Alexander had dressed for lunch in her habitual style, one Menkes calls “hippie deluxe”—Maasai necklace, Marks & Spencer sandals, flowing black skirt by one young London designer (Eskandar), and a black top by another (Malene Birger). Each of her big toes is decorated with crystals along the cuticle line, and all 10 toenails glow, as always, with a shade of aqua that Revlon calls Tidal Wave. It reminds her, she says, of the ocean of her girlhood.
Obsessed with Vogue Patterns, the young Alexander was that iconic figure of fashion lore: the little dressmaker hunched at her Singer sewing machine, needle racing to keep up with the style of the day. Her academic passion was archaeology, but her father refused on principle to pay university tuition and instead got her an apprenticeship at the local paper. Two years later she graduated to New Zealand’s national newspaper, and in 1969 she became the fashion editor at Hong Kong’s China Mail.
Her timing was fortuitous. In England the aftershocks of the Sixties youthquake were still being felt. Mary Quant had evolved from the inventor of the miniskirt to a pioneering designer of accessories, furniture, and linens. And Menkes—who as a student at Cambridge had gotten a scoop on Quant for the school paper—was settling in as a fashion reporter at the pre–Rupert Murdoch Times of London. In France the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was dropping its rules against photography at presentations, and the entire spectacle of fashion was slowly growing even more spectacular.
Alexander became a fashion writer at The Telegraph in 1985, when the era of the supermodel was dawning and technology was paving new avenues. “Computerization meant that color photographs could be processed more quickly,” Alexander says.
“Every major newspaper had a fashion editor,” remembers Robin Givhan, the first and only fashion writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. In 1995 Givhan defected from her hometown paper, The Detroit News, to The Washington Post—a fine perch for a critic aiming to demystify fashion. The portfolio of stories that won her the Pulitzer in 2006 included pieces on Condoleezza Rice’s power dressing, the costumes of Star Wars fanatics, and a review of Jennifer Lopez’s foray into fashion, titled “J. Lo Beneath the Bling,” in which she opined: “The show was a lesson on how to dress like Lopez on the cheap.…Is that fashion? Or just an elaborate fan club come-on in an era when admirers demand more than just an autographed picture and a T-shirt and stars willingly oblige?”
Givhan has a theory that one consequence of the Hollywood-ization of fashion was the death of old-school American fashion journalism. “Newspapers stopped covering fashion as a business and started covering it as entertainment,” she says. “It changed the emphasis. Then, when newspapers started cutting back, it was really easy to do away with fashion reporters. Why have a fashion reporter write on the Oscars red carpet when you can get a movie reporter to do it?”