‘You just have to say what
Cathy Horyn on all the news that’s fit to print.
By Jonathan Wingfield
Photographs by Juergen Teller
Fashion in 2015 is a wonderfully topsy-turvy place to be. With more designers, more brands, more media attention, more product, and more consumers than ever before, it’s now a global industry generating sums of money with more digits than we know what to do with. In the midst of all this expansion and acceleration, we felt it was worthwhile trying to make some sense out of the hyperbole. Cue Cathy Horyn.
As perhaps fashion’s single most authoritative (and opinionated) journalistic voice, her 30-year newspaper and magazine career has been anchored in old-school reporting, a profound understanding of the creative process, and an unerring ability to cut through the industry’s smoke and mirrors.
After tenures at the Washington Post and then Vanity Fair, it was Horyn’s 15 years as the New York Times’ chief fashion critic that provided her with the platform to observe, judge and sometimes publically scrap with fashion’s most significant players. What started as a traditional role, reviewing collections from the front rows of New York, Paris and Milan, evolved with the ages – Horyn launched one of fashion’s earliest blogs, the Times’ On The Runway, and, on occasion, found herself reviewing shows from the comfort of her home, via online slideshows (having been banned from attending by disgruntled fashion houses).
When, in January 2014, she announced her decision to step down – to spend more time with her ailing partner Art Ortenberg, who subsequently passed away – a void was felt throughout the fashion community. Many missed her critical eye and unique voice while others, principally those who’d been on the receiving end of a legendary Horyn slap-down, possibly heaved a huge sigh of relief.
But with fashion becoming more newsworthy than ever before, it seemed inevitable that Cathy Horyn’s byline would return to the fore. This past season was her first as critic-at-large for The Cut, New York magazine’s lively online fashion platform, and once again, her dispatches from the shows have proven as thought-provoking as they are polarising.
Back in February, the day before she would formally return to New York fashion week, Cathy generously invited System over to her snow-clad, Hudson Valley home for lunch (homemade soup followed by gingerbread) and a chat about her life, career and today’s fashion landscape.
Several hours later, what emerges isn’t so much a summary of her well-documented spats with certain designers as it is a love letter to newspaper journalism, American style. Talk of post-Watergate era Washington Post, and of “covering your beat” segues into Horyn’s recollections of observing the likes of Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Azzedine Alaïa, Alexander McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld and Raf Simons at work. From there the conversation turns to her (and fashion’s) acclimatisation to the digital age, and finally her thoughts on a fashion industry in flux.
Clocking in at some 15,000 words, you’d be hard-pressed to resume the following conversation in a bite-sized tweet, although Horyn’s more inflammatory comments will no doubt become extracted, headlined and sensationalised on social media. Nonetheless, on the subject of fashion in 2015, we feel it offers, to borrow the New York Times’ maxim, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
From Coshocton to the Times
As a girl were you a bedroom fashionista, cutting out pages of Vogue and sticking them on your walls? Or were you more of the bookish type?
Fashion was of no interest to me whatsoever, even though my mother took Vogue and W. I grew up in a little town in Ohio, the tomboy type, who had horses and loved hanging out with her friends. I have a great photograph of me and my two friends, Peggy and Jane, when we were about six years old. We’re already looking like the women we would later become: Peggy was wearing nail polish and lipstick – obviously gotten into make-up – and she went on to become an airline stewardess; Janey is sitting there holding a doll, she went into childcare; and I’ve got a newspaper spread out in front of me. I was one of those lucky kids that always knew what she wanted to do; I wanted to be a newspaper writer.
‘Fashion was of no interest to me whatsoever, even though my mother took Vogue and W. I grew up in a little town in Ohio, the tomboy type.’
What sparked that interest?
My father had been a newspaper reporter in Cleveland, and later on in Columbus, but then he got a real job making real money. He was a huge influence on me though; he used to correct all my school papers.
What was he writing about?
Cops and robbers; he covered executions at the Ohio penitentiary. I had his scrapbook for a long time but I lost it in a move somewhere. He was a really good writer, and a really good editor; he wrote in that sort of punchy police beat style.
What advice did he give you when it came to writing?
He read my first general news stories, in the early ‘80s, and he used to say, ‘As an exercise, you should reduce your copy by 50 percent, just to see if you can.’ I always thought that was a good idea.
Did you find yourself romanticising being a reporter because of your father?
That whole romance of being a foreign correspondent never really meant that much to me; I just wanted to be on newspapers. I got on that track at a pretty early age – I was editor of both my high school and college newspapers – and I’ve never come off it.
If your mother read Vogue and W, presumably she followed fashion quite keenly?
She was really great looking, very tall, long legs, boobs; never wore makeup, always looked amazing, and she was very capable with clothes. She wore really good-looking, very simple, tailored clothes. She went to New York every other year on the train, firstly to see her parents in New Jersey, and then to shop. My father did too. So we grew up with Saks and Brooks Brothers. It was how they dressed.
Was New York a fascination for you?
Completely. I’ve written about this before, the eight o’clock train to New York stopping through Coshocton, Ohio. My parents were great in that they encouraged my brother and I to leave; there was just no doubt that you were supposed to leave Coshocton. And I couldn’t wait to be on my way. I wanted to go to the University of Carolina, Chapel Hill; they have a really good journalism program there. All the great journalists and modern editors of the New York Times came from the South.
Is that a personality thing?
I don’t know, maybe there were just better stories down there, maybe they were quiet and persevering, maybe they were good at listening, not so aggressive, maybe they were smart but didn’t let on. The surface was more modest.
‘My father had been a newspaper reporter: he covered the police beat, the cops and robbers, public executions at the Ohio penitentiary…’
So you studied in the South.
No, after all that I didn’t get into Chapel Hill but ended up in New York, which I loved, graduating from Barnard in 1978. When I wasn’t studying or reading, I worked for two great New York women, one of which was Diana Trilling.
How was she?
She was imposing and very strong, a real taskmaster; you had to be accurate and on your toes. I would be sitting there in this amazing living room and she’d dictate all her correspondence to me because she had tendonitis and couldn’t write anymore.
Did she give you any writing tips?
She’d originally wanted to be an opera singer but she got sick and her voice got wrecked. So she learned to write by the ‘sound of word’, which is something I very much believe in. So that and being accurate were important lessons I learnt from her.
Who was the other woman you worked for?
A very wealthy lady called Mary Loeb, who lived at No. 2, Sutton Place. Her husband – who was long gone by then – had been a banker or something, and was first cousins to Peggy Guggenheim. Mary was great: she had gone blind in her later years, so I’d spend the weekends with her, both of us smoking Marlboros and drinking Diet Coke, and me reading things like Lolita and all of [Norman] Mailer’s books to her, which she loved.
And she paid you to do that?
Very well paid. She would tell me these great stories about Peggy Guggenheim. She was second cousin to Thomas Wolfe, and had met Fitzgerald. It’s the world of New York that’s gone now.
You caught the tail end of it.
It was a world populated by people who lived in the same apartments their whole lives; people who had memories that went back to the ‘20s; people who had been in World War II; people who had come out of concentration camps, survivors. They had a stronger connection to the city, and the city operated at a slower pace. I’m not complaining about today, things have just changed…
Tell me about your first job on a newspaper.
I went as a reporter to the Virginian-Pilot, which I loved; a great, great paper. It’s still published but I was there in its heyday. There was a woman at the paper whose name was Cammy Sessa; an older woman, kind of cute and funny and particular, always had a joke. She was the paper’s fashion writer and would go to New York twice a year to cover the shows, which I thought seemed like a great job. In the summer of 86, I saw an ad in Editor and Publisher for a job at the Detroit News; it said ‘Fashion writer, no experience necessary.’ I had to write two fashion stories, based on my own ideas, as a try-out – the first time I’d ever written about fashion – and then they hired me.
What were those stories about?
One story was more newsy, about the shocking fact that black and blue were being worn together in fashion. That was an odd combination at the time, and worthy of a story. Then, as it was the era of Thierry Mugler, I did a story about my mother who had hip pads put in all her clothes. I have no idea what I wrote about it, but it was fun to do something that was personal. And it landed me the job.
Can you remember your earliest days arriving in Detroit?
I remember going there with all these horrible clothes that I’d bought in Virginia Beach, because I didn’t really know any better – just whatever I thought was fashionable. Unfortunately it was a bunch of crap. But Detroit was fun and I could do pretty much what I wanted at the paper.
Did you find yourself having to self-school in fashion pretty quickly?
