Sarah Jessica Parker’s not-quite teenaged son James Wilkie recently asked his mother whether he might be allowed to use his “meagre, meagre, meagre” (her words, not his) iTunes allowance to download and watch the television series of Sex and the City for the first time. “He is 12 and I said, ‘Yeah, I think we can start figuring out the right time for that’,” Sarah Jessica laughs. While the rest of the world might blur the lines between SJP and Carrie Bradshaw, the character she played on six seasons of SATC between 1998 and 2004 (blame the whimsical wardrobe, the Manhattan des res, the great shoes), at home, Carrie is left firmly behind at the Greenwich Village brownstone front door; although not for long if James Wilkie gets his way. It speaks volumes about the mother-son relationship that a 12-year-old boy would want to spend his precious downloading funds on watching his mother’s legendary alter ego stumble through various misadventures in love and shopping in New York City, rather than on something involving cars or dragons. “He is a wonderful kid; one of the things I enjoy most about him is listening to his observations on things throughout his day,” Sarah Jessica, or SJ as she’s often referred to, smiles, “some of them are completely insane but many are very accurate and detail oriented and great fun to hear. He is excellent company, a wonderful companion.” One can only imagine that her firstborn will soon have a few choice words to share on the subject of Mr Big.
Sarah Jessica’s children – James Wilkie is big brother to twins Marion (known as Loretta) and Tabitha, five – are top of the agenda when we talk, as she is preparing to fly to Italy for six weeks to film All Roads Lead To Rome and is up to her eyes in scheduling their after-school activities and organising all those workaday mum tasks that one can’t quite imagine Carrie ever getting to grips with. “It’s a really long time to be away from the children and I’m getting a little bit anxious about it,” she confesses, “just being gone is the ever-present conflict.” The universal working-mother guilt simmers away, despite her admirable attempts to conceal it. “Someone very clever said to me recently, ‘The only reason you feel guilty is because you enjoy your work’,” she says, “Perhaps that’s true. I know they’re going to be beyond fine, they’re going to be great, but I worry and I miss them.” That’s about as far as she’ll go down the woe-is-me route, before snapping back to the realities of her personal work/life balance versus the remaining 99.9 per cent of the population’s. “I’m extremely careful to point out that my version of that balance is so much easier than most working women. Most working women don’t get to choose, they work because they have to. And the financial rewards – I wouldn’t call them rewards – are tiny. Many women are working two or three jobs and the childcare they have isn’t wonderful, the options they have aren’t wonderful. So I’m much more concerned about other women’s troubles, frankly, than my own. I have wonderful nannies and I choose to work when I want to. I think about other women who don’t get that choice. My point is that I don’t complain about my struggles to balance because it’s a privilege in my case to choose. I never want to look like somebody who says how hard my life is, because it’s just not.”
Certainly from where I’m sitting things look pretty rosy, chez SJ. She’s now helming her own line of shoes and handbags, SJP Collection, which she started in partnership with George Malkemus, CEO of Manolo Blahnik. “I met George originally in the mid-1980s when he came to Los Angeles to do a trunk show with Manolo,” she remembers. “Three people showed up, I was one of them. I gave my credit card and over many, many, many months paid off those shoes that I bought, Manolos.” (Another example of why it’s so hard to shake the Carrie connotations.) It’s not the first time the actress has ventured into fashion retail. Her role as president and chief creative officer of Halston Heritage came to an end in 2011 after little more than a year, and she has since suggested that the experience was blighted by corporate sexism. Another fashion line, Bitten, created with former American value retailer Steve & Barry’s was equally short-lived, again lasting just over a year before the chain filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Both ventures have taught her as much about the cut and thrust of business as they have of making it in fashion. “I have been places where the people aren’t so friendly and you spend a lot of time apologising. Like, ‘I’m sorry that was a difficult phone call, I’m sorry that she wasn’t more respectful, I’m sorry that she didn’t follow through.’ It’s just terrible,” she says of navigating tricky business relationships. “Sometimes, you just have to make that work, but it is nice when you don’t have to do all that extra damage control.” Sarah Jessica is now in the fortunate position where no such fire fighting seems necessary. “I love these women. The whole team are wonderful,” she enthuses of the “teeny” group who make up the SJP Collection venture; all women, bar George and the father and son who run the factory in Italy where the shoes are produced. And while her previous travails in fashion might have had their challenges, they have also provided an invaluable education. “I’ve learned so much about things that are boring to other people but fascinating to me. Like how complicated it is to put a zipper on a bias cut dress or where jeans are best produced,” she says. “I’ve learned about when things are complicated in business, how best to get a yes. How to navigate relationships that are unfriendly, stressful, combative. I’ve learned about private financing and business, and what their expectations are versus a publicly held company and a board.”
