Jade Hobson: A most fashionable life

A woman responsible for planning some of the world’s most famous fashion photographs lives quietly in an early 20th-Century dairy barn on the south side of town, where her sister’s fantastic metal sculptures dot a well-kept yard emblematic of her second career as a landscape architect.

Reserved and well-spoken with a fittingly wonderful sense of style, Wiltonian Jade Hobson has worked as editorial creative director for a few of the most prestigious magazines still publishing today.

As creative director at Vogue, Mirabella, and New York magazines, Ms. Hobson developed a portfolio of the kind of work and personal relationships one might only imagine appearing on a Hollywood screen.

The woman who would one day direct countless photo spreads with Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton was born in New York City before moving to Darien and then Westport as a child. Though a self-described “wild child,” Ms. Hobson would eventually attend New York University in the 1960s — an era she says was a wonderful time to be young.

“You just felt like you could do anything, in a way. It was very powerful,” she said from her Spoonwood Road home. “It was a very free and youth-oriented period of time. I was a wild child. I was very rebellious. I just started wandering out and thinking of my life after that.”

Her wandering did not take her far from her roots, as she would first find work among the bustling streets of 1970s Manhattan — a time she referred to as “practically the end of the 60s.”

It was during those years a foray into DIY-fashion got her noticed among a number of up-and-coming editors.

“I started at Glamour magazine during a time when do-it-yourself was becoming very, very popular. They were doing a story on what you could make by yourself for Christmas presents, and I thought it was fabulous. I went home at night and decided to make jewelry and accessories from things you could only buy at the hardware store. I strung them on rawhide and they ended up photographing a page of the things I had made.”

As soon as the spread was published, even the magazine’s competition was clamoring for her accessories.

“After Glamour offered me the editorship of the new crafts department, Vogue asked if they could photograph me wearing my jewelry, and my bosses said no,” Ms. Hobson said.

Diana Vreeland, then editor of Vogue, was not one to take no for an answer, and her magazine quickly moved one step further.

“When I was first called down to Glamour’s personnel department, I said, ‘Oh God, what did I do?’” Ms. Hobson remembered.

“They said Vogue was interested in me, and wanted to know if I was interested in working there as accessories editor. I was very happy, and had just gotten a big promotion, but then Diana Vreeland called me in. She had this amazing office with leopard rugs on the floor and a black lacquer desk with a perfumed candle sitting on it that had a fantastic Christmasy scent. Behind her were stats, and black-and-white pages of images from the magazine, or Picassos or Greta Garbos, maybe.

“She was very dramatic and sitting in maybe a black sweater and skirt, and I was either in awe of her or terrified of her. I was such a kid, but after sitting and talking to her for an hour, I said, ‘I’ve got to go there.’ Glamour was run like a business; Vogue was so much different — it was extravagant and filled with lots of eccentric people.”

Over the years, Ms. Hobson moved through the highly competitive world of fashion from accessories editor to creative director of the magazine. In that role, she said, she was responsible for planning and executing many of the magazine’s editorial photo series.

After planning a story or theme related to clothes chosen for a shoot, she would travel on location with a photographer and her team to ensure everything went according to plan — which it often didn’t.

“I stood behind the photographer with these little magnifying binoculars and I would see all the details — especially if he was shooting with a long lens — to check to see if everything was right.

“So much happens on set, I could plan what I was going to do, but many times it ended up being totally different depending on the situation or the ambiance,” she said.

In fact, Ms. Hobson said, those shoots where odd things happened were often the most memorable. She spoke about one shoot with photographer Helmut Newton that has remained clear in her memory.

“You knew you had to keep Helmut interested because he always had to make it provocative, but Vogue could only go so far. I’ve done shoots with Helmut that won’t ever get published. But he always said, ‘I’m not doing this for fun, I want this work to be published,’ and he always had wonderful ideas.

“We were doing a shoot in Italy in front of a 12-foot-high hedge. At one point there was a cutout where a statue had been. Helmut said to his assistant, ‘Get me a pedestal,’ and we asked our models if one of them would be a nude statue. They said no, but we spoke to another who agreed to do it and flew her in. The picture is just fabulous.”

As with the nude statue picture, Ms. Hobson said, she was always looking for a picture that was “a little off,” or for those pictures that did not go exactly as planned.

Perfection, she said, was the worst enemy of a creative director.

“We were always looking for the little surprise, or something that was a bit askew. When I was fixing a model’s clothes for a shoot, I would always mess them up. I want them to look real, or lived in,” she said.

As Ms. Hobson remembered, she created one of her most memorable surprises with her own hands.

She was once working on a shoot with Elizabeth Taylor for Mirabella after the actress had recently released a new perfume scent.

“We wanted to photograph her very causally, in a big sweater with messed up hair, or whatever. We spoke to her, went to her house the evening before the shoot and we talked to her about it. She kept us waiting for quite a while downstairs, but finally came down the grand staircase, wearing a headwrap and her caftan, and we talked about the shoot. She was cool about our idea. I said, ‘If you want to bring anything, bring your diamonds, and if you want to bring a few of your own things, fine.’”

Of course, Ms. Hobson said, the day of the shoot nothing went according to plan.

“She arrived three hours late with hair that a gale-force wind could not have moved. She sprayed and sprayed and sprayed her hair. She just had an image of herself she wanted to perpetuate. She’d go into the bathroom for an hour after one shot.

“On the last shot of the day, I said, ‘Can we just wrap your head in a towel and go down to the beach?’ She finally agreed, and when we got down to the beach it was really windy. The photographer was about ready to take the shot, and I went in and whipped the towel off of her head and her hair was all askew.

“She was so angry, you could see the fire in her eyes, and that just became the shot. I thought she was going to shoot me or something.”