Very quickly. But I didn’t exactly come to it empty-handed because of W magazine being in our house all the time. I loved reading W because I’ve always loved the society pages: The Mitfords, Evelyn Waugh, between the wars stuff, American aristocracy… I loved it all. And John Fairchild [Founding Editor of W magazine, launched in 1972] always had the secret to writing about fashion: just write about great people. It’s not about the clothes, the clothes are the most boring part, and they still are. So, to me, fashion was about people.
Who were the first designers you interviewed, or whose shows you attended?
Bill [Blass]’s first shows, Oscar [de la Renta]’s shows, Isaac [Mizrahi]’s first shows… I loved Bill Blass. I got to know him really well.
‘I said, ‘Bill [Blass], I want to do something different with my hair, what do you think?’ and he looks at me and says, ‘Ever thought about combing it?’’
He was like American fashion folklore at the time, right?
He was like the dean of American fashion, such a great guy. He was from the Midwest so we had a lot in common; he laughed, and he’d tell you off. I once went to see him in Connecticut – we were working on his book – and I said, ‘Bill, I want to do something different with my hair, what do you think I should do?’ and he looks at me and says, ‘Have you ever thought about combing it?’
When did you start covering the shows in Paris and Milan?
1986, ’87. There were so many more journalists going from all the smaller cities in the US compared to today: two or three from Chicago, two or three from Dallas, two or three from Houston. We’d probably all been on other sections of our respective newspapers before arriving on the fashion pages, and we just looked at it as another job, as another beat.
For someone who, by their own admission, was badly dressed and self-schooled in fashion, Paris and Milan must have been…
…absolutely petrifying! I felt like such a hick. I remember the travel agent telling me that the hotel I was staying in – the Leonardo di Vinci – was really central. It was actually situated beyond Milan airport! So I had to get in the taxi and have everything with me for the entire day because I couldn’t go back and forth. I was going to the A.P. [Associated Press, newsgathering organisation] office in Milan to use their machines to file everything. Meanwhile, all the girls from the papers in Philadelphia, L.A. and Miami were so smart-looking and accomplished. They’d all meet for dinner and it felt like high school, you know, like they wouldn’t accept me in their group!
What about the front row scene?
I’d sit there and stare in wonder at people like Carlyne Cerf [de Dudzeele]. It was great for people-watching, great theatre, a great big circus. I loved thinking about all the people who influenced me – writers like Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese – and thinking to myself, ‘How can I write about fashion in the same way those guys write about their subjects.’
Did the number of journalists covering fashion in the provinces reflect the appetite America had for fashion at the time?
It reflected the advertising spend. But there was an insatiable readership for sure; there’s a huge market in all those cities, particularly Texas, with Neiman Marcus starting there, with all those specialty stores, and all that oil money. Great fashion is always made by two things, I think: money and racial diversity. Detroit has got style because of an industry like cars in its history, plus it’s racially mixed; it’s got black West Side, black downtown, Jewish North Side… But go to Washington DC and it’s just the most boring and least stylish place.
Ironically, your next move was from Detroit to Washington, right?
The Washington Post had been in touch with me while I was in Detroit – not for fashion but just for a general assignment job in the Style section. They stayed in touch with me, and then when Nina Hyde died they called me up.
‘I loved thinking to myself, ‘How can I write about fashion in the same way Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese write about their subjects.’’
Did moving to the Washington Post feel like a step up the ladder?
Totally. Because of the reputation of the paper, obviously, but also Nina Hyde’s great reputation; she’d had the job for about 20 years. Also, all the journalists I knew in that era wanted to work on the paper’s Style section because it had great space for features writing; it was a space where you could have a point of view and just do whatever you wanted.
Give me an example of a piece you wrote at the Post.
Two pieces stick in my mind, and they were both profiles. I don’t remember any of the reviews because there were so many of them. In keeping with the whole ethos of the paper’s Style section – doing great take-outs on people – there was a profile I did on [Arnold] Scaasi. We went to La Grenouille restaurant, which was a lot of fun, and then I spoke to his older sister in Montreal who told me a lot of stuff that was brutal to Scaasi – like Scaasi being Isaacs spelt backwards, and what she used to call him, ‘Little Jesus’. It was a fun piece to write, but he wouldn’t speak to me for a long time after that. I mean, we weren’t there to protect the designers, we didn’t protect artists, we didn’t protect filmmakers. We just wrote what we wanted and I think a lot of that stuff would shock people today.
Who was the other profile you mentioned?
Ralph Lauren. It was probably his 20th anniversary and I interviewed him twice for the piece. He told me this story about how he’d gone to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s house, outside of Paris – they were both dead by this stage – because he was always obsessed with the Duke of Windsor’s style. Ralph was telling me about trying on the Duke’s jackets and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What? How would you just take it upon yourself to slip on this dead Duke’s jacket?’ Anyway, I called his personal assistant and asked, ‘Did that really happen?’ and he said it never had. Ralph just had this whole fantasy about trying on the clothes. But it was a fun piece to write, I remember focusing on these perfect little holes in his jeans, because he’s such an obsessive guy.
Would these things have slipped through the net, or would there have been a stern phone call from the publicist the following morning?
Never a phone call. Never.
I think there was nothing they could ever refute and they knew they couldn’t bully the Washington Post. When Ben Bradlee died, there were a lot of great tributes to him, one of which was so great I saved it. It’s a letter Bradlee had written some time in the late ‘80s to this PR guy who represented the the Ringling Brothers Circus. The PR had kept nagging Mary Hadad, who was my editor on the Style section, about doing yet another story on the circus. It was just really annoying, you know, threatening to take this matter to the top, wanting to have lunch with Ben. So Ben wrote this guy the greatest letter, basically saying, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you. We’ve done plenty of stories about the circus and the day that you think you can tell us what to do…’ It was really funny and brilliantly written. You know, this was the newspaper behind Watergate being threatened by the fucking circus!
Was the Washington Post still basking in the glory of Watergate when you got there?
Sure, so nobody ever complained about what we wrote. They may not have spoken to you anymore but you didn’t care. I remember when I wrote that Scaasi story, Bill Blass called me to say they’d been passing a copy of the Post all around the 550 building [550 Seventh Avenue]. It went to Oscar, all of them read it and they were delighted, because nobody could stand Scaasi.
Why, as you refer to it, ‘do a take-out’ on the designers?
This was the early ‘90s, and these guys were total kings. So it was like, ‘Let’s write about these guys as rock stars with their big egos, let’s turn the knife a little bit.’
What better place to assassinate people’s rock star egos than at Vanity Fair. That’s where you went next, right?
Right, I had four years at Vanity Fair. I met Graydon Carter at a Donna Karan show and he was very complimentary. He said, ‘I’m addicted to your writing, come and write features for me’. Graydon would tell me what he wanted and I would go and do it. I did Hollywood covers, I did some fashion, like the story about Madame Grès, and her daughter hiding the news of her death. That was actually Laurence Benaïm’s story idea, she was at Le Monde at that point. I also did a big piece on Rudi Gernreich, something on Isaac, a really early piece on Helmut Lang…
‘In the early ‘90s, the designers were total kings. So it was like, ‘Let’s write about them as rock stars with their big egos, let’s turn the knife a little bit.’’
Did you have a lot longer to write those pieces for Vanity Fair?
I think I did six stories a year. But I actually had a double contract, so maybe I did four for Graydon and six for Anna [Wintour] at Vogue. But Anna was never very happy about that arrangement.
Why, because she wanted exclusivity?
Yes. Graydon had called me first and I already had a relationship with him, and it was fun to write for him. But with Anna, she tried the exclusive and we said no; but I think she was just never happy that Graydon got the better stuff. But, you know, Graydon assigned me those great stories; it wasn’t like I pitched them.
But would you have been able to write that stuff for Vogue?
No! It was a bad thing for me, Vogue, I should never have done it. Anna and I never had a rapport. I mean, I love Vogue, I have great respect for what she does, but we never bonded at all.
Was moving from Vanity Fair and Vogue to the New York Times about wanting to write more straight-up fashion criticism?
It was very simple really, the Times was all I’d ever wanted. You asked earlier about the romance, well the Times was the romance: I really loved what the institution was about and I still do. Everything goes at a faster pace at a newspaper and that was what I’d missed. Vanity Fair was great but you don’t go to the shows, you parachute in and then leave, so you kind of lose contact a bit.
Were you immediately given the post of Fashion Critic for the Times?
Amy Spindler [former Fashion Critic and Style Editor of the New York Times] was already the critic, it was her natural bent, but then she got breast cancer. They called me in March ‘97 and said Amy wants to get off this beat and we want you to take it on. I started in December of ‘98, then they made me the critic the following year. Amy was actually the first ever person they’d appointed Fashion Critic at the Times. It was a big deal because when you’re a critic you have all different kinds of rights that a normal reporter doesn’t have.
