Hilary Alexander, ebullient and much-loved Telegraph fashion supremo for 26 years – obituary
Hilary Alexander, who has died on her 77th birthday, established herself over a quarter of a century at The Daily Telegraph as one of the leading fashion journalists of her time, as well as earning a place in the paper’s pantheon of great characters.
She was appointed fashion editor of the Telegraph in 1985, and although her writing was initially confined to the “Woman’s Page”, under her aegis the paper’s fashion coverage became a central part of its identity, with her snappy reports from catwalks around the world appearing regularly on the news pages and often on the front page.
She joined the paper at a time when fashion editors tended to have aristocratic pedigrees and to be ex-models, or at least to look like they were. Hilary Alexander, by contrast, was short of stature and, as a New Zealander who had worked for her living since she was 16, an outsider in the circles she had to move in; and yet by force of personality and sheer likeability, she was embraced by the cliquey, snobbish world of fashion, and then did as much as anybody to democratise it.
Her personal style was maximalist: boho dresses topped with as many layers and accessories as possible, striking coats, and a large earflapped hat she had picked up in Kazakhstan, resembling the one worn by Uncle Bulgaria in The Wombles.
Leopard print, which she celebrated in her 2018 book Leopard, was usually in evidence. With her eyes peering from beneath a distinctive fringe over a pair of diminutive reading glasses, and a glass of wine and a cigarette seemingly permanently on the go, she was an easily recognisable figure at fashion shows and galas.
She retained her love of the theatricality of the business, and her pleasure was palpable: Claudia Schiffer recalled her as “always the smiley, friendly face somewhere in the middle of the crowd, saying ‘can I have an interview?’, always being so positive and passionate about whatever fashion show she had just seen.”
She became a friend and supporter of designers ranging from Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano to Karl Lagerfeld, with whom she preferred to discuss their shared passion for gardening rather than clothes: a photo of them both wearing wellies had pride of place in her home.
Her insider knowledge garnered her many a scoop: it was she who first revealed to the world that Paul McCartney’s daughter Stella was taking an interest in fashion and studying at Central Saint Martins. When Gianni Versace was shot dead in 1997, Hilary Alexander was the first journalist to be contacted by his sister Donatella.
She knew that after-show gatherings were a mine of information, and her copy would often be shouted over the phone from some thumping nightclub in the early hours.
Despite the jet-set lifestyle and non-stop attendance at glamorous parties, there was nothing of the chaotic Absolutely Fabulous-style fashionista about her: she was a seasoned and serious journalist, dogged in pursuit of a story.
She once made away with the only copy of the book of photographs showcasing the new collection at a Givenchy preview, meaning no other journalist could write about it. And she was able to deduce the undisclosed identity of the designer of Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress by spotting that an unidentifiable woman photographed leaving the Goring, where the Middleton family were staying before the wedding, was wearing a distinctive belt that she had seen before on Sarah Burton, creative director of the Alexander McQueen label.
Long before diversity and inclusivity were watchwords, Hilary Alexander argued for designers to use black models, and played her part in ensuring that design was not just the preserve of the wealthy, making the effort to seek out the work of unknown students beavering away in garrets. She was an early supporter of McQueen, the rough diamond of British fashion, and felt particularly proud that his label should eventually come to dress royalty.
She scoured nightclubs and suburban beauty salons to see what real people were wearing, and did not hesitate to champion high-street brands alongside haute couture in the pages of the Telegraph (often to the disgruntlement of the couturiers). Some of the trickier celebrity designers embraced her because of her freshness of approach: at a time when the fashion establishment was Eurocentric, she looked further afield, championing Chinese and South Korean designers in particular.
She also expanded the fashion editor’s role to serve as an advice columnist for readers, and, unlike many fashion writers, was mindful that some of her readers might be of maturer years. Her tips were both practical and ingenious.
Fed up of having to call on neighbours or taxi drivers to help her do up her dresses, she devised a solution: “Thread a longish piece of ribbon through the zip-tab, tie it in a bow – and, hey presto, zipping yourself in and out of a dress is a breeze. Choose a colour that matches the dress, and it will look as if it is a design feature, rather than an aid for someone who is no longer the contortionist she used to be.”
She pioneered the idea of arranging photoshoots for readers, and those taking part would find that being over 70 was no barrier to being cajoled into adopting high heels and miniskirts. Anybody who asked Hilary Alexander for fashion advice – Diana, Princess of Wales among them – was always enjoined to go for the boldest option.
Her job also entailed travelling to far-flung locations to find striking backdrops for shoots, usually in company with favoured photographers such as Stephen Lock and Heathcliff O’Malley: office legend had it that, on Easter Island, she had asked if the statues could be turned round to suit her concept for the composition.
