Why This Critic Is A "Fashion Outsider"

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BFA_6151_707630Photo: Angla Pham/BFA NYC.
In fashion, whether a piece or collection is deemed "good" or "bad" can be hinged on something as flimsy as a critic's personal preference on hem lengths. Still, our clothing is more than just a vehicle for self-expression; it's a product of the time we live in, and just as influenced by the politics and social flavors of the day as it is our aesthetic predilections, which makes fashion critique a very difficult thing to do.

How do you make the subjective objective? How to you take the personal and make it universal? How do you cover the fashion, and not the scene? The New York Times has deftly handled these questions, especially via the lens of the sharp — but fair — Cathy Horyn, who stepped down earlier this year. Filling her shoes is veteran Vanessa Friedman, who came from London's Financial Times. Also known for calling it like it is, Friedman is wrapping up her first month as the lead fashion critic, and has already completed a tour de force for the publication, touching on topics as diverse as raising the legal age for modeling to how India's new prime minister's garb of choice is evidence of a fresh, new perspective for the country's leadership. We caught up with Friedman to see how she's weathering her first month on the job.

What would you consider to be your M.O., or your point of view, as the lead fashion critic for The New York Times?
“For me, the really important thing about fashion in general is how it fits into life and reflects how life has changed — socially, economically, and politically. Because, people wear clothes for reasons that tend to have to do with identity, and identity is enmeshed in these other areas. How fashion reflects that, what designers are saying about what they think women’s lives are like in a specific moment in time, thanks to all these other forces that impact them — that’s the part of it that really interests me. And then, you have to put that in the context of the brand's own heritage and aesthetic, and try and understand what its agenda is, to assess whether or not there’s value on it.”

You come from the Financial Times, and have a background in the business side of the industry. Do you feel like you’re going to be able to take the Times in that sort of direction, or is that even one of your prerogatives?
“The thing about fashion over the last 10-plus years, is that the two sides of the industry, the corporate and the creative, have gotten even more intertwined, Christopher Bailey being the ultimate expression of that. He was creative director, or chief creative officer [of Burberry], and now he’s also CEO. He was both. And so, I don’t think you can really extricate the two anymore. For a long time, the creative director sat in one silo, in one ivory tower, and the corporate side enabled it in another ivory tower. And, that was regarded as the ideal situation, where never the twain shall meet. Those walls have completely come down now. So, I don’t think I would be doing my job properly if I ignored half the equation.”

It's interesting you bring that up, because you’re actually in a very special position as both a critic and also an organizer of the Luxury Summit, which many advertisers attend. Regarding that internal memo that was leaked from the NYT, and all that attention being paid to breaking down the wall between editorial and sales, would you say that there's a move to making that separation between church and state much more porous?
“I don’t see my role as working with advertisers. I think that sounds more like what the commercial side of the business does in their jobs. I see my role at the summit really as more of a journalist, in that I will be interviewing people, creating editorial content for it — and that content may take both sides, but it’s still what I do now, which is investigating a story or investigating a subject. I don’t think a conference is necessarily a ‘changing sides’ thing. However, those walls and those kinds of rules have changed, and it’s my understanding that, whatever innovation will happen, that particular wall — the editorial integrity wall — is hopefully going to stay where it is.”

Suzy Menkes' first article for British Vogue was titled “Fighting The Bitch Brigade,” and it definitely set the tone for what she wanted to accomplish. Do you have that same feeling toward Twitter or its "amateur critics?"
“I’m good with it. I really welcome comments, and the thing that I love about blogging is that you can have a conversation with people. I always finish my blogs with questions, and I wish more people would write in and tell me what they think, because I think that’s really valuable, and that’s the exciting thing about what you can do online, so bring it on, bitches!”
BFA_6855_799471Photo: Joe Schildhorn/BFA NYC.
Traditionally, fashion critics critique fashion shows, but these days there are basically four seasons every single year, with resort and everything else just taking up months. And then, there are capsule collections, fusion lines, campaigns, and a million different things to pay attention to coming at you from so many different players, and at a bunch of different levels, not just designers, but fast-fashion, and mid-level retailers. How do you keep it together?
“It’s exhausting. And, it can be confusing, and I do think you have to weed through it. Part of my responsibility — most of my responsibility — to readers is to think what’s going to impact them and what matters to them. What do we need to talk about, because they’re going to see it? For example, there is a certain imperative to talk about resort, even though it’s a kind of messy season, and I will. Part of any newspaper’s job is to be the filter between the mass, the white noise, and the world, and readers, and help them understand what’s really important for them to know that day or that moment. And so, that's what we try and do — what I’ll try and do at the Times. There’s just more white noise than there used to be.”

Do you think it’s going to keep growing, and getting more noisy, or do you think that there’s going to be a point where too much is too much?
"Actually, I think things are resolving themselves a little bit. Particularly at the more directional, higher-end level. I think, for example, with Phoebe Philo and her decision not to bring her collection to New York or to release pictures of it until the clothes are actually in the store, is kind of significant because she’s also a very intellectual figure, and other designers look to her and follow her. So, one of the things I’m interested in watching is whether or not that kind of 'Stop the wheel, I want to get off' attitude and decision becomes something more widely adopted. Certainly I think there are designers who are saying ‘You know what? I'm not going to do the big, giant resort show, too.'"

Your job is a dream job for a lot of people, and a lot of young journalists fantasize about ending up where you are. Is this your definition of success? And, whether it is or isn’t, has your definition changed over time?
“When I’m writing at three in the morning, doing ready-to-wear for, like, the 18th day in a row… [Laughs] It’s a fantastic job. I think I got incredibly lucky. And, I got incredibly lucky both because I fell into covering an industry through absolutely no insight of my own, when it was in flux, and I got to watch it in the process of becoming. That has been really fascinating. And, 'becoming' not only in terms of the global industry, but in terms of pop culture. It’s very rare that you stumble into something at a point in time where there’s a speeded-up process of change [that] happens to reflect a lot of other changes going on in society, be it social media, technology, identity, what have you. The economy. To me, that’s part of what makes it an incredible job. And the Times is a really wonderful place to do it.”

This might seem like a weird question, but do you consider yourself an outsider when it comes to reporting in the fashion industry, or do you feel like you’re very much part of the club?
"I’m not part of the fashion industry; I’m part of the media industry. I’m a journalist; I’m not a fashion person. So, certainly by that definition, I am an outsider. And, I think that's important, actually. I don’t think you can really see anything with clarity if you are part of it."