Jo Ellison got her first break in journalism at The Irish Examiner, where she was “offered a couple of shifts night-subbing”. “The first night, I helped put together stories that would appear in print in the next day’s paper and felt totally elated by the experience. It was the moment I realised THIS was what I wanted to do.”
In the years following, she took on a variety of editorial roles, most notably Features Director at British Vogue and later Fashion Editor at the Financial Times, taking over the helm from Vanessa Friedman in 2014. Currently Editor of the FT’s HTSI and Deputy Editor of FT Weekend, here, Jo talks to ROADS about sartorial character studies and the nostalgic scents of home.
What do your clothes say about you?
Christ! I’m not sure. That I like to be comfortable and wear a lot of tailoring. That I’m quite vain, and spend a lot of money on a lot of the same kind of things most people wouldn’t be able to differentiate between if they saw me. That I don’t like overtly girly sartorial gestures, and find menswear actually makes me feel more feminine. That I like a long, fluid silhouettes and neutral colours because I think that looks chic, but which might suggest that I’m actually quite boring and like to play it “safe”.
I certainly think about what I’m wearing quite a lot. In essence, I think I want my clothes to announce me as the sort of person who cares about their appearance but who wears a suitably blank canvas so as not to distract from my mind. Lol.
To what do you attribute your sense of style?
I wouldn’t dare to presume I had one, but for as long as I can remember the cinema has been a huge inspiration. I think it’s because I like to think of the wardrobe as a study of character. Plus – films feature some really stylish people. Really early on I was obsessed with Meryl Streep’s look in Kramer vs. Kramer, I idolised Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club but wanted to dress like Judd Nelson (in that giant overcoat and mittens). I love what Jodie Foster wears in everything: it might be a single garment – like the worn FBI sweatshirt she wears in Silence of the Lambs – or a whole ensemble. But great clothes in films just totally imprint on my brain. I will still watch a film and it will inform the way I dress the next day. For example, I watched Tár last week, with Cate Blanchett, and all I’ve wanted to wear since is her perfect slouchy sweaters and immaculately tailored suits.
Where does your enthusiasm for journalism stem from?
Storytelling. Meeting people and being allowed to ask them lots of questions and get inside their heads. If you’re curious it’s the perfect excuse to be unbearably nosy. Working with photographers and illustrators to find ways to bring stories to life. (In another life I would be a picture researcher).
I’m also lucky that my job is so broad and wide-ranging, no sooner have you done one story than you can immerse yourself in another. Plus, I still find the basic effort of putting words in a sentence that communicate an idea clearly and elegantly completely thrilling. I am head-over-heels, infatuated with words.
A key moment that changed/sparked your career trajectory…
I’ve had some very lucky breaks. But, way back at the dawn of time and during a long period of humiliating underemployment I was offered a couple of shifts night-subbing at The Examiner, in Ireland, despite having no experience in journalism and knowing next to nothing about Irish politics at the time. The first night, I helped put together stories that would appear in print in the next day’s paper and felt totally elated by the experience. It was the moment I realised THIS was what I wanted to do.
What is your most memorable scent association?
I remember very clearly going to other’s people’s houses as a child and being intrigued to find each had their own unique odour. Some were familiar and spicy and comforting, some were infused with the smell of strange, delicious washing powders and products, and some houses just smelled kind of bad. I became really fascinated by the idea that each family had this specific fragrance made up of the many different layers of their environment: their gardens, their pets, they’re cleaning products, perfumes, smoking habits, and their sweat. And I remember my mother telling me that, because we lived in it and created it, we would never begin to detect our own household’s smell. This was a source of both fascination and horror – it perhaps explains why my house is at all times perfumed with bags of Maria Santa Novella pot-pourri.
Do you have a signature scent, or do you prefer the idea of a fragrance wardrobe?
I like to wear different things according to mood, weather, season, and time of day. Lots of perfumes give me a headache, so when I find something I like, I’m usually quite loyal. And I still love the classic hit of a chemical aldehyde.
Your greatest indulgence is…
I don’t really deny myself very much, to be honest.
A garment you treasure…
I love them all. I’m very much a hoarder, and quite sentimental, so I guard them all quite closely hoping to spare them from the evil of the moth.
One book everyone should read…
Lord knows. Since I discovered TikTok I’ve practically forgotten how to read, so it would seem disingenuous to assume I could enrich anyone’s imaginative life with any wisdom.
The best bits about your roles as Editor of HTSI and Deputy Editor of FT Weekend include…
The variety. Every day is different, and every story brings its own rewards and challenges. The job allows me access to so many people and places that I would otherwise not see. I really am a very lucky dog.
What is the greatest challenge currently facing the luxury industry?
The promotion of sustainability within a consumer culture that places its greatest emphasis on the pursuit of newness. It’s an almost impossible challenge.
How can the fashion industry be more inclusive?
By being more inclusive. By being more accountable: look at your numbers and see how racially diverse your business is. Do you have a broad mix of contributors, editors, stylists, models, writers? If you don’t, do better. Widen the pool, employ people in your organisation who will empower others and represent a broader range of voices. Listen to those who might have another point of view. Give them leverage and a platform in which to make a tangible contribution. Listen to criticism without taking it personally. Stay calm. Be transparent about your failings but build on those to change the environment you work in: take positive action by engaging with the facts.
Do you subscribe to trends?
Yes and no. Definitely with jeans styles. Less so with interiors or fluctuations in colour trends.
Who/what is inspiring you right now?
I watched the documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed last night, and Nan Goldin inspired me. Her images, her activism, her community, her compassion, her eye, her sadness, her sister. Every single person in the film merited their own individual feature, and I found her devastatingly cool.
Things you’re excited about for the future…
Everything. You’ve got to hope the best is yet to come, right?!