Just who is Kinvara Balfour?
Tom Ford announced his marriage to Richard Buckley during an interview with her on Fashion in Conversation for iTunes. Her first work experience, while still in her teens, was with royal couturier Norman Hartnell. She’s a playwright whose first work — written because she “had desperately wanted to be an actress” — premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival. She’s an executive producer on the Alexander McQueen biopic due for cinematic release in May. And she recently toured SpaceX, wearing a Chanel jacket in honour of Karl Lagerfeld’s Autumn/Winter 2017 show at the Grand Palais.
If the above didn’t give you whiplash, know too that she’s a public speaker, often tapped by the likes of Procter and Gamble and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, to expound on subjects like the zeitgeist of cool. She’s also entrenched in the tech world, shuttling between her base in West Hollywood and Silicon Valley, where she is an advisor to Polaroid Swing, a start-up chaired by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.
Kinvara Balfour, 42, is a multi-multi-hyphenate. “I’m classic type-A — ADHD, not that it’s ever been diagnosed. But, I’m sure in my day if I [was tested] I would have had it,” she freely admits with a laugh.
Beautiful with cascading blonde locks casually tied into a ponytail and with a black leather jacket held in hand, Kinvara Balfour turns up early for our coffee. She is genuinely interested in a two-sided conversation (not just being interviewed) but when prompted can talk your ears off on a variety of topics, ranging from the rise of VR content to primogeniture laws.
As the second daughter of Roderick Balfour, 5th Earl of Balfour, and Lady Tessa Fitzalan-Howard, and granddaughter of the 17th Duke of Norfolk — the Dukedom of Norfolk is the oldest aristocratic title after the British royal family — Kinvara Balfour, indeed, does have a thing or two to say about succession and inheritance laws bypassing females in a family. Her mother’s situation is said to have inspired the central storyline of Downtown Abbey.
But, today, Balfour’s simply just another woman sitting in a coffee shop, having her morning caffeine fix, and you forget that the word “Lady” is often prefixed to her name. Besides, harping or trading on aristocratic status would simply be tacky and/or ignorant in this day and age.
You live in California now?
Yes. I live in LA because I want to do a lot with Silicon Valley. I felt I’d reached a bit of a ceiling in London, in the tech world. And it’s funny because I launched this website called DailyCandy in UK a long time ago, which was a big American site. Through that, I ended up living in LA as well. But it’s a very different experience now when you have WhatsApp, FaceTime and Instagram. I don’t really feel that disconnected from my family or my friends. Ten years ago, there was Skype and that was it. It cost a fortune and speaking with your parents was a really precious thing. Now I know what everyone’s doing in his or her life and I feel very connected.
That’s the power of technology and social media, no?
Yes. You know how we all joke about FOMO, the fear of missing out? Often, I’ll have JOMO, which is joy of missing out, and where maybe you see a few things and you think, I’m not missing that at all! My friend was Instagramming some launch at Fashion Week. And I just thought, you know what? I’ve done so much of that; this is where I’m excited to be. I’m actually in SpaceX, going on this secret visit of Elon Musk’s insane space factory, which is amazing and took me two years to make happen. We can’t all be everywhere. But at least I can look at Instagram and enjoy the fashion weeks.
I found social media to be hugely helpful with my family. I’m quite a hybrid, and I used to have a lot of shame around that and kept desperately trying to keep myself in one career path. But I do want to direct a play and I want to work for a fashion designer, and I want to run an Internet company, or whatever. I think my parents and their generation were very confused and bemused by what I might be doing. Because I can collate on Instagram all the different things I do, my dad and my mum can remain calm and comfortable in England thinking, OK, she is all right. She has a job, she’s doing stuff; she’s safe.
You have to tell us about SpaceX.
It was so shrouded in mystery and so exclusive to be there. They could have shown me anything, and I’d be so psyched. But they’re really building rockets. It was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Willy Wonka, literally. There were all these men in lab coats, some of them in hairnets, building rocket capsules with whole huge tracks on the walls. It’s amazing.
What other cool things have you been up to?
I’m crazy about VR. It’s just a headset but that private personal experience you have when you’re with the headset is incredible. I go out of my way to try a lot of VR, because everything is so varied and so different. What I think a lot of brands and what I’m really into, is this whole new trend of the immersive experience; it is actually a communal gift basically, where we’re all a bit bored of walking into a generic store or those shopping malls. Everyone says bricks-and-mortar or retail is dead. It’s not, but perhaps you and I, being part of this exciting world on our phones, are coming back into the normal world and wanting something a little bit more?
Are you launching your own VR content, then?