What sort of rights?
Basically, when you’re a critic or a columnist, people can’t change your copy. They obviously do if it’s a typo, but they can’t tell you what to write about. If you want to go write about how that tree looks, then you can write about how that tree looks.
Did you feel that you had to up your game at the Times?
And was that a conscious decision?
Very much so.
‘When you’re seeing all those collections – season after season – you can sit at a show and know in a heartbeat what’s new or striking, or newsworthy.’
How did you go about that?
A couple of things: I always made a point of doing showroom appointments, and I’d always go out four nights a week – parties, events, whatever… – because I wanted to know what was going on. It was wonderful but it meant, paradoxically, that I didn’t have a big social life going on. I worked, really worked, for those 16 years. My son went to boarding school and I went to the city and worked.
Looking back, did those things pay off?
I learnt most of what I now know about fashion in my 16 years at the Times: I went out, I talked to a lot of people, I went to factories, I went to showrooms, I talked to designers. I loved walking down Seventh Avenue and going to places like 550, in the days when all the big designers were in their studios. Bill was on the fifth floor, Oscar was on the eighth and I would just go and drop in. I’d go see Ralph Rucci who was in the next building. That’s gone now; it doesn’t feel quite the same because everything’s fractured.
What about in Europe?
One of the best pieces of advice I received when I got to the Times was from Carlyne Cerf: go and see Azzedine [Alaïa]. He was not where he is today; he was going through a difficult period. I’d never got to meet him before, and all of a sudden I could go hang out with Azzedine all day; this was the late 90s, it was still a much slower pace. The Times gave me a new level of access to creative people: what they were doing in the studio, what their thought process was, and how they were making clothes. I loved it.
Has access to designers become an issue as time has gone on?
Well, if Oscar were still alive today I’d need to make an appointment to see him, I’d need to get through security. Whereas in London in the early ‘90s, when I met McQueen and Hussein [Chalayan] for the first time, you’d just go and visit them in these totally crappy places where they’d be living and working.
As media interest has grown, has the role of the publicist become increasingly that of the gatekeeper?
Yes, I think that’s just the nature of things. I’m lucky, I still have tonnes of access; I can still go up to the ateliers at Chanel and Dior. If I want to go see a factory in Italy, I can do that. I like the Max Mara people a lot, because they are very open and you can go see what’s happening in their factories. The same thing with Azzedine, just on a different scale: one man living above his shop with an amazing atelier. I just want to go and hang out, sit in the corner of the studio, and observe. I love doing that. Sometimes I think the younger publicists don’t understand that.
Why? Because they are fearful?
They are more regimented and they probably have bosses who are like, ‘What did she say? What was she asking about?’ I think they probably control that more than they need to. If I go to a showroom, I’m like. ‘I just want to look at the clothes; I don’t want anyone holding my hand.’ But some people are scared and you get the feeling that someone is leaning on them to control the situation. And for what? Why? They don’t understand that newspaper reporting requires that time and effort. You remove that and you encourage laziness and bad reporting. But, you know, there’s a new generation of people who are used to getting all their news and information through a cell phone, and for them speed probably eclipses the actual quality of reporting. It’s a problem.
The Role of the Critic
Let’s talk about the role of the critic. I’m fascinated by how fashion critics are able to assimilate and pass judgement in what used to be a matter of hours, but is now probably a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds.
First of all, I should say I don’t go to a lot of shows, not nearly as many as other people do, because I only want to write about the newsmakers. I don’t want to feel like I have to go, believe me I’ve done that. But when you’re seeing all those collections, season after season, you can sit at a show and know in a heartbeat what’s new, what’s striking, what’s newsworthy.
You say you only want to write about the newsmakers. What constitutes a newsmaker?
It changes. I mean, Dries [Van Noten] might be a newsmaker, but maybe not an innovator. Raf [Simons] is ideas driven; he’s going to put the information out there for you to think about. Miuccia [Prada] is the same; you go backstage and she’s got something interesting to share that usually makes you think.
What do you make of that whole charade of everyone dashing backstage to bow down to the designer?
I hate going backstage. I go to hear what Miuccia has to say, but mainly because I also want to talk to Fabio [Zambernardi, Design Director of Prada] and Olivier [Rizzo, stylist], whoever else is back there. But for me Miuccia is almost a separate world. Miuccia and Raf – maybe Marc [Jacobs] and a few others – but those two always come to mind because they are food for thought. I mean, you sit there today and see a Yohji [Yamamoto] show – after I don’t know how many I’ve seen – and they’re just not the same thing that we saw in the ‘90s. You decide whether it’s worth writing about it, or just moving on.
Do you think a designer can be important or significant without being newsworthy? Or rather, are there different levels of being newsworthy?
For me, there are those New York designers like Oscar and Bill who had great businesses and they made great stories. You can’t compare what they did to what Helmut Lang did. If I was Women’s Wear [Daily] and felt like I had to cover the industry then I would look at it differently, but I’m not Women’s Wear. I’m looking to write stories that are newsworthy. Amy used to say the same thing: ‘Designers call me up all the time and say, ‘Why didn’t you come to my show, why didn’t you write about it’, and she’d just say, ‘Make more newsworthy clothes and I’ll come.’
What do you think gives authority to the critic?
A couple of things: longevity and being free of influence. You’ve always got something influencing you, but you should work at keeping some distance from that. You just have to say what you think.
‘When I left the New York Times, a lot of the designers were like, ‘You said things that were terrible, that really hurt me… but you were right!’’
Is that the hardest thing?
No. One of my toughest reviews was for an Oscar show and it was the one he loved the most. Same with Tom Ford. Tom got so upset with me about something… but when I left the Times, a lot of these guys were like, ‘You said things that were terrible, that really hurt me, but you were right!’
Does that make you feel proud?
I just like saying what I think. Amy used to say to me all the time, ‘Cathy, shut the fuck up, you’re always sat in front of your screen, laughing at your own jokes.’ And she was right: I love to see things that are really great – really great or really bad – that make you think, and I love going back and writing about them.
Do you think that the rigor and thought process of being a critic is something that can be transferred into other fields? If given time to learn those particular fields, could you become, say, a theatre critic or film critic or an art critic?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I could never become a TV critic for instance, but with enough time and patience maybe I could be a movie critic, or a book critic. Critics are drawn to their medium: art critics obviously have some fascination for the creation of new art and the personalities in art. I find fashion people more appealing than most artists. Maybe because of the business side, which I really like, maybe because I love the phoniness of fashion. These days, the phoniness is not so much fun as it was in the ‘90s. Bill was a big phoney, Oscar was a huge phoney. They came and they charmed and they swaggered, they flirted with the customers, and yet they were great people behind that façade.
Whose doing that now?
I guess Karl [Lagerfeld]. I mean, he doesn’t necessarily spend so much time with the customers but he gets on the stage and he performs. Tom Ford does it, too. But they are old-school guys. Today I think that the economics of fashion has affected everything in the industry. It’s not about aesthetics, it’s not about pleasure, it’s certainly not about charming people…
To what extent do you take into consideration a designer’s scale of business, or their sense of history, when it comes to reviewing a show? Armani and Thomas Tait, for example, are almost two different industries.
Yes, that’s a good question. I mean, I really like Armani: I like the business, I like him as a guy. I like that he has achieved so much, I like all the crazy people who work for him. But honestly, it’s very difficult to write about the clothes. I think for a critic it’s almost better not to attend; I can’t write in a critical way about Armani because there’s very little to say. He’s a made guy, he’s not going to change how he does things, there’s not going to be any particular newness.
Surely Armani’s sense of history – the company is 40 years old this year – makes it newsworthy?
Well, I think about what his shows were like back in the late ‘80s and they were so beautifully done, as well as being great-looking clothes. I mean, you would kill to have some of those jackets and pants today. And the quality was insane. His presentations were just heaven, but now they’re in this new space. I asked Armani about all this when I did an interview with him last year, and the great thing about Armani is, if you tell him straight what you really think, he doesn’t go crazy, and he listens to what you’re saying. He said to me, ‘Look, you’re not the only one buying these clothes, it’s not just about you, I have clients all over the world.’ And there’s your answer. I like him, but I just wish I’d known him in the early days.
You say there’s nothing you can write about Armani, but isn’t that just neutering your role as a critic?
I guess it is, but sometimes the critic has to just bow out and say, ‘I love what you do and I’d love to come to the show, but it just isn’t for me anymore and I don’t want to disappoint you.’
By being selective about the number of collections you review, is there a fear that you might miss something that’s really interesting or relevant? Or do you think you instinctively make the right choices?
