Samira Nasr & Hanya Yanagihara

Interview by Steff Yotka

‘When you work for a general news organization, you’re really aware how much people revile fashion, how stupid and poisonous and irrelevant they think it is. Yet at the same time, they project so much onto the fashion industry. They expect it to reflect what the female body looks like. They expect it to define what a woman looks like. You have this great hostility, but also these great expectations.’

Call it the New York gaze. For over a century, the rapport between American fashion magazines and the Paris shows has been one of the industry’s most powerful and enduring dynamics. It’s an intercontinental exchange that has long loomed large in the public imagination: when Christian Dior presented his 1947 collection, it was Carmel Snow, editor in chief at Harper’s Bazaar, who dubbed it the ‘New Look’, commissioned Richard Avedon to shoot the collection on the Place de la Concorde, and helped transform it into an era-defining sensation. Further mythology came in the form of Stanley Donen’s classic 1957 musical romantic comedy Funny Face, with Kay Thompson playing Maggie Prescott, the American editor of Quality magazine, dispatched to the Paris couture shows with her star photographer Dick Avery (a thinly veiled Avedon, played by Fred Astaire) and street-cast ingénue Jo Stockton played by Audrey Hepburn. And since then, the omnipresent legend of the American ‘editrix’ – from Diana Vreeland to Anna Wintour – remains a potent symbol of cosmopolitan power and idiosyncrasy.

Jump to the present, and another generation of New Yorkers has established a new tone for the American ‘glossy’. In 2020, having steadily risen through the ranks of the city’s fashion titles, Samira Nasr took the helm at Harper’s Bazaar. She quickly set to work bringing the USA’s longest-established fashion magazine in line with the times, opening up the conversation about what a modern fashion-media brand should be by embracing female empowerment, body positivity, queer perspectives, and diversity, a trait she embodies as the first woman of colour to hold the position. Hanya Yanagihara has been no less transformational: as editor in chief at T magazine, she heads up the fashion and style wing of the New York Times, bringing the paper’s renowned journalistic standards to bear on fashion, design, and culture. Away from T, Yanagihara is internationally renowned as one of the most celebrated – and hotly debated – novelists in contemporary US literature (her debut, A Little Life, was nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award in 2015) and, as such, she brings a ruminative authority to the way the magazine now frames Paris Fashion Week. ‘Each collection is a proposal for how we might present our future selves,’ she wrote of the shows in a recent editor’s letter. ‘If the clothes are a suggestion, they’re also a reflection of recent history and our collective emotional responses to it.’ Ultimately, as editors in chief in 2023, Nasr and Yanagihara represent (and are representative of) an updated take – compassionate, engaged, smart, inclusive – on that New York gaze. For System’s tenth-anniversary issue, the pair met up in Lower Manhattan in early April, a month after Paris Fashion Week, to discuss solidarity, social media, schedules, and why more people should crash the shows.

