The Collective

In Praise Of Elegance

Gymnast on beam silouette on pink background

A return to elegance was big news during couture week in Paris last summer. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Dior catwalk where designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri appeared to give a two finger salute to the nauseating theatrics and bad taste selfies of Instagram. Opening the show was Ruth Bell, the face of Dior, wearing a midi length cape dress and beret, the first in a line of models dressed in fit’n’flare silhouettes in an exquisitely restrained palette of midnight black and blush nude shades.  ‘I wanted to make something that was so subtle you almost couldn’t see it on Instagram’ Grazia Chiuri told Lisa Armstrong at the Telegraph, after the show, ‘of course it has to be luxurious but it doesn’t need to be obvious’.

Elegance possibly wasn’t the first word that sprang to mind when I interviewed the 22 year old Bell the following morning – sitting before me with her shaven head, alabaster skin and the otherness of youth, dressed in an over-sized hoodie and thick cotton trousers from Virgil Normal in LA. The interview had been rescheduled three times; I was waiting for the diva of all divas.

Bell is not a classic beauty and yet everything about her – an unfailingly polite manner, a quiet self-assurance and professionalism, arriving five minutes before our 8 am interview despite working till 2 am the night before, being happy to start the interview on the communal stairs because the offices were late opening so that I wouldn’t miss my Eurostar – was elegance personified.

Elegance is such a loaded word, one that could probably do with a crack PR team to imbue it with any sort of relevance in 2019. It seems so impossibly quaint, so démodé, certainly nothing cool or anything to inspire to. And yet, and yet, through the prism of nine squares, where so much of the tone on Instagram is dominated by a nauseating strand of self-love, there’s a growing curiosity to explore something different. Well at I least I hope there is.

What is elegance?  Literally speaking it’s the clean dismount of a gymnast from the balance beam, the smooth playing motion of a cellist, the way a dress takes in your waist just so. Elegance is also the art of less, a sense of timelessness, a beauty that shows unusual effectiveness and simplicity. It is also frequently used as a standard of good taste, except I think we all know that elegance is so much more than that.

It is thoughtfulness and kindness rolled into one, it’s a white lie to save someone’s blushes, it’s the opposite of flaky, it is small gestures that people remember and taking the time to have meaningful every day exchanges – while buying a stamp as much as resisting the urge to put the phone down on your mother-in-law. It is listening, knowing when to hold back, Coco Chanel’s style maxim of refusal, it is seeing beyond the end of your nose, knowing when to shut up and basically being a better person. Call it manners if you like. In our selfie, self-obsessed society, there aren’t nearly enough manners to go round. And why we underestimate the importance of good manners to navigate day to day life is beyond baffling.

What else is elegance? It is respecting yourself too, because there’s some ground between martyrdom (NEVER elegant) and stating your boundaries and valuing yourself. Taking responsibility for yourself – eating and sleeping well, breathing, exercising, being fit and healthy so that you can live up to the many many roles you taken on  has always struck me as rather an elegant thing to do, an elegant way to be.

It’s not believing that the world revolves around you: remembering that there is nearly always a rational explanation as to why someone has been slow to reply to your email – an explanation that, more often than not, has nothing to do with you.

A stiff British upper lip isn’t fashionable currently, but there’s a lot to be applauded in “just getting on with it”, instead of constantly worrying how you are feeling. Or how happy you are. Ah, that subject of happiness. We’re so obsessed in trying to reach this unrealistic 24/7 state of eternal nirvana, that we’ve started to believe that our problems, schedules, anxieties and feelings are more important than everyone else’s. Stop it now.

Being a little bit mindful, slowing down or just taking the time to notice the world around you – other people’s behaviour and feelings – promotes a more elegant way of living. And like so much positive behaviour, being elegant is quite addictive once you start giving it any air time. One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom which I want to share again is the sage advice that the sex therapist, Esther Perel received from her father. Every time I read it, it makes me think of what is wrong with the world.

“The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your relationships. Not on your achievements, not on how smart you are, not on how rich you are, but on the quality of your relationships, which are basically a reflection of your decency, your ability to think of others, your generosity…about how you treated the people around you, and how you made them feel.”

Having a strong sense of self, knowing your mind, being confident – of what sits with you and what doesn’t – is helpful too. Elegance is refusal. It is knowing when to say no and sticking to it.

These Shoes Might Be Boring, But They’re The Latest Cult A-list Buy


I might as well state the obvious. This is not a pretty shoe. But revolutions often start from the feet up, so why should a shift in the way we think about beauty, comfort, fashion (the three are not always synonymous) and the wider impact of what we wear, be any different?