For sure, you might miss something. But the bigger fear is that you might not perceive the stuff that you are seeing correctly, that you might not have the right set of eyes or the right amount of information, or you’re just not up to date.
How do you keep up to date?
By reading a lot. By taking the time. By accepting the things that you’re not so good at and concentrating on what you do well. This season I’m just trying to see as many new designers as possible. I’m not that hopeful, but I want to go. I’m going to see someone tomorrow, Ms [Mafalda] Von Hessen: she’s a woman who is about my age, a costume designer from Rome who’s started doing her own line. She is doing all those things from the past that you can’t find on the market: a beautiful skirt, a great shirt-dress, an old riding coat, a lot of things that are based on her grandparents. She has good taste, but then I ask myself, ‘Does anyone care about taste any more?’ I looked at her clothes online and thought, ‘Hmm, I kind of like that. It’s simple, it’s soft, let’s go see it.’ Her publicist is pushing her whole aristocracy angle; like I really give a shit that she’s related to the King of… Transylvania, or wherever it is.
Although you did say you loved all those socialites in your mother’s copies of W.
Yeah, but we were all gullible back then; it was a remote world – it is no longer remote.
Do you think that today’s fashion press has become distracted by the branding machines behind some of the big designers? Do the huge company structures, the big advertising spends, the brand ambassadors, the celebrities, and all the PR and marketing actually eclipse any objective analysis of a collection? It sometimes feels like the collections are made into a success before they’ve even been presented.
‘The economics of fashion has affected everything in the industry. It’s no longer about aesthetics or pleasure; it’s certainly not about charming people.’
Do you find yourself guilty of becoming distracted by all that?
I try not to be, because I have a particular bug in my ass about exactly what you’re describing – about the branding. I don’t even like that word.
So you consider all the branding fanfare as a negative distraction?
I remember Suzy Menkes writing about this in the [International] Herald Tribune about five years ago. She was going on about branding this and branding that; of course, she was absolutely right, that did happen, and the importance of branding has become key. But then it started becoming a part of her writing, there was just too much of an embrace of that language and the methodology that those companies were using. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute, Suzy, why are you working for these people? You work for a newspaper and you’re a critic, please try and stay somewhat independent of that thinking.’ Suzy won’t like me saying that, she’ll say that I’m a… well, she will say what she will say. I mean, people could say that I’m being a Pollyanna about this, but it’s had a terrible influence, I find it polluting.
‘It’ clearly works, though.
People have been totally bowled over and influenced by it. But then you get a younger generation that isn’t as confident at expressing an opinion, or in some cases doesn’t even know they can have an opinion about these things. That leads to an entire generation thinking it has to go with what the brand says, with its indoctrination.
Is this something you take into consideration when reviewing a big brand designer as opposed to a designer that has none of that branding support?
It depends. You’d mentioned Thomas Tait just before, as the polar opposite to Armani. Well, I love going to see Thomas, he’s a little uneven but he’s very hands-on. He obviously doesn’t have the facilities of Raf at Dior, or the incredible atelier of Azzedine, but I just expect him to be able to deliver at the level that he’s able to deliver. If it’s Chanel or Dior I expect them to deliver according to their histories. Ultimately, that is what you’re buying. God, sometimes I think I should become one of these brand people; I’d love to say the things that they should do.
Do brands ever ask you to consult?
No, I couldn’t. When I was at the Times, you had to be very careful. Even when I was in a showroom and people would ask me, ‘So, what do you think of my business?’ And I would tell them, just because it’s easier to do that, but you weren’t supposed to.
How do you distinguish between a good collection and an exceptional one?
I’d say the fundamental thing between good and exceptional is: can it hit an emotional button? Secondly, can it hit a mental button? Like John Galliano did a great collection for Galliano, which was one of my favourite shows that he did, with the twins, the tall people and the fat people; it was brilliant and he came out with the marionette on a puppet, and I just thought that was fun and gutsy. A lot of people were very upset about that show, saying these people are all monsters, and I was like, ‘Look at us; we’re the freaks! Are you kidding me?’ Some of McQueen’s shows have been very emotional, too, like the dancehall show. That was one of the all time great shows. Lee [McQueen] used to get very upset if people said that to him.
What was so upsetting about that?
I think he was tired of hearing it; I think he liked it but I think he’d moved on. That show was around 2004 and I think he hated people saying in 2007 that they loved that show. Anyway, to go back to your question, great shows need that emotional or intellectual button. We’ve lost that within fashion, there used to be a lot of wit, too. You still see exceptional Rei Kawakubo shows, and then she can really hit it out of the park. But, you know, she has duds too.
‘Sometimes the critic has to say, ‘I love what you do and I’d love to come to your show, but it just isn’t for me anymore – I don’t want to disappoint you.’’
As a fashion critic, how important is it to experience a show first hand in order to write about it?
Well, I wrote this piece for T magazine last summer without going to the shows. Joe McKenna had mentioned, ‘I want to know why everything is so commercial looking.’ So the deputy editor at T asked me to write about it. You know, it was Nicolas [Ghesquière]’s first Vuitton show, and of course there was Hedi [Slimane], and then we thought of a few other people who showed really straightforward looking clothes – that’s really what we meant by commercial. So they gave me that assignment at the beginning of June and I had three weeks to work on it, which gave me the time to really think about it, and to think about Hedi.
Why him in particular?
I think he is talented at what he does, he’s great at branding – ha, that word again, [sings] branding! – even though I think the whole story with the teenagers and the music is so kind of poppy… Anyway, I enjoyed thinking about that piece, and I actually had the time to go into the Times archive to look at what Gloria Emerson had written about YSL back in the day. I could tell that Hedi was getting everything from these two or three particular seasons in the ‘60s, but I wanted to be sure. Next thing I know, four hours have passed and I’m still reading about a T-shirt on the Left Bank in 1968. But that gave me the impetus to think about what Hedi was doing and to have some fun with writing about it.
So the time available to you influenced what you wrote.
It was a completely different writing experience: I didn’t go to any shows, I only looked at seven collections online, and I was really happy with how it turned out. I never had that time to think when I was on the paper.
Does the squeeze of the deadline lead you to write things you later regret or that were off the mark?
Yeah, I’ve written follow-up pieces on collections because I missed things the first time around. I did it with Stefano Pilati and his first YSL show.
What did you say in the first piece that you later revised?
I came back and said it was actually interesting. The first time around I’d dismissed it right out, saying it was all puff-sleeved and tulip-shaped skirts and very girly; I just didn’t get it. But then I got it and wrote about it. I kind of liked him at YSL and I liked some of his ideas but I just sensed that he was a bit all over the place.
Have you found yourself reappraising a collection by experiencing it in different contexts, like seeing it shot in editorials or worn on the street?
Yes. Not on the street or in editorials, but in the showrooms. Céline is a good example of that. Phoebe [Philo] does things in the show that can be good and interesting, or they can be things I don’t quite get. I think she’s talented and when I go to the showroom I tend to see a far more human connection to the clothes. But I’m still very much on the fence about Phoebe, too.
Let’s talk about the On The Runway blog you wrote for several years at the Times. The interaction between yourself and the online community that formed around the blog was quite unique at the time. Was that the goal you set out to achieve?
It was totally organic. I remember talking with Tim Blanks [Editor-at-Large for Style.com] one night in 2007 at the Castiglione café in Paris. I mentioned I was starting a blog – they were still new at this point – and he said, ‘If you’re doing a blog you should…’ and I said, ‘Tim, stop! Don’t tell me what a blog should be, nobody knows what a blog should be, and I don’t want to know. I just want to see what comes from it.’
Did you immediately feel a sense of freedom, a looser format?
In the early years, the Times allowed me to post onto the blog directly, because there was no one in the New York office when I was writing from Europe. I didn’t have to go through an editor. Can you imagine? Then somebody found out and it all changed, and we then had our super SWAT team and all that.
What did the blog offer that the print newspaper couldn’t?
If I didn’t quite get the show the first time round, I could revisit it on the blog and develop what I wanted to say. Later on, I did it in reverse: I would put things on the blog quickly and then I’d think about it and write a more complete piece for the paper. I always thought the paper should have the final word.
The dialogue between you and the readers took on this whole new world.
The first five years were great because we had the same people who would come on to the blog and make comments. I could go from collection to collection and they always had a great opinion, and some great arguments developed.
You developed quite a rapport with some of those anonymous people posting.
Well there was Marko. His original handle was ‘Autre’; then he went by his real name. He was very reactionary and funny and knowledgeable about clothes; turns out he lives somewhere in former Yugoslavia and has an Art History PhD. I met him in Paris actually, he is a really nice guy but very intense. He was so multilingual that he could just break things down in almost any language, and in slang.