New York, 7 April 2023

Steff Yotka: What do you look forward to about Paris Fashion Week?
Samira Nasr: One of the strangest aspects is that it’s like camp reunion; you get to see all your friends. I mean, we all live in New York, but because of our schedules, we are never together. Then in the 15 minutes before an Alaïa show, we have this crazy catch-up.
Hanya Yanagihara: There are people I never see except in Paris. My team and I play this game: ‘Who’re we most excited to see at fashion week? And who do we most dread seeing?’ I’m not going to reveal the answer for the second one, but we all had the same answer for the first: Tim Blanks. We all love seeing Tim. And Cathy [Horyn], too; I often wind up sitting next to her. She has the best voice; I could listen to her reading a menu.
Samira: Also, former colleagues. I love getting to see people I have known and loved but who I only get to see at these occasions.
Hanya: The industry has changed so much in terms of tone and attitude over the last five years. It was much more snobbish and clique-ish; now there’s a real sense of mutual sympathy – there’s less competition and more sharing, especially among the magazine editors. Our creative director at T, Patrick Li, has been doing this for something like 60 seasons. How long have you been doing this, Samira? Did you start in the closet and then move up?
Samira: Yes, I was an intern at Mirabella and then I went to New York with Jane Hobson; she was the fashion director, and we worked out of a conference room. I then went freelance and started assisting Mary Alice Stephenson, before getting a job as a market assistant at Vogue. Susi Billingsley was fashion market director and then it was Wendy Hirschberg, and I was her assistant for a few years. Then Grace [Coddington]’s assistant announced she was leaving, and Grace offered me the job, so I did that for two years before going off to Allure to work with Polly Mellen and the great Linda Wells.
Hanya: Wow. Is there a women’s fashion book in town you haven’t worked with?
Samira: Let’s think about this… I’ve worked at Vogue, Elle, Bazaar, InStyle, Allure; I never worked at W or Glamour. I always wanted to work with Cindi Leive, but never had the good fortune.
Hanya: That’s typical of our generation; you just worked everywhere – you did the circuit.
Samira: I was an assistant well into my thirties; we all just worked hard and hoped that it led to the next thing.
Hanya: What was your first European season?
Samira: When I was at Harper’s Bazaar under Kate Betts, I went to London. But then she got fired and I quit; I mean, did I quit or get fired? Anyways, I went freelance, and that was right before 9/11. We lived through that moment, and when the dust settled that first season, I went to Paris.
Hanya: What was that like?
Samira: It was really gentle because everyone was so scared. As you said before, there are certain moments when we are reminded that we are a community and can rally and be gentle with one another. Of course, I am remembering this through the lens of nostalgia.

‘When Bazaar launched in 1867, it was a place where women would go for the issues that caught them, but their world was so small; it really was just fashion.’

Samira Nasr

Was it the same after the pandemic, and then again when the war started in Ukraine? It feels like we intersect with a global moment of reckoning every season.
Hanya: There’s been some major earth-shaking event that breaks in the midst of every season. Whatever show the news breaks at, everyone is, like, ‘What are we doing here?’ Those are moments of awareness: an alert will pop up and everyone discusses it as we wait for the show to begin. Ten years ago, when smartphones weren’t so ubiquitous, you were much more likely to remain in a bubble.
Samira: I agree, but I also think that there is much more of an openness. Like, during the shows when the war broke out in Ukraine, I was supposed to host my first party in Paris as editor in chief and I really struggled to do the right thing for the moment. It was comforting to seek out the advice of my peers who have similar values, people who could advise me.

Do you feel like all that has added this layer to the role of editor in chief, where it isn’t just about fashion at your magazines? Maybe before it was easier to be in the bubble, and magazines were like havens.
Hanya: Samira, you’ve done a really great job with this. No one is going to Bazaar for news, but you’re very good at making cultural themes visually relevant and narratively true.
Samira: I don’t want us to be a news mag. I have a wonderful team and we are rooted in a lot of shared values; so we don’t do news, but we can do things our way. When Bazaar was founded in 1867, it was a place where women would go for the issues that caught them, but their world was so, so small; it really was just fashion. Now our lives have expanded so much, and we need to meet our audience in all these places. When I took over Bazaar, I wanted to create something that I didn’t think was already out there, to bring in what interests me, which is luxury at the intersection of culture.

Do you think fashion is keeping up with that? Immediately after this season people noted the absence of models of all body types. Two years ago, 79% of collections had a plus-size model and then this season, it was down to 23%…
Samira: It is great to make noise, to remind people of the values that you believe in, but fashion has always struggled to be all things to everyone.
Hanya: It took a very long time for the runways to become more racially diverse. That took years of pressure.
Samira: But they are not even there.
Hanya: It’s been incremental changes, and as soon as you take your foot off the pedal, everything slides back. At T, we don’t cover news because we’re part of a news organization; I don’t want to dip my toe into news – it would be embarrassing for everyone. When you work for a general news organization, you’re really aware how much people revile fashion, how stupid and poisonous and irrelevant they think it is. Yet at the same time, they project so much onto the fashion industry. They expect it to reflect what the female body looks like. They expect it to define what a woman looks like. You have this great hostility, but also these great expectations. Fashion is a source of a lot of people’s fantasies and insecurities, both; people want it to be traditionally and conventionally beautiful, and at the same time to reflect some utopian society.

