Illustration by Daisy Leeson
Nick Foulkes sounds tired. “Fuck, I don’t know,” he sighs. It’s late in the afternoon and we’re talking about stuff. Just stuff. The stuff that accrues in drawers, proliferates on desks, collects on shelves. I’m asking if he ever gets tired of it, and in his answer, he doesn’t seem nonchalant as much as indifferent. “It’s what makes us different from the beasts in the field. We shop and they don’t.”
“I suppose the function of getting older is that you realise time is not the infinite commodity it was, and so you come round to the Wordsworthian view that communing with nature for half an hour is better than embarking on an orgy of Cartier clock buying. But actually, I can see the charm in buying a Cartier clock as much as I can in rolling around in nature.”
Nick Foulkes is a journalist who has, over the course of 30 years, written for every glossy magazine imaginable; Vogue, GQ, Country Life, to name only a few. He also writes for newspapers such as the Financial Times, specifically its luxury section, How to Spend It, and wears the jewellery and attire befitting of someone who writes for a national newspaper’s luxury section. Nick has published over 20 books, ranging from 19th and 20th century social history to art, horology, and material culture.
My hour and a half phone call with him was, I will say, casting all journalistic objectivity to the winds, a hoot. He is a master-raconteur and answers the most trifling half-question with a fully-formed thesis, which may as well be printed and bound by Oxford Print Centre on Holywell Street. The mere suggestion that there is a new conversational route to take, whether provided by myself or some connection made deep in the caverns of Mr Foulke’s mind, sets his tongue tripping on an impassioned ramble about one of his historical, literary, or sartorial interests.
I’ve asked him about his suits, yet now he’s talking about the literature of Aleksandar Solzhenitsyn, and in the next moment Thorstein Veben’s concept of conspicuous consumption, “then we had clever Francis Fukuyama saying history was dead and liberal Western capitalism was where it was at,” he recounts in the mode of a lecturer, “but I’ve digressed wildly, so forgive me. Let’s get back to talking about clothes.”
Early Years, University, and Kebab Vans
Nick recalls his well-dressed grandfather, and how he started to buy mechanical watches when he was 10 or 11, when everyone else was going digital. From his youth, he was a man ahead of his time, but with his head stuck in the past. “I loved old clothes, so I would quite unselfconsciously wander round in white cricket flannels and two-tone shoes, but then I also wore leather jackets. I had an amazing black leather horse hide knee-length trench coat, slightly longer than that actually.” Ahead of his time, stuck in the past.
He attended the independent school Christ’s Hospital, which maintains its original 16th century uniform of long blue coats and Malvolian knee length yellow stockings. One might be forgiven for thinking this would be right up his street. In fact, he says he hated it. On his time at Oxford, where he matriculated in 1983, Nick shies away from sentimentality. “I had a good time, you know. It’s an attractive and decorative place to be young,” he says with just a hint of cynicism. “Just talking about it makes me shudder with the amount of time I wasted when I actually could have been learning stuff.”
He reveals that he not only failed his English Anglo-Saxon collection, but also received the worst mark recorded in the history of his college. Is that really true? Ever the one to put a thoughtful spin on things, he replies, “It depends when you date the foundation of Hertford College,” and proceeds to give me a small history of his alma mater.
“The world was very different,” Nick concedes. He talks of how he spent his days there dressing up and going out to balls. Was he hanging out with Old Etonians? “It was hard not to hang out with Old Etonians in those days. I think there was a legal minimum.” And that, of course, meant bumping into our current Prime Minister from time to time.
“Boris was brilliant,” he recalls; someone who had the glow of a “nuclear power station,” such was his charm. “When he was president of the Union I used to go in and filch crème de menthe from his drinks tray, probably on the basis that that was the only thing left undrunk because it was filthy. I left Oxford with the ambition to improve my backgammon, which I have, and Boris left with the ambition to rule the world, which he kind of has, I suppose.”
“Do they still overturn kebab vans?”
After an initial reluctance to dwell on his student days, Nick has warmed up to the subject. “Do they still overturn kebab vans?” If I had been eating lobster mousse, I would have choked on it. Did he say, overturn? He elaborates that it was only a story he heard, but does have a first-hand experience of the rowdiness of 80s kebab vans. “For 50 pence extra you could call up a brawl,” he says drolly. (I’m not sure Hassan would stand for that now). He then relays a sartorially-pivoted story in which he got into a fight in front of a kebab van on the High Street, “outside that church where they delivered one of the first Oxford Movement sermons,” detailing how he lost a diamante from his cufflink and got chilli sauce on the apron of his shoe.
Was that a one-off? “I didn’t make a habit of it, but I was probably a very obnoxious young man. I would have hit myself if I had the opportunity.” And, as if his Oxford career wasn’t chaotically eccentric enough, he adds, “I also ran a series of mopeds, which was quite interesting.” But before I can ask him what on earth that was about, he chivvies me on: “Anyway, we’ve got nowhere with this interview.” On we go.
