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Spotlight: Sarah Bailey

mb's William Georgiades talks to Harper's Bazaar's deputy editor about English magazine culture and living in New York

By William Georgiades - February 7, 2005
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I met Sarah Bailey at a party in London a couple of summers ago. It was Sunday afternoon at The Waterway, a fashionable pub by a canal and we were celebrating the birthday of fellow journalist Kate Spicer. Everyone seemed to be drinking properly.

Ms. Bailey and her boyfriend saw me twitching in the corner and made a point of being welcoming. We began chatting about the wonders of press trips and about how tricky and joyless American women can be to date. "Why don't you write a story for me?" she asked, rather kindly. "I work at Elle." Later, someone mentioned that she was the rather lauded editor-in-chief of British Elle. "Oh," I said.

Last February, Ms. Bailey joined Glenda Bailey—who, it turns out, is not her aunty—at Harper's Bazaar as the deputy editor. February 23rd will be her one-year anniversary. On her first day at the job, the story goes, she showed up and there was a champagne toast. Ms. Bailey, the deputy, downed her glass immediately, while the staff all politely put their glasses down and proceeded with the day's tasks.

Sarah Bailey isn't just British—half of Manhattan media are—she's from the North, hailing from Manchester. What's the difference between the North of England and London? What's the difference between Oasis and Hugh Grant, or between Glenda Bailey and Anna Wintour? Northerners tend to be more pragmatic, down to earth, and generally less precious than their counterparts in the south.

She went on to Cambridge University, where she also famously worked for the Socialist Workers Party, handing out copies of their newspaper, while wearing vintage '50s dresses. Just eight years ago she was a freelancer in London, and has the rare distinction among fashion editors of being able to write, as a Google of any number of her breathy, unironic profiles will attest. She also has an individual, quirky fashion sense—she has never submitted to a stylist's dictated notion of what she ought to be, unlike any number of mutated editors in London and New York.

So, when she arrived last year, I sent her a welcoming note with dreams of casual assignments worth tens of thousands of dollars. Then, I sent a note requesting an interview worth no dollars, and heard back that if I could send my questions to a public relations colleague at Hearst, then I could have a half hour on the phone with her. This, then, is a half hour on the phone with Sarah Bailey, deputy editor of Harper's Bazaar.

MB: Given the process of just getting you on the phone, would you say the magazine world in New York is rather more formal than in London?

SB: That's absolutely true. I mustn't sound too preposterous a know-it-all after my grand experience working in New York for all of eleven-and-a-half months, but yes, it is more formal in New York than in London.

MB: I take it that you are speaking from an office the size of my apartment.

SB: I do have a grand corner office with a view of the Hudson and I can't stop emailing my friends about how amazing it is.

WG: But your door is always open?

SB: Unless it needs to be shut. But yes, a British magazine, however grand, is open-plan. American magazines all seem to have a seating plan based on a hierarchy. In London, we're all joking over each others' terminals and there's that buzzy atmosphere that is so key to an editorial voice. Right now I'm looking out my windows at the construction site of the glossy new Hearst tower, and when we move there we will have a looser seating plan.

MB: Can the little people still talk to you?

SB: I aim to be a very easily approachable senior editor. I like to be accessible. But there is more formality in the way things are done here. There are strengths and weaknesses with both the U.S. and British style. The accuracy here—the precision with details and facts and grammar is impressive. In London, we have a looser approach.

MB: Given the relative formality in New York, is your work now less hands-on and more bureaucratic? Is it still fun?

SB: I am hugely hands-on and that's the way I like it. Even when I was the editor in chief at Elle I was in there rolling up my sleeves. I absolutely love that side of the business. I top edit every piece of writing in the magazine and I'm involved in recruitment, and I'm meeting talent all the time, which is a great way to get to know New York. And I'm overseeing all the fashion.

MB: Are you like so many editors in New York who come in to work at the crack of dawn?

SB: No, I still keep European hours. I get in at 9:30 and I work late. I start the day by meeting with Glenda and go from there.

MB: And at the end of the day you go to Soho House and air-kiss everyone?

SB: There was a week in November when I found myself there every evening for a week. But, no I am not a member.

MB: You mean you didn't move to New York to stay in London?

SB: Well, it is important to branch out a bit and make new friends with Americans, otherwise what's the point?

MB: So that story about your first day on the job, downing your glass of champagne and everyone else putting their full glasses down—true?

SB: That might have been exaggerated slightly by people back in London. But it is always appropriate, when celebrating, to have a glass of alcohol.

MB: So then you and the Harper's Bazaar team go drinking every night after work?

SB: At Elle we all had a bonding process after work. We would all go to the Covent Garden Hotel and drink. I'm not saying it isn't fun here, but at the end of the day everyone does go their own way. It's different.

MB: Have you and Glenda and Anna and any of those Sykes triplets gotten together to form a master plan to subvert fashion in the U.S. to some British sensibility?

SB: Neither Glenda nor myself are importing some brutal fashion sense. We're both hugely influenced by New York. The caliber of Americans is hugely inspiring, don't you think?

MB: Um. You haven't been here very long have you? So now it's time for the question that you are asked every day: Why are so many female British editors running New York magazines? Doesn't America have some fashionable, eloquent editors?

SB: Well, fashion is international by its nature. It is a characteristic of British editors to be creative and if that is true, then you know why—there is a lot less money and much smaller staffs to put out magazines in London and those negatives mean you have to be more creative to put a magazine together. And with that you can also be rakish and have a devil-may-care quality.

MB: Because magazines in London are put together off-the-cuff and not with such excruciating caution like they are here.

SB: I understand why Americans respond to British editors, but there is also something sexy about American editors. They have those blood-thirsty negotiation skills and that ballsy attitude—I mean, all of my fantasies about New York have really come true.

MB: I take it you haven't met the editors at Esquire yet?

SB: No. But when the gleaming tower is completed I'm sure I'll be seeing a lot of them.

MB: Until then, what would be something in Harper's Bazaar that you're excited about, something that you've brought over with your British attitude?

SB: My most recent personal triumph would be the Teri Hatcher cover, that was something I really drove and I'm really happy with. Her show, Desperate Housewives, is so zeitgeist-y, but TV is mid-market and we are high-market so it had to be done very well. I think it's a little cheeky and a very British decision, but that informed the sense of mischief and it's important to bring some of that to such an elegant, beautiful magazine. And the March issue has some real coups in it, things that will make you smile.

MB: Can't you pretend to be a little unpleasant? I thought fashion was meant to be cruel.

SB: I have to say when I was at Elle, it was important to me that the office was a happy place. You have trials and tribulations, but fashion is something that you have to play with. My philosophy at Elle was non-dictatorial. It was: 'This is fashion, now make it your own.' Really, this is a non-bitchy atmosphere and that's what I like. It's easy to live and work in the fashion community and not involve yourself in lethal behavior. There is that camp mythology, and it exists, but we're too busy to bitch, darling.

William Georgiades is at WGeorgiades.com.



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