It is so true. Is there an issue that fashion doesn’t touch? It is about celebrity, technology, media, aspiration, womanhood, bodies, entertainment.
Hanya: It’s unavoidable. Anyone who thinks they’re opting out is fooling themselves. If you wear clothes, you’re engaging with the industry.
Samira: If you take a second to consider what you are putting on, you are participating in fashion.
Hanya: What did you love this season?
Samira: In Milan, I loved Ferragamo so much, walking that line between a legacy brand and making it new and speaking to different women at the same time.
Hanya: I wasn’t in Milan, but I loved Miu Miu in Paris. We just had our trends meeting on Wednesday and spent so much time discussing it. I also loved Schiaparelli, and not just because I love Daniel [Roseberry] as a person; I thought it was very strong this season. And Loewe, too. Who do you think is the best showman, besides Demna? I think Marc Jacobs always does a great show.
Samira: Prada was great; it was very sensory with the perfume from the flowers.
Hanya: I think Jonathan [Anderson] does good shows. They’re lo-fi, but there’s a real sense of discipline.
Samira: They are really thoughtful.
Hanya: Very personal, and there’s an easy, but real, intellectual quality to them. It’s not like someone made it up for him.
There are so many things you can look at in a show – what is it that makes your heart beat?
Hanya: The question we talk about all the time is: is the fashion inseparable from the show? The show has to have something to do with the collection. One of the things I loved about Miu Miu is that although the show itself is never that interesting – it’s not meant to be a spectacle; the casting is good, but there’s that annoying raised runway; I hate the space – there’s always a real idea and a real narrative and real characters. I loved the hair. There was wit and a sense of commitment that I thought was well realized and consistent and funny and true. At Saint Laurent, the big shoulders, the early Donna Karan vibe, the references to the sexiness and power of the 1980s – it really worked in that space; there was a logic there. It didn’t feel gimmicky – it felt like a monumental show, a big show.
Samira: It is all of those things. I also always look at the models to see if they want to be there, because sometimes they look uncomfortable or in pain. It is everything coming together: the music, the lighting, the set, the mood, but also the women. Does she believe in this? Does she want to be here? Because if she doesn’t then I usually have a hard time believing in it.

‘It is great to make noise, to remind people of the values that you believe in, but fashion has always struggled to be all things to everyone.’

Samira Nasr

Are you concerned that Paris Fashion Week is becoming this conglomerate-only endeavour? Is there enough space for emerging designers?
Samira: For every kid who is making something on their bedroom floor or graduating from Saint Martins, no matter where they are from, Paris remains the gold standard. But the industry is really becoming more challenging for young designers.
Hanya: The very young designers bring a sense of legitimacy and street cred, and the team will go see as many of them as possible. They feel duty bound to scout as much as they can.
Samira: There are two editors on my team who are so passionate about emerging designers. You know, it is not impossible to break through, but it is certainly getting harder.
Hanya: But that is the promise of these weeks. Ultimately, people are hopeful, and every season they find someone new who reminds them of why they work in fashion. If they weren’t optimistic, they’d stop doing it. Although the chaos as you’re trying to get into the shows is now so out of hand that it’s enough to put you off going.
Samira: Do you think people still crash the doors?
Hanya: Patrick was encouraging some fashion students to crash the Rick Owens show recently.
Samira: I crashed shows.
Hanya: But it’s hard to do so now.
It is very hard now. The QR codes, the wrist bands…
Hanya: If brands want things to feel younger and livelier, then they should let the fashion students crash or give them standing room. Celine does that.
Samira: Crashing a fashion show is like a rite of passage!
Hanya: Fashion students have been doing that since the dawn of time.
Samira: Without them, we are dead in the water.
Hanya: Yes, because who cares more than they do?
I do think we could use a bit of ‘you look cool, you can come in without a wristband’. It is really hard to get into a show if you don’t have the invite.
Hanya: I think people should be rewarded if they have the energy to crash.

