“The Jean Cocteau of the fashion world.” That’s how the New Yorker editor Tina Brown described Michael Roberts, the British illustrator-writer-stylist-photographer-art director, when he joined the magazine in the mid-1990s as its fashion editor.
Mr. Roberts, who died on Monday at 75, after a brain aneurysm, in Taormina, Sicily, where he lived, worked for the magazine for more than a decade. He oversaw the style coverage and produced 23 witty, satirical covers, most in collage and gently poking fun at the fashion community.
“It gave me immense joy to see Michael sitting in this teeny office at The New Yorker, with his scissors and his construction paper, like the most sophisticated kid, creating these colorful, joyful, funny covers,” said David Remnick, who has been the editor of The New Yorker since 1998. “Michael had a deep knowledge of fashion and a winking irreverence for it, which is rare.”
Last year, Queen Elizabeth II made Mr. Roberts a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contribution to fashion.
Mr. Roberts was born on Oct. 2, 1947, in Buckinghamshire to an English mother and a father from St. Lucia, who died 13 years later. As a boy, he attended boarding school and later studied fine art and fashion at an art school in High Wycombe.
In 1966, he won J. Walter Thompson’s Travel Scholarship for Fashion Drawing competition. The prize was a trip to New York, where Mr. Roberts met Andy Warhol and the photographer Richard Avedon and had his drawings published in Women’s Wear Daily. The ad agency also offered him a job, but he didn’t see himself working in advertising, said Tiggy Maconochie, his agent.
A few years later, Mr. Roberts joined London’s Sunday Times as a fashion writer, and his criticism could be quite piquant. Of couture, he once opined, one could “look like a badly wrapped parcel for over $10,000.”
“He always nailed it in talking about the collections — and not always complimentary,” said the former Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, who met Mr. Roberts when he was at The Sunday Times. “While everyone was rushing around saying, ‘So fabulous, so fabulous,’ he was the one who saw the light, and was intelligent and truthful.”
He was also terribly distingué, standing more than six feet tall, nattily attired in tailored suits, ascots and polished shoes, his proper English accent softened to a buttery hush. In the 1970s, Mr. Roberts was named the most elegantly dressed man under 30 in the world at the International Male Elegance Awards in London.
When Tina Brown, then the girlfriend of The Sunday Times’s editor in chief Harold Evans, was hired to revamp Tatler magazine in 1979, she poached Mr. Roberts from the paper and hired him as fashion editor. He brought in the glossy magazine photographers Norman Parkinson, Helmut Newton and David Bailey to create a sexy new visual style.
“Michael was particularly good at look-alike shoots, which were wicked and brilliant,” Ms. Brown said. Among the most memorable was the British punk designer Vivienne Westwood, whom Mr. Roberts styled as a double of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Gabé Doppelt, Mr. Roberts’s former assistant, recalled that in the early 1980s, Mr. Roberts returned to Tatler offices in London from an assignment in Los Angeles and told the team: “‘I’ve met this kid photographer named Herb Ritts. He knows Madonna, he’s going to give us the pictures and I’m going to bring him here to work for us.’”
“That’s how Herb got his start,” said Ms. Doppelt, who is now the head of global membership for San Vicente Bungalows in Los Angeles.
In 1984, Ms. Brown decamped to Vanity Fair in New York and took Mr. Roberts with her. There he styled and art directed some of the magazine’s most saucy images, like a cover shot by Mr. Newton of the actress Daryl Hannah in a sparkling red gown and blindfolded, holding two Oscars.
“Michael didn’t like New York at all,” Ms. Brown said. “It was the first place he felt his Blackness — when taxis wouldn’t pick him up.” He returned to Europe as Vanity Fair’s Paris editor and as style director for Condé Nast in Britain. After Ms. Brown became the editor of The New Yorker, she hired Mr. Roberts again. Together, they created the Style & Design issue, which is published twice a year.
Mr. Roberts started doing collage when he was at The New Yorker because, back then, the magazine was “a home for illustration and drawings,” rather than photography, he told The New York Times in 2007. Susan Morrison, the articles editor, loved walking into the office and seeing “a puddle of clippings at his feet,” she said. “He never worked from a big sketch. He just cut.”
His images were droll, like the Statue of Liberty laced tightly into a corset, and his subjects were often people of color. “He was ahead of his time in that regard,” Ms. Morrison said.
Mr. Roberts liked to assign articles to writers who didn’t normally cover fashion. “I remember him getting the political writer Rick Hertzberg on the copy for a Helmut Newton photo of the French model Laetitia Casta in military chic,” Ms. Morrison said.
“Michael is the only person in that whole fashion industry who I ever met who was completely authoritative about it and saw how silly it could be, and that is what made the fashion coverage he brought to The New Yorker work,” she continued. “It wasn’t bloviating, it was social criticism. And the tone of the coverage and the visuals were so in line with the fizzy tone that Harold Ross had in mind in the 1920s. It was a perfect match.”
As precise as Mr. Roberts was about his work, he was enigmatic in his personal life. “He lived in Anna Wintour’s basement for years,” Ms. Coddington said, referring to the Vogue editor. “When I broke up with my husband, he was squatting on people’s sofas and asked if he could stay with me for a couple of nights. He stayed for six months. My ex-husband put a private detective on the house, and the private detective reported that I was living with this tall Black man. Michael said he’d go to the divorce hearing in the most outrageous outfit.”
Mr. Roberts eschewed technology, which made him difficult to reach. “When we wanted to get ahold of him, we were instructed to fax his agent in London,” Mr. Remnick remembered. “Somehow it worked.” Mr. Roberts eventually did get a cellphone, but he rarely answered it.
Upon leaving The New Yorker, Mr. Roberts returned to Vanity Fair as its contributing fashion and style editor. He split his time among London, Paris, Rio di Janeiro and Taormina, a destination he discovered while on vacation in Venice with his friend Martha Fiennes, the sister of the actor Ralph Fiennes, in 1987.
“We had three more days. Couldn’t decide where to go. So I said, ‘Let’s put on a blindfold and stick a pin in the map,’” he told The New York Times in 2007. The pin landed in eastern Sicily. “Driving into Taormina, I had this weird feeling I had seen it before,” he said. In 2007, he published “Shot in Sicily,” a book of black-and-white photographs of locals and landscapes that captured the baroque spirit of the Mediterranean isle.
In addition to his magazine assignments, Mr. Roberts designed jaunty prints for the Brazilian swimwear designer Lenny Niemeyer; wrote and illustrated children’s books, including “The Jungle ABC,” with a foreword by the model Iman; and helped write Ms. Coddington’s memoir, “Grace.” Ever exacting, Mr. Roberts “drove me mental,” Ms. Coddington recalled. “He came to stay with me in the country, and sometimes I’d get in my car and drive up the road and scream. But he was a joy.”
In 2017, Mr. Roberts directed “Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards,” a delightful documentary about the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, with artistic close-ups of elaborate pumps, hilarious interviews with famous fashionistas and bold-colored cutouts of well-shod legs and lizards in stilettos, gloriously in movement.
Four years ago, Mr. Roberts settled in Taormina and kept up his work, including completing a trilogy of short illustrated storybooks about GingerNutz, a flame-haired orangutan from Borneo who becomes a fashion model and magazine editor, inspired by Ms. Coddington. His final book, “Island of Eternal Beauties: A Road Trip Around Sicily,” was published in 2021.
In the Times interview, Mr. Roberts was asked why he never stuck to one medium.
“That,” he said, “was never an option.”
Source: Read Full Article