King of All Media
In conversation with Dylan Jones
by James Mullinger
Photographs by Harry Grindrod
In the world of fashion and media in London, England, few people have been quite so front and centre for the past two decades as Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ. When he walks into any restaurant, party, award ceremony or fashion show, everyone in the room turns to him. And, perhaps more impressively, he will know everyone’s name. Formerly an editor at the Observer, The Sunday Times, i‑D, The Face and Arena, as well as columnist for The Guardian and The Independent, he has been Editor-in-Chief of GQ for almost two decades.
He has won Editor of the Year in GQ’s category eleven times and has received the prestigious Mark Boxer Award from the British Society of Magazine Editors. His book on former British prime minister David Cameron was shortlisted for Channel 4 Political Book of the Year. He is a trustee of the Hay Festival and a board member of the Norman Mailer Colony. In 2012 he was appointed chair of the Fashion 2012 Menswear committee by the British Fashion Council, and was part of the team that created the very first London Collections: Men, which many believe have been the saviour of the British men’s-fashion industry. In 2013, he was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. He lives in London and Powys, Wales, with his wife, Sarah Walker — fashion journalist, entrepreneur and founder of style-passport.com — and their two daughters.
Jones and I have a long history. Shortly after I graduated from Kingston University he gave me my first job in media at GQ, a one-week internship that I prayed would become two weeks. It turned into a 15-year career.
Hundreds of other journalists, actors, models and musicians have similar stories to tell. He sees something in individuals and then helps them nurture it with a no-bulls*** approach. He’s a tough boss but one who sets you up for life. And, tellingly, many of the people I started with all those years ago still sit metres from him creating what I believe to be one of the best magazines in the world today. And we wouldn’t be able to produce New Brunswick’s first ever national magazine were it not for what Jones taught me.
Amidst all of this, he has been a hugely prolific author, penning more than 20 books (on subjects as diverse as music and politics and fashion and photography) with varying degrees of success. Some have been well received commercially but less so critically and vice versa. But his latest tome, David Bowie: A Life, is a knockout blockbuster of literature. It has been critically acclaimed across the world, has made the New York Times bestseller list and is shifting so many copies you would think it was the latest James Patterson in Costco. I devoured it over a few days on Kelly’s Beach in Kouchibouguac, New Brunswick. Weeks later, I flew to London to meet Jones in the GQoffice we used to share (just hours after the GQ Men Of The Year after-after-party ended) to ask him frankly about writing about his hero, how he finds the time for all this and why print media has never been more important than it is today.
THE MARITIME EDIT: You have been a lifelong Bowie fan. How did this book project come together?
DYLAN JONES: When he died, Penguin in America wanted to do an oral biography. They asked my agent [Ed Victor] if he knew of anyone who could do such a thing. Ed contacted me immediately because he knew that I am a huge Bowie fan. And having already done a Bowie book I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. The oral biography wasn’t really thought of as a great medium. I spoke to the agent, and they wanted something that had the feel of the book that George Plimpton did on Truman Capote. They wanted something very particular. And then I went from someone who didn’t want to do it to I absolutely have to do this. Over the weekend I wrote a very long treatment about what it could be. I wanted to create a book that was about the man and not about the career. There are lots of Bowie books. Some are very good, a lot of them are awful, and pretty much all of them are about his career. And knowing him quite well and having a lot to do with him over the years and knowing the vast landscape of his life, I thought there was a way to do it that would be different. I figured that there are 50 people whom you must speak to to be taken seriously as a Bowie biographer. People like Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Mike Garson, Ken Scott. Then there are the 50 people who need to be spoken to who have just as much legitimacy — actors, make-up artists, hairdressers, photographers. Then the other 50 people whom the subject of a biography asks about: “Well, have you spoken to Kevin?” To which I respond, “Who is Kevin?” So there are three tranches of people.
THE MARITIME EDIT: And some of those stories are the most beautiful and insightful of all because in many cases they reveal the man unguarded.