How do you navigate the work and pleasure of Paris Fashion Week? You run magazines, you have these commitments to be at certain shows and take tons of meetings. The schedule is…
Hanya: …too long. Ten days is too long.
Samira: Paris is too long; it should be three days shorter. It is not fair to international press. There are days when there is just one show.
Hanya: I work at night; I don’t go to the dinners. I think for a lot of the New Yorkers, there’s a whole swing shift after the shows.
Samira: I don’t go to sleep before 2am.
Hanya: You have more time in Milan; the city’s smaller and easier to navigate, and the schedule just feels more relaxed.

‘Fashion is a source of people’s fantasies and insecurities; people want it to be conventionally beautiful, while also reflecting some utopian society.’

Hanya Yanagihara

How much do you pay attention to the social-media conversation? How do you navigate the fine line of people loving fashion online and then the other end, people posting terrible things on Twitter every day. There can be so much vitriol.
Hanya: I’m not on Twitter or TikTok.
Samira: I’m not on Twitter either.
So that is the secret!
Samira: Most of my team are, and they will pull me aside and say, ‘You should know about this.’ But otherwise, no, and I’m not into cancel culture.
Hanya: It’s generational. I have a friend who’s 37 and taking an Instagram break. For his generation, if you’re out having dinner with friends, all everyone is talking about is what’s being said on social media. For us, for our generation, we can really opt out. Those of us who are 45 and over are less aware of the conversations in general. That doesn’t mean we aren’t interested, and one does need to hear about some of it, but if you’re 35 and under, you can’t escape it.

On Twitter, everything is meme-ified. Now young people are talking about ‘quiet luxury’, like even the idea of something simple or understated has been commodified as a meme. How did we get to a place where everything is so consumable? Is there an alternative?
Hanya: Like un-meme-ifiable fashion…
Samira: Because everyone has a device, there is so much noise out there, and it is more important than ever for media brands or editors or influencers to help people understand what they are seeing. The fact that everyone has access to fashion makes our jobs more important, because we can contextualize it for them.
Hanya: I really love the Times podcast Popcast, which is about the business of pop music, and one of the questions that comes up on it is, ‘Is music only being made for TikTok now?’ The extension of that is: is fashion only making clothes for social media, specifically TikTok? In certain shows, there are these 30-second, perfectly meme-able moments; it may not be a conscious decision, but this is how fashion shows are skewing.
Samira: Yeah, but you also have to acknowledge that with these shows these houses are trying to reach their audience.
Hanya: And they need to reach 13-year-old girls. If they’re inspiring a generation of pubescent fashion lovers, that’s arguably good for the industry.

‘The age of big personality designers is over; you can’t have someone whose bad behaviour is going to torpedo a multi-billion-dollar business.’

Hanya Yanagihara

Now that a designer is being tasked with doing all the things – the TikTok, and so on – do they need to be less of a maverick?
Samira: I don’t think those other things are their job. There are some people who grew up with it, so it is natural for them; it is very natural for Olivier [Rousteing] at Balmain.
Hanya: The age of big personality designers is over; you can’t have someone whose bad behaviour is going to torpedo a multi-billion-dollar business. You can’t have someone who’s colourful… but isn’t controllable.
Samira: They have to be more disciplined. Their output is exponentially higher – pre-collections, collections – and everything has to be worthy of being broadcast. They don’t have time to be colourful and outspoken. Otherwise, it is just not going to be successful.
Hanya: Do you have any good friends who are designers?
Samira: Most of my friends are not in fashion. I am friendly with a lot of designers, and I enjoy their company, but not intimately. The closest friends I have who are designers are Jack and Lazaro [at Proenza Schouler], Adam Lippes, and Rachel Comey. I am friendly with Tory [Burch] and really enjoy seeing her, but not like close friends. In Europe I’m friendly with certain people; we meet for coffee, but we are not super close friends.
Hanya: What do most of your close friends do?
Samira: My friends all do different things. Some are stay-at-home moms, actors, people in Hollywood, creative directors; I have a friend who works closely with Ralph [Lauren]. All sorts of different things; a lot of creatives, but not necessarily directly in fashion. What about you, Hanya?
Hanya: Most of my really close friends are people who are responsible for the care and feeding of creative people. So they own galleries or are agents or editors – they’re people who enable creative people to work. I find that to be a very special personality type, a very generous type of person, who understands and is sympathetic to the ebbs and flows of creative life.

