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A Life Less Ordinary – Justine Picardie

The journalist and author on fashion’s ultimate truth and making complete strangers feel understood.

Justine Picardie is Editor-In-Chief of the UK editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country magazines, and the author of several books, including Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life, a new edition of which will be published in summer 2017.

Where do you go to think?
The shower, the garden when I’m gardening or walking in Aberdeenshire. The movement of walking in particular is good for thoughts.

What are the everyday pleasures that you can’t live without?
Tea and conversation. Marks & Spencer’s gold tea. I cannot abide Earl Grey. It’s like drinking perfume.

To whom do you look for advice most often?
My husband Philip [Astor] because he always has my best interests at heart, and he’s also very wise. He’s a barrister, and he’s good on everything.

Once I became a mother, I realised I didn’t want to be interviewing cocaine traffickers or the New York mafia

What’s the best thing you’ve done for someone else?
Talent-spotting and nurturing writers and journalists. I started at the Sunday Times as a very young reporter, and there were several influential people on my team there, including Christopher Hird, editor of the Insight investigative team. He talent-spotted me. I enjoyed being an investigative reporter, but once I became a mother, I realised I didn’t want to be interviewing cocaine traffickers or the New York mafia, or on the streets of Dublin at one in the morning to interview the head of the INLA.

What’s the best thing anyone’s done for you?
There are these four men in my life: my sons, my second husband and my first [musician Neil MacColl], who is the boys’ father. My first marriage ended when my husband fell in love with somebody else, but he did a wonderful thing, which was having my sons with me. Then, my second husband, who fell in love with me and is an incredibly loving stepfather. And I’m grateful for my sons just being my sons.

Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
I went to Coco Chanel’s apartment [preserved above her first shop and studio in Paris] when I was writing my biography of her. Being able to write part of the book sitting at her desk – that was special.

What’s the best thing you can cook?
Chicken soup, made from scratch. It really does make everything seem better, in the way that chicken soup should.

How do you make yourself happy?
Being with the people I love. Gardening. Pottering at home.

Name the art and/or culture that most inspires you.
Virginia Woolf’s writing. I love her fiction but what inspires me most is her letters, diaries, essays and non-fiction. She is just so fiercely, independently intelligent. An intelligence that is so alive and so alert, both to her internal world and the world around her. She also said the truest thing I’ve ever heard about fashion, which is that clothes change our view of the world, and the world’s view of us.

Can you name something you’ve bought that you would never give away?
I’d be loathed to give away our house in Highgate in London. It has a south-facing garden and a view over London, which I love.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?
I’m always pleasantly surprised when somebody tells me they’ve read something I’ve written and they’ve felt understood. Everybody wants to be understood, and writing at its best is a way of sharing experience. My first book [If The Spirit Moves Me] was about the death of my sister. It came out in 2001 and I still get people saying how the book helped them get through long nights and difficult times.

When was the last time you made or created something?
I do that every day. It might be the thing that defines me. It might be the chicken soup or lemon drizzle cake, but every day with my team at Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country, we’re creating things. I’m lucky to have a job where that happens.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being loyal to the people I love, and loving them. Love comes first.

What do you consider humankind’s greatest achievement?

Who best demonstrates, or has demonstrated, the courage of their convictions?
Virginia Woolf, who carried on writing throughout her life despite her struggles with mental illness. A writer of huge conviction who was also very courageous.

What song could you sing most completely right now?
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Ewan MacColl, who was my sons’ grandfather. It has cropped up in many moments, not least when my sister was listening to it when she was dying of breast cancer, when she was 33.

What’s the best journey you’ve ever been on?
The first time I went to Scotland with my husband Philip. It was before we were married. It was his house in the Highlands. Why is it the best journey? Because I fell in love with him over that weekend.

If you could do one thing to change the status quo, what would it be?
This is the big question, isn’t it? I’d find a way to reduce inequality of wealth, because the greater the gap between the very rich and the very poor, the more unstable society becomes.

You’ve one trip in a time machine: where and when would you go?
To the Highlands, in 1927, to a fishing lodge called Stack Lodge, where Coco Chanel spent the summer fishing with her then-lover, the Duke of Westminster, her friends and his best friend, Winston Churchill. It was a moment in history that I’m fascinated with in an area I love.

If money were no object, what would you buy?
I suppose I could say a perfect Queen Anne house, but that’s no good if the people living in it aren’t happy. So, if it were possible, I would use money to guarantee the happiness of the people I love.