It began, as character-defining crushes so often do, on French exchange. I was 13, immersed in Frenchness for the first time, and it was fabulous. First because each morning for breakfast we were given a bowl of hot chocolate and a stack of creamy, scallop-edged biscuits to dip into it. But also because of the stationery. I fell madly, deeply in love with the school exercise books, which were A5-sized, sewn-spined, the pages chequered with a faint quadrille. So elegant, so precise, so chic. WHSmith’s spiral-bound lined notebooks were dead to me from that day onward, and a lifelong love affair was born.
Stationery is more emotional than fashion, notebooks and diaries more intimate than your knicker drawer. I can measure out my life in paper, from those flimsy notebooks to the ludicrously expensive Smythson ones I use now. My teenage diaries are even now redolent with the pointless intensity of childhood secrets. The Filofax and Mont Blanc fountain pen I had as a sixth former are unthrowable still, despite or perhaps because of the painfully earnest copied-out quotes and in-jokes scrawled in the margins. I have a treasured folder filled with notepaper from every swanky hotel I have ever stayed in: the Savoy in Florence, with its tiny terracotta duomo motif; Claridge’s, where we stayed on my husband’s 40th. And I have the giveaway organisational safety harnesses of every overwrought modern professional. (Current obsession: the Leuchtturm 1917 pencil loops, fixed in the back of every notebook and diary to save precious seconds on endlessly updating my to-do lists.)
This is how I know I’m in the right industry, because a stationery fetish seems a prerequisite for working in fashion. Years ago, when Tom Ford was helming Gucci, I witnessed a mini crisis at the London office. A new hire had arrived, and placed a box of yellow pencils on his desk; Ford, who had an all-black rule on pens and pencils, had to be asked for consent. (Reader, he gave it.) The late Yves Saint Laurent worked at the desk at which his great-grandfather, a lawyer, had drawn up Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding contract. On it lived two vintage lamps, a vase of flowers and a pot of blue HB pencils; nothing else was allowed. Last year, when I interviewed Diane von Furstenberg, she seemed mildly pleased I was wearing a vintage DVF blouse (oh yes, I do that, flattery gets you everywhere) but it was when I whipped out my diary, an exact match for hers, in grain and sunshine yellow and arrow-snipped silk ribbon, that she gave me a warm smile of fellowship.
Ten years ago, fashion’s fetish for stationery was perhaps only to be expected from an industry founded on turning retail into ritual. What is extraordinary is how the fetish has survived the rise of technology that should have rendered it obsolete. Why sketch, when you can video the finale from your seat? Why bother with a diary, when you can iCal?
Because we’re Luddites? No. Fashion industry people are as tediously obsessed with their phones as the rest of the world. Yet the lust for beautiful stationery lives on.
Well, you know what? Practicality isn’t everything. (I give you: high heels.) If someone throws a great party, it’s quick and easy to say thanks by email, but only a soulless shell of a human being would imagine that it was the same as a handwritten card. Thank you notes (always on headed correspondence cards, surname struck through with a flourish) are still alive and well in the fashion industry. This is in part because its silverbacks – your Toms, your Christophers, your Stellas – still do it, and the rank and file follow suit. Which suits me down to the ground, because I was brought up to believe thank yous are next to godliness.
Not that it is entirely high-minded. Snobbery definitely comes into it: Smythson’s appeal is closely linked with its status as the calling card of the Right Sort of Person. On the other hand, many cult items – Sharpie pens, Field Notes notebooks – have a potent democratic appeal. Like Levi’s or Converse, the connoisseur recognises them simply as best in their class.
A new wave of stationery boutiques has emerged in the most fashion-forward cities. In Paris, the 2013 opening of Louis Vuitton’s Cabinet d’Ecriture was followed this spring by a stationery pop-up at destination boutique Merci. In London, no fashion editor’s stroll down Mount Street is complete without a detour into the Mount Street Printers for initial-embossed notecards in tissue-lined envelopes.
A few years ago, visitors to New York fashion week headed straight to the Apple store; this September, there will be a pilgrimage to CW Pencil Enterprise. The CW is 24-year-old Caroline Weaver, who has a tattoo of a pencil running the length of her forearm and whose specialist boutique sells Swiss beechwood pencils and Portuguese ones scented with lily of the valley, displayed on glossy shelves. It looks more like an exclusive beauty salon than a WHSmith. Indeed these pencils are, as one wag noted, “begging to be Instagrammed”.