As she turns 40, British model and style icon Laura Bailey tells Alice Wyllie why she feels the fashion industry is starting to celebrate real women.
At London Fashion Week back in February I was on the late-running press bus approaching the Jonathan Saunders show when someone spotted a swarm of photographers clicking away frantically at a figure just outside the venue. “Who’s that?” someone enquired, pointing at the smudge of corn-coloured tresses in the distance. “With that hair?” replied her companion excitedly. “It can only be Laura Bailey.”
Bailey, a model and writer who is something of an institution in the British fashion industry, caused a similar stir wherever I spotted her on the front row, slim Bambi-esque legs folded carefully, fluffy blonde hair usually attempting escape from a ponytail.
Why? Perhaps because she, more than most, is a living embodiment of great British style. Not just in the eyes of street style bloggers and glossy magazine editors but in an official capacity; she is a cultural ambassador for the British Fashion Council.
It is her hair that I spot first when she walks into the noisy cafe near her home in Notting Hill where we’ve arranged to meet. A streak of blonde that stretches the length of her back, fluffy wispy pieces dance around her face after she pulls off her green cycle helmet.
She rushes over, big smile and friendly introductions and jokes that she needs a coffee immediately “or there’s going to be an emergency”.
She laughs, a little embarrassed, when I ask her about what she’s wearing. She drove in from the country at 6:30am this morning and as such she’s wearing a bit of a mash-up of whatever happened to be at hand (Topshop denim shirt, Camilla Skovgaard wedges worn with pushed-down socks) topped with a flick of turquoise eyeliner and a messy ponytail.
It’s that slightly haphazard sense of style, however, that sees her hailed as a very British fashion icon. It’s feminine with a heavy helping of tomboy, hippyish with a drop of blue blood, eccentric yet put-together, unpolished, effortless, eclectic, unstudied but very, very stylish.
“Oh I don’t plan,” she says, sipping on her espresso. “I’m always in a hurry, always on my bike. I’m not someone who has Polaroids on their shoe boxes. My wardrobe is chaos. I have my favourite things that I wear obsessively and as a mother [to Luc, seven and Lola, four] and working pretty flat out, I’m also really practical. I’m not in a decorative phase of my life.”
Bailey was discovered on the Kings Road at 22, which, in model years, is nearing retirement age. However, she is grateful for her relatively late entry into the industry, which allowed her to get a first in English from Southampton University under her belt before stepping in front of the cameras.
A short relationship with actor Richard Gere in her early twenties which she has described as - “a rollercoaster romance with a man twice my age” - saw her catapulted to fame, but it is in the last decade, perhaps, that she’s become a household name, after starring in a series of M&S ads alongside models Twiggy, Noemie Lenoir, Erin O’Connor and Lizzy Jagger.
Today she is a contributing editor to British Vogue, blogs on vogue.co.uk and is a brand ambassador for Radley and Chanel, as well as being an ambassador for Oxfam. She has a strong interest in film (her partner, Eric Fellner, is the producer of films including Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’ Diary) and she is working with the British Fashion Council on a series of short films as part of their FASH/ON film programme.
Her ethical credentials are impressive; she has made a film highlighting Ghana’s maternal health issues for Oxfam and created a range of jewellery for fair trade label Made. As the face of one of this year’s McArthurGlen’s Designer Outlet campaigns, she has been styled and photographed in some of her favourite pieces from McArthurGlen’s AW12 collections.
So does she love the thrill of a good bargain as much as the rest of us? “Oh yes,” she says enthusiastically. “And not just in terms of designer outfits; I’ve always been a vintage markets scavenger. I love a bargain and I think most women do. Some of my favourite things from all over the world have certainly not been my most expensive splurges. There is a thrill from getting a bargain, but also from the hunt, the quest. I’m not really a planned shopping person but I like that feeling of stumbling upon something.”
She turned 40 last month, and celebrated with various little dinners with friends rather than one big bash. The day itself coincided with a holiday in the South of France with “tonnes of kids and a few best friends” and she’s still sporting a tan and some of the presents she received; bits and pieces of jewellery which she wears piled high.
Did the birthday feel like a milestone? “I’m very at peace with my age so I wasn’t traumatised by it. I had to get used to saying it a few times afterwards, kind of rehearse it. But it was OK.”
The low-key celebrations are quite a contrast to her 30th birthday, which she spent on a beach in Ibiza, an experience she described in a piece she wrote for Vogue: “I swam with the children, indulged in an obligatory cry with my best friend, danced like a dervish (in four different dresses)... and stole quiet moments with much older men offering lessons in life and love.”
Today she looks incredible. Not incredible for 40, just incredible. I ask her why she thinks, in an industry preoccupied with youth, that her career has really taken off in the last eight years.
After all, while the big 1990s supermodels – Naomi, Christy, Cindy et al – continue to work in their 40s, their stars rose in their early 20s and never really came back down to earth. Bailey, on the other hand, seemed to come into her own in her thirties.
She’s asked herself the question before and she doesn’t have an easy answer, though she does note that the success she’s enjoyed over the past eight years or so has come since becoming a mother. “I don’t know if its specific to London but I think that there is in fashion generally now more of a sense of celebration of a woman rather than a girl,” she muses. “I think there’s space for everything, for all kinds of images. But growing up in pictures as I have, I definitely feel more at home and more confident now than in my twenties.”
Motherhood, as it tends to do, changed everything for her: “I couldn’t afford to compromise or waste time so everything I do has to be really worth it in the jigsaw puzzle. I also became much more ruthlessly organised because I wanted to carve out time with my kids. Through that, strangely, I’ve been working much more intensely and much harder.”
“I get my fulfilment and excitement from different areas of my life,” she says. “I’ve got two very strongly defined sides to my personality; one is very much a loner, happy in my writing, happy with my books or just messing around with my kids. But at the same time, my fashion and film life fulfils a much more gregarious, show-off side to me and I feel so lucky to have both because both are true. I need one to make the other work.”
All clothes available from a selection at McArthurGlen York, where a new Reiss outlet opens later this month, and the Yorkshire Winter Wonderland opens on November 23, with an ice rink, tree and events.