands — who had gone to Oxford at the same time as her but who she did not meet until at a wedding in their early thirties — Sykes has lived in England. Though not easy due to the time factor, she manages to juggle motherhood with work, something she intends to continue doing.

“I like being in the countryside and with the children. You know you can’t be a hands-on mother and a socialite because you won’t have time to be both. I just do a bit of socialising now, enough to keep me interested but my focus is my children, my work and my friends and family, in that order really.”

Though born in London, Sykes grew up mostly in the country — a childhood of riding ponies and going on long country walks. She says, “I was very much an observant child and would remain on the fringes of situations, on the outside looking in like a writer. When I moved to America, I was an English writer in New York and I was very much able to observe from the outside.” This, plus a love of reading and creative writing as a child, inevitably guided Sykes into a long-term writing career, contributing to American Vogue on topics of fashion, celebrity and society, apart from authoring her own books.

“I still find writing articles incredibly interesting. It’s still a really hard thing to do and get right. Writing books is a whole new challenge. It’s such a huge challenge that you can’t help but be interested in it. I do lots of research and I don’t sit there expecting to be inspired without any hard work. If I needed inspiration, I’d go interview people, read things, watch something or meet new people. I’m not sitting there waiting for it all to come out of my head. Then once I have got the research and I have the inspiration, whether it’s writing an article or a book, I will sit down and write and edit as I go along and do those drafts. I will probably write three to four hours a day maximum.”

Clearly, Sykes’ writing process has not changed much from what Wintour observed in Gaby Wood’s article in 2006: “And the way she goes about her books, from what I understand, is she’ll interview a ton of people anonymously. So people are not too frightened of saying things that will get them into trouble, and in a way, because she’s such a great listener and she knows so many interesting people, it’s almost like she becomes their shrink. So I think a lot of the material that is in the new book (The Debutante Divorcée) is reality, but obviously the names are all changed. I think that’s part of her strength — it’s not just made-up chick lit. She nails it every time.”

As a proof copy of Party Girls Die in Pearls reveals, Sykes’ knack for life-meets-art storytelling in her signature prose and seamless integration of fact and fiction promises continued top-notch entertainment.