NYT Fashion Director in Israel: There's Nothing Superficial About Clothes

New York Times fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman on the industry and its growing status and power in the world.

Sahar Shalev
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French fashion house Christian Dior's Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2014-2015 show in Paris.
French fashion house Christian Dior's Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2014-2015 show in Paris.Credit: Reuters
Sahar Shalev

In 2002, after taking a career break following the birth of her second son, Vanessa Friedman decided to return to work. She contacted the Financial Times in order to find out whether they needed a reporter. “I called somebody and they said, ‘Funny you should call.’ And that was that,” she says, explaining how she switched from being a freelance reporter to an editor at the prestigious British daily.

Friedman started working in a position that was not only new to her but new in itself – the British business newspaper’s first fashion editor. Twelve years later, in March 2014, she was appointed to an even more desirable post – fashion director and chief fashion critic of The New York Times, a role supposed to fill the gap created by the departure in the past year of the paper’s three leading fashion reporters and critics: Suzy Menkes, Cathy Horyn and Eric Wilson.

“My attitude toward fashion is the same; it’s sort of how I think about the world,” Friedman tells Haaretz. “It’s a much broader readership. It kind of encompasses the FT readership times quite a lot, so you know that means your responsibilities as a writer, in terms of the subject matter, change. And I’m kind of still feeling my way through that. You know, trying to get a sense of it. The nice thing about the Times is that it has very interactive readers, very engaged readers, and so I get a lot of feedback – definitely more than I did before. It helps me understand who’s reading and their thinking ... whether or not we agree with each other.”

Our conversation takes place in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hotel, during Friedman’s recent visit as guest of the Department of Fashion Design at the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan, for the graduates’ final projects show. The influential fashion critic is relaxing in an armchair, wearing a simple striped dress, her hair gathered at the back in a hairdo that has become her trademark.

Friedman, who comes from a Jewish family from New York’s Upper East Side, actually studied history and interned in a law firm before switching to journalism. She served as editor and writer at magazines such as The New Yorker and Vogue, mainly on cultural issues, and in 1998 moved with her husband to London, where she joined the team that founded InStyle magazine and began writing about fashion. Two years later, with the birth of her second son, she left her job. That was her fashion background when she landed the job as the FT’s first fashion editor.

Vanessa Friedman in Tel Aviv, July 2014. Photo by Ella Manor

“It wasn’t my idea, it was their idea,” she says. “They had this thing called ‘How to Spend It,’ which was in the magazine but it had used to be a section in the newspaper. In fact, the newspaper section gave birth to the magazine. And the newspaper section really encompassed everything that you spent money on that didn’t have its own section already. So there was a time when gardening was part of ‘How to Spend It,’ and traveling was part of ‘How to Spend It.’ Gradually, as they realized they had very specific reader interest in the topic, they would spin off the pages. And they had just come down to the solution about fashion when I arrived. At the same time, the fashion industry was becoming a real industry, so that made it a topic that was relevant to the FT – maybe in a way that it hadn’t been before. So when you combine those two things, they decided to have a fashion person, and I had been writing freelance fashion stories for them before.”

What do you mean when you say the fashion industry was becoming a real industry?

“The crazy thing is people feel luxury has been around forever. It was when Bernard Arnault bought Christian Dior in 1985. He bought the company that owned Dior, it was this bankrupt French textile company [Boussac], and then he had Dior. And the Gucci group was really only formed in 2000. It’s incredibly young.

“Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole then brought PPR in as their white knight when [Arnault’s] LVMH was thinking about buying Gucci. And then they created the Gucci group, and they bought Saint Laurent, and they bought [Alexander] McQueen, and Stella McCartney. That’s like 14 years ago, 13 years ago, and it was only then the Gucci group was created. Hermès was public a little bit, Ralph Lauren was public a little bit; it was only when you had these three groups that you actually had an industry. But even then it’s not very much. It’s quite easy to watch it develop, and there still aren’t many players.

“There are very few public companies,” she continues. “So it’s interesting to watch, because you can really see a strategy developing and you can watch people rethinking their expansion and how you react globally and what that means – like, how big can you be and still be luxury? How many stores there are?”

Rihanna attends the CFDA Fashion Awards on Monday, June 2, 2014 in New York. Photo by AP

Do you have an answer?

“I don’t, so I keep on asking executives. And they all say there’s this famous Potter Stewart quote – he was a U.S. Supreme Court justice – and there was this pornography case and they had to try and define pornography. And he said, ‘I know it when I see it.’ And that’s what they say: When do you have enough stores? ‘I know it when I see it.’ It’s not very helpful. But it’s a really important question. Where is the line between exclusivity and mass?”

