A Conversation With Joan Juliet Buck

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Joan Juliet Buck is the only American to have been editor-in-chief of French Vogue (1994-2001). A writer and actress, she appeared in “Julie & Julia” (2009), “Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog” (1961), and “Paris Brothel” (2003). She played herself in “Fashion Victim: The Killing of Gianni Versace” (2001).

Joan Juliet Buck with Isaac Mizrahi at book signing
Photo: courtesy  wwd.com


For many years she was a contributing editor at Vogue and Vanity Fair and writes for W magazine and Harper’s Bazaar among other publications. She has written two novels and her memoir, “The Price of Illusion”, (Atria Books, 386 pages) which offers a rare glimpse into the rarefied worlds of celebrity and high fashion, has just been released.

Joan Juliet Buck 1975
Courtesy Joan Juliet Buck

The daughter of legendary film producer Jules Buck (who discovered the actor Peter O’Toole), and actress Joyce Gates, she had a privileged upbringing , and spent childhood vacations at director John Huston’s fabled estate in County Galway, Ireland (John was her godfather and she considers Anjelica Huston to be her closest friend). She would become Donald Sutherland’s mistress and had a long time relationship with the late Leonard Cohen. She is only 69 and has had quite the life thus far. Brilliant, open self-effacing and funny.

Joan Juliet Buck with Charlotte Rampling
Photo by Jean-Luce Hure

I had the pleasure of interviewing her this past Thursday.

MK: Wikipedia describes you as a writer, editor, actor. Is that the order you would use?

JJB: I would just start with the word ‘person’ but yes, writer; I am 100% a writer. And I edit; I edited in the past but I still am a good editor and I can edit things down very well. And I can edit my friends. And then I act.

MK: You said that your just published book, “The Price of Illusion: A Memoir” was 5 years of making sense of your life. When did you know you were going to write this?

JJB: After I left French Vogue in 2001 I didn’t want to write a book because I had written two novels and I wrote a play, and I tried to do a whole bunch of other things so that I would not have to sit down and write a book. I started in 2011 actually and the reason I wrote the book was because it was impossible to explain my life even to me. There were too many events in it that didn’t make any sense. And the one event that made the least sense is the one that I started with.

In the summer of 2011 I wrote about this holiday with a man who I thought was Prince Charming where in fact his best friend ended up dead in my arms. I had to figure out this strange story about going insane with people who you don’t know and being awoken in the middle of the night because the host is passed out on his dressing room floor and going to see what’s happened and then because as I wrote that, I was put in charge of that particular tragedy because I was the only person in his house in the South of France, who spoke French.

And then I realized having written those two chapters, that in fact, everything that ever happened to me in my life was because my parents moved to Paris when I was 3 ½ years old and I learned French. And if I hadn’t learned French as my first real language I never would have been given the job at French Vogue. And you know, the whole thing about the book is, Why did this happen? Why did that happen? And then you’re pulling the strings back into the past to figure out the moment when the thing happened that changed things.

MK: So did this replace therapy?

JJB: That is a thoroughly interesting question. I haven’t in my life gone to a shrink and I did not want to see any kind of therapist because I didn’t want to hear someone else’s interpretation (you know, Freudian).  I needed to figure it out clean.

MK: Did writing your memoir help you figure it out and actually help make sense out your life?

JJB: I figured out some things about myself. I have done so many different things and I’ve been in so many different situations that were not really what I wanted. Like editing Paris Vogue. I said “yes” even though I hadn’t worked in an office in 16 years and had never had a staff and was not a manager or an executive or a career editor. I was a writer. So, I thought, “Who is this person who says yes to something that they don’t even know they can do?”

MK: There are certain contradictions. You have said that you “got high on color” the same time your friends were getting “high on pot”; you made the observation that “surface became everything, surface became my substance”, you admitted that you were always drawn to beautiful things, shiny things and you enjoyed a wonderful fantasy life. Your parents obviously had wonderful taste and they exposed you to beautiful luxurious things at a very early age. But on the other hand, you also said that you never considered yourself to be a “fashion person” and that you never wanted to “grow up with a concession to fashion or the beauty parlor”.

JJB: Because when I met my godfather’s wife, former ballerina ‘Ricki’ Huston (born Enrica Soma), she was wearing a bumpy Irish fisherman knit sweater, flat shoes, and bedraggled trousers and wasn’t wearing any make up. And my mother on the other hand, was impeccable; very high style and well dressed, and I thought “Oh I want to be like that!” I want to be real because Ricki looked real. So, it is a contradiction inside me. I was drawn to both things and that’s a lot what the book is about. Being drawn to fashion and glitter and glamour and appearance, and at the same time, having a yearning for the simplicity of lying on my stomach in Ricky Huston’s garden, reading a book when I was 13 years old. Looking at the little flowers in the grass, and knowing that this is happiness.

