The pre-Kate Middleton It Girl dishes on advice from Anna Wintour and her classic style
Victoria “Plum” Sykes wants to party like it’s 1988 all over again.
The British fashion writer and journalist was one of the quintessential It girls of the early noughties, penning features for Vogue and hanging out at the Met Gala. Before Instagram and Kate Middleton, Sykes was a model of understated but classy British style—tweed jackets, waxed Burberry trenches and Hunter boots.
Now 47, Sykes looked to Margaret Thatcher’s England for “Pretty Girls Die in Pearls,” her recently published social satire-meets-murder mystery. Set in Oxford, the whodunit is a departure from her past two chick-lit efforts, including the bestselling “Bergdorf Blondes.” “I wanted to have more of a story to get my teeth into and adding crime makes a story much stronger,” Sykes tells Moneyish.
“Pretty Girls” abounds with elite school lingo of the 1980s—think ‘OE’ for “old Etonian”—when Sykes studied history at Oxford and was a contemporary of Hugh Grant. The novel also takes a subtly critical look at class and gender stereotypes. Entitled English frat boy types don’t come across well, while the hero protagonist is a level-headed middle class kid embarking on a career as an investigative journalist. The latter is named after Sykes’ 10-year-old daughter Ursula, in part because the author hopes her daughter grows up equally sensible.
While Sykes proclaims that she’s a feminist, she seeks to show her underlying message rather than rub it in their face. “Look how far we’ve come, though we’ve still got a long way to go,” she says. “England in the 1980s were very, very sexist and I wanted to draw attention to the fact that feminism was considered undesirable among women at that time. The British were way behind Americans in terms of sexual equality.”
While she lives in Britain today, Sykes remains a contributing editor at Vogue. (Between her earlier books and “Pretty Girls,” Sykes penned a non-fiction Kindle single about her time at Oxford and oversaw the refurbishment of the bucolic English house she now calls home, a process she documented for Vogue.) The first person to see a finished version of “Pretty Girls” was Anna Wintour, the fashion bible’s editor-in-chief, who didn’t quite like the book’s cover for reasons she never explained. Sykes and Wintour converse regularly for work, but the author kept the cover.
Still, “she has always been a very encouraging person,” says Sykes. “She understands that to keep creative people on your team, you need to give them freedom to create. That’s the reason she’s hung on to so many brilliant people.”
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Though more serious than her prior two novels, Sykes’ fashion writer background does come through. Her characters are always appropriately garbed: think an American in lurid Lycra or a mousy girl in a Sunday school teacher frock. “I think my readers would be unhappy if I had a book without fashion, since that’s a fun of a novel like this,” she says. “Instead of having to use dates and times, I use fashion to set dates. When I say a character is wearing a yellow polka-dot rah-rah dress, you immediately know it’s in the 80s.”
As for the sartorial sense that made her a party page perennial, Sykes says it happened by necessity. “I still can’t afford to keep up with the Vogue look,” she says. “My personal style is very simple because that’s the only way you can afford to look good. If it’s trendy, it’ll go out of style in five minutes and I can’t afford that.”
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