Digital revolution

Friedman’s arrival at The New York Times coincides with other changes in the fashion world, such as the digital revolution, which affects both fashion journalism and the brands themselves.

“I think everyone’s trying to figure it out and it’s really interesting to be part of it, ’cause it is such a kind of experiment,” says Friedman. “And no one really knows the answer. It’s nice to be in a world where no one knows the answer. The real question is how you make the things fit together to enhance each other as opposed to repeat each other. Certainly, in the beginning it was just like, ‘Let’s put our newspaper online and it will look exactly the same.’ But the question of how you make these three – your mobile, online and print ... how you put that puzzle together is really cool to think about.”

Pedestrians walk past a Tiffany & Co., Bulgari SpA and Louis Vuitton stores in the Ginza district of Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Bloomberg

And how do you work in the various media?

“My blog is much newsier. Columns are longer and more narrative – more sort of analytic, I guess. They really look more at behavior and they also tend to be broader. I think the blog is for fashion people, people who have a specific interest in fashion. I don’t think the column is for fashion people. It’s for people who want to know what fashion has to do with the rest of their life. Of course, the blog sits on a fashion page, so if you’re going to go there...”

Is there still room for fashion criticism in the digital age?

“I think what’s good about the current situation is that there’s a space for all these different kinds of voices, and there are people who react very viscerally – like, it’s immediate and it’s emotional and there’s no analysis and there’s no kind of attempt to conceptualize it. Which is fine, it’s like a personal reaction. And then you have formal critics, who look at it in the context of society and what’s going on socially and politically, and the context that it has itself. Like, what is this designer saying, where did it come from, and is it successful?”

How do you see fashion?

“I think fashion is about identity, expression of a certain moment and time … that it’s a most basic level. And individual identity has to do with politics, culture, and society and art. And that’s what’s great about fashion, because it just changes so much. You’re constantly able to check in and have different ideas – what’s going on now, and how is this shown through that garment? And also because it’s become so much more of a pop culture thing – what’s a movie trying to say about [fashion]? What are the world cup teams saying about their clothes? As far as I’m concerned, every garment is fair game; it’s all fashion.”

Lady Gaga arrives at the Roseland. 'Fashion as a career-enhancing tool'. Photo by AP

You mentioned pop culture. In your articles, too, you claim that fashion has become an integral part of it...

“If you look at the way musicians and actors use fashion as a career-enhancing tool and as a way to communicate, it’s really extraordinary. Like Rihanna, she’s really a great singer, but what she’s done with her image ... or Lady Gaga. What they’ve done with their image is as much part of their business and their success in the pop culture currency as their songs. That’s really interesting. And it’s become so conscious, to a certain extent.

“It’s an extraordinary tool. Longevity through clothes. It was like a joke when Rihanna got up for the CFDA ‘Fashion Icon’ award. And she’s wearing ... she’s effectively naked. Does she get that she’s being ironic? Like, is this commentary? Or just about the fact that an individual can now effectively manipulate these industries for their own [needs]? Because it’s really not about fashion, it’s about Rihanna.

“We’re in a digital age. We go to a fashion show and everyone seems to have their phone out, and no one is looking at the clothes. They’re all just filming it. So you can put it up online and then just look at it, I guess.

“Someone once told me that when Miuccia Prada is casting her runway show, she will not only look at the girls, she’ll also film them to see how they look on camera. They don’t really care how good they look in person. People watching them in person only see them for 15 minutes, but they see them on-screen forever, which is interesting.”

When all is said and done, is fashion really important?

“In the beginning, I thought I was going to like articles about great philosophers and great books and world-changing events. And, of course, that fashion is all of those things. But, you know, I was being judgmental – I was 20 or 21, an adolescent. And it took me a long time before I was not embarrassed to say that I did what I did. But I think there is always a rush to judgment on the thing that’s the pretty, shiny toy in the corner. It’s easy to say this is superficial. But something I’m really struck by is that in the worst parts of the world, in the most challenging regions of the world, life is really terrible and hard, full of starvation and death, but there’s fashion. There is a fashion industry in Afghanistan. There’s fashion in Zambia. There was a Fashion Week in Ukraine during the revolution. There’s always fashion. It’s a basic human instinct. And it’s very much about humanity and freedom, and it’s not very superficial at all.”

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