Such expeditions provided a contrast with life on the hotel circuit, but she was nothing daunted, and perfected the art of mixing piña coladas in a Pringles tin.
In fact, Hilary Alexander’s leisure time was often spent trekking in remote spots, especially in the Americas: she had a fascination with the Mayan civilisation. She liked to wear chunky Mayan-style necklaces: wearing something that looked like it had come from the British Museum made her worth looking at among the willowy beauties at fashion events, she explained.
She did occasionally admit to a sense of insecurity and a well-hidden lack of confidence, partly stemming from an unhappy childhood: her distinctive outfits were her body armour, she once said, and the catwalks her battlefield.
Hilary Alexander was born on February 5 1946 and grew up in Palmerston North, New Zealand, the daughter of Robert Alexander, an accountant, and his wife Leah, a stenographer. One of three sisters, Hilary had a difficult relationship with her parents, which she rarely discussed and gave as one reason why she would never write an autobiography.
When she was a schoolgirl her idol Cliff Richard came to Palmerston North; forbidden to attend the concert, Hilary played truant and cycled to the airport to meet his flight. She duly spotted him in the departure lounge: “Where I got the nerve from I’ll never know, but, heart pounding, I crept up behind him, bent down, and kissed him on the back of the neck … and then I fled, terrified by my audacity, threw myself on to my bicycle and pedalled away.”
She longed to be an archaeologist but her father did not want to pay for further study and, as she had always come top of the class in English, he secured her an interview with the local paper, the Manawatu Evening Standard. She flourished, winning a Commonwealth Press Union scholarship and becoming a reporter in Wellington before going on to the Ballarat Courier in Victoria.
She then decided to try her luck in Hong Kong, where she claimed – she worked in a topless waitress bar, before being offered a fashion editor’s job at the China Mail. She then worked as the features editor of the Hong Kong Standard – Bill Wyman once leant over and unzipped the front of her dress while she was interviewing the Rolling Stones, but, although bra-less, she continued with her questions as if nothing were amiss – before taking time out for a foundation course in Art and Design at Hong Kong University.
After moving to London she worked in PR for Ogilvy & Mather, before joining the Telegraph. Her avant-garde dress sense made her stand out in an office almost entirely occupied by men in suits, but her clubability made her a cherished colleague.
Hilary Alexander insisted on others matching her own exacting standards, and had a high turnover of assistants on the Telegraph fashion desk; it was said that one had to leave after her hair fell out due to stress. During a major event such as Paris Fashion Week she expected them to work 20-hour days, and when they were not working would dragoon them to dance the night away at some hot spot she had discovered.
If she decided her shoes were inappropriate for some event, an assistant would be called upon to sacrifice her heels and clomp around in whatever footwear Hilary had happened to be wearing. But even the most battle-scarred of ex-assistants adored her, and she was an incomparable mentor of young journalists.
She was particularly liked by the wives of Telegraph foreign correspondents, whom she would lodge with when travelling abroad and take with her to exclusive shows. Although such non-accredited guests were not technically permitted, if challenged Hilary Alexander would point to her guest and bellow: “Don’t you realise who this is?” before they continued on their way.
She was often seen as a talking head on programmes such as The Clothes Show, GMTV, Lorraine and Strictly Come Dancing: Take Two – she confided to Telegraph readers that Bruno Tonioli spent longer in make-up than any of the female dancers – and for a time was a judge and stylist on Britain’s Next Top Model. She styled innumerable fashion shows for charity.
She was among the least vain of fashionistas and would happily provide accounts of her fashion disasters, including her first experience of a spray tan: she was told not to bathe for some hours afterwards, but needed to clear the gunk out of her hair before a dinner engagement.
“I … managed to wash my hair over the side of the bath, releasing a gush of mud-coloured dye, which trickled down my cleavage, staining my heart surgery scar the colour of mahogany; very attractive. Now my hair was clean, but my face was a pale orange. I had a curious tidemark around my neck, and my unwashed feet were starting to look as if they belonged to David Dickinson.”
Hilary Alexander was promoted to director of fashion at the Telegraph in 2003, the year in which she was named Journalist of the Year at the British Fashion Awards for the second time, and retired in 2011. She never lost her astonishment that an ordinary girl from New Zealand should have been granted such a life, and remained devoted to the Telegraph: she insisted on having a copy brought to her as usual, on what proved to be the last day of her life, as she awaited a major operation.
Hilary Alexander was unforthcoming about her early romantic life, but was married and divorced twice, first to Peter Cotton and then to Mike Betts, before she was 40; there were no children. Thereafter, her friends attested, her devotion to her work left her no time for relationships. She was appointed OBE in 2013.
Hilary Alexander, born February 5 1946, died February 5 2023