She’s treading lightly with SJP by staying responsive to her customers – “we’re learning that they want boots, all the time” – and focusing on single sole construction, the concept of colour as a neutral, as well as “working really hard on fit and comfort, especially with the heel.” A simple grosgrain trim lends each shoe her signature; a nod to the ribbons SJ and her sisters wore in their hair as children. For now, she’s sticking with accessories. “We are trying to be very prudent and smart about what we do and why we do it. I would be too scared to expand into more categories,” she says, all too aware from her designer friends of the pressures of creating ready-to-wear. “It must be terrifying. The constantly revolving door of collections being viewed and criticised,” she shudders. “It must take an enormous amount of courage and discipline and creativity and perseverance to keep going back again and again.”
George is her dream business partner; she plucked up the courage to approach him after confessing her desire to work together to a group of high-powered girlfriends over lunch. “I love his work ethic, I love his reputation, I love the identity he has created for the [Manolo Blahnik] brand, the has never wavered. When everybody else was doing platforms they stuck to their story.” Much like the elegance of Manolo, and now her SJP line, 49-year-old Sarah Jessica works a far quieter brand of personal style than Carrie’s tutu-clad flamboyance.
A recent appearance at the New York City Ballet Gala in décolletage-, wrist-and ankle-concealing Mary Katrantzou is a case in point. “Being covered can be very, very sexy and can say more than having less fabric on you,” she says. “I think it is every bit as beautiful and sexy and feminine as when you have on a tiny amount of fabric. And there is a kind of confidence in it that I like.” It’s an attitude that will serve her well when she visits the Middle East this month to promote her shoe line in Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdale’s Dubai; a sojourn during which she is looking forward to dressing within cultural parameters. “I like the idea of giving myself these restrictions for the trip so that women of the region will say, ‘She respected us, she understood us culturally and how we have to make our choices.’ I’m more interested in doing that than being subversive and saying, ‘Well, in Dubai I can’t wear a mini skirt and so I shall’.” To this end, she has been diligently researching the local design scene and looking to regional style icons such as Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz and Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned. “I would love to come and wear only designers from that part of the world,” she says earnestly. It’s not just the local design scene that she wants to sample, expect to see SJ sampling shawarmas in Satwa rather than supping on seven-star taster menus. “I don’t only want to eat in a fancy restaurant, I want to really understand Dubai,” she promises of her desire to visit the more authentic parts of the emirate, “and when I say that, I really mean it. I’ll have to force people to take me places!”
While the Sex and the City television and fi lm franchise never made it past the censors in this region – Morocco masqueraded as Abu Dhabi for the setting of 2010’s SATC 2 – there are no such qualms over Sarah Jessica receiving anything other than an ebullient Arabian welcome. Censorship aside, there is no questioning the resonance that Carrie levies across the world, including here in the Middle East. “She was such a new voice and told her story in such a unique way. She was so transparent about her shortcomings. Her journey to find love and what she understood love to mean was very compelling to people,” Sarah Jessica reasons of Carrie’s enduring appeal. “Her point of view was new to screen but not new to women. And then there was the superficial layer – not unimportant and certainly not inconsequential – the fashion. Her devotion for fashion – recklessly sometimes, as we know – had never really been seen. It allowed so much colour and excitement and added to the storytelling. Carrie’s story was dialled up enough to be anchored in truth but have an element of fantasy to it.”
