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In the early-1990s, seemingly out of nowhere, two new It-girls breezed across the pond, into New York City, and onto the society pages of American Vogue—we're talking about Plum Sykes and her twin sister Lucy, of course. After wildly successful stints in the fashion industry here—Lucy as the fashion director at Marie Claire and Plum as an editor at Vogue—the duo have moved on in their careers. Lucy has since landed spokesperson gigs with TJ Maxx and Plum has gone on to become a New York Times bestselling author with runaway hit Bergdorf Blondes and follow-up novel The Debutante Divorcee.
On May 18th, Amazon will release Plum's latest literary work—her first since Divorcee—a Kindle Single (a.k.a. a short story) called Oxford Girl. We got a sneak peek at the autobiographically-driven short memoir and caught up with Plum to talk about growing up in a big family, faking-it 'til making-it, and what fans can expect to read next.
Racked: How did the idea come about to do a Kindle Single?
Plum Sykes: "Basically, Amazon.com are relaunching their fashion site and they asked some writers who are fashionable—or have some relationship to fashion—to write Kindle Singles for them. For authors and magazine writers, either you're very limited by magazine articles or you're very over-extended by how much you've got to write for a book. With a Kindle Single, you can write any length you want—it's like a mini-memoir or a miniature novella.
Racked: Is this the beginning of a YA novel or the beginning of a memoir?
Sykes: This is non-fiction. My agent Luke Janklow actually asked me if I'd ever thought about doing a YA book. Although I don't specifically write for young adults, when I wrote this, he told me that this could really be the basis for my next novel.
I have been writing a novel set in England in the 1970s. I started writing this, which is set in the 1980s, and I really remember it. In the plans for the novel, they were all going to spend some time in Oxford anyway. I had to change the names of some of the girls and some of the boys—actually all the names of all my friends were changed.
And Oxford is an amazing setting. It's funny, I looked up online how many books were written about Oxford and it's something like 1,000 books—it is such a romantic place.
Racked: What was the original brief for your Kindle Single?
Sykes: The brief was to write something about a habit you have. I think they were thinking fashion—a trendy, behavioral habit. Susan Orlean wrote about buying pets to match her hair and shoes; Tim Gunn wrote about how is father's habits changed with Alzheimer's; Kate Betts wrote about her lifelong love affair with Paris. And I wrote about when I was at Oxford.
Racked: A lot of readers might be surprised to find out that you didn't grow up wealthy. In fact, in the story, you talk about how your nanny used to remind you your family was "as poor as church mice." How did you cope with things like being a debutante and keeping up with your friends in the social set at university?
Sykes: I think that being one of six—first of all, that's a tremendously mad, insane, kind of chaotic family situation to come from—it's great for you and it made me a little bit of who I am now in that I don't like chaos, I like everything really tidy because my childhood was completely the opposite. I'm a little bit of a perfectionist and I know I do come over as someone whose life is perfect and everything.
I had very very Bohemian parents. Both of my parents came from what wealthy families and neither of them were really brought up to work. It was really old fashioned even then and they were brought up to live a nice life. My mum became a fashion designer, my father was an art dealer—Bohemian careers, not good business people. They had very extravagant tastes because people who were brought up that way do. But they didn't have money.
I remember when I was 17, my new deb friend Miranda Rock invited me to go on holiday in Spain and I was so excited—and even though it was some incredibly suburban holiday, I thought it was the most exotic thing in the world. I said to my dad, "Can I have £30 for a new swimsuit?" At the time, maybe £30 was more like having £100, it was quite a bit of money and he said no. Two days later, Lucy and I were shopping in London and ran into my dad walking down the street and he said, "Hi Plum and Lucy, let's go have champagne at Bibendum." At 11 o'clock in the morning. They had kind of peculiar ideas about what money should be spent on. To a child, it didn't make sense. And I'd really rather have had a new swimsuit.
We were all a bit at odds. We had this Bohemian interesting childhood. It was like the Mitfords with all these kids and this big house and rambling fields. It is inspiring, and gave us an original outlook on life, having parents like that. But it's a little difficult as a teenager when you're constantly being told there's no money in the bank.
But in England you don't need any money to be posh—you just need the right family background. We were poverty-stricken debutantes, but no one would have known. No deb would wear flashy clothes anyway because everyone would be, like, "Oh, they're nouveau riche." But it was also a bit of an uncomfortable situation—I suppose it's like going to prom and having to get a prom dress when you don't have any money.
Racked: What did you wear to parties? How did you buy new dresses?
In those days, though, there wasn't Facebook and you didn't have to wear a different dress to every party. There's a lot more pressure to be fashionable these days—it's like you're being papped, my friends are going to see this, my huge social network is going to see this.
I had two or three ballgowns—which were actually knee-length prom dresses with whalebone corseted bodices. I just rotated them. In England teenagers have one or two nice dresses—the English aristocracy are quite thrifty. I had some of them made for me—she is a fashion designer and we had access to the most amazing fabrics and we could get the dresses for virtually nothing. We didn't really need money—you really didn't need any money. When you went to big balls, you were put up in what's called a house party, where Lady So-and-So is giving a dance for her daughter so they'd round up all their neighbors and you'd stay at so-and-so's castle, fort, or abbey and they'd throw dinners before the party and they'd all drive the teenagers to the party. We didn't think there was anything weird about that.
Racked: Did you ever feel this way in other times in your life? Specifically, did you feel this way when you first started working in fashion at Vogue?
Sykes: Yes, I think I did. I think when I was working in London, I didn't feel that way as much. When I came to New York, I definitely thought, "I've got to up my game," because of what I wore to the office. The girls at Vogue looked unbelievable. I couldn't really afford to up my game financially, so I would shop at sample sales and get amazing clothes for virtually nothing.
I couldn't compete with the American girls who wanted to wear every trend every day. It was too much work. So I'd wear a real English-girl outfit to the office—I was about 28 or 29. I would basically wear a wedge-heel sort of sandal, a long 1930s nightgown, and put a rose in my hair. No one else at Vogue wore that stuff. I wore a nightie-type slip thing, like, "Oh, I just came through the hay fields." Those were my summer office clothes. In the winter I wore a lot of camel, tweed skirts, and twinsets. Things English girls wear in the English countryside—lipsy prints, tweeds, all the things my childhood, that preppy English look, with a subversive twist. With kilts, kilts were fabulous.
Racked: Do you feel like things have changed as you've gotten older?
Sykes: Well, I think you do still worry about what people think, but you worry about different things. You don't worry about what they think about your clothes, you worry about what they think of your children—if people think your children are untidy, it's like wearing the wrong thing. That's probably the main thing you worry about in terms of what people think. It's the human condition to think, "Have I done this right?"
In terms of clothes, I have my own style and I stick to it. I don't really care what's in fashion. Even if tulip-shaped skirts are in fashion, I won't wear them.
UPDATE: We've heard from the Kindle HQ that "Kate Betts does not currently have a Single available."
· Oxford Girl, $1.99 at Amazon.com