When Dodie Kazanjian commented on Babs Simpson’s eye for style in an interview for the book Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, Simpson remarked, “It’s something one doesn’t think about. You just do it.” Simpson may be humble about her successes, but her work – beautiful, honest and reflective – can’t go unnoticed.
Born in 1913 as Beatrice Crosby de Menocal, Simpson spent the first six months of her life in Beijing. Her father was an international banker, and her mother was a socialite; both were fluent in Mandarin, and worked as unofficial interpreters of the Chinese court. The family lived in Chile for nine years before settling down in Boston in 1923.
As a certifiable “blue blood,” Simpson attended private schools and frequently traveled to Paris with her mother and grandmother. She was influenced by fashion designer Jane Derby from a young age. Derby’s classically sophisticated garments would have a lasting affect on Simpson’s personal style – she thought the designs were “glamorous and exciting,” qualities that were constantly present in Simpson’s understand black clothes and bold jewelry.
Simpson’s road to fashion was delayed. She didn’t start working until she divorced her husband when she was 29. She was always interested in style and how people dressed, but she was hesitant to get too involved in fashion. She held a short stint at Harper’s Bazaar before she began running photographer Jerry Plucer’s studio. She was offered a job again at Bazaar, and worked there for two years before she replaced Barbara “Babe” Cushing as Fashion Editor of Vogue. Simpson worked for Vogue magazine for the next two decades, traveling the world and styling photo shoots for the most famous photographers of the time.
She quickly became known for her modern, minimalist style. She had a great relationship with photographers, partly because she knew when to step in and when to let the photographer do his work. She worked closely with photographer Irving Penn; in turn, Penn worked with her almost exclusively. Together, they created some of the magazine’s best-known images.
Now 100 years old, Simpson is as modest as ever. In a take out from the HBO documentary The Editor’s Eye, the interviewer asks her what she would like her legacy to be. “I would rather not have one,” Simpson replies.
1. Photo of Babs Simpson by Irving Penn, 1949
2. Photo of Marilyn Monroe by Bert Stern, styled by Babs for Vogue in 1962
3. Photo of model Marie-Lise Gres, styled by Babs for Vogue and photographed by William Klein, 1963
4. Photo of Babs Simpson and photographer John Rawlings in Vogue office, taken by Nat Farbman, 1952
5. Babs Simpson in HBO’s Editor’s Eye documentary, 2013