THE SUNDAY TIMES
28 NOVEMBER 2018
CAMILLA LOWTHER - FASHION'S FIRST LADY
She’s one of fashion’s most influential women, yet you may never have heard of her.
Photo: LIZ COLLINS
If you have no idea who Camilla Lowther is, chances are you’re not in the fashion business. If you have picked up a glossy magazine or looked at a billboard, however, you will very definitely have seen her clients’ work. In the world of killer photographers’ agents, Lowther is regarded as the mother of them all. Juergen Teller, Tim Walker, Josh Olins (who photographed the Duchess of Cambridge in 2016) — they are all on her books at CLM, the pioneering image-making agency she founded in 1984, aged 25, and which now has a team of 30 working across London and New York, representing about 100 clients, not just in photography and styling, but set design, film making, casting, hair, make-up, even nails.
It’s a grey weekday afternoon and the pair of us are sitting at a corner table in Lowther’s local Japanese on Portobello Road, two minutes’ walk from her offices. Equidistant is the family home, where she lives with her husband, Charles Aboah, who has a location-scouting business, and their daughters Kesewa, 24, and Adwoa, 26, whenever they are in town. That’s Adwoa Aboah, the hottest model of the moment, if not all time, it would seem. (Kesewa is also a successful model and one of the faces, alongside her sister, of Miu Miu’s AW18 campaign.)
“It’s funny. I never thought Adwoa would model,” says Lowther, 59, in her trademark posh growl. “It was just something that happened because of the work I was in. I let them do it, it was no big thing.”
Lowther and I have met once before, if only briefly. It was across a cocktail tray at a mutual friend’s house. I remember that mass of marmalade hair and the freckles and those appraising Bette Davis eyes raking me up and down before saying hi. This time around — dressed for work in track bottoms by her friend Serena Bute and a bomber by Sacai — she is definitely cosier. Though cosy may not be quite the right word for this Boadicea, as it were, of west London cool. Ask anyone in the business and they will tell you Lowther is not to be messed with. But if you’re a mate and she respects your work, there is no one better to fight your corner.
“It’s funny. I never thought Adwoa would model”
Brought up with her three siblings at the family seat in Penrith, Cumbria (she is the niece of the late 7th Earl of Lonsdale), Lowther had what sounds like a typical upper-class English upbringing. That is, an atmosphere where “children were seen and not heard”, and a boarding school education “which pretty much prepared me for marriage and not much else”. Something of an outlier among her Sloaney peers, she took off after school to study drama in America. When she returned to London in the late 1970s, she “drifted” into fashion PR. She met the girls’ father, a barrister’s clerk at the time, in 1981, after hiring him to walk in a fashion show she was styling
Those were heady days in London, the late 1970s and early 1980s, with magazines such as The Face, i-D and Blitz launching. But it wasn’t necessarily that lucrative. “Fashion was important, yes, but it wasn’t the money-making machine it is now,” Lowther says. “In those days, the majority of work came from the record companies. That’s how I earned a living — putting together album covers for people like Simply Red, Sade and the Rolling Stones. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s [when she was repping the late Corinne Day, famous chronicler of the grunge movement] that fashion exploded.”
To meet the demand, she opened an office in New York in 1996, and then, four years ago, sold the whole business to the Manhattan super-agency Great Bowery. She refuses point blank to tell me for how much or even allow me to guess, “because it’s kind of tacky, mentioning how much and, besides, whatever anyone tells you, they’ll be wrong”.
Behaviour in the workplace, how has that changed, I ask, given how male-dominated the advertising and record industries she worked in were back then.
“Well, I was never a victim of sexism or harassment in the workplace, but I certainly saw lots of it going on.” #MeToo. Like a lot of women of a certain age, including this writer, she has conflicting views. “I’m guilty of thinking along the lines of: listen, all you have to do is avoid putting yourself in dodgy situations. But then, on the other hand, do I actually want my daughters or my granddaughters to have to be adept at avoiding certain situations the way we were?”
Lowther’s brusqueness and habit of looking into the distance when she is talking belie a sensitivity, a genuine empathy, which comes across especially so when she is talking about her daughters. At one point, she brings out some pictures of Adwoa as a little girl. “We were on holiday in Spain and I’m pregnant with Kesewa,” she says, adding, with a halting smile: “I must give her these. Can you believe I’m smoking a cigarette? Course we all did back then.”
“I never, ever thought I’d be doing this for ever”
Adwoa’s battle, four years ago, with severe depression and substance abuse has been well documented (she has just relaunched Gurls Talk, the online community she founded last year to discuss mental health issues), but what must it have been like for her mother? How does one keep going when one’s child’s life is in peril?
“I remember I was at work when I got the call,” she says, looking out into the middle distance again. “It was in 2014, right after I’d sold the business. I ran downstairs and said, ‘Charles, get your coat on, Adwoa’s tried to kill herself and she’s in an ambulance on her way to A&E.’ When we got there, she was fitting, like an epileptic. For four days, she was in an induced coma, on life support, and we had to sit in Carluccio’s opposite Chelsea and Westminster Hospital drinking glass after glass of white wine, waiting for the news to see if she’d suffered brain damage.
“I don’t know how we got through that. I think I just went into this weird survival mode, the way you do in a crisis. The perverse gift you get from all of it is that nothing can ever be that bad again.”
Not the type to look back — “I have immense gratitude for having been tested like that and having got through it” — she nonetheless might have done one thing differently. “One of the mistakes I might have made was sending Adwoa to boarding school,” Lowther says. “She didn’t want to go. I’m not a great one for regrets because there is f*** all one can do about it. But if I had my time again, I wouldn’t have sent them.”
We are now walking back towards the office, and as we arrive at the front door so does Adwoa, in town from LA, where she mostly lives, for a “media training” course and looking even more exquisite and otherworldly in the flesh, wearing a great big puffer jacket and Dr Martens.
Upstairs in a little room off the landing is Charles, smiley and immaculately dressed as always, and then up on another floor is the main work area, the walls covered in posters from past campaigns and artwork by Kesewa from her degree project. When I ask Lowther where she sees herself in, say, five or 10 years, she pauses for quite a few seconds before answering. “God, I don’t know,” she says. “Hopefully, still alive, surrounded by grandchildren. I never, ever thought I’d be doing this for ever. All I really knew back then for sure was that I wanted kids.”
Tips for the top
Lowther’s rules for getting the best out of yourself, your colleagues and competitors.
● Live near work
“I don’t think I could have had two children back to back and worked as hard as I did without living right next door to the office or having a husband who took on as much as he did. When you have kids, something has to give.”
● Be curious
“I always say to my staff, ‘You gotta get out there from under your computer, not because they are going to buy your photographer, but because talking to people is the only way you learn stuff.’ ”
● Always say please and thank you
“As the fashion editor Meredith Etherington- Smith once said to me, ‘There are two things you’ll always need: your address book and your manners. The only things you get for free.’ ”
● Talent isn’t everything
“You have to really want what you’re going after. Then you’ve got to inject luck into it. Talent, ambition and luck, it’s the holy trifecta.”
● Be nice to the competition
“I’ve always got on with my competition. I’ve never felt any animosity towards them. What’s the point?”
Hair: Marilyn Humphreys. Make-up: Andrew Gallimore at CLM. Post-production: Studio RM. Photographs within the article: @camillalowther, Getty