MK: So, how important is fashion in your life now? I read that you have gotten rid of most of the vestiges of your former luxurious life, such as your Chanel bags. Are there things you’ve given away that you have wished you hadn’t?

JJB: It’s very simple. It was a very heavy Chanel bag. I can’t carry very heavy bags now. I am very attached to extremely light bags and in fact I have a new bag from Agnes B. It’s in wonderful soft leather; a very light, bag. Wonderful. I worship this bag. I bought it at Agnes B a couple of weeks ago. So I gave away the bags that were too heavy. I gave away the clothes that sent a message of power and dominance and importance. I kept the clothes that I felt happy in. After I was no longer with American Vogue at the beginning of 2012, I re met Zac Posen and his boyfriend Christopher Niquet. He’s coming out with a book, “Models Matter” which is launching on March 23. They both became very good friends when I was no longer with Vogue, and so now Zac makes beautiful clothes for me that are exactly what I love most.

MK: Clothes for both day and evening?

JJB: Well, from the time I was very young, what I look best in are clothes that either a priest would wear, or a soldier.

MK: You’re right in fashion then- with both!

JJB: Zac makes these wonderful long priestly navy blue shirt tunics for the summer in cotton and I have some of those and then he makes me wonderful evening outfits: Samurai trousers with a tight jacket shaped like a couture jacket from the 50’s.

(For the record, at the celebration/book signing in her honor held last week at the Museum of Arts and Design, which was attended by such as Freddie Leiba, Wendy Goodman, Sheila Nevins, Cece Cord, Barbara Tober, Tina Brown, Sir Harold Evans, Michael Gross, Nancy Newhouse, Candice Bergen, Isaac Mizrahi, Angela Missoni, Candace Bushnell, Ms. Buck looked darn chic in a Zac Posen midnight blue top and pants).

MK: Well, he certainly knows how to cut clothes.

JJB: He knows how cut to cut better than anybody and I’m just thrilled because I now have these evening clothes that are great and beautiful, and they are exactly my style!

MK: Have you been following the shows this season?

JJB: After I left French Vogue for a couple of years I would read all the fashion reporting and I would follow the shows, but at this stage I don’t. I follow what my friends are doing because I’m more attached to my friends than anything.

MK: And who are they?

JJB: For instance, Angela Missoni, who made the pink pussy hats and discreetly put them on the chairs of all the show attendees and then just showed them at the end. She made 1200 pussy hats and the fact that the pussy hat was now part of fashion and it was done by somebody I love and respect thrilled me and I immediately went “fashion-y” and sent off an email to Angela saying I needed a pussy hat. I immediately went to the boutique like a fashion freak to get my pussy hat.

I also like what they do at Sonia Rykiel. And Sonia Rykiel’s granddaughter gave me a handbag 4 years ago when I was in the middle of the book. She said it was a “writer’s handbag” and it was: a great bag that you could put papers in. But I don’t follow the shows. My time is consumed with writing and doing stuff.

MK: Are you working on your next book?

JJB: Yes I started something new that I’m excited about but getting back to fashion, when I was in Spain, I bought a lot of things at Zara. I bought a ‘Balenciaga’ coat at Zara.

MK: I love Zara!

JJB: And Zara in Spain is great. I have fabulous knockoffs from them. I have a ‘Balenciaga’ from them and I have a ‘Rick Owens’ distressed leather jacket, which I’ve never been able to afford. And with what’s happened to everybody’s finances these days, I think Uniqlo is major in the lives of women. I have a lot of the Jil Sander for Uniqlo pieces.

MK: I could not agree more. I think one of the saddest says of my life is when I was told they would discontinue that collaboration. I can’t tell you how many coats and jackets I have by Jil Sander for Uniqlo. The design, quality, and price was unbeatable!

JJB: I live in their HEATTECH long sleeved t shirts because I live in the country and I’m always cold. I also like that Uniqlo is vertically integrated and they don’t slave labor.

MK: I loved your article in Harper’s Bazaar which ran a year ago, about aging and fashion, “Coming of Age”: Joan Juliet Buck on how great style is timeless….until it isn’t. (I am including a link because as far as I’m concerned, it is a MUST-READ! Well written, amusing, funny, and right on point.) http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a10722/coming-of-age-0515/)

I’m just a year younger than you so I can really relate to seeing pictures of yourself and realizing that things that used to be great have suddenly become aging and are not flattering or ironic anymore. And I completely agree that “elegance is refusal, elimination, and pitiless self-criticism”. But I did disagree with a few things. You said black jackets aged you as did necklaces and there was a portrait of you wonderful in a black jacket with masses of pearls and chains. It looked great and not at all aging.

JJB: The thing about the pearls is that with one strand, you look a bit like you’re an executive lady and wearing a whole bunch is really nice but it really hurts my necklace. Doesn’t it hurt yours?

MK: (Laughing) Oh well, I happen to like masses of necklaces so I live with it.
Do you look at French Vogue anymore?