Hanya, you are close friends with Daniel Roseberry and have been watching him taking on international fame. Have you gleaned anything from that?
Hanya: Yes – that there’s no industry where the gap between the perceived glamour of the job and the reality of the job is greater, except perhaps chefs.
Samira: I don’t think there is perceived glamour being a chef, like my brother. They just work really hard. But I agree, everyone thinks the life of a designer is glamorous.
Hanya: It’s four weeks of glamour if you’re doing couture, too. Otherwise, it’s 48 weeks in a studio on your own.
Samira: The pressure that these designers live with, I just can’t imagine it; I could never do it.
Hanya: And the feeling that you have to creatively one-up yourself every season, and it has to work from a sales perspective. It just has to be better and better, more and more, season after season.
Samira: They don’t even have to generate millions now, but billions. That is why I really leave the shows wanting to be as supportive of all of those people as I can be. They work so hard and there are all the people in their ateliers, too. For someone to tear it apart in two sentences is really harsh.
Hanya: I completely agree.
Samira: Someone said to me recently: ‘You just love everything.’ But I actually do! And I want to support the smaller designers as best I can, and this industry that has given me so much. I’m always thinking, ‘these are my people, this is my community’, and about how I can support it. We need everyone at the table, we really do. It breaks my heart when the critics are unkind.
Hanya: On occasion there are shows where you can tell that they didn’t try at all, and it feels cheap and cynical – but those are the exception. Even if it’s something that you don’t like, someone sweated over it and fought for it. You can’t trash those shows; they represent someone’s hopes and toil and dreams. One of the ideas that the outside world has is that designers are particular and snobby, and that they’re cynical. But most of them are actually romantics; they’re trying to communicate something. They’re trying to say something in a visual language, and they have to get it right season after season. They can’t just say: ‘I’m not feeling creatively
inspired this season, I’ll sit this one out.’ Other artists wait for inspiration because they can.

‘There’s no other industry where the gap between the perceived glamour of the job and the reality of the job is greater.’

Hanya Yanagihara

What are your hopes for the future of fashion and the future of fashion week?
Hanya: I love being at the live shows; I hated those virtual shows, although I know everyone tried their best. I love the spectacle of the show; I love that so much money goes into 20 minutes. I love that it’s ephemeral. There’s no other good way to capture it: you really have to be there, to see things move and sense the excitement of the room – it’s the ultimate ticket. Anything live is precious and rare, and anything theatrical is inherently exciting. So despite the annoying aspects, the show itself is always exciting; something could always go really wrong, but something could also go very right.
Samira: I still pinch myself that I get to go to these things. I agree with you: any show is a remarkable experience. I feel very lucky. There is so much ugliness in the world right now, in acts, in words, in gestures, that I look to fashion to provide a counter to that; I look to fashion for beauty.
Hanya: In a single season you can see designers grappling with the outside world in different ways, and interpreting it differently, and that’s fascinating.

So, we got Samira’s full story about her entrée into fashion, but we didn’t get yours, Hanya…
Hanya: I’m just a visitor here.
Samira: No, you are here to stay.
Hanya: People are very nice to the visitors.
Samira: You are not a fucking visitor!
Hanya: I’m an accidental tourist in fashion, and I really love it. When people know that you’re ignorant, they’re actually very nice. It’s when you pretend to know everything that they start getting suspicious. T is not strictly a fashion magazine – about 30% of our revenue comes from the design industry. I was really lucky when I got this job because there was a great fashion team already in place, and they taught me everything I needed to know. I started in May of 2017, and that first season, I was dazzled and overwhelmed. Now, I’m excited at the beginning [of Paris], but by Japan day I’m usually having a nervous breakdown. In Milan, I feel fine – it’s fast.
Yes, and there is pasta.
Hanya: There’s pasta, and it’s smaller.
You are both here to stay.
Samira: Yes, and every year is a gift.
Hanya: That’s a good ending. Every year is a gift.

Taken from System No. 21.