Novelist Danielle Steel, 65, had a passion for fashion even before she got her hands on her first Hermes Kelly bag, a gift from her grandmother, at age 17.
A regular on the bestseller list, with more than 600 million books sold since her first title published in 1972, Steel is adept at documenting the lifestyles of the rich and famous, perhaps because she has always had a front row seat. She grew up between New York and Europe, is a fixture on the San Francisco social scene and a regular at the Paris haute couture shows. She has passed along her interest in fashion to at least three of her nine children. Known as the “Traina Trinity”, these daughters have been designer muses, consultants and/or fashion editors — Samantha Traina at C Magazine, Victoria Traina at Proenza Schouler and Vanessa Traina at longtime friend Alexander Wang’s Balenciaga.
In her latest book, First Sight, the glamorous, semiannual swirl of the ready-to-wear runway shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris is the backdrop for the story of Timmie O’Neill, a Los Angeles-based fashion designer who runs a hugely successful empire, but has trouble finding love after a devastating loss and a marriage that fell apart.
I recently chatted with Steel about her new book, what she wears when she’s up late writing and her latest guilty pleasure from Celine.
Why did you want to set your latest novel in the fashion industry?
I’m always looking for new industries to write about. And this felt comfortable. I mean honestly, when you’ve written 129 books like I have... pretty soon these ladies are going to have to be plumbers and electricians!
You have loved fashion all your life and even went to Parsons School of Design when you were younger. Did you have to do any research?
There’s always stuff you don’t know. I’ve always gone to the couture. But ready-to-wear is far more important in the world today. Used to be, no one went to those shows except people who worked in the industry. Now, you get Chinese movie stars and politicians’ wives. I needed to know details like the sequence of shows, the ground rules, how long they last, in what case an American designer would show in France and some of the production details. I have a wonderful researcher whose training is historical. We have worked together since we were both 19.
What’s your process like?
I send my researcher an outline, and she sends me books and research on an era or industry, and I narrow down what I like as I’m writing the book. I want to be accurate, and I very seldom cheat. I did invent an entire train line in Tibet years ago because I didn’t have a way for my people to get from one place to another. And I didn’t get caught.
Did you have any particular designer in mind when you created the lead character in your story, Timmie O’Neill?
I had an American female designer in mind, but I won’t say who, and it was really only visually. I have to say, I have several heroes in fashion. And my three daughters in fashion are my real heroes. In addition to that, I’m a great admirer of [International Herald Tribune Fashion Editor] Suzy Menkes. We have wonderful lunches where we get to talk fashion. I’ve always from a distance had a great fondness for Grace Coddington. I love watching her with her big red hair, and her unfailing sense of style. My children are always telling me my hair is too long, but look at Grace!
You describe Timmie’s style as “casual in a mix n’ match bag lady way ... diamond necklaces with T-shirts, vintage mink jacket, alligator bag”. Is that inspired by your own style?
No, I’m not so good at that look, but I am fascinated by how people put it together. My daughter Victoria, for example, will not wear a Birkin bag unless it’s beaten to death. Of course, she gets them brand new out of my closet and beats them to death. I’m pretty classic in my style. I’m very small, so I’m not good in floating chiffons. I like chic, straightforward, structured clothes, and there is nothing I like more than digging through my closet and coming up with something that I forgot I own.
What do you wear when you write?
I’m always frozen, so layers of cashmere. I like cashmere nighties, but it’s not so easy to find them any more. And one of mine has a black mark down the front, because I fell asleep with a pen in my hand and the ink spilled down the front. It’s really so disreputable. But it’s easier to work in my nightgown, and I layer on cashmere hoodies because I work late into the night. Occasionally, people ask if they can take a photo of me writing. I say, ‘Not in this lifetime.’
You paint a very glamorous picture of the fashion industry.
The fashion business is not for sissies, the faint hearted or people who want to be dilettantes. And like any kind of work, it’s not glamorous. People think I sit around in feathered peignoirs eating bon bons all day, when really I’m in torn jeans with old Alaia ballerina shoes and a funky black sweater. I’m stunned by how hard my girls work. Vanessa is on an aircraft 80 per cent of the time — travelling, doing shoots, finishing at 2am, catching a 6am flight to the next place. Your twenties are hard years, when you are trying to find yourself. But all of my kids have strong career direction and are hard workers, like I am. I wrote my first book at 19. And I work 20-hour days most days.
What was the last thing you bought?
I recently bought the red mink high heels from Celine. I kept looking at them, trying them on at every Celine store. And my daughters would say, “Take those off, they’re ridiculous!” It’s a nightmare trying to get dressed with the three of them. They tell me, ‘You can’t wear that!’ And the next day, I see it walking out the door on one of my daughters. So I bought the mink shoes anyway. They look like Minnie Mouse and are just so perfect! My daughters started sending Instagrams of my feet and decided the shoes are OK. Then we discovered that Dover Street Market did them in black mink, and we all had to have them.
So you challenge your daughters with their style?
I think I’m braver than they are. That comes from being older and having a sense of humour about life. They are very much purists. I’m not afraid to drag something out of the closet that’s fun.
Do you dress differently depending on where you are?
Yes, I have two very different lives; I have a chic life in Paris, which is a city where people buy nice clothes. And then I have my life in San Francisco, where people walk around in exercise clothes and hiking boots.
If there was a fire and you could only save three things in your closet, what would they be?
That would take me years. I don’t know. I’m very sentimental, so maybe my first Kelly bag my grandmother gave me. Or the white Jacques Heim coat she gave me when I was 14, which I turned around and wore backwards as a dress. Even early on, I always had my eye on fashion.