‘Who could have imagined that guys and girls sharing pictures of themselves on Instagram would be enough to shift fashion product?’
What was the most memorable exchange you had with him on the blog?
It was about that very curvaceous, zaftig-looking Prada show, maybe five years ago; Lara Stone and Doutzen [Kroes] were in it. We had all this post-Berlin-Wall feminism, post-socialism, militant feminism versus less aggressive feminism… Miuccia was obviously unaware it was going on, but when I told her about it I was like, ‘You should have joined the conversation!’
Wasn’t Marc Jacobs actually posting at one point?
Yeah, sometimes Marc would weigh in, usually because he was annoyed…
How did you know it was actually him?
We had to get it confirmed. He was actually complaining about somebody’s comment. Me or somebody else. I don’t remember…
How did you feel about all these anonymous but sometimes really informed and knowledgeable people challenging you?
Some of it was really intimidating!
Did you find yourself getting swayed by their opinions?
No, I made a point not to look at what Marko and other people were saying before I’d had a chance to post. Later on, I would get into the habit of coming back from something like a Jil Sander show, and quickly writing something on the blog – only four sentences – just to give them the platform so they could start writing. They needed that launching pad. But then that would bug me because, you know, I’d just want to sit in my room, eat my pasta bolognese and actually think about the show for a few minutes before writing.
On that subject, do you find yourself swayed by the opinions of other critics?
No, I usually read them afterwards. I used to read Suzy because the Herald Trib came to my room in the morning and I could read it at breakfast. There are times when I read her and am like, ‘What is she talking about? I don’t believe that at all!’ Other times I’ll sit there laughing out loud because she’s just so funny and right on target.
Did you ever have problems coming to terms with all the access that so many new people were now getting? Whether that was bloggers on the front row or people weighing in on the Times’ blog?
No, I didn’t mind that part of it; I thought it was fun. Also, I have a big enough ego to think that what I had at the Times – my access, my place – was great, and a reader with great opinions didn’t come close to that. But I loved the fact we had a community on the blog, and I loved being the forum master.
I guess it underlined the pecking order. The readers were not exactly your disciples, but they…
…no, please, they’d better be my disciples! It was like, ‘This is my fucking show here.’
How has writing on a blog affected the way you review the shows? Generally speaking, descriptions of clothes now seem redundant, whereas analysis has become more important than ever before.
Well, slide shows have made people very lazy. They kind of do the work for you. In a way, even though I just said there are all these smart people out there, I think that fashion criticism in the last couple of years has become a harder road. There are so many different types of fashion coverage – online fashion, red carpet fashion, celebrity fashion – and they take up a lot of the audience’s time, or, worse still, they constitute the reason why some people have turned off from fashion. So here you are, the fashion critic writing your piece about the guys and the girls who are really good at fashion – the actual designers themselves – and yet the audience has turned its attention elsewhere.
What are your thoughts on the ubiquitous image-led blogs and the extra-ordinary rise of Instagram?
They have served an amazing purpose, those guys and girls with Instagram accounts just being able to say ‘I like something’.
What purpose has that served to you?
None to me, but it certainly helps the designers.
‘I write about the people who really know fashion – the actual designers – but the audience has turned its attention to red carpets and celebrity.’
In massaging their egos?
No, in moving their products. It’s free advertising. Well, I don’t know if it’s free anymore; they’re probably getting sent clothes and products and being paid. But just by going on Instagram and saying I’m wearing this today, they’re getting a gazillion likes and that shifts product. Who could have imagined that someone sharing a picture of themselves in an outfit would be enough?
Does that fascinate you?
Slightly, but after you look at it once, it’s not so fascinating. I’d rather see [illustrator] David Downton’s blog that shows me his great work, or someone who is funny, or that girl who runs Man Repeller. But just to see some girl with her 20,000 likes? I don’t know…
Does it make the role of the critic more challenging?
The environment is more interesting today, but it’s far harder to understand. There are just so many new designers out there, they’re like gnats. Some of them are quite good and many of them have been able to survive through creating businesses on the internet. So I think all of that makes it interesting, but it’s a constantly moving target. Just as soon as you grasp it, it changes again. And I think you’re foolish to try and grasp it in its entirety. It just doesn’t work like that anymore. As a journalist you have to focus on the things you believe in.
Before we started the interview, you mentioned you were currently writing a history of fashion coverage at the New York Times, starting back in the 19th century. Have you found that critics were more or less opinionated in the past?
It depends on the individual, and I can only talk about the woman I’m researching right now; she was the first fashion editor at the Times – her pen name was Anne Rittenhouse – and she was quite critical. But she’s not criticising designers per se, because she comes at an age when that whole designer thing was just beginning with Poiret, so she’s on the cusp. In an article I found about Anne Rittenhouse’s first trip to Paris, she definitely whacks Poiret in that column. She knows she’s in a modern space, she knows that Poiret is the guy, but that doesn’t stop her. She’s also very good about telling readers when something is just silly, when hats are the worst they’ve ever been.
How much of her archive have you been through? Did you relate to her in any way?
I’ve looked at some of her later stuff, when she becomes a syndicated writer, and she gets really croaky and is kind of past her due date. In those early years of 1908 to 1914 though, just before the war starts, she’s amazing, and she’s tough. But I know that I’m going to find fashion critics at the Times in the ‘30s and ‘40s who were not critics but who would kind of just give a slap on the wrist.
What have you read in the past 12 months that you think stands out as a great piece of quality fashion criticism?
… [ponders] Oh gosh…
You can say ‘nothing’ if you want.
I can’t think of anything.
How telling is that in the history of fashion criticism? Do you feel we’re in a low point?
What’s frustrating is that there are some really good writers out there. They’re smart, they’re funny. But the formats available right now are not great, that’s part of the problem. I look at Tim Blanks and he’s very perceptive about a lot of things and he can be very funny, but he’s writing in a format that has now defined him. He might be very happy with it – I haven’t talked to him about it. I would just say that Tim has a long history of working in many kinds of formats, some of which have more elbow room than others.
Hypersensitivity in a Bitchy World
Who are you writing for? The designers themselves? Bored housewives in the Midwest? Fashion students online? Bernard Arnault?
I think it’s a little bit of all those people. But I hardly ever think about the fashion world, even though I know they are reading because I see them on Twitter and on blogs. It’s essentially for a smart reader, in New York or across the States.
Do you care if your interpretation of a show or collection is faithful to what the designer had in mind?
No, that’s why it’s sometimes deadly to go backstage and get the designer’s explanation, because then you don’t interpret. I think the designers tend to like it too if you bring something totally different – McQueen used to love that.
Do they ever tell you if they think you’ve got it wrong?
Yeah, sometimes they do. Generally they’ll tell you if they don’t like what you’ve said.
‘I grew up surrounded by White House reporters and sports reporters, so I think that everyone should just be cool and objective and less senstive.’
Do you get writer’s block?
Sure, I don’t call it that, but sure. You can sit down at six o’ clock and by eight you suddenly get really tired and you don’t feel like writing, but you have to write to the deadline – even though the words are coming out like glue. Other nights it’s just coming out all good. You know, there was a guy at the Times called Mike Berger who died in the late 1950s. He could write 1000 words in about 40 minutes.
Was it good?
God yeah, he won the Pulitzer Prize for a 4000-word piece he wrote about a war veteran who in 1949 went on a shooting spree in his neighbourhood. Mike Berger went over there and interviewed 50 people in the neighbourhood – the parents, everybody. Then he went straight back to the office and in three hours wrote 4000 words and won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s an amazing piece; it’s worth reading.
Do you agree that it’s easier to write a damning review than something that’s smart and positive?
You’ve written your share of vicious put-downs.
Doing that in the past was easier, because it was fun; there was a kind of breathlessness about it, a kind of daring. Contentiousness is a wonderful quality, but just being snarky – bitchy – is not the same thing. With the shows, you’re coming back from 15 minutes of explosion and your mind is racing and when you see something really hideous – like Tom Ford’s show with the weird broad caps and Kate Moss in it – you have fun writing about it. ‘Hideous and freaky’ I think I called it. I wouldn’t change a word to this day, but they’re not as rewarding to write. People generally remember a tart or snarky line, but for me as a journalist I would rather write about something more thoughtful.
Do critics hold being banned from shows as a badge of honour?
I think they used to. I never thought it was a badge of honour, and I was glad that the Times always stood up for me. Most of the time I didn’t even know there was a problem until I found out I wasn’t invited to the show. Even though I would hear later on – sometimes months later – that Art Sulzberger, the publisher or Jill Abramson, the executive editor, had been contacted. I think they may have been involved with Saint Laurent, I don’t remember now. Armani; I’m sure. But they would never tell me that there’s a problem, which I’m glad about, that way I just carry on.