JJB: There was a period when they were sending it to me and then my friend Ines de la Fressange sent me a copy when she was a guest editor.

MK: She is the chicest woman on the planet. She always tops my best dressed list!

JJB: She is so amazing but do you know what she wears? She dresses very simply and just wears trousers and jackets.

MK: Yeah, but she is 6 feet tall, 100 pounds, with miles of legs, and she accessorizes with the best Roger Vivier shoes and bags. When you wear Roger Vivier, it’s impossible to not look chic! And I happen to love her simplicity. The older I get, the more I love pared down, very simple classic pieces but always worn with really great footwear!

JJB: Yes, I agree about the shoes, but I did ballet for so many years I have feet that need special wide shoes.

MK: FYI, I could not agree more with your observation that when you reach a certain age and you “find shoes you can stand in through an entire cocktail party, you must buy them in every color and multiples of black because the more perfect the shoe, the faster it will be discontinued”.

JJB: I spent many years living in Santa Fe and now I am living in upstate New York, so if I find a shoe that’s right I will buy as many as they have.

MK: The best thing that has happened in fashion is the whole athleisure thing. The idea that you don’t have to get ‘dressed up’ in a traditional way, or wear a high heeled pump in order to be considered ‘well dressed’. Just take a look at the front rows at fashion shows. Many women are in sneakers, flat shoes, and combat boots. It’s the grounding of fashion…reality has set in. Things have certainly changed a lot since the time you were at Vogue and there were more rules.

JJB: Yes, except that when I went to French Vogue, I thought all the editors would be the paradigm of style. But most of my young fashion editors (as I write in my book), were wearing tracksuit bottoms and sneakers. And I thought, really? It was 1994…so they were really ahead of themselves. They really started it. And they would wear high heels with bare legs. How radical I thought.

MK: Are there any other designers you think are really addressing women’s needs right now?

JJB: I do think the ones I’ve mentioned. There was a time I did get dressed up for the day, when I was working at Vogue, but because I live in the country now, I dress to scare people. But for really nice daytime stuff I like Sonia Rykiel and Agnes B. whose clothes I have been wearing since I’m 20 years old. I like things that don’t change and I don’t really go shopping much. If I could afford to shop I’d probably go to Rick Owens because what he does are not ”important person” clothes. I don’t like fashion shows. I love fashion. I love dreaming. I love costumes. I love dress ups. I love how clothes can change a person. But I don’t like sitting in the dark with hundreds of other people waiting for the models to come out.

MK: How long did it take you to come up with the title of the book, “The Price of Illusion”?

JJB: A very long time: last summer. And thanks to Christopher Nique and my oldest friend Angelica Huston who said she liked the title.

MK: Do you think the fashion industry attracts natural born dreamers, trying to escape reality, or does it turn realists into escapists?

JJB:  I think you took the words out of my mouth. It’s definitely the natural born dreamers who dream of a more beautiful world.

MK: I mentioned that because it pretty much defines me. I was always fantasizing, dreaming, and becoming attached to beautiful things at a very early age, and I always wanted to be a fashion editor. When I was a teenager I poured over Seventeen Magazine and in college, I was constantly reading Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and could not wait for the big fall issues to come out (ironically, my first job was as a fashion assistant at Seventeen and then I went on to Harper’s Bazaar). I think it is in your blood like that. Fashion is just inherently important to some people. As they say, “Once a fashion editor, always a fashion editor!”

JJB: The only time I was near to being a fashion editor was when I was at Glamour Magazine and was an assistant to this wonderful woman Julie Britt.  You must know her.

MK: Absolutely, she was a senior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar when I was just starting out as an assistant. We email each other all the time and we’re actually meeting for lunch with a few other former Bazaar editors in a few weeks. I love Julie.

JJB: Julie used to talk about inspiration all the time. She would get inspired by things. And the other thing, that gave me the wrong view of the fashion world, was the “the soul of kindness”. Julie’s kindness made me think that everyone in fashion would be as nice.

MK: (Laughing), Oh, god. No!

JJB: But she was my boss and that’s the way I thought things were. And I still carry that inside me. I adore Julie. So the only time I was on the set was when I worked for Glamour. That was the time I was really involved in fashion. After that, I was more a designer’s friend, and in Paris when I was 22, I would go to the Museum of Decorative Arts and copy the fashion illustrations of Paul Poiret; things from the beginning of the 20th century, and I would give them to Karl because we both loved that stuff.

MK: Are you still friendly with Karl?

JJB: I haven’t seen him in years because he is so busy and I don’t go to Paris anymore..

MK: You’ve obviously met a lot of fascinating people in your life. Are there any people that you haven’t met that you would like to?

JJB: Um…the person I really wanted to meet was myself.

MK: So have you met her?

JJB: Yes, I think I have. I think the book introduced me to her.



Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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