Nicholas Coleridge at John Lewis's 150th Anniversary Event
Nicholas Coleridge at John Lewis's 150th Anniversary Event
Image: Getty

Nicholas Coleridge bounds into Le Caprice just behind me; he is surely one of its glossiest patrons. The Piccadilly restaurant has been serving tuna ceviche, deep-fried fish and steak tartare to London's most glamorous power brokers for more than 30 years and Coleridge estimates that he has, in his lifetime, enjoyed about 540 lunches here.

A favoured patron, he usually sits in the corner table. "Let me tell you something, but I rely on you, if you use it, not to put it in the wrong way," he says. "The corner table in this restaurant used to have a very clear pecking order. The Princess of Wales had first call on it. Jeffrey Archer had second. Third was Leslie Waddington, the art dealer, and fourth was me. And then there was an amazing year... "

He stops suddenly and his deep Tuscan tan almost blanches as he realises his impropriety. "Forget the expression 'It was an amazing year'," he says. "Forget I said that."

Shall we just say you got a sudden promotion? "Things changed," Coleridge agrees. "The poor Princess of Wales died, then Jeffrey Archer disappeared off the scene for a couple of years, and Leslie Waddington ate out less, so NC has got it. And I still have it if I book it. I think there's one person ahead of me on the list," he adds. "It's David Linley, now David Snowdon, but it's been a very long progression of inheritance."

It's a classic Coleridge tale: funny, shamelessly self-promoting (it's no surprise he's about to embark on his memoirs for Penguin) - and a little bit naughty. As the managing director of Condé Nast Britain and president of Condé Nast International (which runs operations outside the US), he has, for 26 years, overseen the publication of some of the world's best-known luxury titles, including Vogue, GQ, Tatler and Love. He retired last month to assume the role of chairman of Condé Nast Britain.

Now 60, Coleridge cuts a figure of louche elegance that tempers the refinement of the gentleman's club with a racier brand of swagger. He is wearing a dark suit and a starch-white shirt, unbuttoned to show off the tan and not a few chest hairs. In his early career, as a gangly publishing wunderkind with a wide forehead and pronounced eyebrows, his appearance was likened to a budgerigar, but the intervening years have grizzled him. He was thrilled with a David Bailey portrait, taken a few years ago, which captured him at his most menacing.

Following a near-wordless exchange with a waiter, he is presented with what appears to be a large glass of pond water. "This is a Bull Shot," he explains, "which is consommé with vodka. My system, when I come here, is to have that and then drink water. I return to the office completely stone-cold sober but having had that very slight lift. Try it."

The drink tastes like a spicy chilled beef stock, which isn't as foul as it sounds. But I am inclined to stick to red wine. Apparently, they also used to do a very good Bull Shot at Claridge's until "there was some EU directive involving canned consommé", he continues, "This terrible EU fact was not enough to make me vote Brexit, by the way," he adds, "although it might have been the one thing that could have done."

We order: a crispy duck salad starter, followed by a small steak tartare, a large portion of "fat" chips and an endive salad for him. A green salad followed by a large tartare for me.

As one would expect of a man who has attended more than 15,000 parties and awards in pursuit of Condé Nast interests over the course of his career, Coleridge is a master raconteur, and even though he oozes the treacly sap of the establishment, never boring.

He quickly embarks on an anecdote about meeting a couple of scruffy backpackers in India in the late 1980s, who later turned out to be Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley; at Eton, he was part of a debating team with the columnist Craig Brown, newspaper editor Charles Moore and the politician Oliver Letwin. They were beaten by Wycombe Abbey. He studied theology and art history at Trinity College, Cambridge; Justin Welby was the only other theologian and Coleridge always thought himself "rather better at it" than the future Archbishop of Canterbury. Each tale is told with the booming plangency and confidence of someone who has occupied a long residency at the top, but he still has the writer's knack for brevity - and a decent punchline.