DYLAN JONES: There are some people you are going to talk to because you want them to tell you the stories that they have told everybody. You need those benchmarks. But amongst that you are talking to people who have never been interviewed before, and that is the meat of it. I interviewed Harry Maslin, who was a producer of Station to Station, which is widely regarded as Bowie’s most accomplished record. And he was last interviewed in 1977. I interviewed him in a Masonic lodge in Santa Monica. He told me amazing stories about when they were recording the album. Frank Sinatra was recording at the same time — he was recording in the daytime while Bowie recorded in the evening. They would go to dinner together, and he told me the story about the cocaine from a period where Bowie was the most intoxicated — completely driven by coke. I think a lot of it is him thinking, “Well I am going to be a cocaine addict for the next two or three years, and I am going to do it better than anyone else.” When they were recording the record, Bowie would come in with his pharmaceutical- quality cocaine and go around the studio and put stuff on the mixing desk, on the guitar amp, on the microphone, literally in a dozen different places. Harry asked, “Well, why do you do that?” And Bowie replied, “So I don’t have to walk anywhere if I want some cocaine.”
THE MARITIME EDIT: Was it difficult to convince some of these people to speak?
DYLAN JONES: This was right after he died. The first approach is really important because most of the people that I spoke to had had very close relationships with him. So I was approaching them, someone they had never heard of, and convincing them why they should do this.
THE MARITIME EDIT: And the last thing that you want them thinking is that this is a cash-in.
DYLAN JONES: I could look like an ambulance-chaser. It was difficult because there was no reason why they should speak to me. I had some material. I had a lot of help from people, most of whom were my friends, but mostly I was cold-calling. So in two paragraphs I had to convince people that it was the right thing to do, and I was coming from a place of love and I wasn’t going to kiss and tell.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How did you find the time to write this? You are one of the busiest people I know. Most people say that they don’t have time to write or go to the gym, and yet you have time for everything. What’s your process?
DYLAN JONES: Well, you know because you worked here, GQ is a very fulfilling environment and job, but a lot of it is administrative. So writing for me is my absolute pleasure — it’s my hobby. I don’t play golf — writing is my hobby. It’s fun. Transcribing tapes, researching, writing, editing, for me it’s fun. And it’s weekends, holidays and working early mornings. You remember when you were here you did your day job while forging a very successful career as a stand up comedian. When you have a passion for something you make it work.
THE MARITIME EDIT: It’s a beautiful thing when the thing that you love the most in the world becomes your job. In a case like this, you were writing about the person you loved most in the world growing up. But you were brutal about the stuff that you left in. It felt like you knew that you would be doing the man a disservice by censoring parts of it out: both in your own commentary and in some of the quotes, he is not always painted in the best light. Was there ever a temptation to omit parts?
DYLAN JONES: No. I mean I obviously pay rigorous attention to libel laws and knowing a lot about libel helps when you are transcribing an interview because you know where you can and can’t go. I wasn’t interested in doing a hagiography. And I wasn’t looking for things that were going to paint him in a bad light. Most or all of the people whom I spoke to had very important and pertinent relationships with him. There are some inconsequential stories. It’s not black and white. People say that he was very expedient, that he partnered with people and sucked all the creativity out of them and moved on. That is true, but I tend to think of him as a great football manager. You know, “I am doing this project so who do I need around me to do this to the best of my ability?”
THE MARITIME EDIT: I am a huge fan Hanif Kureishi, and his interviews were my favourite parts of the book. His stories were some of the funniest and most beautiful.
DYLAN JONES: He is a very lovely man, and some proper relationships came out of the book because I had never met Hanif before, maybe once, and I count him as a friend now. One story that is very indicative of Bowie is Mary Finnigan, his landlady who became his lover. I think she becomes his lover because she is his landlady. And they are very tight. And then he goes off and gets famous. Three years later he invites her to one of the big Ziggy concerts at Earls Court — and they haven’t seen each other for two years. She goes to the concert, has a great time, then goes to the after party and is having a great time. She brilliantly describes Bowie taking her by the hand, bringing her to the door and saying, “Mary Finnigan, it has been lovely knowing you.” And then closing the door. And she knew that she would never see him again. And that experience, if it is mirrored 10 times it is mirrored 30 times in the book by different people, and almost no one begrudges it. I had a similar thing. I knew him quite well in the 90s, only to realize that it was over.