No, I really want to do it, but it’s incredibly complicated and expensive. I’m executive producer on this new film about Alexander McQueen, which will come out in cinemas in April or May, so with that movie we’d like to do a VR experience to promote the release. McQueen was so tech-savvy and so ahead of his time; I’d like to honour him in that way. I’ve been in California, which is where most of the VR-creating companies are now. And it’s quite interesting when you have conversations about creating something in VR. It’s incredibly expensive and it has to be done really well, because if it’s crap, you get motion sickness and never want to go near it again.
Are you such a tech geek that you can code and stuff?
I learnt to code for a day. My friend Kathryn Parsons has this company in London called Decoded and it does private coding classes for grown-ups. Many CEOs go for it. I did one day and it was the hardest day of my life. I kept sitting there thinking, thank god I’m not a five-year-old because that’s going to be a compulsory thing on the [school] syllabus. You had to make your own app. And I was just doing what I was told, but I couldn’t compute it. I’m not a coder, I’m not an engineer. It blows my mind how anyone knows that a rocket is not going to explode in the middle of the sky and can actually take someone up to space and stuff. I’m creative and visual, but I am not good with figures and symbols or maths.
Let’s talk about The Visionaries, a series shot entirely on iPhone that we can catch on YouTube.
I had a series for Apple [in 2014] where I interviewed all these fashion icons and I really loved that. But after a while, I tired of the Q&A, one-hour format. The content we want is shorter now. I love a TED talk, but an hour on my laptop is too long. And I’ve always wanted to make documentaries and films. So, with The Visionaries, I’d go interview these people who I think are awesome but aren’t necessarily household names. I’ll ask for one hour of their time at their place of work and make it into an eight to 10-minute short film. There’s Pat McGrath, a makeup artist I’m crazy about; Es Devlin, a set designer who’s worked with Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Kanye West. She just did Adele’s tour. There’s also Manolo Blahnik and Nick Jones, who founded Soho House.
After interviewing so many people, who’s the one you’re in awe of?
Tom Ford. He was amazing, flirty, and really played the game. He knew exactly how to get me. Honestly, by the time we went on stage, I was just a giggling mess. Then he announced his marriage to his partner Richard during the talk. When I woke up the next day, it was all over fashion headlines everywhere: “Tom Ford announces his marriage in a talk with Kinvara Balfour”. That was totally out of my control and my hands. That wasn’t my motivation. I just wanted to share these amazing stories about Tom Ford. The fact that he trusted me and used the platform with me was a real honour. He’s unbelievably professional and a major brand-builder.
Who’s your role model in life?
My [paternal] grandmother. She’s 96. She reads books in French and listens to the radio. She knows more about world politics than half the world’s politicians. She’s very chic and very dignified. She’ll share her experiences, but she’d never overshare. We used to live 10 doors from each other in London and then I moved to LA. She had a fall and now lives in a home, which is heartbreaking. I used to take her to the theatre and go on the bus together. She drove ambulances during the war. She values food on the plate because she’s seen a world when it wasn’t quite so easy. But she’s not ramming it down her grandchildren’s throats. We got her an iPad and we Skype once a week. Now we do emails, which is quite a big deal. I’m seeing her next week and I’m going to teach her online shopping, because she needs to buy her winter thermal underwear. She’s slowly embracing [technology] and getting into it.
She sounds cool.
Oh, she’s cool. She’s really open-minded, stubborn and strong — probably where I get that from. I wish I could put the iPhone in her room and just watch her dithering about on the iPad, talking to herself, and swearing or whatever, and make it into a movie. But she won’t let me. I put her on Instagram every now and then, but she hasn’t seen it. Now that she’s on the Internet I’m really worried she’s going to see the pictures and ask me about them.
Has your aristocratic background helped or hampered what you do?
In England, a title or property in the aristocracy goes through the male line. But I think there’s a rebellious side in me that might just be saying, “Excuse me, boys, look what I can do. Look what girls can do.” Just because we’re not male and we’re not going to inherit something, it doesn’t mean we can’t do this. Changing the laws is not something I want to devote my whole life to; I’m too busy. I just want to go and make a film about Alexander McQueen, quite frankly. But, in terms of being Lady Kinvara Balfour, of course I’ve had a privileged upbringing compared to some. I’m truly grateful I’ve had an education. But I’m not going to jump into a Bentley and fly off in a private plane to eat caviar. Members of the aristocracy now are holding buckets under a leaking roof in their castle, wondering how to keep it heated. That’s the reality of today.
“I’ve had a privileged upbringing compared to some. I’m truly grateful I’ve had an education. But I’m not going to jump into a Bentley and fly off in a private plane to eat caviar.”
My grandfather, the late Duke of Norfolk, was a very amazing man. I saw my grandfather in two guises. One, a soldier in scruffy military clothes covered in sawdust, because he would make the frames for my granny who painted; two, [as Earl Marshal] in his ermine robes putting a crown on the Queen’s head. But, aside from all of that, he was just a really normal, down-to-earth guy who never spent any money on himself and thought Christmas presents were too extravagant.