It is with sadness that I have learnt this evening of the passing of Hilary Alexander.
Hilary Alexander, one of the original Fleet Street fashion journalists and former fashion director of The Daily Telegraph, has died age 77, she was a prolific reporter and writer who epitomised the fashion-loving, dizzy industry doyenne. With cigarette in hand, spectacles perched on the nose and favourite faux Mayan breastplate necklace clanking as she dashed to cover a fashion show – usually in heels – or to interview whichever new designer she had discovered, Hilary, a self-confessed workaholic, was a blur of activity living a life dedicated to her craft.
Emigrating from New Zealand, her birthplace, first to Australia then Hong Kong with a dream of writing for newspapers, she first became a news reporter on The China Mail before being promoted to the role of fashion editor. She moved to the UK in 1982 and took up a position on The Daily Telegraph’s woman’s page (as it was then), where she remained for 26 years. Always the first to break a story (she was said to have coined the expression “supermodel”), Alexander was a loyal friend to many in fashion, including the designers Gianni Versace, Zandra Rhodes, Lee McQueen, Julien Macdonald and rising British star, Richard Quinn. All recognised not only her passion, but knew they could rely on “Hils” to keep a secret – be it about a royal wedding dress or law suit. Just so long as she could break the story first.
As well as frocks and handbags, Hilary loved music, especially rock and roll. One of her many stories began with Steve Tyler singing into her ear during a New York fashion show, reducing her to jelly. Another would find her recounting how Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones pulled down the front zipper of her ’60s go-go minidress in Hong Kong and how, bra-less and undaunted, she continued the interview.
Hilary Alexander with Marc Jacobs in 2011.
Ever the professional, as much as she enjoyed fashion parties (and was rarely without a coupe de champagne in manicured hand), her reputation for accuracy and chasing a story was revered. In a fashion world dominated at the time by an elite British circle, Hilary never forgot her Kiwi roots or her cool. Never a snob or sycophant, she was kept informed by a tight circle of fashion friends and remained proudest of starting the careers of those she felt had earned their place in fashion.
In some cases, she subverted obvious trends to pursue what was happening on the street, in night clubs or suburban beauty salons, putting it on the front pages of The Daily Telegraph and writing about genuine breaking fashion news in her signature fizz, bang, wallop style. Despite dancing until dawn, she could be relied upon to be first at her desk, bashing out her twice-weekly Telegraph pages using the two-finger typing technique she had learned back home.
She boasted about finding wi-fi in order to file fashion copy even whilst trekking to temples in South America (she was fascinated by ancient history), and of ironing couture evening gowns in the loo of the Taj Mahal on a fashion shoot. A gritty professional with a love of saucy underwear and books, she was never happier than when “pinging” a story over from the Telegraph flat on Rue de Rivoli in Paris, trusted staff photographers Stephen Lock or Heathcliff O’Malley by her side. Then: being told she had made the front page by the night news desk. Off would come the Louboutin heels and the necklace, and the first of a few tipples would be served.
Her character, intelligence and vast knowledge of fashion made her a regular clothes commentator and broadcaster on the BBC and Lorraine and global networks including CNN. She also appeared as herself on TV shows including Style Challenge, and hosted The Clothes Show Live. Her passion for fashion was matched by her philanthropic efforts. After retiring from the Telegraph in June 2011 with a party hosted by the British Fashion Council at the newly-launched (and very fashionable) St Pancras Hotel, Hilary focused on being the President of Graduate Fashion Week and took up the position of editor-at-large of Hello! magazine.
During her lifetime she travelled extensively, styling fashion shoots from Bhutan to Easter Island, and anyone working with her – photographers, models, make-up artists, assistants – have stories to tell about her infectious enthusiasm and love for fashion and for life. Even if this meant rising at 3am and driving three hours to get the perfect sunrise. Twice named British fashion journalist of the Year, she was appointed OBE in 2013 for services to fashion, and published her own book, Leopard, Fashion’s Most Powerful Print, in 2018, with a personal dedication to her favourite fabulous forever print. “I don’t think that I will ever actually retire from the industry,” she once said. “I just love clothes and jewellery too much.” In her later years she had become an active supporter for charities including Battersea Dogs and Cats home, the Royal Osteoporosis Society and Fashion for the Brave. She also styled many fashion shows over the years for Breast Cancer Care, and was particularly devoted to inspiring and mentoring young fashion journalists and designers.
“Hilary was one of the original, old-school fashion journalists,” said Edward Enninful, British Vogue’s editor-in-chief and Vogue’s European editorial director. “I remember she was really kind to me when I was first starting out in the industry. Everybody wanted to read what she had to say about fashion, but also she was hilarious, you could always feel her energy. She was so alive.”
Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of US Vogue and Condé Nast’s global chief content officer, said: “Hilary was irrepressible in everything she did. She lived life to the fullest and her reporting on fashion was just as committed. I threw a party for her in Paris when she retired… except she never retired! Hilary could never quite leave an industry that she loved so much.”
“Her wit, intelligence and her fashion wisdom will be greatly missed,” said artist Daniel Lismore. “She was a very funny lady who led an extremely colourful life.”
Fashion designer Zandra Rhodes said: “Hilary Alexander was the epitome of amazing enthusiasm and hard work. She never gave up on a story and the research that went with it. We will never be able to fill the gap she has left.”
“With an energetic response to anything ‘fashion’, Hilary’s enthusiasm was for young British talent and for photographers who would take rising young models off to distant places,” said Suzy Menkes in an Instagram post.
Alexander became the honorary president of Graduate Fashion Foundation in 2019. “Graduating fashion students enthralled her,” Chairman Douglas MacLennan said in a statement. “Their innovation and their imagination always brought her back. While a fashion light has sadly now expired, the memory of Hilary’s enthusiasm will continue within the work of the charity and its trustees.”
Designer Pam Hogg said: “Hilary was an extraordinary, wonderful character and became a dear friend who religiously came to all my fashion shows from when I started presenting on the catwalk in 1985, always championing me in her reviews. She’s someone you would never forget… a beaming life force with the most positive outlook.”
“It’s difficult to think of a few words because Hilary was such a multifaceted and dazzling character,” said milliner Stephen Jones. “Suffice to say, she had always been a guiding light since I first met her many many years ago, from using my parents as hat models for a major profile that she did on me in The Sunday Telegraph in 1995 to conversations we had together on the Queen Mary in the middle of the Atlantic. Hilary was an avid hat wearer too, and I can say that she bought joy to every moment we spent together.”
“Hilary was always one of the friendliest faces at fashions events,” said designer Alice Temperley. “A wicked sense of humour, with a great ability to remember facts and details. She was there for us from the very start and will be deeply missed.”
The British Fashion Council’s chief executive Caroline Rush said: “Hilary’s contribution to the fashion industry was significant. She was an inspiration. Hilary had endless energy and enthusiasm for finding something new and unexpected. She tirelessly championed designers, telling their stories and bringing their collections to life through expert references and painting pictures with her words.”
“Hilary was an incredible powerhouse in the industry and dedicated her work to supporting emerging talent,” added designer Richard Quinn. “It was an honour to work so closely with her on projects that were so close to her heart. She lit up every room, always had incredible stories to share, was brutally honest and had the keenest eye for fashion. But, above all, she was incredibly loyal and caring. Her legacy will never be forgotten.”