The brilliant Susannah Constantine on fashion, the Noughties and wild swimming!


Susannah Constantine has always worn it well, as co-conspirator with Trinny Woodall in the early Noughties and now as presenter of the Wardrobe Malfunction podcast. She’s also the author of two novels and a keen proponent of the benefits of wild swimming.

Was fashion always the plan for Susannah Constantine? She describes attracting a certain kind of ‘fag hag’ label early in her career and believes it stuck. Peter Berthelsen, who owned the Armani franchise, got her started. She had a job in an Armani boutique, and Berthelsen asked her to work as a run- around for the designers he was working with: John Galliano, Savile Row tailor Richard James and shoe designer Patrick Cox. She loved sitting with the pattern cutters and seamstresses and got a real understanding of how clothes were made.

It’s hard to imagine Constantine without What Not to Wear co-presenter and friend Trinny Woodall, but they didn’t initially get on and moved in parallel social circles. “She was more Eurotrash to my Sloane”. But Constantine had started writing for The Telegraph sports and motoring pages and was commissioned to do a fashion column.

Over lunch Trinny talked about wanting a column about ‘real’ High Street fashion. The Ready to Wear column was born in 1994 and ran for seven years. “We were looked down on by the fashion industry and never went to the shows because we were about clothes for ordinary woman like ourselves” (if you can count someone who dated Viscount Linley and Imran Khan as ordinary!). Constantine argues that what was different was the pair modelling the clothes themselves, and doing their own hair and make-up. “It was quite rough and ready but ultimately accessible. This, of course, was a bit frowned upon. Plus if there was a style coming out by Karl Lagerfeld or whoever and we didn’t like it, we would say that in a forthright way”.

Kids go to second- hand shops and eBay because they want one-offs… there’s a gap in the market because very little that’s innovative and interesting caters to young people.

This brand of honesty was loved and the subsequent What Not to Wear book sold 2.5 million copies – 50,000 a week. The duo’s ‘rules’ – ‘Keep the girls locked and loaded’ and ‘Your clothes have to fit’ were repeated mantra-like. Constantine says the rules still apply, but change as you get older, admitting she’d never show so much cleavage today (she’s now 58).

The TV years entailed five months away from home every year travelling across multiple countries and Constantine remembers it fondly: “What a privilege to get to know people, the countries we travelled to, and to have women using our work with them as an exercise in enhancing their self-esteem”.

Constantine has two daughters and a son with husband of 25 years Sten Bertelsen, but doesn’t think any will follow in her footsteps. “They are kind of borderline feral. They love clothes but it’s all about under – rather than overdressing, and they don’t wear make-up”. She says her collection of beautiful designer clothes are archived in her filthy cellar.

As to advising the younger generation wanting to get into fashion? Constantine says she’s so out of the loop that she doesn’t know the answer. She also believes fashion has become homogenised, making “kids go to second-hand shops and eBay because they want one-offs. Social media plays a big role and there’s a gap in the market because very little that’s innovative and interesting caters to young people.”

Constantine describes writing as her first love and despite seeming the definition of an extrovert says it’s about, “the lifestyle of being a novelist and being alone”. She’s written two works of fiction, After the Snow and Summer in Mayfair. She presents My Wardrobe Malfunction, now in its 6th series. Constantine came up with the idea after reminiscing about her own malfunction and one that could arguably only have happened to her. “I was wearing a Valentino dress at Windsor Castle and sitting between Prince Philip and Prince Edward. My straps broke and my tits were on display!” Apparently Prince Philip came to her rescue and “sweetly flipped up the front” before a butler pinned the strap back on.

Elizabeth Hurley, Tan France and Kristin Scott Thomas are just some of the celebrities who have featured and Constantine posits that famous people are relieved not to have to talk about the film, the movie, the book. “Talking about clothes is a safe conduit that opens up amazing memories that might not be linked to fashion”. Favourite interviewees include Nile Rodgers, “He was wearing two silver chain necklaces and it turned out they were dog collars from beloved dogs he’d had. We reminisced about our favourite dogs, sobbing throughout”.

Constantine’s own comfort blankets are, “My father’s signet ring, my mother’s and my own wedding ring. I never take them off and it means my parents and husband are always with me. And I’d be buried in a pair of GAP Long & Lean jeans – really worn out – and a T-shirt of some kind”.

It’s elemental; you get in the water and are at one with nature.

Always known for a certain forthright sense of honesty, Constantine went public about her relationship with alcohol. “I was reading all these statistics about increased alcohol intake in lockdown when it has been so easy to reach for the bottle. There is so much shame around alcohol, especially with women. She says she wanted to help take away the shame. “An alcoholic is not someone who is a bad person; we’re ill people trying to get better”.

The response to her admittance that she was a high-functioning alcoholic was overwhelming and she discovered a lot of women running a family, a business and putting on this veneer of everything’s ok – just as she did. “It was so exhausting putting on that front and also very lonely. The relief when I sought help felt so immense. It was liberating walking into an AA meeting and understanding that it wasn’t anyone else that needed to change, I was the problem.”

Constantine’s Instagram feed is full of the joys of wild swimming, something she first did in Shropshire when staying with friends. “On a walk we came across this lake. It had been frosty in the morning and I don’t know what possessed me – I just thought, I’m going in! I stripped off and was galvanized by the fact that no-one else was going to do it – I’m such a show off. I lasted about 30 seconds then felt on such a high for the rest of the day”. She then started hearing about Dutch journalist Wim Hof – known as The Iceman – and decided wild swimming was for her because of the feeling of empowerment.

“It’s elemental; you get in the water and are at one with nature”. Before lockdown she swam with a group of women and found an immediate bond – “ You are all out of your comfort zone”. She believes the benefits are huge, for mental health, the immune system and blood health. “Studies reveal it’s good for dementia, something my mother died from”. Her advice is to get in with purpose. You’ll feel on a high for the rest of the day.

Looking forward, Constantine would love to front a documentary on women and alcohol: “I miss making TV because I love the camaraderie”. She will continue with My Wardrobe Malfunction and anything else that appeals. “Stuff for women of my age, not in a ‘wellness’ way (I hate that), but short cuts to living your best life”. She says that last night she had a cheeseburger, chips and a coffee milkshake and watched the last series of Homeland. Heaven! “I encourage more people to do that. Don’t worry about what you can’t change, just let it go.”


TOP 5 FAVOURTIE EPISODES

  1. Nile Rodgers and his priceless dog chains
  2. Elizabeth Hurley and her stolen car
  3. Tan France and his wedding day sacrifice
  4. Trinny Woodall and her pink suit farce
  5. Joe Sugg and his supermarket ID check

Available on Apple, Google and Spotify. mywardmal.com


This article first featured in the Summer issue of ‘Noticed’ magazine

 



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