Nobody has ever mistaken the fashion world for a welcoming, kind place, and every neophyte, at least when I was starting out, was subject to a scrutiny so unsettling that it bordered on hazing. The elders of the tribe—for me, Horst, Geoffrey Beene, Grace Mirabella, Eleanor Lambert—were not the problem. They adored refreshing themselves with young blood, the better to stay au courant.
By far the toughest cohort to conquer was the group half a generation ahead of me, which then consisted of a formidable lineup of characters including Marina Schiano, Eric Boman, André Leon Talley, and Michael Roberts.
I found Michael to be the most imperious of them all. And who could blame him? He was the most multi- of all the multi-hyphenates in the industry. A photographer, artist, writer, filmmaker, stylist, and more, he was a Cecil Beaton minus the social striving, a Jean Cocteau without the opium. About his cross-disciplinary range, Roberts said, “Refining yourself is not repeating yourself.” An art-school student who transferred to the fashion department at his Buckinghamshire college, Roberts could even whip up a dress from scratch, darts and all (a skill hard to find, he neatly pointed out, among present-day “creative directors”).
He was a truthteller whose elegant way with a phrase did not make his wit any less biting. “Saint Laurent calls his narrow look the tube,” he wrote in The Sunday Times of London, where he became fashion editor. ”Karl Lagerfeld calls his the tunnel; I can see no light at the end of it.”
“Refining yourself is not repeating yourself.”
Fashion editor Freddie Leiba, who met Roberts in London around 1970, remembers Roberts’s exasperation one season with a Chanel collection rendered all in black. On that occasion, Roberts pithily declared, “Black is for death, doom, and disaster.” He was “not delicate about his words,” Leiba says. “He was quite honest and up front, had a sense of humor, a strong work ethic, and in spite of his sharp tongue, was really respected by everyone.”
Leiba (whose mother was from Trinidad) notes that even though Roberts (whose father hailed from Saint Lucia) could be “grand and difficult,” he “looked up to him as a mentor. He gave us hope, a role model.” Leiba elaborates, “For many years, when you looked at the front row of any show, there were only three of us [Black editors]—Michael, André, and me.”
I encountered Michael initially in 1995, just before he became the first (and last) fashion editor for The New Yorker, under Tina Brown. He gave me an insightful interview for my Vanity Fair feature on Manolo Blahnik, a friend of Roberts’s for decades before the shoe potentate became a household name. Roberts was keen on emphasizing that Blahnik, in spite of appearances, was “far from frivolous,” actually “a person of very serious intent.”
Roberts might have been speaking about himself. Certainly, he had serious literary and artistic ambitions (and a C.B.E. to show for it), ones probably still not fully realized at the time of his death, aged 75, in Taormina, Sicily, also the location of his funeral, at its ancient Basilica Cattedrale. (The picturesque hilltop city enchanted both Blahnik and Roberts, who considered it “his spiritual home,” says his agent and confidante, Tiggy Maconochie.)
He published at least half a dozen vibrantly illustrated books, the first of which was The Jungle ABC, with a foreword by Iman. “His books were windows into his soul,” observes Aimée Bell, former deputy editor for Vanity Fair. The film Roberts directed about Blahnik, The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, mixed his own animation experimentally with documentary footage. Roberts’s high hopes for the movie were made abundantly clear by the fact that the New York screening took place at the Frick Collection.
Michael and I were officially colleagues during his stint at Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair, beginning in 2006. His mercurial disposition elicited every reaction in co-workers except boredom. “Michael was a visionary,” Bell recalls. “He always sensed what was coming next, what was going to be the next big thing.”
Stylist Jessica Diehl (who eventually succeeded him as V.F.’s fashion director) describes Roberts as “a true artist who didn’t love any kind of schedule or timeline—always creating something on his own terms.” Part of those terms was to “catch me if you can”; until recently, he had no cell phone and no computer. To track him down, former assistant Christian Langbein recalls, required running a gauntlet of “e-mails, phone numbers, and agents.” Maconochie points out that his “provocation was about stimulating.”
During his second Vanity Fair period (2007, specifically) Roberts was elected, a little tardily, to the International Best-Dressed List, in the Fashion Professionals category.
Probably his most memorable contribution to the magazine, that same year, was the “Hollywood Noir” portfolio, a 33-page, meta-cinematic extravaganza featuring atmospheric tableaux by Annie Leibovitz and nearly every A-list actor of the moment—among them Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Judi Dench, Amy Adams, Penélope Cruz, Forest Whitaker, and Kerry Washington.
I was not involved in that colossal undertaking. A far less epic assignment on which we did collaborate stands out in particular, I suppose because it shows how different his approach to a subject was from mine. We were doing a story about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Poiret exhibition, to be illustrated with one of his crisply delineated, cut-out-and-collaged images. He decided to depict a celebrated Paul Poiret coat, called La Perse, worn by the couturier’s wife, Denise, in 1911, and known for decades only from archival black-and-white photographs. The Met had acquired the coat from a once-in-a-lifetime auction of Denise’s Poiret wardrobe, in 2005.
I breathlessly informed Michael it was now possible to see this haute couture marvel behind the scenes at the Costume Institute, before it even went on display. His response to this news puzzled me. He showed no interest in viewing the original garment. He already had his idea, it seemed, of how the cloak had to look on the page, his own artistic vision of it, which would be compromised by beholding the actual artifact. The sumptuous textile of the Poiret treasure had been block printed with a swirling vegetal pattern by the Fauvist artist Raoul Dufy, the incisive lines of which coincidentally resembled Roberts’s own distinctive scissor work. In retrospect, I realize that he wanted to show us (or himself) that, at least this time, he was the equal of the master painter.
“Michael drew, wrote, collaged every day of his life, 24-7,” Maconochie reflects, “everything always done by hand. That is how he communicated.” After his stroke and the recurrence of prostate cancer made it too much of a struggle for him to wield his scissors or brandish his pen anymore, it was, apparently, time to go. Maconochie concludes, “Some are given the power of seeing; few are given the vision to express it. Michael Roberts was one of the few.”
Amy Fine Collins is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL. She is the author of The International Best-Dressed List: The Official Story