THE MARITIME EDIT: As someone who is also a critic, do you value and read reviews? Did the positive response surprise you?
DYLAN JONES: It blew me away. It is certainly the most commercially and critically successful book that I have ever done — it’s a joy. I have written lots of books, and I have never had the reviews that I have had with this one. I mean you shouldn’t really be celebrated for hard work. It’s kind of like “so what?” But I think that being celebrated for getting it right, or quite right, is very flattering. But I knew it was going to work when Hanif Kureishi reviewed it for The Guardian, and it was full of praise and he said this is the story. The interesting thing is that not one single music magazine reviewed it.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Why do you think that is?
DYLAN JONES: I don’t know. Maybe they are snotty because I am not perceived to be a music writer.
THE MARITIME EDIT: But you are being reviewed by newspapers and magazines in Washington and New York. It must be a wonderful thing to still be raising the bar in your career, in terms of GQ as the magazine, the GQ Men of the Year awards and in literature.
DYLAN JONES: In terms of the magazine, I think that if you are somewhere for a long time, there is a perception that people get lazy. Here we strive to do the exact opposite of that. You need to keep improving the product. And especially now in this turbulent time of huge disruption, we are trying to fly the flag for content.
THE MARITIME EDIT: I left here five years ago but still read British GQ. It’s better than ever.
DYLAN JONES: It has to be. Otherwise, there is no point in doing it. We don’t want to be a content provider. We are incredibly proud and passionate. Jonathan Heaf [GQ features director] went to the South of France a couple of weeks ago to interview Johnny Depp. We’ve given it 18 pages with amazing Greg Williams pictures. It’s an incredible story, and that is why we do it — not to cobble something from the cuts — no one wants to do that.
THE MARITIME EDIT: As someone who started their own print publication I am fascinated by the people who think that print media is dying. Yes, perhaps the bad ones are, but if you walk into a newsstand anywhere in the world there are still thousands and thousands of magazines. They don’t exist to survive but to thrive. No one is doing them just for fun. The fact is that the cream rises to the top, and to me that forces the magazines that are left to be better. I see people reading the physical things as much or more than ever. That isn’t to disparage the use of digital media — we use it to push people to the print. But what is your thought when people say that print media is dying?
DYLAN JONES: I agree with exactly what you said. Print is changing, and lots of terrible magazines are going out of business. Print isn’t going to die but completely transform itself, and the good stuff will stay. It’s like the music industry; it’s like any industry. Book publishing is in rude health now.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Ten years ago, everyone thought it was all going to be e‑readers. On the London Underground, how often do you see one?
DYLAN JONES: Never.
THE MARITIME EDIT: So essentially it is about embracing all of it.
DYLAN JONES: We have to be on everything. We have to be on social. We are making so many more movies now. You know—you did it here and you do it now. We work harder, and we work in a different way. Whether people come to us with an entry-level or a big job, they are working on everything — social, print, digital. That is what the job is now.
THE MARITIME EDIT: At first it is very daunting. You know, you have to write the feature, do the shoot, record it and film it, then suddenly it becomes part of the machine.
DYLAN JONES: Of course it does. You are doing an interview; you are filming it; you are taking photos and checking the audio; you are getting content for social — everyone does this. But not everyone is good at it.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Tell me about London Fashion Week. You spearheaded it, and it has become not only a colossal celebration but also a huge revenue stream for the fashion industry. How did that start, how did you think that such a thing could exist and how did you bring everyone together for it?
DYLAN JONES: A lot of hard work. That was at the behest of the British Fashion Council. I was on one of their committees at the time and we decided that we could really do this. Then Caroline Rush and I spent six months asking people if they would show in London. And we are still going. It changes; it has morphed; the business has changed itself. We are going to look at changing dates next year because I think it feels very outmoded, the fact that we have these fashion shows in the way that we still do.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What do you mean?
