No Ordinary Lady

Genevieve Fox speaks to Kinvara Balfour in the Summer 2015 issue

Photography by Dusan Reljin. Styling by Liz Thody. Kinvara wears Erdem dress and Bulgari jewellery.

Kinvara Balfour has carved out a niche for herself in the challenging worlds of fashion and technology, without trading on her aristocratic status. She tells Genevieve Fox why she’s not resting on her laurels.

In a starry meritocracy where titles no longer cut it unless you are a character in Downton Abbey, Lady Kinvara Balfour, niece of the Duke of Norfolk and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, has taken her status and run with it. Not for her the taking of tea in a stately or child rearing, charity fundraisers and chats with the chinless on the parterre. The 39-year-old energy ball has assiduously broken the mould, creating a niche for herself as a tech head, fashion pundit, playwright, public speaker and entrepreneur.

With her iPad as her desk, she has managed, where others have failed, to carve out a credible, creditable web presence admired by many. She hosts Fashion in Conversation for Apple, a series of live talks, available on YouTube and iTunes, that have featured Anna Wintour, Zac Posen and Tom Ford. In 2014, she became a founding partner of StyleCard, a consumer-discount service, and has worked on branding initiatives with AOL and Procter & Gamble. 

She eschews her title because, she says, ‘I am no different from anyone else. I have a background. But it’s just a background. Everyone has one. I’m not Prince William, thank God. I watch Wolf Hall and I see Anne Boleyn and I am proud that she’s my ancestor. But am I living in a castle and driving around in a Rolls-Royce? No.’ Home is an undazzling flat in Earl’s Court, 10 doors down from her 94-year-old granny. Single, she was married, briefly, to an Italian, Count Riccardo Lanza, a party organiser who, it is rumoured, orchestrated the Clooney wedding in Venice. They divorced after two years. ‘He was part of my unconventional journey,’ she says, talking to me in a Soho cafe. ‘I have permission now to live an unconventional life. I’m a free bird. I’m not stuck in a cocoon. My life is my life.’

She cannot deny that her background is significant: her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, holds the oldest aristocratic title after the royal family and is the most senior layperson of the Catholic Church. 

There is one thing about her heritage that Balfour cannot square with modern life. The centuries-old right of primogeniture meant that her uncle inherited Arundel Castle instead of her mother, Lady Tessa Fitzalan-Howard, eldest daughter of the late 17th Duke of Norfolk. Screenwriter and family friend Julian Fellowes based Downton Abbey on her family; the character Shrimpy is inspired by her sister, Candida. Primogeniture, whereby title and estate pass through the family line to the first-born male, imprints ‘second-best’ on the female psyche, says Balfour. ‘It runs through our DNA. Downton Abbey highlighted what I’ve seen all my life: the daughter is a disappointment. I’ve had primogeniture rubbed in my face from both sides of my family.’

Now, with ‘nothing to lose’, she is calling time on legislature that she says is ‘archaic, mad, absolutely mad’. Power lies with men, she adds, name-checking women who have been constrained by it over the ages, from cousin Anne Boleyn to human rights campaigner and actress Salma Hayek. ‘How can women win? We are this bonkers little country that still has all these antiquated rules. I joke that the House of Lords should be the House of Lords and Ladies – or just the House of Peers. But then, some of those peers are hereditary – and that,’ she says, her exasperation clear, ‘goes through the male line.’

Kinvara wears Zac Posen dress, Christian Louboutin heels and Bulgari jewellery.

Growing up, Balfour was a textbook teenage rebel, but she could easily have ended up running a nursery in Fulham rather than making a career out of fashion, innovation and public speaking. Her childhood was, by all accounts, a pretty standard ‘titled’ one. The second eldest of four sisters, she was raised in west London and moved to a house on the Arundel estate when she was 10. She went to a cosy prep school, Lady Eden’s in Kensington (now closed), before following several generations of her mother’s family, the Fitzalan-Howards, to St Mary’s Ascot. ‘I was very naughty and rebellious,’ she says, though she admits that she was head of house (‘That was cool. Being head girl wasn’t’). The all-girls school was, she says, ‘very archaic. We used to sneak off to Eton to see the boys.’ Appearances never mattered to her, even when she was growing up. ‘I wasn’t the archetypal...’ She doesn’t finish her sentence with ‘aristocrat’. She loved riding, for example, and had a pony, ‘but he was blind. We just went round and round in circles in the school.’ Later, weekends were spent watching films with her parents and ‘smoking fags on the steps of the Royal Court or drinking Diet Coke’. 

But there were performers in the family and, like fashion and film, the theatre caught her imagination early on. Her aunt, the actress Marsha Fitzalan, inspired her to go to drama school. She is ‘passionate’ about the theatre – ‘obsessed’. When her father, Roderick Balfour, the fifth Earl of Balfour, took her to see Peter Pan at the Barbican, she recalls ‘the resentment I felt at not being part of that magical world’. ‘Frosty’ – the late broadcaster David Frost, husband of her maternal aunt, Carina – took her under his wing. 

