Avril Graham, Harper’s Bazaar executive fashion and beauty editor, sits down to talk with us about far more than just her passion for fashion
The view from the masthead of Harper’s Bazaar is gorgeous: gorgeous clothes, gorgeous models, trips to gorgeous places. Avril Graham, Executive Fashion and Beauty Editor of the 151-year-old magazine, has never taken that view for granted. “I’ve had a career of pinch-me moments,” says the Cos Cob resident.
Architect Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower, in which a beautifully preserved Art Deco footprint meets modern skyscraper, is an ideal setting to discuss pinch-me moments with Graham. Clad in an Ungaro leopard top, a black wide-legged gaucho skirt by Piazza Sempione and kitten-heeled Gucci booties; her blonde hair cut above the shoulders with stylish layers; and her makeup impeccably applied—Graham looks like a figurine Foster might have placed in a model of the Tower.
She is just back from a shoot in Puerto Rico and preparing to leave for a Lakers event in L.A., but Graham is calm and thoughtful as she discusses her journey from a girlhood of putting on Barbie doll fashion shows in Scotland to watching supermodels strut the most coveted catwalks in the world. She is also eager to announce a new venture that will make her view from the masthead accessible to the masses.
FROM SCOTLAND TO LONDON
It was the very first ‘green’ commercial building in New York,” explains Graham, as we settle into a couch in a quiet alcove above the cafeteria. “It houses all the Hearst publications. We have our own [photo] studio here. We have the Good Housekeeping test kitchens. On the forty-fourth floor, we’ve got spectacular views from all of our big entertainment rooms and incredible art from the Hearst collections.”
It’s a long way from Scotland, but there, too, she noticed the views. “I grew up in the Western Isles of Scotland,” says Graham, who retains a muted Scottish brogue. “It was an immensely beautiful place to live.”
Thinking back on her childhood, she says, “I had such a passion for fashion. I would merrily make runway shows for my Barbie dolls. They’d all have characters and were terribly glamorous. It was not because I was surrounded by fashion at all; it was just something that captured me. I loved to look at beautiful pictures and magazines. I loved movies with glamorous actresses, like the Hitchcock heroines: early Audrey Hepburn, smoldering Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly. I was fascinated by the hair and makeup and obviously the costumes. That’s one thing that stood out about Hitchcock; those heroines were impeccably dressed from head to toe. Even while the birds were attacking her, Tippi Hedren, with her wonderful chignon, still managed to look chic!”
Graham’s mother was always well-groomed. “I learned that from her,” she says. But her mother dressed very “country traditional” in Barbour jackets, while Graham’s aunts’ flair caught her attention: “They ran with the in-crowd in London in the Swinging Sixties. They came to visit and were super glamorous, as were their tales of the people they mixed with.”
Graham studied communications at Napier University in Edinburgh and from there headed to London and landed a job at Country Life. “It was the magazine of the landed gentry in Britain,” says Graham. “It was very horsey, not a lot of fashion. From there I moved to completely the opposite, the edgy, cool, trendy magazines of the time.”
Her big break came working on the launch of Marie Claire in England. “It was really a very buoyant time,” recalls Graham. “I was literally able to put a dot on the map and decide where to shoot next. I worked with a wonderful art director and the pair of us would shoot all over the world, working with incredible talent. I remember distinctly working with Carla Bruni, shooting in the Bahamas, when she was in her prime as a top runway model. Back then we would shoot a number of covers and beauty and fashion stories to last through a few issues. So it was relentless travel.” With Graham, there is a sense that “relentless travel” in no way undermined the buoyancy of those days.
FROM LONDON TO NEW YORK
Graham came across the pond in the early nineties, expecting to be here for three years to help launch the American edition of Marie Claire. A year later, Bonnie Fuller, the launch editor, moved to Cosmopolitan when Helen Gurley Brown retired. “Glenda Bailey, the editor I worked with on the launch in England, was lured to America to take over,” explains Graham. “It was wonderful, reconnecting with an editor I worked very well with.”
It was an exciting time to be in fashion. “I’m often asked what are my fondest memories,” she muses. “I think covering the collections in the nineties, in that era of the biggest-name supermodels. To be at the Versace show and watch Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss—all those big names—walk the Gianni runway, with the sounds of George Michael playing—it was the quintessential fashion experience. Seeing Madonna walk down the runway for Gaultier. The parties were extraordinary. The events were extraordinary.”
Flash forward to her recent trip to Puerto Rico, where she was mixing with media influencers, fashion editors and celebrities, Graham, who is now fifty-nine, says she realized “what’s so interesting is that while there are lots of new names who come on the fashion scene, there’s also a very small group, a nucleus, that is still a part of it and will always be, I think. Weirdly, there isn’t an ageism in the industry. There are many people older than I am who are just as viable and influential now.”
Graham is an adored member of that nucleus. “To know Avril is to love her,” says Glenda Bailey, now editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar. “Our friendship goes back thirty years. I’ve always been impressed, inspired and delighted by her company. She knows how to keep a secret, but it’s no secret how admired and loved she is in the fashion industry.”
HARPER’S BAZAAR: LIVING THE DREAM
As a young girl if I ever envisioned working in New York for such an incredible historic brand, it would really be beyond my wildest dream,” says Graham, who moved to Harper’s Bazaar over fifteen years ago. “It was launched in the 1800s. It has featured every possible iconic name over the years—Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn. It’s literally a list of who’s who and we continue to work with A-Listers, whether they’re the biggest names in fashion or contemporary culture or First Ladies.”