DYLAN JONES: Because you know you can go to a fashion show every week of the year. It’s kind of crazy so we are trying to streamline it. There are always conversations about whether or not they should be more consumer-facing — is it the best way to sell clothes? For instance, Tommy Hilfiger had a huge fashion show a few days ago in Shanghai. Previously he had one in New York and Milan. You know all these things move. But the most important thing is to have a platform for these designers. To make it sizzle we encourage a lot of bigger designers to move back to London, like Burberry, Paul Smith, Tom Ford. We are trying to get Philipp Plein to show in London. We have had a Dolce [& Gabbana] show. We have had Armani, D Squared, Tommy Hilfiger, etc. We want to create some noise.
THE MARITIME EDIT: How do you convince Canadian brands like D Squared to show here?
DYLAN JONES: We ask them by saying, “This is what we do. Wouldn’t it be fun to show here?” It’s the same mentality as Men of the Year. I want people to get back on their plane and say to their agent, “I am really glad we did that!” For this it is not an ego thing — but you want to look back on it and think that it was a good thing to do, whether it’s PR or marketing, whether they are selling clothes.
THE MARITIME EDIT: We are sure it has translated to a huge commercial boost for British fashion agencies.
DYLAN JONES: It certainly has helped. Since we have decided to do it, the industry has morphed quite a bit. A lot of people now are showing in one week. A lot of men’s brands are showing in women’s-wear weeks in Milan, London and Paris. All those things are changing so we are looking at changing the dates and morphing them together without diminishing the men’s wear element, which tends to happen if one of our fashion editors must go to Milan women’s-wear week because there are four very important advertisers showing men’s clothes. When [men’s and women’s fashions] are shown together [men’s wear]often becomes the weaker element. But all these things change.
THE MARITIME EDIT: The Queen awarded you an OBE. What did this mean to you?
DYLAN JONES: It was very flattering and unexpected. My kids loved it. I wish my parents had been alive to see it because it would have probably meant more to them than it does to me. It is very flattering to get it and I love having it, but I also know how you can get one. People lobby for them by getting people to write letters for them: they think, “Oh, would like an honour so let’s get letters about all the charity work I’ve done.” So I think that there is a side of it that I find quite cynical. My agent, Ed Victor, who is sadly no longer with us and whom I loved, called me up one day. He said, “Dylan I just got a CBE, and I know that you have an OBE now — how do you use it? Do you use it on your business card, your email?” I told him that I didn’t put it on anything. To be honest, I think it’s a bit like showing off. He then proceeded to ask the question in six different ways, and before he said goodbye he said, “Dylan, you have been incredibly helpful. I am going to use it on everything!”
THE MARITIME EDIT: One of the things that I have seen evolve over the past decade at GQ is its great relationship with the Royal Family. Right down to last night with Prince Charles coming to collect an award at the GQ Men of the Year Awards.
DYLAN JONES: It comes down to two things really. Lofty ambitions and a brilliant team. It felt brilliant to hand Prince Charles the award last night. We wanted to celebrate him for all his charity work. It is easy to lampoon the Royal Family. It is easy to mock Prince Charles. Why should we celebrate Prince Charles? Because he is going to be king one day? No. We wanted to celebrate him for what he has done for a lot of young men. We live in a time when suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. We live in a time when men are more insecure now than they have been for several generations but we are talking more openly about therapy and mental health. I did the Hoffman [Process] last year, and I wasn’t going to write about it, and then I decided that absolutely I was going to do so. It has been really gratifying to have received letters from people who read the magazine and have taken the course — people who were damaged — and have found it really helpful. That is important. It is not important that I wrote the article, but it’s important that someone in my position wrote it.
THE MARITIME EDIT: You also honoured Rose McGowan last night. Not many people would have predicted that GQ would become the place to read some of the most intelligent insights into the #MeToo movement. How did that come about?
DYLAN JONES: Because one tries to reflect and anticipate the mood of the nation. You can see all this happening. We did a huge thing on this in GQ earlier in the year, and we continue to do it. It is the culture and what people are talking about. It would be like not talking about Brexit. We ought to be reflecting on it, discussing it and forming opinions about it. It’s the right thing to do. Simple as that.
Follow Dylan Jones on Instagram @dylanjonesgq
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here