The St Ascot nuns organised work experience for her with royal couturier Norman Hartnell. ‘I was made to wipe the collars of the fur jackets with a feather duster,’ she recalls wistfully. Then, at 17, she won a fashion competition; first prize was working with Vivienne Westwood. During her university holidays (she went to Newcastle, where she read English, French and Film) she worked for fashion designer Tomasz Starzewski. Princess Diana, Shirley Bassey and Margaret Thatcher (‘not particularly cosy’) were regulars. ‘You’d also get a few men coming in claiming that the size 44 skirt they’d bought was for their wife. Oh, the life of a shop. You see it all.’ But it wasn’t enough, not then. Balfour went to Central School of Speech and Drama, hoping to be an actress. 'But I didn't get an agent.'

Kinvara wears Erdem dress, Manolo Blahnik sandals, Bulgari jewellery and Beats by Dre headphones.

She was, she says, 'not very good at hanging about', so she ditched that impulse for fashion and worked on a couple of style magazines. She gave up the second in order to take a show up to the Edinburgh Festival. Unable to find a play featuring four equally strong parts, she wrote one instead. Dazed & Abused was a hit at the festival and even came down briefly to a pub theatre in London. Julian Fellowes, who saw the production, recalls being struck by Balfour’s ‘modern mind’. ‘She was not exactly backing away from her roots but was certainly striving not to be limited by them,’ he says. ‘She is a woman of her own time, no doubt about it.’

It was during the production’s mini transfer over to New York – Diane von Fürstenberg lent Balfour and her mates a space – that she met US Daily Candy founder Dany Levy, who went on to ask her to found Daily Candy UK. ‘Kinvara is a force of nature,’ says Levy. ‘She has an innate sense of style, a quick wit – she’s wry without ever being condescending.’ As for that title, which many Americans would love hearing about, ‘she never played the Lady Balfour card,’ says Levy. ‘Quite the contrary. She underplayed it. She was just a great journalist with a keen eye and a great sense of style. She had a knack for knowing how to find things that people wanted to know about. And she was an amazingly hard worker.’ 

Fashion PR Julietta Dexter of The Communications Store describes Balfour as ‘a rare species. The things that make Kinvara a gem in our industry are her intellect, her knowledge, her proper research, her exquisite manners and above all her kindness... She’s the real deal.’

Tom Adeyoola, founder of the virtual fitting service Metail, calls her as a ‘trailblazer in fashion tech’. Balfour recently convened a panel discussion, hosted by Metail, on the role of technology in the future of fashion. ‘She fundamentally “gets” what technology is about and how it can and should improve our daily lives,’ says Adeyoola. ‘Kinvara brings that understanding of the convergence between fashion, fun and technology.’ 

I drop by Apple’s Regent Street store the day Balfour is interviewing Vogue China editor-in-chief Angelica Cheung. As she waits for Cheung, microphone in one hand, she tells me how much the idea of owning a castle fills her with dread. ‘I don’t know a single English man or woman who wants to buy one,’ she says. ‘If we are talking about the survival of the financially fittest, the aristocracy hasn’t got a hope in hell. The meritocracy is trumping the aristocracy – look at [Russian oligarch] Leon Max, who bought Easton Neston.’ Balfour’s uncle – ‘the nicest man in the whole wide world’ – works flat out to keep the Arundel estate going. ‘He can’t just wake up and flog a Canaletto on eBay because he feels like having a day off. He works so hard.’ So does she, ‘like the rest of us, and I will continue to do so.’ The rest of us includes close friends and society scions Alex Bamford, Daisy Harrison, Sophie Winkleman, Rose van Cutsem and Philip Treacy. She has good relationships with the designers she has worked with, including Peter Pilotto, Mary Katrantzou and Nicholas Kirkwood. 

Hard graft is no equaliser. ‘I’m judged whenever I open my mouth,’ she says. She’s over that. She can win people round, clearly. But she is still powerless in the face of primogeniture.

Our interview is coming to an end. Balfour reaches for her iPad to check her notes; she is nervous about speaking out and keen not to be misunderstood. ‘I get nothing from whistle blowing,’ she points out. ‘I simply believe that property and land should stay together and that a home should go to one person – the eldest born.

‘My mother is the eldest daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. She’s a girl. I appreciate that to run Arundel Castle and all its land and all its game, its crops, its farms is a huge, huge job. But it’s a huge job for anybody, so give it to the woman. She’ll be as entrepreneurial as any man can be.’  

Kinvara wears Peter Pilotto dress and Bulgari jewellery

By Genevieve Fox for the Summer 2015 issue of Town & Country

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