While it’s not surprising that a fashion editor rubs elbows with cover models, Graham also has been a guest at the White House, worked on a shoot at 10 Downing Street and was invited to watch Tony Blair deliver his speech to the joint session of Congress. “To find myself sitting in the row behind Cherie Blair, Laura Bush, and the Speaker of the House’s wife,” says Graham, “that was a real pinch-me moment.”
She finds no shortage of those, even now. “That’s what keeps you fresh. The minute you start being complacent, that’s when it’s over,” she says. “I look forward every season to the new collections. We’re always reinventing. Even when fashion has a cyclical reverse and it’s a homage to another decade, it’s never exactly a carbon copy. There’s always something new.”
In Graham’s role at Harper’s Bazaar as well, every day brings something new. “I travel weekly and really embrace it. I always keep a suitcase packed,” she says. “I might be opening a store for a designer, hosting dinner for a group of women or giving a speech in Washington. People have an insatiable interest in the world that we rule in. Because I travel so much, I’m really the one who gets the most chances to meet our readers in different pockets and towns, across different states, and I thoroughly enjoy that. I wish I could bottle up every comment and take it back to our staff.”
SCREEN TIME: A NEW ROLE AND A NEW SHOW
I’ve watched my role as an editor change as the media industry has changed,” says Graham. “Editors used to be very much behind closed doors writing copy, producing beautiful pictures. Now we are asked to talk to large groups of people, to produce trend reports, to be social commentators on television and various media outlets. Now I’m doing much more TV.”
Having been interviewed by Barbara Walters and appeared on Oprah, Larry King, Dateline, among numerous others, Graham is no stranger to the medium. “I’m regularly on the red carpet at the Oscars and the big award shows,” says Graham. “I cover big international events. I covered the Olympics in Brazil for NBC. That gives you a glimpse into how a fashion editor’s role has changed.”
Graham’s coverage of William and Kate’s wedding received over a billion media impressions. She also did a documentary on the life of Alexander McQueen for the BBC. “We comment on the light and frivolous, but I also love talking about fashion in its entirety.”
This spring Graham is taking her TV commentary to a new level with her own series: Platinum Eye. Viewers will get an inside look at “the chic world of elegant parties, glamorous destinations and beautiful things,” says Graham. “It will be your invitation to curated luxury in travel, fashion, art, music and culture.”
STYLE GURU, GIRLFRIEND
Graham has a knack for balancing the luxurious life with a normal one—whether it’s hers, and she’s running from shopping in a T-shirt and jeans at Stop & Shop to catching a plane to an over-the-top event in the Caribbean, or she’s taking a runway look and translating it into something wearable. “I’m not a fashion snob about labels,” she says. “I love to bargain hunt. A beautiful $50 dress is better than a bad $10,000 dress. It’s about how you wear and accessorize it.” She is known to find “that perfect H&M look” for the TODAY show and have it sell out in a day.
“Avril is the normal person’s style guru,” comments Katie Couric. “She always tells it to you straight but still manages to make you feel like a million bucks even though you’ve paid a lot less than that! When Avril helped me with my wardrobe, I always felt like I was spending time with a chic girlfriend.”
Friend Alison Chadwick Kelley texts photos of dress options to Avril and always gets a decisive reply, no matter where in the world Graham happens to be. But stylish is only one of the traits Kelley appreciates: “Avril is simply the funniest, cleverest, most engaging and genuinely inspiring woman. She has the capacity to make me cry with laughter for an entire car ride to and from the Hamptons from Greenwich, and she embodies the adage ‘fabulous at any age.’”
Cherie Blair, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife, says, “She combines the understated flare of the English with the networking skill of a New Yorker. I would always go to Avril to discover a look which is on trend but never over the top.”
Even as the elite turn to her for style advice, Graham is down to earth and democratic. “People always say, ‘Don’t look at me—don’t look at what I’m wearing!’ But I never judge what anyone is wearing,” insists Graham (this is a relief to journalists wearing Banana Republic).
For the best of this season, she advises paging through the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar. “There is something for everyone,” says Graham, “whether sky-high heels or dad-style sneakers—look and decide for yourself. Don’t be a fashion victim. Stick to what you think is your own true sense of self. Change and adapt colors, heel heights, silhouettes, handbag styles, and most of all change your hair and add a few colors to your makeup bag.”
Graham is happy to report that the fashion world is becoming more diverse: “We are seeing so many different people represented on the runway—shapes, genders, sexuality, sizes, ethnicities—and it’s a beautiful thing.” She insists Harper’s Bazaar is not using anyone “emaciated” in its shoots—and she was just discussing this topic with a top model, while the model wolfed down a burrito. Graham notes, “Models are usually first to the crafty table!” (“Crafty” is the nickname for craft services’ snack table on productions.)
While some scoff at the frivolity of fashion, Graham reminds us that her industry “gives back a lot.” It’s not just about trends. From hosting a luncheon for young female entrepreneurs in L.A. to an event in Dallas to raise money for cancer charities, Graham’s work often involves a cause, and she loves mentoring the next generation.
“Anytime I see Avril across the room, I know I’m going to have a great time and good laughs,” says Coco Rocha, a top model known to defend healthy body imagery and support humanitarian causes. “Someone once told me, ‘It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.’ I think of Avril that way. She’s a powerhouse of a woman, and a real pillar to our industry, but she’s also incredibly genuine and kind to all around her.”