So you never got your wrist slapped by the powers that be at the Times?
Never in 16 years. I heard about advertising being pulled but I never heard anybody say, ‘This is your fault’. The attitude was always, ‘They might take it away now, but it will come back.’
‘No publisher nor editor has ever called me and said, ‘You pissed them off, Cathy, they’ve pulled their advertising. Can you just cool it now.’’
Your experience is singularly unique, I believe. You must be aware of that.
How does that make you feel about the broader fashion media landscape?
The only place I would ever worry about it is at the Times; if their stance changed, it’d be a worry. Ultimately, I don’t want to see any kind of influence: I don’t want to see writers having to mention everybody who’s an advertiser, I don’t want to see anything repugnant like that. But it obviously happens.
I know I live in a slight bubble but it’s the only thing I’ve ever known in newspaper writing as a critic. I think that younger journalists are sometimes nervous for no reason, or overly concerned about being critical, and I think that’s too bad. Maybe they’ve never worked in my kind of environment where you have absolute freedom, where no publisher nor editor has ever called me and said, ‘You pissed them off, Cathy, they’ve pulled their advertising. Can you just cool it now.’
Do you ever stop to consider how a harsh review might impact people’s lives, whether it’s the designer or the lesser-known individuals involved?
Not so much, but as time’s gone on I have done. I remember getting a very irate phone call from Carolina Herrera when I said that the collection she’d done had absolutely no relevance. And she was saying, ‘I have all these people who work for me and they spend time and effort,’ you know, and I thought, ‘Yes, she’s right.’ That was a cheap comment; there were other ways of saying it without being so dismissive. And I think that is when you have to at least consider the amount of effort and time that goes into creating something.
Can you genuinely be friends with a designer who is going to be the subject of your reviews?
I think you can hang out and have an affinity for certain designers, but I think that if you believe you are truly friends then you are in for trouble. And it’s not good for your professionalism nor good for your copy, if you believe that. The other side of that is if I don’t like something someone has shown on the runway then I have to be able to say it to their face.
And not hide behind words?
Never. For example, Narciso [Rodriguez] and I are very friendly, Raf and I are very friendly, but I’ve called them before and said, ‘I got to tell you this is not my favourite show.’
What have you learned most from the designers with whom you are close?
People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re just friends with Raf,’ and I’m like, ‘I have spent a lot of time interviewing Raf, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about Raf and how he has put together his company and the thinking behind those collections.’ Again, I think about Bill Blass: I learnt a lot about who he was as a guy, who he was as a creator, who he was as a businessman. I think that’s been worth it. But it’s not really important that they care about me; I mean, if they do then that’s lovely, but I’m not expecting anything and I think it would be a mistake to do so. People were really kind to me when I left the Times and my boyfriend died; there was a huge outpouring of people calling, writing, emailing, it was fantastic. But, you know, it’s still just my job.
Do you find yourself drawing a line between industry friends and your personal friends? Is there such a line?
Kind of, more or less. There’s my own family and then one or two people, and that’s about it.
Have things that you’ve written caused personal relationships to fall apart?
No, because they probably weren’t relationships. The people who got mad at me are still friendly with me, but we don’t go on vacation together. We don’t go to dinner together. I can still walk into their studio, even though they yelled at me five years ago, I mean really yelled. It’s fine.
Do you think that the paradox of your job is that you deal with issues of hypersensitivity within a world that is notoriously bitchy?
Sometimes, yes. I come at it from a news side; I grew up surrounded by White House reporters, sports reporters and all that, so I think that everyone should just be cool and objective. But then you find out that in fashion there are people who are far more sensitive. I understand that creative people are going to be like that, but then across the board in fashion there are lots of sensitive people, and I think it almost becomes an excuse. That’s why I love talking to the CEOs almost more than the designers. I sometimes have a much better rapport with them. I had a better rapport with Domenico De Sole than with Tom Ford. I like Tom, but I loved talking to Domenico, and if I wanted to know something about the company I would get it from him.
Why do you think that is?
Because we were rational, calm people, with the same sensitivities. Tom would often do a dance with me. [Adopts dramatic voice] ‘Oh Cathy’, all jokey and flirty. I’m like, ‘Oh, please, just stop!’
Do you find that you’ve become defined by the negative things that you’ve written or spats that you’ve had?
Does that upset you? When I googled your name this morning, the first thing that comes up is the spat you had with Hedi Slimane. It just seems reductive, especially since you’ve been writing for a long time and he’s been designing for a long time…
…and we haven’t talked in ten years. But yeah, I think it does come up a little bit; more so a few years ago when I’d go to Milan and all the Italian press were calling me ‘La Horyn’– I loved that. They were more astonished that you could write certain things in the paper, and I was like, ‘Are you joking? Do you read the New York Times; we are not like La Repubblica. We actually are good.’ I was always surprised more than anything, that they didn’t know enough about the Times. Why would this be a novelty? We have strong theatre and book critics, they’ve been banned, they’ve had trouble, they’ve had theatre owners take out full-page ads against them. It is not unusual.
Do you consider the New York Times to be the best newspaper in the world?
Absolutely. Bar none. And absolutely the best website in the world, too. They’re incredibly good at updating and staying on top of things and being aggressive right across the board.
‘I think that younger journalists are sometimes nervous for no reason, or overly concerned about being critical, and I think that’s too bad.’
Have there been times when you’ve thought to yourself, ‘The New York Times covers world economics, politics and war; ‘what I’m writing about is frivolous’?
No. I never felt that way, strangely. I don’t think Anne Rittenhouse felt that way either. I always felt that what we were doing was important, that in its own space and context it was ultimately going to become social history. If we’re lucky it is social history now, but it generally needs to marinate. The reality is that I know the Times is the paper of influence because of so much of its content, and fashion will not be in the Top Ten. It will be in the Top Ten for generating revenue, for sure… probably Number One.
So does that fast-track its importance?
To be perfectly blunt, the reason fashion is important at the Times is because of the writers who made it important. It is just as simple as that. I think that Amy had a big influence on bringing respect to fashion at the Times. There are others too: Charlotte Curtis and her amazing society coverage in the 60s, Carrie Donovan, too. But it’s a step-by-step process, decade by decade. In the last 20 years nobody would dispute that fashion has a very key place at the Times. The guys in the ‘60s who said that fashion didn’t belong there, who thought it was frivolous and were contemptuous of it, would never say that now. But I think it’s the writers who have made it interesting and important and more relevant. But then I think we have a culture surrounding us that is interested in it.
It’s a perfect storm.
It’s very much that. And then let’s face it; fashion pays for the foreign coverage.
When someone once asked you the question, ‘What should an aspiring fashion journalist be doing now?’ I remember you suggested they launch a Bob Woodward-esque blog. Can you explain that a bit more?
I basically said: learn how to report. Learn to speak French fluently. Go to France. Make LVMH and Kering the objects of your reporting. Do a blog or a website in which you’re not necessarily identified. I think it would be amazing and everybody would read it.
Do you really see someone doing that though?
All I’m saying is that if you know how to report properly, the fashion industry is such an amazing opportunity. People have said to me, ‘But how will I get invited to the shows?’ and I’m like, ‘You don’t go to the shows! That’s not the point.’ It’s all about developing sources inside these companies to find out what is going on. I would love to know about the times when Bernard Arnault wants to absolutely spank Anna Wintour. I’m sure it happens, I’m sure there are times when he just wants to go to war with her. Similarly, why is it that whenever I talk to designers who work in groups, they always tell me the most amazing stuff and I’m like, ‘Why can’t that get reported?’ I would have a hard time doing it because the places where I write generally require everything to be sourced. But you could run a good anonymous blog, and do what Nikki Finke did when she was running Dateline Hollywood and she had everybody scared. I often think like, ‘Why can’t you do that in fashion?’
Can you answer your own question?
The romance and seduction of fashion. People would rather be sitting in the front row; it’s a narcotic to them. I mean, these companies now pay for them to go to all these shows. They’re happy; they don’t want the conflict. They don’t see the companies as, you know, the evil empire. I don’t either! But I think there are great stories, great dramas and great intrigues in fashion, and it’s worrisome that no one’s really telling them.
‘Where is the Kawakubo of today? Or the Margiela? Or the Helmut Lang? Where are those people who can really make a statement about their times?’
But that begs the question, how can one be a fashion critic in a context that depends economically on the very thing you are supposed to critique?