A life of work, but never working
After university, Nick worked in the wine trade for three years and was for a while attracted to what was then the “unfathomably fashionable” world of finance. I try to remind Mr Foulkes that that is indeed the case, because he’s written about it, but he himself is not so sure. “I don’t know if I considered going into finance or not. I didn’t in truth have any idea what I was going to do at all.”
When fellow Oxford alumnus Radosław Sikorski, now a member of the European Parliament, was reporting in conflict-stricken Afghanistan in the 80s, Nick was frequenting shops and restaurants. “I dug deeply into the surface of things, I suppose.” What he might not have been aware of was that this supposedly superficial activity was the foundation on which he makes a living.
The first suggestion that he didn’t have to commute to the City or travel to a war-torn country to get through life came when he started to do the homework for his then-girlfriend, now wife, Alexandra Foulkes. She was studying at the London College of Fashion at the time, and suddenly started coming top of the class.
Nick soon discovered that he had a vast pool of knowledge which he didn’t necessarily know he could use, based on his predilection for nice things. “Curiosity has propelled me forward without any particular professional goal. I’ve never really thought of myself as having a career. I’ve just worked.”
After freelancing for a while, he landed his first salaried role in journalism as editor of the London Life section at the Evening Standard. It was the tail end of an era in which print journalism still had a glamorous sheen. He enjoyed the “delayed immediacy” of print, as opposed to the “reactive pap” he complains comes out today. He also enjoyed appearing in the paper as a restaurant critic, writing reviews “about everything other than the food”.
Not that his job in journalism was lying there waiting for him, however. There was no such thing as a luxury industry when Nick first got into journalism. He asked his editor at GQ if he could give himself the title of Luxury Editor, which no one had used before. He stresses that he did all this “before it was a cultural trope”, and finds the fact his expensive taste has come into the mainstream “partly irritating, partly pleasing”.
A constant throughout Nick’s life has been his love of dressing up; to him “clothes are a personal semaphore”. His dandyish flamboyance, reminiscent of Noel (Coward, not Edmonds), appears to be an outward expression of his irreverent, Wildean wit. He sources his outfits from Italian tailor Mariano Rubinacci, who taught him how to mix colours, and “lighten things up”. He calls the time he was told by Rubinacci that wearing a basket weave jacket with jeans was acceptable “a damascene moment”.
His other tailor of choice is Terry Haste, who “bless him, has never made me a dud”. In 1992 Nick travelled to the Duke of Windsor’s house in the Bois de Bolougne to do a story on his wardrobe for Country Life, as you do. “And on the strength of that I asked him [Terry] to make me a blue corduroy dinner jacket. He’s a very English tailor but he’s so gifted that he can assume any style. He can write you a Browning dramatic monologue and then do you a Petrarchan sonnet on top and finish off with a rugby song, you know, sartorially.”
Nick’s diverse wardrobe is given a chance to air itself with his lockdown offering, Foulkes and Sons’ cigar reviews. Their tagline is “Fighting the virus one corona at a time.” It’s a type of cigar, apparently. Even as someone who knows nothing of tobacco in any shape or form, I’ve found myself watching them religiously.
The format is simple, and that is its strength. Nick and his eldest son, Max, both dressed in smart attire, each smoke a cigar and comment on its development, along with telling anecdotes, whilst Nick’s other son, Freddie, films them. The videos are then uploaded onto Instagram and YouTube. Listening to one of the instalments is like trying to grab at cigar smoke; there is no there there.
One’s cognitive faculties are superseded by the eyes and ears, ensorcelled by their clothes and cut-glass tones
They seem to be talking about something, but one can never be sure, as one’s cognitive faculties are superseded by the eyes and ears, ensorcelled by the Foulkes’ immaculate clothes and cut-glass tones. Nick lets Max, a certified Master of Havana Cigars who works in the cigar shop Davidoff of London, lead the conversation. “I learn a lot from him,” he says of Max affectionately.
But Mr Foulkes is no neophyte himself. He has written two-and-a-half books and countless articles in Country Life magazine on cigars. Mr Foulkes also received the accolade of Havana Man of the Year 2007. “Sadly, it doesn’t come with some sort of rosette in the lapel, but it’s still a nice thing to have.”
I talk to Nick just as they have finished Season 1 of their cigar reviews, with another season on the horizon. Does he think he will run out of outfits? “How dare you!” he exclaims in mock-offence. “People think I have many more clothes than I actually do have. I don’t throw them away because neither culturally nor physically are they meant to be thrown away. They improve with age. You can sleep easy this evening knowing that you won’t be looking at the same clothes.”
Just as I am about to wrap up the interview, Mr Foulkes, always interested, always interesting, starts to ask me about my degree. “What are you working on?” Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. “Shit, that’s a long poem. You didn’t read the whole thing, did you?”. I assure him that I have neither the intention nor the time to read the entire 700+ pages. And I’m sure he, but not necessarily my tutor, will be happy to know that most of this article was written during my tutorial on said text.
I say goodbye and thank him, perhaps too profusely. As a final word, Mr Foulkes adds in a typically ironic understatement, “Just don’t make me sound foolish, if you could, that would be great.”