We chomp through plates of delicately dressed leaves, while Coleridge talks me through his career, and a period considered to be a golden age in journalism. One of his first jobs was working at Tatler, in his early twenties, where he quickly ascended to become Tina Brown's deputy. He joined the Evening Standard in 1982, in "those amazing profligate days", where he was awarded young journalist of the year at the British Press Awards, specialising in a certain kind of "stunt" writing. He once snuck into a party held for the chauffeurs of guests attending Prince Andrew's 21st celebrations at Windsor Castle; they all ate "huge pork pies and sausage rolls" and many of the drivers were marvellously indiscreet.

At the Standard, he shared a desk with Max Hastings, Milton Shulman and Valerie Grove, "and every desk had a secretary, invariably called Jacqui, from Essex, who looked after you". He came to idolise Hastings for his ability to turn out perfect copy, at frighteningly short notice, on any given subject. "It's very, very, very clever, isn't it?" he says. "And I hope that those skills won't be entirely lost, because I'm an optimist, really. But I doubt the Snapchat editor will be quite able to do that."

His role as president of CNI coincided with, as he has called them, "the swaggering years of plenty", those juicy decades until very recently when magazines shuddered with advertising and the new world beckoned for business. The company launched Condé Nast Traveller, Wired and Love magazine, as well as international versions of Vogue in Russia, India, China and the Middle East. Although it is a private company, a source reveals that CNI revenues are just over £1bn with profits of about 15 per cent, or £150m. In 2015, the Newhouse family (which owns the publishing dynasty) rewarded his efforts with a 40 per cent pay rise, to £1.3m a year.

But the future of glossy magazines is less assured; like newspapers, they are seeing advertisers desert them. Print readers must be lured away from the free clickable content they can find online. Condé Nast's foray into ecommerce, the luxury shopping site Style.com, which launched in 2016 with major investment and much brouhaha, closed after only 10 months, when results fell far short of expectations.

Then there's the swirl of controversy that has accompanied the arrival of Edward Enninful, the new editor of British Vogue, and the subsequent departure of a number of senior editors. The appointment of the Ghana-born male editor has gone some way to redressing the long tradition of west London elitism and cool-edged snobbery that has always infused Vogue House, but it has also prompted a period of fitful introspection. (When you consider that Condé Nast's biggest scandal of recent years was the death of Alan TBH Plumptre, the miniature dachshund and Tatler mascot who got squished in the building's revolving doors, it's clear times are changing.) Today's diversity and inclusivism have become the buzzwords of industry. "Vogue has always had a strong dash of diversity, with Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn on numerous front covers," responds Coleridge. "But I'm sure Edward will step that up. Vogue has always been an inclusive magazine, reflecting the society around it."

As chairman, Coleridge now divides his week between his responsibilities to Condé Nast and a newer role as chairman of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He no longer oversees the company's financial administrations. Nor its digital productivity. Advertising revenues are no longer his concern. For a man who, in 1999, compared his glide through life as akin to "an angel fish on a coral atoll", one might argue he has wriggled off the reef at precisely the right time.

"Like a what?" he splutters over a mouthful of the steak tartare, which is smooth, not especially spicy and better accompanied by the fat chips that he ordered than the stringy, anaemic fries that have come with mine. "I wouldn't have said that," he continues. "Or maybe I had just got back from Belize. I did a lot of scuba-diving once in my life."

He seems both tickled and appalled by the metaphor, later emailing to suggest that description was "very poetic - right up there with my forebear Samuel Taylor Coleridge..." Yet he remains reluctant to be drawn on the challenges ahead.

"There is one thing, however, that is very clear..." he insists. "I remember about 20 years ago, when Vogue was starting to do digital things, that there were a couple of articles in the trade press saying the old brands would never be important and that new brands would come along, and they tipped a whole number of them, none of which still exist, that had names like Onthecatwalk.com, Buywhatyoulike.com, Stylenow.com. But I think people underestimate the authenticity of an existing brand. For example, I would read something on the FT.com vastly in preference to something from Shakeyourmoney.com. I think what's interesting is how few brands have that much leverage in publishing."

He then adds: "Condé Nast is investing an enormous amount in digital, an immense amount. And it's a private company and it's very fortunate in that it doesn't have to do quarterly earnings, so it's investing a lot. But, for the last 15 years, it's been a very, very successful operation. I'm also pretty optimistic about the future of mags. I don't think they will sell as many as they did. But I think that they will continue."