As I say, it’s worrisome. Fashion companies start behaving like governments. I’ve seen it just in the last couple of years. Journalists, as I’ve already mentioned, get very worried about saying anything that’s out of line and then so many of these companies pay for the bloggers to go on a plane… And the voices that are raised against that are so small, so few and far between. They might be on a blog that’s really good, but it doesn’t have any impact and won’t change anything. We were talking about Marko earlier; well I haven’t had an email from him in about a year, and then I think to myself, ‘Well, he’s probably bored to death of this stuff by now.’
Let’s talk about how the designer’s role has evolved over the past few years?
Perhaps the most significant change is that designers no longer have the time to create as slowly as they used to. I think that’s definitely had an impact. These days, the designers have to be more things to more people; it goes way beyond that traditional role of attending trunk shows, dinners and lunches – just getting to know the clients. If you go back to the 1940s and ‘50s, an era when the designers occupied an amazing kind of spotlight, in many ways they were free. They didn’t have to do the things that Karl has to do – loves to do, but has to do. They were kind of the lionesses of the scene.
Today’s designers have far greater resources at their disposal though.
Well, they are under so much pressure, so they have assistants and machines getting the stuff out. It has good benefits but it becomes a business more than anything else. That can be okay for some people – it’s efficient, you get the job done – I mean, that’s the story of Michael Kors. It fits with today’s world.
To what extent are certain designers now fetishised by the fashion media? It’s a case of the cult of personality…
I think that has always existed in one form or another.
But don’t you think that social media has amplified it?
Not necessarily. Go back to the heyday of W: if those guys weren’t fetishized I don’t know who was? It’s true there wasn’t so much competition, but Bill and Oscar and Calvin and Ralph and all the socialites – whoever John Fairchild felt like writing about – dominated those pages. I bet those same guys don’t get that kind of publicity today, because they have to share it with all these other designers. And the media adjusts accordingly: all those smaller magazines and websites and blogs that have come out are creating endlessly multiplying microcosms. I mean, this is not Oprah or Johnny Carson level mass media; it’s a new form of mass media.
Kind of mass-niche.
Mass-niche, yeah. You’re in speciality magazines and blogs where it is really focused on someone’s particular aesthetic or a specific type of person.
Would you agree that the most significant aspect of fashion right now is how immeasurably bigger it is, compared to 20 years ago? More brands, more CEOs, more media coverage, more product, more consumers, more everything. Is that a good or a bad thing? Or do you feel indifferent to it?
I don’t feel indifferent, and I don’t think it is a good or a bad thing. I just tend not to look at it. I mean, there are definitely negatives about it, in that it’s harder for people to focus on things. Momentum is created by these niches but it seems strange to have all these brands yet with very little innovation going on.
Is this era defined by a sense of quantity over quality?
If you look at it from a strictly fashion historian point of view – and you think of the contributions and the design changes that happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and in the ‘80s you look at designers like Kawakubo – then I think we are going to be missing that in the two thousand and teens, or whatever we call this era. Where is the Kawakubo of today? Or the Martin Margiela or the Helmut Lang; those people who really made a statement about their times? I don’t think anyone is going to dispute what I am saying; we just don’t see those kind of people emerging now.
Is that an irreversible shift? Is it likely to come back?
I think it will come back at some point, I just don’t know when or how. That’s not to say we’re not living in interesting times: consider what the internet and globalisation have done, and how we’ve created these ‘super-consumers’ around the world. You could say the great story of our recent times is Net-à-Porter, and how they’ve managed to deliver fashion product to your door.
What else would the fashion historian deduce about this era?
Probably the fact that the reader of fashion is more involved than ever before, thanks to social media. Then you’d have to consider how big fashion entertainment and red-carpet culture have become.
Is creativity notable by its absence?
Well, if you have a foot in both eras then you can’t help but think, ‘I want to see the kind of things that McQueen was doing a few years ago.’ From the designers’ perspective, it’s interesting to watch those who can adapt: I think Nicolas adapts and I think that Raf adapts; they are at the age when they can. Karl does his best to adapt. I think he does an amazing job, especially when you consider how tough Chanel must be to adapt to change. I mean, sometimes I don’t like the shows but I get why he does it – the big scale thing – because he is selling Chanel to consumers around the world. It still means something, just on a huge scale.
‘The great fashion story of our times is probably how Net-à-Porter has used the internet and globalisation to deliver product to our doorsteps.’
Chanel is a pretty good example of a big-scale luxury brand that’s evolving with the times.
I remember being in the gym at the Ritz one day – I used to sneak in there to use the exercise bikes –and Maureen Chiquet, the CEO of Chanel, was on the bike next to me. She’s really smart, and I asked her if she thought there would still be couture after Karl retires? Her answer was interesting: she said, ‘It will evolve into something else.’ And I think that’s a good answer. The fashion business just evolves into something else. Look at how Raf is installing dual studios at Dior: I haven’t talked to him about it yet, but if it’s working – and I would assume it is – then that’s a really smart way of coping with the turnover required of him.
These days, are the best designers those who manage to cope with the workflow?
From what I can sense, not very many of them do cope with it; well, they cope, but it does get to them. I think it got to Nicolas at some point, I think it definitely got to Marc. Galliano said in his court appearance that it got to him.
Pressure… turnover required… ways of coping… You’re not painting a very upbeat picture of what it’s like to be a fashion designer today.
You have to look at the individual circumstances, because there are also character issues. If you’re at Dior, you do have a huge infrastructure of people at your disposal, and I think if you ask a CEO like Sidney [Toledano, Dior CEO], he would probably say that the sense of chaos is blown out of proportion a little bit. I’m not being insensitive to the creative process – I think it’s really hard and there are so many issues to deal with – but I would never think that McQueen killed himself simply because he wasn’t satisfied with his business.
But when wildly creative individuals – McQueen being the obvious example – wake up one day and realise that a global company is dependent on their every move, then that must get to them.
It’s too convenient to say that the pressure gets to these people. I think McQueen was smart enough and shrewd enough to know there was the other side of the business that just demands a good handbag. Yet he probably thought as close to the way an artist thinks as anyone could in this business. Lee basically wanted to pursue things that he found stimulating and innovative; his last few collections were all about that, especially the Atlantis one. I guess, ultimately, there was a lot of sadness in McQueen’s life; he was just an unhappy person.
Were you shocked when you heard the news about his passing away, or did you sense it was inevitable?
It really shocked me. I’d seen him in London only a few months before. I loved talking to McQueen: I loved his thought process and the way he was able to execute ideas – from when he was working on a shoestring right up to when he had substantial resources around him. I remember being in the studio with him right before that Atlantis show, he was talking about finding a way to take hard shapes into soft shapes, you know, not just sewing them on, but to do it all in one piece of fabric or one form. It reminded me of Rudi Gernreich towards the end of his life talking to me about how to make a molded dress that didn’t require a sewing machine.
Do you think the relentless rhythm and the lifestyle make it difficult for designers to take a step back?
Not always. Look at Margiela: he was smart to say, ‘Okay, I’m 50, I’m done. I’ve given everything, I’m happy to do something else with my life.’ He started young and he built an amazing business… God knows what Renzo [Rosso] or what John [Galliano] do with it, but that doesn’t matter – Margiela left his mark and it will go on.
‘In spring 2004, I said to Tom Ford: ‘You should go behind a wall, never give another interview again and become the Howard Hughes of fashion…’
Do you think this sense of acceleration within the industry, and the workflow required to sustain it, will continue?
I don’t think so; it will stay where it is. I think more designers will probably come into it. But the thing is that the big brands just dominate so much. It’s really hard to imagine a young designer coming along unless they have a real concept, like Margiela in the avant-garde, or someone like Tory Burch with a lifestyle concept coming out of New York. Perhaps someone from China will come up with something conceptually really fresh. People ask me about this all the time and I’m always optimistic.
In a recent piece about artist/brand collaborations, an art critic recently wrote on Artnet, ‘This stuff is so desperate not to make enemies, it’s going to have trouble making any friends.’ It struck me as a very telling quote because it could be applied to so many other fields or industries today.
Yeah, I know. I remember Raf saying to me not very long ago, ‘I would like to see some stuff that really offends me, stuff that’s hard to accept.’ That’s what I liked about Thomas Tait’s show. You know, he had just won the LVMH prize, which is very establishment in a way, and then he goes off and does this bonkers collection, but I kind of liked it.
How easy is it today to break with the status quo?
I think that over time as a critic you get worn down, so as a creator you definitely get worn down. Everyone is talking about that. I mean, look at this girl Von Hessen that I was talking about: I like what she did because you just don’t see that anymore. It’s not world-shaking, it’s not offensive, but I like people who put their taste out there… And the strange thing is, I fear that she won’t even make it. There should be a big enough market for it, but I’m not so sure. Everything has been a little bit flattened by so much of what’s going on in the industry, with the big groups dominating.