So far, so familiar. But that’s where the Carrie comparisons come to an abrupt halt. “I’m not an expert on women, on sex, on dating, on romance. I just played one,” SJ asserts. “I’m not interrogative that way; it’s not the way I talk to my friends. I have friendships that are intimate and hopefully I have a good ear for them. But I don’t know what general issues are for women,” she sighs in response to people’s expectations for her to be a Carrie-style mouthpiece for generation having-it-all, firmly stating, “I never give advice.” Not of the Carrie-the-columnist sort, maybe, but she will urge her children to expand their horizons, if not their Fendi Baguette collections. “Don’t always do the thing that is comfortable, you can’t grow from what you’ve already done. You grow when you have new experiences, meet new types of people, try new environments; that’s what enriches your life. Travel. Open your eyes to different cultures, different ways of living, different points of view, different food, different smells, different books, different languages,” she says.
Her twins might only be five-years-old but Sarah Jessica is acutely aware of how the world they are growing up in differs to that of her generation. “The things that worry me” – she worries a lot – “are the way women and girls treat each other. It’s more unfriendly than it used to be. I worry about the idea of success and what one does to earn it; the idea of attention and how one gets attention in today’s culture. But I also know that as a parent I have a little bit of infl uence, so it’s my job to help shepherd them through these conversations.” Such as navigating a child’s first inevitable steps into social media. “Yeah, I don’t know how I’m going to do it but I know I’m going to have to. I’ll try to be good counsel to them and help them use it in a responsible, civilised way.”
As the sometime victim of online brutality herself – last year a woman spitefully questioned the parentage of her daughters, who were carried via surrogate but are the biological offspring of Sarah Jessica and her husband Matthew Broderick, on Twitter – she is attuned to the vulnerabilities of our increasingly exposed lives. “I was raised to think that you treat people with decency. It’s just the golden rule. I expect it of my children. I’m always a little surprised when I see people being unfriendly to each other. I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s cool. I don’t think it’s sexy. It diminishes everybody.” She might not have gone down the Gwyneth Paltrow lifestyle guru route, but it strikes me that when it comes to parenting we could all do a lot worse than getting onto the same page as Sarah Jessica. To wit: “It would be swell if we were all good to one another but that is probably not a reality, at least this week. But perhaps in the future our daughters will be better to each other. Maybe they will observe the way we conduct our relationships with our friends and how we talk about women. When I hear my daughter say something unfriendly, I don’t care if they are three or five, I say, ‘That’s not a friendly choice, I think that might hurt somebody’s feelings.’”
Words to live by for a generation of women whose priorities have superseded the shoes, shopping and sex of SATC.
Despite the polarities between SJP and Carrie Bradshaw, not to mention her son’s oblivion (at least until Sarah Jessica sanctions that iTunes download), one thing that unites the two women is a devotion to friendship that rivals even family bonds. “I’m proud of my husband. I very much love watching him work,” she says of Matthew Broderick, whom she married 17 years ago. “I am extremely attached to my family and I feel lucky that we have found and created this life together. When I think of my husband and children I also think of those that surround us, that we are privileged enough to call friends, they play such an intricate part in our lives. To talk about family for me is a wonderful meaningful group and without Matthew I wouldn’t have found that particular group, so I feel very blessed.”
Their shared passion for friendships, fashion and footwear means that Sarah Jessica Parker is unlikely to expunge the spectre of Carrie Bradshaw entirely. But when it comes to providing educational, entrepreneurial and emotional inspiration, Sarah Jessica is strides ahead of her fictional alter ego. We know which one we’d rather be.
Styling: Sally Matthews. Photography: Alexei Hay. This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia