AT LONDON Fashion Week back in February I was on the late-running press bus approaching the Jonathan Saunders show when someone spotted a swarm of photographers clicking away frantically at a figure just outside the venue.
“Who’s that?” someone enquired, pointing at the smudge of corn-coloured tresses in the distance. “With that hair?” replied her companion excitedly. “It can only be Laura Bailey.”
Bailey, a model and writer who is something of an institution in the British fashion industry, caused a similar stir wherever I spotted her on the front row, slim Bambi-esque legs folded carefully, fluffy blonde hair usually attempting escape from a ponytail.
Why? Perhaps because she, more than most, is a living embodiment of great British style. Not just in the eyes of street style bloggers and glossy magazine editors but in an official capacity; she is a cultural ambassador for the British Fashion Council.
It is her hair that I spot first when she walks into the noisy café near her home in Notting Hill where we’ve arranged to meet. A streak of blonde that stretches the length of her back, fluffy wispy pieces dance around her face after she pulls off her green cycle helmet.
She rushes over, big smile and friendly introductions and jokes that she needs a coffee immediately “or there’s going to be an emergency”. A double espresso is duly ordered and she settles onto the leather banquette, helmet on her left, enormous straw bag on her right and a substantial vintage skirt splaying out in every direction.
She laughs, a little embarrassed, when I ask her about what she’s wearing. She drove in from the country at 6:30am this morning and as such she’s wearing a bit of a mash-up of whatever happened to be at hand (Topshop denim shirt, Camilla Skovgaard wedges worn with pushed-down socks) topped with a flick of turquoise eyeliner and a messy ponytail.
It’s that slightly haphazard sense of style, however, that sees her hailed as a very British fashion icon. It’s feminine with a heavy helping of tomboy, hippyish with a drop of blue blood, eccentric yet put-together, unpolished, effortless, eclectic, unstudied but very, very stylish.
“Oh I don’t plan,” she says, sipping on her espresso. “I’m always in a hurry, always on my bike. I’m not someone who has Polaroids on their shoe boxes. My wardrobe is chaos. I have my favourite things that I wear obsessively and as a mother [to Luc, seven and Lola, four] and working pretty flat out, I’m also really practical. I’m not in a decorative phase of my life.”
Bailey was discovered on the Kings Road at 22, which, in model years, is nearing retirement age. However, she is grateful for her relatively late entry into the industry, which allowed her to get a first in English from Southampton University under her belt before stepping in front of the cameras.
A short relationship with actor Richard Gere in her early twenties which she has described as – “a rollercoaster romance with a man twice my age” – saw her catapulted to fame, but it is in the last decade, perhaps, that she’s become a household name, after starring in a series of M&S ads alongside models Twiggy, Noémie Lenoir, Erin O’Connor and Lizzy Jagger.
Today she is a contributing editor to British Vogue, blogs on vogue.co.uk and is a brand ambassador for Radley and Chanel, as well as being an ambassador for Oxfam. She has a strong interest in film (her partner, Eric Fellner, is the producer of films including Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’ Diary) and she is working with the British Fashion Council on a series of short films as part of their FASH/ON film programme.
Her ethical credentials are impressive; she has made a film highlighting Ghana’s maternal health issues for Oxfam and created a range of jewellery for fair trade label Made.
For her latest project, Bailey is the face of McArthurGlen’s Designer Outlet Fashion Month, a celebration of bargain outlet shopping lasting throughout September. She’s been styled and photographed in some of her favourite pieces from McArthurGlen’s AW12 collections and will be sharing her style tips with savvy shoppers, who will enjoy exclusive evenings and extra discounts at outlets across the UK, including Livingston, Scotland’s largest designer outlet.
So does she love the thrill of a good bargain as much as the rest of us? “Oh yes,” she says enthusiastically. “And not just in terms of designer outfits; I’ve always been a vintage markets scavenger. I love a bargain and I think most women do. Some of my favourite things from all over the world have certainly not been my most expensive splurges. There is a thrill from getting a bargain, but also from the hunt, the quest. I’m not really a planned shopping person but I like that feeling of stumbling upon something.”
She turned 40 last month, and celebrated with various little dinners with friends rather than one big bash. The day itself coincided with a holiday in the South of France with “tonnes of kids and a few best friends” and she’s still sporting a tan and some of the presents she received; bits and pieces of jewellery which she wears piled high.
They include two gold rings by designer Solange, bearing the names of her children. She’s wearing them both on one finger until she can get one resized. Did the birthday feel like a milestone? “I’m very at peace with my age so I wasn’t traumatised by it. I had to get used to saying it a few times afterwards, kind of rehearse it. But it was OK.”
The low-key celebrations are quite a contrast to her 30th birthday, which she spent on a beach in Ibiza, an experience she described in a piece she wrote for Vogue: “I swam with the children, indulged in an obligatory cry with my best friend, danced like a dervish (in four different dresses)... and stole quiet moments with much older men offering lessons in life and love.”