Shoes have always been a harbinger of change. Imagine dodging the sewage of Paris in January in bare feet. If you were lucky, you might share some clogs with your 13 siblings, but really, that’s not the basis of an egalitarian society, is it? Et voila, the French Revolution.

Cherchez la shoe. Charles I’s inability to get to grips with this fundamental truth meant he took to wearing pom-pom bedecked mules.

Not a good look as far as parliament was concerned and he ended up on the scaffold. Louis XIV teetering around in heels subsequently named after him was another symbol of decadence – and a dynastic disaster waiting to happen. And so it continues, throughout history.

Upper class Chinese women in children’s sized shoes that only fitted because their feet had been bound (an innocuous word for bloody and bone-breaking mutilation) were a sure sign that sooner or later, several hundred million would rise up in irritation, if not nihilistic rage, ready to avenge their sex.

The shoe is deeply symbolic of all kinds of subconscious ferment. When Fragonard wished to portray wantonness he didn’t paint another topless lovely but a mischievous young woman bouncing around on a swing, one shoe flying off a dainty extended foot in the direction of a lascivious looking older man.

Perhaps even more than the sex, fetishes and socio economics, what’s really odd about shoes, is how uncomfortable so many still are, and how, a century after we unlaced our corsets, so many of us have been prepared to tolerate shoes that are downright painful.

“Shoes seemed the ideal place for us to tackle everything we wanted to change,” says Tim Brown, a former national soccer player in New Zealand, alumnus of the London School of Economics and co-founder of Allbirds, makers of something that is part sneaker, part jazz-shoe, part old-man slipper, but not really like anything you’ve seen before. The upper is made from top grade merino mule from New Zealand and Australia (from sheep that haven’t been mulesed) and milled in Italy (and also sourced by Tom Ford for his suits). The sole contains sugar cane derivatives and, unlike other casual footwear, no petrochemicals. The laces are recycled plastic. Brown is particularly proud of this because even though it squeezed their margins and everyone told them they were mad to insist on it, they did. Will the finished shoe, designed by an ex-Tom Dixon product designer, give Manolo Blahnik sleepless nights? Possibly not, despite being tweaked 27 times. But it’s oddly engaging.

This is precisely where Brown and American co-founder Joey Zwillinger, an engineer and renewables expert, were aiming. As a national soccer player, Brown had been showered with product from his sponsors Nike and adidas. “Nothing wrong with their product but their business model is predicated on constant change and bigger and bigger logos,” he says. “There’s a general assumption in leisure wear that progress is about adding stuff, when often it should be about subtraction.” Brown and Zwillinger were intent on doing something that looked simple (they call it “the right amount of nothing”) and challenging the prevailing mindset that comfort was “somehow a dirty word, something only old people are bothered about”. Their desire to be as sustainable as possible inevitably turned this into the most complex project of their lives. “It’s mad isn’t it,” muses Brown, “we can put people on the moon but we still haven’t come up with a shoe that, at the end of its life, you can bury in the garden?”

Allbirds aren’t quite there yet either, but they’re much further down the path than most of the other shoe brands.

I first came eye to eye with a pair when my Kiwi sister arrived in London last summer in a pale grey style she referred to as “runners” (I let it pass; she’s gone native). She only ever took them off to sleep or chuck in the washing machine (she says the spin cycle improves the shape, as it does baggy denim and, according to Brown, she’s right). They were perfect for a heatwave, since merino naturally wicks away moisture and is soft enough to wear without socks.

By the time she left, I wanted my own, as well as to feature them on these pages, but back in June, Allbirds weren’t shipping to the UK.

Four months later, they’re not only shipping, they’ve just opened their first store in Covent Garden, spiritual home of hip brands that look like start-ups. Allbirds is still a baby, having launched just over two years ago. But by word of foot, they’ve become a cult. Oprah, Gwyneth, Emma Watson, Cindy Crawford and Randy Gerber, Amy Adams, Barack Obama (and my sister) are fans. Leonardo DiCaprio was so impressed, he invested in the company.

They recently sold their millionth pair of runners (a term Brown’s wife also takes issue with, since, as she legitimately points out, they were not designed for running, although in fairness they also have loungers and skippers). Having just secured a further £38 million of investment, the company is now valued at a billion dollars. High stakes for something that chimes with many fashionable themes that might, as is the way with fashion, prove ephemeral. “I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on trends,” says Brown. “All I know is that 40 years ago my dad would come home from the office, switch off and change out of his suit into something more comfortable.

“Now, with the demarcation between work and leisure increasingly blurred, casual, comfortable clothing seems less like a fad and more a fact of life.”

Why We All Need To Be More Curious

Am I normal? written on a chalk board in different colours

“The real enemy is the man who tries to mould the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings,” Abraham Flexner.

How good is your chat? Last month I wrote that it was our civic duty to one another to be interested and interesting. I was only half joking. And while no one wishes to be the dinner party bore, the person you owe it most in life to be curious, is yourself. Back in 1980 only 10% of graduate and diploma students were mature ones. By 2012, that figure was closer to 30%. Not that being curious necessarily means a return to formal education. Show me a life where you stop questioning the world around you and frankly, you might as well as be dead.

Curious people tend to be happier, enjoy higher levels of positive emotions, have lower levels of cortisol and celebrate life in the present. As if that wasn’t enough, curiosity also fuels our imagination, our creative work and encourages us to be more innovative. It can bring untold excitement, help us escape the hum drum of daily life and also promotes more meaningful day to day exchanges with everyone we encounter.

Studies have shown that curiosity improves our memory, helps to release more dopamine and makes you sleep more soundly. Being curious also encourages us to step out of our comfort zone, helps us to keep our minds more active and challenges the way we do things. In short, it keeps us on our toes, it also – and here’s another welcome health benefit – keeps us looking younger, behaving younger and moving with agility. That is a long list of things to love. And as with so much positive learnt behaviour, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Of course for many of us, somewhere in the thick of middult-hood, we are too busy or run–ragged to be curious. Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts was outraged a few years back when her husband suggested that she had no “hinterland.” In an interview with the Times, she said she nearly clubbed him over the head. Although as a mother of four, with a busy and demanding job, she wondered when she would ever find the time.

“But you move on, your life changes….with the benefit of hindsight, I wished I’d developed more of a hinterland. We fall into a trap where we do nothing but kids and work, or kids and domestics but it doesn’t all stop just because you’ve become a parent. You can still do interesting things and learn new skills.”  And so she set up the Mumsnet academy where the idea was that women could learn everything from how to start a business to the art of pasta making.

Sadly her enthusiasm for self-improvement or learning new skills didn’t quite catch on. Mumsnet found that many women were reluctant to spend time or money on widening their horizons, although therein lies a whole other rant about the importance of learning to put yourself first. Roll on seven years and a slew of vodcasts, podcasts, TED talks and sites such as are so readily available at our finger tips, that there’s little excuse.

Worrying that you’re not quite up to it to going back and study? I promise you, your zeal, dedication and sheer bloody mindedness (especially if this avenue is respite from a dead end job) will give you the edge over much younger peers. So too will the perspective of more life experience. There are other things to consider too, certainly points that I was never aware of at school which is that you need to incorporate failure as well as learn to enjoy the process. So much more fun that I had ever realised.

Fellow VH contributor, Jo Fairley wrote a brilliant feature some time ago about the website, where you can learn to cook with the California based chef and organic foods pioneer, Alice Waters, take creative writing tips from Margaret Atwood, or learn about photography with Vanity Fair’s Annie Liebovitz. The site recruits only the very best in their fields (truly a very starry line up) to produce beautifully filmed, instructive courses. At £170 for unlimited access, it works out at around £14 a month, the price of your Deliveroo. Just as compelling is Serena Williams on tennis, Frank Gehry on design and architecture or Dr. Jane Goodallon on the art of conversation.

As parents, we often wonder what we can teach our children, how we can best prepare them for later life. One of the most important lessons you can impress on them is that parents are still learning too– and screwing up often it should be noted! The buzz words at most schools these days include qualities like resilience, not so easy to teach in reality. I try to share examples of trying and failing with my elder two daughters and even, winging it and succeeding.

Hopefully they are beginning to see that it’s more important to be curious and for things to not pan out quite as they expected, than never to question anything at all. That it’s more important to learn something new than it is to look smart. Oh, and that there’s no shame in admitting that they don’t’ know something because we are all learning every day.

The landscape of work is changing too and curiosity along with an emotional agility are rather excellent tools at navigating this new world. Studies suggest our children might have as many as six careers in their lifetime- these qualities are going to be valued more than ever before.

And really, this is nothing new. As Lauren Laverne reminds us in an article celebrating learning in The Pool, the last words of Michaelangelo, artist, architect, poet and engineer, three weeks shy of his 89th birthday, were Ancora Imparo. Or, I’m still learning. Just wow.

Life Hacks For The Hamster Wheel And Why Good Is Good Enough

surreal image of clockworkings inside a lightbulb with a person walking inside

Clearly you don’t need me reminding you there are only 28 something days left to Christmas, possibly fewer if you’ve been slow to click onto Gill’s December opus.

As we emerge hazy eyed (and far poorer) from the ashes of Black Friday, it’s easy to lose perspective in the demented, alcohol addled run up to Christmas. That ginormous schmaltzfest where standards of perfection (of the Richard Curtis, gently falling snow – the sort that never clogs up the M25 – variety) are nigh on impossible to ever live up to. The end of year is also a time of mass reflection. The sudden self-flagellation that we haven’t achieved quite as much as we’d set out to.

And yet, sometimes it feels even managing the everyday hamster wheel is ball-ache enough. Throw in a young family, ten loads of extra laundry, the endless sorting out of sports kit and midnight sessions foraging through the recycling bins for suitable cereal boxes from which to make a rocket out of, and it’s a wonder that any of us are actually still standing.

Now might not be the time to ponder whether you really can have it all (personally I think you can although how you define ‘”all” obviously has a lot to do it with). I shall focus instead on my children’s school’s current mantra of good being, well good enough. It’s a two fingers salute to the pursuit of perfectionism (as well as presumably managing the expectations of a legion of pushy middle class parents). Earlier this year, an assembly hall of parents were shown the attached YouTube video. There was plenty of tacit nodding, a few (silent) tears, as well as me getting the giggles. Especially when it came to the sex bit. Watch it and find out for yourself.

Good enough being good enough was an approach pioneered by a British psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. Winnicott specialised in relationships between parents and children and in his clinical practice, he often met with parents who felt like failures: perhaps because their children hadn’t go into the best schools, or because they argued at the dinner table or their house wasn’t always completely tidy (plus ca change).  No child he insisted needed an ideal parent. They needed an okay, pretty decent, usually well-intentioned, perhaps a little grumpy but basically reasonable father or mother.

Winnicott wasn’t saying this because he liked to settle for second best but because he had learnt first-hand the toll exacted by perfectionism and realised that in order to remain more or less sane (which is a pretty big ask anyway), we have to learn not to hate ourselves for failing to be what no ordinary human being ever really is anyway.

It takes a good deal of bravery and skill to keep even a very ordinary life going. To navigate the challenges of relationships, marriages, work and children is quietly heroic. The point is, most of us can’t get off the hamster wheel for a myriad of reasons which involves mortgages and putting food on the table but turning into the world’s busiest person or a moaning martyr isn’t the answer either. My hamster wheels life hacks to help me get to the end of the day smiling include the following in no particular order.

Reminding myself that tidying is for losers

It’s all very well having floors and surfaces that you could eat off (nope, definitely not in this house) but there’s no point in being the tidiest person in Britain if you are also the dullest, so overwhelmed are you by your endless to-clean list . Stop talking about how much drudge you have to do each day (have you noticed everyone’s eyes glazing over??) and start channelling that energy into convincing your partner to split things more equally if you don’t do so already or finding something interesting to talk about which leads me neatly onto my next point.

Your civic duty to be interested and interesting

Counter intuitive this may feel but bear with me. Even as someone with little ‘give’ in the work/mum juggling act, I try very hard to find time to do things that make me curious. That ray of escapism is never more important than when life is a never ending treadmill. Doing or seeing something that makes your soul soar, will refresh and energise you in ways you can’t imagine. You will return to the task in hand with Herculean amounts of vava-voomness. As someone wise once said, keeping the spark in your relationship is important but not nearly as important as keeping the spark in yourself.

The great outdoors, or even just stepping out your front door

Go outside, stop, really look and listen. Notice the colours, the sky, the stillness, the damp, the mist, the changing of seasons. Think about what it really means to be alive. I promise I am not going God-y on you but life really is there for the living and how we choose to live it is ENTIRELY up to us.  Days when I make the effort to do all of this just go so much better.

Zero inboxes

A zero inbox is such a fake metric. Accept that your to-do list is never really going to go away. Actually, now might be the time to be thankful that you have a to-do list.

My daily bath

Run a bath, the world looks so much better from the inside of my bath, preferably with Gill’s Atlantic Seaweed in it (fabulous for anyone who suffers from bouts of insomnia, dry skin or who just wants a bit of cocooning). There is always time to have a bath. Always.