As principal of London’s newest fashion college, Susie Forbes has swapped cover shoots for curriculums. By Charlotte Sinclair.
The idea that, one day, you might have to discipline a 25-year-old for coming late to class is not perhaps something to consider when venturing into a career in journalism. But this is the world in which Susie Forbes, former deputy editor of Vogue and editor of Easy Living magazine, now finds herself as principal of Conde Nast College. It’s quite a title. “I don’t know why,” she observes, drily, “but much hilarity ensues whenever I refer to myself as Principal Forbes. Particularly from my children.”
The college, which opened in April, is a tall blade of brick and glass slotted between the edit suites and scruffy pubs of Soho’s Greek Street. Inside, students on their way to classes for the 10-week Vogue certificate or one-year Vogue foundation diploma swipe in at reception by thumbprint. The courses — which take place in gallery-sleek, minimal lecture spaces of mirrored panels, grey rubber floors and retractable glass walls — are vocational, focused on guiding students into the fashion industry. (The college has direct access to the world of Vogue: students attend editorial meetings and visiting lecturers include CEOs from Vuitton and Hermes and designers Emilia Wickstead and Tommy Hilfiger.) Flatscreen televisions beam images of a Gisele cover shoot; Kate Moss by Mario Testino; Lily Cole in India. Every wall, table, Vitra leather chaise and Eames chair is white. Surely hell to keep clean? “Not yet. Not so far. But I am on watch,” says Susie, with suitable strictness.
To see the blonde, smart Forbes ensconced behind a white desk, a wall of fashion books to her right, a purple orchid floating on a shelf behind (the sole concession to colour in this haven of monochrome), is to get the impression that she and the college have been here for years, not months. But the period from inception to opening the college had a two-year gestation, a time that saw Susie not just change jobs but change lives, swapping fashion shows and features meetings for curriculum planning and academic bureaucracy.
Susie admits she’s “always had a bit of the bossy headteacher in me”. None of her three daughters, aged 12 to 16, nor her husband, leather designer Bill Amberg, was particularly surprised by her jump from editor to educator. (Not that Principal Forbes is rushing to help with homework: “I’m far too neglectful,” she deadpans.)
Despite this, her volunteering for the role was entirely spontaneous. “We were at our house in Somerset for the weekend and I sent [Conde Nast MD] Nicholas Coleridge an email. I thought, ‘I’ve worked for the company for 20 years — I’d love that role.’” Prompted by “nothing more esoteric than a love of magazines and glamour”, Susie’s career in fashion began almost by accident. “When I was working at Elle as fashion secretary, I saw my personnel file. On the top was written: ‘Susie Forbes — related to [Forbes Magazine’s] Malcolm Forbes? Could be useful.” Completely untrue,” she says.
At Vogue she worked on fashion stories and celebrity shoots, big productions that required ruthless organisation and a fantastic amount of diplomacy. While as editor of Easy Living, Susie loved “the production, the process, working on other people’s copy, the environment of the team and how a magazine is put together”. All skills that transferred into her current role. “I’ve always thought the most important thing about being an editor is the ability to make decisions,” she says. “Planning the courses was very much like editing a magazine. It was about making the tone feel very Vogue, working out the themes and how to inhabit them. And making decisions and getting it wrong and starting again.”
Not that it was easy. “At the beginning, I felt totally out of my depth,” she says. “The language alone was unfamiliar. The education consultants spoke in acronyms, I didn’t have a clue.” She suffered from imposter syndrome. “Of course, being principal was a terrifying idea because, well, what did I know? I knew I would come up against a lot of criticism. Publishers are not educators, and so there was a lot of reverse snobbery: ‘We’re academics, you’re magazine publishing, do not touch.’”
Heels were swapped for hard hats and high-vis vests as Susie became “a project manager, basically. I was overlooking pest control and toilet facilities — there’s not a door handle or plug I haven’t seen in this place.” Elements of her previous career were not entirely irrelevant, however. “The architect was championing this brutal, masculine, steel-warehouse look,” she says. “I remember wrinkling my nose at all these men and thinking, ‘But this is a Vogue course!’” In came the mirrors, white walls and an oversized crochet pendant light hovering over the double-height reception.
On the ground floor, the 45 students on the 10-week course are corralled in the large presentation room. They’re a bright-eyed bunch — overwhelmingly female — in jeans and print scarves, with an average age of 26, and a multitude of degrees between them, including law, accountancy, business and ancient history. “What’s great about the students is that they don’t fit the cliché,” says Susie. “We’ve got 23 nationalities represented — Armenians, Australians, Mexicans, Americans. I still have my crib sheet with everyone’s pictures and names. I want it to be personal.”
Still, it’s one thing to command an editorial team, quite another to “deal in people’s hopes and dreams”. How was her first day? “It was nerve-racking because you want to be the person that they want you to be. I had to get used to the fact that it was OK to be me, that I came with credentials, knowledge and experience.”
While Forbes and her staff can’t promise automatic employment, they can promise to make the students employable. The courses span three areas: fashion, context and culture. Not design, “because the other colleges do that brilliantly,” says Susie. Students are given an introduction to branding and fashion heritage. They learn about trend forecasting and the impact of technology and politics on fashion. They’re tutored in fashion media and business strategy. Those on the one-year diploma work with corporate partners on special projects; some will work towards launching their own business. “It’s not fluffy in any sense,” says course director Angela Jones. “This is not Barbie-doll fashion.” Most intriguing is Forbes’s encouragement of “disruptive thinking”. “It’s using disruption as a force of good against problems that seem unsolvable, breaking down entrenched ways of doing things, and how you might use that in a job you went into.”
Does she miss the glamour, the fancy lunches? “No, because now I’m having more fancy lunches while telling people about the college.” Though she admits to dressing differently as Principal Forbes. “I spend slightly less time in my jeans.” Her uniform -“depending on who’s coming in” — is skirts and shirts, including newly purchased pieces by Peter Pilotto, an MSGM jacket and a fluoro-yellow Simone Rocha skirt.
“The hardest thing is that now I’m in sales,” she says. “It’s not a hard sell, fortunately, but I’m making calls, touting my wares. The good news is that everybody’s interested.” What she doesn’t want is a glut of CEOs coming in to lecture. “Students want to hear about the world of luxury goods and retail, but they also want to hear from the social-media manager. ‘What do they do? What are the skills? How can I do it?’ Fashion isn’t a big bank with graduate training schemes, it’s very higgledy- piggledy.” (When I spoke there recently, students asked me as much about my first jobs, early setbacks and lucky breaks as the specifics of journalism. The overwhelming desire is clearly to get in and get on.)
Has she had to call anyone to her office yet? Read them the riot act? “No, not yet.” Is there training for that? “No. I suppose parenting is a bit of training. But also we’re policy driven. We have to be extremely mindful about how we conduct ourselves, it’s very formal.” Indeed, if students don’t show up to class, a digital alert is sounded and the culprit is tracked down by phone. “Actually that’s more about UK border-agency compliance.” (A formal measure put in place to ensure the students aren’t using the college as a cover to immigrate. Not something an editor has to usually consider.) “But we’re learning as we go along about how tough we have to be. So far, so good.”
But surely, when you have a number of young people in one place, I say, there’s a lot of… “Loo paper?” she interrupts. I was going to say “drama”. “No, they flooded the loos, that was about it. I can’t promise histrionics aren’t around the corner, however.” Susie is more than capable of meeting the challenge. In fact, her only mistake so far was the prospectus. “It’s mint green. We created it when we were about to rent another property that had a mint- green facade. Our whole look and feel for the document is based around a building we never occupied.” She grins. “Genius.”