Today she looks incredible. Not incredible for 40, just incredible. I ask her why she thinks, in an industry preoccupied with youth, that her career has really taken off in the last eight years. After all, while the big Nineties supermodels – Naomi, Christy, Cindy et al – continue to work in their forties, their stars rose in their early twenties and never really came back down to earth. Bailey, on the other hand, seemed to come into her own in her thirties.
She’s asked herself the question before and she doesn’t have an easy answer, though she does note that the success she’s enjoyed over the past eight years or so has come since becoming a mother. “I don’t know if its specific to London but I think that there is in fashion generally now more of a sense of celebration of a woman rather than a girl,” she muses. “I think there’s space for everything, for all kinds of images. But growing up in pictures as I have, I definitely feel more at home and more confident now than in my twenties.”
Motherhood, as it tends to do, changed everything for her: “I couldn’t afford to compromise or waste time so everything I do has to be really worth it in the jigsaw puzzle. I also became much more ruthlessly organised because I wanted to carve out time with my kids. Through that, strangely, I’ve been working much more intensely and much harder.”
She keeps coming back to how at ease with herself she is now, how as long as her children are happy and healthy, she’s relaxed and relatively care-free. She attributes her sense of style to “a lack of worrying too much about fashion” and insists that when it comes to her outfits “if anything, if it’s OK then it’s by mistake”.
Hers sounds like the sort of London life people make films about (indeed, her partner does just that), all biking around Notting Hill, doing the school run in Christopher Kane and driving in from the country at 6:30am. It’s an existence with which she seems very content.
“I get my fulfilment and excitement from different areas of my life,” she says. “I’ve got two very strongly defined sides to my personality; one is very much a loner, happy in my writing, happy with my books or just messing around with my kids. But at the same time, my fashion and film life fulfils a much more gregarious, show-off side to me and I feel so lucky to have both because both are true. I need one to make the other work.”
As a person who will wear either flats or vertiginous heels, but nothing in between, she “thrives” on extremes, which is perhaps why she operates so well in the colourful fashion industry. She is as inspired, she says, by “my scruffy, gorgeous girlfriends” as by “a perfect Chanel moment” on the catwalk and is quite happy flipping from working in the field with Oxfam one month to “shooting pretty dresses” the next. “Doing one doesn’t make me apologise for the other,” she says, “because one has led to the other.”
Despite the economy, it’s an exciting time for British fashion and for London Fashion Week in particular, which is nurturing some incredible young talent as well as enticing some stalwarts (including Stella McCartney, a close friend of Bailey’s) back to show on the schedule. What is exciting her about British fashion at the moment?
“Oh, so many things,” she says, her pale green eyes lighting up. “The sense of fashion stars returning, of London becoming this centre and a place where people want to be again is extremely exciting. For me everything goes back to the colleges and the students and I think we’ve got the best fashion colleges in the world. The more we can hang on to and nurture that talent, the better.”
“The big shift,” she adds, “is the focus on business, on commerce, on fashion being an extremely lucrative and powerful industry for our country, something to really be proud of and nurture rather than an edgy, outsider little sister to New York or Milan’s slick commercialism.”
She gets a little dreamy when she talks about London Fashion Week. She’s been a front-row regular at the bi-annual event for years and takes her role as cultural ambassador for the BFC very seriously. I ask about her favourite Fashion Week memories and she reels off a few from a list too long to whittle down; her first Alexander McQueen show (“it was the first time I’d experienced a fashion show as art”), making films with John Malkovich and designer Bella Freud, and, most recently, Stella McCartney’s extravaganza of an AW12 show (“unlike anything I’ve ever seen in that world”).
A smart, educated woman, Bailey views fashion as an art form and can talk about it from an academic standpoint, but can switch to fun and frivolity in an instant. It’s clear that, with her penchant for extremes, she enjoys the contrast between these two sides of the fashion world.
When it comes to style inspiration, she loves “the two Laurens” (Bacall and Hutton) as well as Catherine Deneuve. I ask whether, given her educational background, she looks to literary heroines for aesthetic inspiration.
She does, she says, in an abstract sort of a way. “I was talking about just this with my friends last night what with [a film version of] Anna Karenina about to come out. Everyone got extremely territorial about how she should be. But yeah, I’ll happily flip between a tragic Russian fantasy figure and...”
With this she looks down at today’s ensemble with a faux-confused I’m-not-quite-sure-what-today’s-look is and smiles. She’s being modest, of course. She’s the most stylish woman in the room. Indeed, she might just be the most stylish woman in the country.
• Designer Outlet Fashion Month is at all UK McArthur Glen centres (Ashford, Bridgend, Cheshire Oaks, East Midlands, Livingston, Swindon and York). For an extra 10 per cent off as well as a free Holly Fulton tote bag, visit www.mcarthurglen.com/dofm
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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