Do you think that the culture of luxury groups is here to stay? Do you think that other groups may form? As a designer, are your two principal options: either attach yourself to a group, or become a small independent voice?
I hope a few more groups get formed, I think that would be great. Somebody else with some vision.
Groups obviously bring great things with them, such as resources and infrastructure.
The big groups help with large-scale manufacturing for one thing; you can centralise a lot of that stuff, like in Navarro in Italy, where all the Kering brands get their stuff produced. I just saw Joseph Altuzarra’s clothes and he’s really benefitted from that. He talks all the time about how much better his manufacturing has become since Kering came on board.
We’ve only really touched on celebrity culture, but there was something that Tom Ford said recently that’s maybe worth discussing. He said, ‘These days, Rihanna’s Instagram feed is more relevant than reviews or hard copies of magazines…
He’s probably being a little inflammatory but there’s also some truth in it. If you are a smart brand like Tom Ford – I’m using that word ‘brand’ again, I’ve thrown in the towel! – you know, they want it all. He wants to be in Vogue and [Harper’s] Bazaar, he wants to be reviewed in the Times and The Cut, he wants to be in the Wall Street Journal and he wants to be with Rihanna.
To be everything for everyone.
I think so. But, you know, Tom is one to talk; he was one of the last to go online. I went to see him in LA after he left Gucci in the spring of 2004, and he was very shaken and upset by what had happened, naturally. He was talking about making movies and I said to him, ‘Why don’t you do an online company? Why don’t you create mini-movies for cell phones and for the web, that are pornographic. You should create these little instalment films with a 15-minute storyline and you embed all your products into it, and people subscribe to it, and its soft-core porn.’ And he was like, ‘Will women want to watch porn?’ I was like, ‘Make it more about the narrative, get great writers to do the content for you, make it is as funny as Billy Wilder, with these great storylines that you can go online and watch.’
I love the idea of you trying to persuade Tom Ford to become a digital version of Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights…
But I think that someone like Tom Ford could do that. He should do that. I said to him, ‘You should go behind a wall and never give another interview again; become the Howard Hughes of fashion and just create these amazing things.’
But then he went and made a traditional Oscar-winning film…
I was just trying to think of ways that Tom could combine his visual sense with what was happening in the world. At that point, there was maybe a Tom Ford website but they didn’t do anything with it. I just don’t think Tom is particularly comfortable in that world, so Rihanna doing her thing has fallen into his lap, which is great. But he doesn’t strike me as really being particularly in control of it.
Victoria Beckham told me that what she loves about social media is that it enables her to communicate directly with her however-many-million followers. The message doesn’t get distorted by the press – and it costs nothing, unlike traditional advertising. It makes complete sense, from her perspective. But it begs the question, have the traditional fashion media still got any power?
Well, there’s clearly a more general waning of the establishment in which critics have had the power – the traditional news outlets. That’s happening in all fields of press: in politics, for example, look at how Politico has given all the newspapers a run for their money. Things like BuzzFeed are no longer alternative news channels; they are the news channels.
Do you think this direct-to-consumer communication that Victoria Beckham champions has the credibility of traditional media channels?
Probably not, but as I was saying about Tom Ford, I think the smart designer now wants to be spread across all platforms: social media, traditional press, Vogue. When Armani banned me from his show, I found it irritating and old-fashioned how journalists were making such a big fuss. I knew that at some point I would be invited back, and I could always look at it online. Plus, Armani could simply live-stream his shows, if he wanted – as Ms Beckham says – to talk directly to his consumers. But he is old school enough to probably want to have the journalists there; he wants to have the endorsements and the reviews, he wants that press coverage.
‘I remember Raf saying to me not very long ago, ‘I would love to see some stuff that really offends me, you know, stuff that’s hard to accept.’
As the fashion industry has basically become a brand itself, a lot of its ‘players’ have bigger media profiles – yourself included.
I don’t even think about it, and I don’t want to. Look at [New York Times street fashion photographer] Bill Cunningham: Bill works by himself and he doesn’t want to be bothered by people, but after that movie came out about him [Bill Cunningham New York], people would come up to him and interfere with what he was doing. I understand that: during the shows, people will want to talk to me – thank God they don’t want to take my picture. You know, Anna and all the others are so out there in the public eye that I just find it weird.
But you must be aware that over the years you’ve reached this inner sanctum of the fashion world?
I think that where I am is a direct function of the New York Times – and I’m happy to say that it was the Times. I think I did what you’re supposed to do as a Times reporter: cover your beat.
So much of this conversation has come across as a love letter to the Times; are there moments when you miss it?
I just wish I’d left earlier so my boyfriend and I could have spent more time together, in a calmer environment – without me working, frankly. Right now, I really want to write this fashion at the Times book, and if I were still at the paper, it would be really hard to do, because of the daily demands of the shows and everything. Anyway, Vanessa [Friedman, Horyn’s replacement] does a really good job writing the show reviews.
In the year after you left the Times, have there been instances, such as John Galliano’s return at Margiela, or the changes at Gucci, when you felt frustrated not to have a platform to voice your thoughts?
It was more a question of, ‘Phew, I don’t have to think about that.’ They banned me from Gucci because I wrote that she wasn’t strong enough for them. And I don’t think people were as critical of John’s collection as they should have been. I think they gave him a bit of a pass on that one. I always allow for first collections to be a work-in-progress, but that was a little bit too much of a work-in-progress, and people didn’t say it.
Let’s talk about your move to The Cut. By the time people read this, you’ll have done your first season reviewing shows with New York magazine.
I’m really happy to be doing the shows again, and I think that The Cut is a good thing because it is a different platform to the Times. I was over there today and I was saying, ‘So, I don’t have any language restrictions like at the Times, right? And they were like, ‘Shit’, ‘fuck’, ‘write whatever you like.’ I mean, you don’t want to go overboard but you want to have fresh, crisp interesting language. You can’t use the word ‘pissed’ at the Times. Or ‘junkie’. And I won’t have to refer to people as ‘Mr Smith’ again.
These days, that feels almost like an affectation, verging on kitsch. It makes me wince to read about ‘Mr Ford’ in the New York Times. In my eyes, he’s Tom Ford, or Ford. Who are we kidding?
It was strange to write all that, especially when I’d be slamming his show: I’d go from ‘conical bra-cups’ to ‘Mr Ford said’ in the same sentence. I tried to avoid saying it, and just write ‘he’. But now if I want to say ‘Tom’, and it’s appropriate in the context, then I can.
We talked earlier about your blanket protection from the Times’ publishers. Will that change now you’re at New York, a magazine that like any other relies on advertising revenue?
I don’t know yet, we haven’t talked about it; we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it. I mean, no one has said to me, ‘You have to be careful what you say’. I just know I don’t want anything that’s snarky, but that’s my own personal choice. I am in no mood to write anything snarky, I don’t think that’s interesting anymore.
‘I never think about my ‘media profile’, and I don’t want to. You know, Anna and the others are so out there in the public eye that I just find it weird.’
Do you ever feel disillusioned with writing about fashion?
Sometimes, usually at the end of the fashion weeks. You’re overwhelmed, and there’s a lot of bullshit in fashion so you end up feeling like a tool in the business. But then you go back to your life making gingerbread. But then, as Suzy always says, you see another great show and you get recharged.
Do you have a piece that you feel most proud of having written?
Probably, but I can’t think of it, [laughs] there have been so many! The moments I am proudest of are when I’ve really spent time with a designer I didn’t know, and I’ve learnt about them – their way of working, their way of thinking, what they bring to fashion. The big piece I did on Raf was one of my favourite stories. He totally intimidated me before I’d met him. I thought he was so brilliant at being able to say on a runway what would take me forever to say. His control over his self-expression was amazing and I was convinced that I would go backstage and just say something stupid like, ‘I love the colours!’ So going to Belgium and talking to him, as anyone who’s talked to him knows, was a really great experience. He is a very emotional person and a romantic designer, and I will always think about him in that way. Other than Raf, I feel privileged to have got to know Bill Blass, and I’ve loved the conversations I’ve had with Karl. I will always remember sitting out on his patio in Biarritz at midnight – Karl in his sweater and high collar – talking about his father in post-war Germany when the Mark was devalued, and him coming home and having no money. Other than that, there are people I wish I’d gone out of my way to meet before they died – Coco Chanel, for one.
Have you ever been tempted to take on a magazine editorship?
No, I’d be terrible. Not me. I like writing, I like being out there.
Last question, what do you know now about fashion that you didn’t when you started writing at the Detroit News?
Hmmm, [whispers] how much money is made in it! Never underestimate that.