Coleridge has now largely switched industries - "magazine wars for museum wars", as he calls it. But he feels quite comfortable in his new environment. "The role of the development department of national museums is quite similar to that of publishers," he says. "To be raising commercial money... And I feel very at home with that."

He's lost none of his zeal for getting one over on his competitors, either. "All my life," he says, "my weekend has been very much influenced by the circulation figures that come out on Friday nights. So, you look at whether Vogue has had a good week versus Elle, or GQ a good week versus Esquire. Now, with museums, it's all about footfall."

Thankfully, "the V&A this year is having a bumper year. It's 16 per cent up year on year, which is a lot of visitors to be up". In terms of the sightseeing pecking order, the V&A comes in at "about number six" in London, after the Tate Modern and the British Museum. I tell him it's a very good place to visit with young children who can run around in the water part during the summer months. "The water part?" he asks, slightly mystified. "Oh, you mean the John Madejski Garden?" he replies grandly. "There's a sign up now saying, 'Please do not wear nappies in the pools,' " he adds.

I wonder if he ever wishes he had gone into the City. His father, David Coleridge, the 85-year-old former chairman of Lloyd's of London, once characterised his son's success with the rather withering observation that he had "done well but in a very limited, small field". Coleridge is sanguine about his strengths and weaknesses. "I could never have worked in a bank because I'm not mathematically clever enough," he says. "I have quite a lot of financial common sense and I can read a balance sheet and see whether something's profitable and why that is, but I am not good at abstract mathematics. And I'm actually very admiring of people who work in hedge funds and investment banks," he continues. "Partly because I know I could never ever, ever do it."

Away from work, Coleridge likes to retreat to his Worcestershire pile, Wolverton Hall, a 1709 property he purchased 14 years ago with his wife Georgia, where he spends most weekends with some or all of his four children. They previously had a country house in Oxfordshire, but it was far too social.

"Worcestershire has a slightly Jane Austen feel," he says, "whereas in Oxfordshire there were an almost infinite number of people who were always trying to book you up months in advance." There was a bit too much dress-up, too. He remembers once being invited to an "informal supper" where he was required to wear "velvet jackets, monogrammed slippers and an open-necked white shirt. We looked like a sort of Moonie outing," he grins. "In Worcestershire it's not nearly so formal."

In rural mode, he gets up early. He has published 12 books, all of which were written in longhand during the early hours. Afternoons are spent hacking down bits of garden with a chainsaw, and evenings are for entertaining or watching television. His children tease him about his mild obsession with cleanliness. Is he terribly fastidious? "I am quite," he admits. "But... as I've got four children and a slightly untidy wife... you have to let it go a bit."

He is besotted with Georgia, an energy healer and writer whom he first met when she, eight years his junior, was an intern at Tatler and on her way to read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. He was really quite stalkery in his pursuit of her: on discovering she had gone travelling to India, he liberated her itinerary from her mother, and then engineered a trip so that he might accidentally bump into her. They have been married for nearly 30 years.

"I'm not extravagant," he insists of their lifestyle. One of his greatest indulgences, he once admitted, was turning up the heating on the pool to 97F one Christmas, but he doesn't yearn to own a yacht. Much.

"I've never been very interested in bling things" he says. "I don't actually really want anything very much," he says. "I'm lucky enough. And I've got enough friends. I've always made a very clear distinction between what I consider to be real life and the slightly parallel work life and I think it's important to do so. There's never been any blurring in my mind about who are work personalities, walk-on characters that are fun and amusing in your work life, and real life."

I would like to stay gossiping about Tristram Hunt, the former Labour politician and now director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Coleridge's goddaughter, supermodel Cara Delevingne, but he really must go.

He will leave with his driver, Brian, who has chauffeured him for the past 30 years, and who will himself turn 60 this month. "I've had a driver for all of my adult life," he tells me, "and it's probably something that'll never really be offered to anyone again. It's been incredible."

It's been like a Stephen Frears film, I think. No wonder he doesn't want for anything. He's got the lot. Nicholas Coleridge says goodbye, gets up and glides off. Not like an angel fish, maybe, but like something more exotic altogether.


This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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