The glossy posse & me
Britain’s magazine publishing supremo, Nicholas Coleridge, talks to Paddy Renouf about his new memoir and life amid the A-list
April 17 2020
BY PADDY RENOUF
We meet in the Ladies’ Bar at the Chelsea Arts Club, a short walk from Nicholas Coleridge’s London townhouse. Sprightly and full of bonhomie, and dressed in a well-cut suit with pocket square and open shirt, he declines a pint with a smile and settles for tea.
Having hobnobbed with the most famous and influential people on the planet, travelled the world, made a fortune and got out at just the right time, some say Coleridge is extremely self-satisfied – in the best sense of the word. He always seems to be content, and might be the only person I know who’s done exactly what he wanted to in life, made money doing it, made it seem effortless, and made it fun.
Shortly to retire from his position as president of Condé Nast International and chairman of the British wing of Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, GQ,Vanity Fair and many more, Nicholas Coleridge’s career in the glossies coincided with the glorious zenith of magazine publishing, from the Seventies to the Nineties and into the digital transformations of the 21st century. He cut his teeth as a journalist at the Evening Standard and Tatler, and was editor-in-chief of Harpers & Queen (now Harper’s Bazaar), before moving to Condé Nast and becoming the Mr Big of luxury publishing for three decades. With both hilarity and surprising candour, his new memoir, The Glossy Years, provides perceptive insight into the ever-changing and treacherous waters of journalism, fashion, and a whole sweep of British society figures who populate the pages of upmarket magazines – prime ministers, princesses, and performers; models, moguls, and maharajas.
As we settle down to talk, I suggest that I should have started with Jeffrey Archer’s advice to the young Coleridge, who was sent to interview him: “I’ll send you 12 questions to ask me and you just publish them and my answers.” He reassures me that, unlike Archer, he’s happy to engage.
A legend in the publishing world, Coleridge is equally well known for the ease with which he’s rubbed shoulders with some of the most stylish, powerful and famous people in the world. “They do tend to cluster around magazines,” he says, “and because our magazines are all in slightly different spheres, over time you get to meet a lot of different people.”
Mostly, one imagines, this is a by-product of his personality as well as the impossibly glamorous parties at which he has tended to be a stalwart – but not always. He got to know Princess Diana, for instance, because she’d pop into Vogue House, the London HQ of Condé Nast, to try on clothes.
“She fell into a thing of getting Vogue to call in clothes she was interested in, because she found it embarrassing to go into shops where everyone would get so excited,” he says. “They would go to so much trouble to show her everything they had and then if she didn’t buy anything she would sense their disappointment.”
Nowadays he’s got to know the Duchess of Cambridge, who is the Royal Patron of the V&A, where Coleridge is chairman of the board of trustees. “She is much more grounded than Princess Diana and seems to have a lot of common sense,” he says. “She is incredibly good with donors and philanthropists, but like Diana she is also very, very good with the more junior curators.” And what does he think Diana would make of Meghan Markle? “Oh that’s such a difficult question, isn’t it? Some aspects of Meghan Sussex’s character the Princess of Wales ought to have absolutely admired and would have completely understood – the interest in world issues, for example. I expect the Princess of Wales would herself have become a big climate-change person. As I’ve never met Meghan I can’t really comment. When she appeared on the scene I thought she had an adorable smile and I was rather pro the idea.”
Coleridge, educated at Eton (where his peers included Oliver Letwin and former Telegraph editor Charles Moore) and Cambridge, was just 29 when he became editor of Harpers & Queen, before joining Condé Nast as editorial director and rising up the ranks. Did he always expect to attain such dizzying heights?
“It’s very kind of you to even say that because I think working for a magazine company is not that dizzy a height,” he laughs. “I didn’t know that it would be so interesting, and had no idea that the last 30 years would be so fertile for magazines. When I joined Condé Nast we were publishing 39 magazines around the world. And now we publish 140. There used to be five Vogues and now there are 23.”
"There's who the editor would like the reader to be, and who they actually are"
Despite the huge problems facing traditional publishing, he remains upbeat. “The middle market has completely gone. In five years’ time there will be nobody young who even remembers some of those magazines existed. But I think the upmarket magazines and specials will continue reasonably strongly for quite a few decades to come.”
Away from the day job, Coleridge has penned a dozen or so books, including The Fashion Conspiracy, in which he caused a stir probing the worlds of designer billionaires such as Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent and Calvin Klein. “I wrote books because they allowed me to have a parallel existence that was separate from the Condé Nast existence. I wrote them all longhand, in the garden at weekends.”
In fact, he was rendered speechless when, at a reception, David Bowie asked if he was “the writer Nicholas Coleridge”. “That was amazing: My childhood god! I thought I would faint. In the car on the way back, Alexandra Shulman and Dylan Jones [then the editors of Vogue and GQ respectively] kept saying, ‘He did say it, you didn’t invent it,’ because it seemed like the sort of thing I might have hallucinated.”
In his book, a kind of Evelyn Waughmeets-Dick Francis, Coleridge, a brilliant raconteur, belts out the funny anecdotes: Bob Geldof on William and Fiona Hague’s sex life; a schoolboy George Osborne cadging taxi money; or an editor climbing onto the window ledge of his office, threatening to jump – he had to drag her back in with the help of Human Resources. Mostly though, he’s done well with his editors: Shulman was at Vogue for 25 years, Sue Crewe at House & Garden for 20, and Jones is still going strong at GQ after 19.
“Choosing them [editors] is one thing I’ve been quite lucky or even good at. They need to be commercial and creative and have a full understanding of who the reader is,” he says. “There are often two different kinds of reader: There’s who the editor would like the reader to be and who they actually are. So an editor of Tatler would like to think that their readers are the three Manners girls plus some fabulous Hollywood actress, plus Nicky Haslam [the socialite interior designer]. And indeed they are, but you’re selling 85,000 copies a month and appealing to a tremendous number of people who will never appear in the magazine and are reading it for all kinds of voyeuristic reasons.”
The Condé Nast empire is overwhelmingly female. “I did like that,” Coleridge admits, “mainly because I’d had very little experience of it. I grew up with two brothers, was educated entirely at all-boys schools, and at university there were far fewer women than there are now. So my career was rather an interesting education.”
It has, he says, been an adventure of his own making: his father was chairman of Lloyd’s, and the last writer in his family was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Quite a lot of people who work in journalism have parents who’ve been editors, but I didn’t. So I discovered all of this for myself.”
And what now? For once, he intends to put his feet up. “Well, I’m not going to do anything next, really,” he admits. “I will carry on with the V&A for four more years. It’s exciting that we are opening two new museums in the East End and we opened in Dundee last year.” He’ll also continue to fly the flag in a slightly different capacity, in his ongoing role as chairman of the Campaign for Wool, founded by the Prince of Wales to promote the natural fibre.
With connections like those, and such a diverse and stellar career, I suggest perhaps a peerage is next? “I would feel very uncomfortable answering such a question because it would look very presumptuous!” he protests. And what about politics? He’s emphatic. “No, no, no. There are quite enough Etonians in politics already.”
Paddy Renouf is the Editor at Large of Boisdale Life and the founder of Serendipity - a company that creates precious and memorable experiences for individuals, families and corporations