Susanna Lau & Bryan Yambao

Interview by Rahim Attarzadeh

Bryan: You’re Susie Bubble; I’m Bryanboy. Those are the identities that we’ve created for ourselves. Do you think we get treated differently because of those names?

Susanna: For sure. At the beginning people took the piss out of us. Endlessly. Bitched about us in their cars. They were snide. Not even snide behind our backs. Snide to our faces.

Despite their years of success, Susanna Lau and Bryan Yambao have always felt like fashion outsiders. Since they emerged on the industry’s fringes back in the early 2000s as Susie Bubble and Bryanboy, they have built formidable careers not so much as traditional critics, but more as ‘fashion cheerleaders’ (as they prefer to call themselves), building insider status from the outside.

Lau founded her blog, Style Bubble, in spring 2006 from her home in London, inspired by a love of Camden Town’s vintage clothing and subcultures. Yambao, a former web developer and digital architect, began writing from his parents’ home in Manila aged 24, on a blog he named Hysterically Camp. Between them, they toiled to build up their follower bases – reaching hundreds of thousands – and shaped their online personalities with an enlivening mix of razor-sharp commentary, incisive reviews and just the right amount of erudite sass. (Yambao was even honoured in 2008 when Marc Jacobs named the BB Bag after him.)

Through their tireless blogging, which pioneered a much-replicated tone of voice, and self-styled photoshoots using various self-taught, labour-intensive digital processes, the two paid their dues and earned their passage from outsiders to front-row habitués. Their talent, passion, and perceptiveness have also been noticed by the fashion-media establishment: in September 2022, Yambao was appointed editor in chief of Katie Grand’s magazine, Perfect, while Lau now writes for the Business of Fashion, ES Magazine, and the Guardian.
Lau and Yambao sat down in East London to discuss the appearance of politics and the politics of appearance, their complex and ever-evolving rapport with Paris Fashion Week, and transcending the stereotypes associated with the terms ‘blogger’ and ‘influencer’.

London, 22 April 2023

Rahim Attarzadeh: Over a decade in which the fashion industry seems to have become more international than ever, is it too simplistic to say that Paris remains the centre of luxury fashion?
Susanna Lau: That just hasn’t been the case for so long.
Bryan Yambao: No. No.
Susanna: Since I started my blog. This was 2006, and you started in?
Bryan: In 2004.
Susanna: I felt like you could already see the centre of fashion or at least that ivory tower of fashion shifting because it was when things were starting to filter out online. Fashion was being exposed to more people internationally. Someone growing up in Mexico City…
Bryan: …or Manila or Memphis…
Susanna: Exactly. These people were being introduced to a world that would have previously been inaccessible, unless you followed the collections through those crazy Collezioni books.
Bryan: Which I still have! Growing up, I felt that Paris was the place for couture, but I was actually more interested in Italian ready-to-wear.
Susanna: I grew up in London, so that was my style centre. I didn’t come into fashion through high fashion. I came in from growing up in Camden and seeing vintage shops and street style. It was a very different way in. To me, Paris almost felt like an abstract concept.
Bryan: I know! It never really felt like it set the tone in terms of collections.
Susanna: I mean, I was on the Fashion Spot forums; I was a forum girl.

Has all that now been overtaken by Instagram and TikTok? Is the focus now more on the online profile or persona, rather than a thread or conversation on a forum?
Susanna: There are all different kinds of platforms, and the comments you see on Instagram are just another sort of forum posting except without the anonymity. It is a different commentary that is shifting, and just like below-the-line comments and Reddit, they are different communication platforms that happen to be more front-facing, so that your image becomes front and centre, as with the development of Facebook. Face-book, literally, some might say.
Bryan: I remember you taking selfies in front of the mirror without your face; I was also there trolling.
Susanna: [Laughs] Oh! You were a lurker! See, I was practically a moderator there so when the collections would come out on you would be racing to see it. In Milan, it was Prada and Jil Sander. Paris was Balenciaga because it was the Nicolas Ghesquière era.

Fast-forward to 2023, is Paris the leading city in terms of influence on fashion? Is New York out of the picture?
Susanna: It’s tricky. It operates on different levels where you have people who are much more connected to their local scene. Wherever you are, there is a local designer scene. You could go to a fashion week in every country and city, every day of the year, and you can see the talent pool expanding. It’s just that they end up convening in Paris, and for most creatives it’s still the goal to be there and be exposed internationally. I don’t know – there are so many scenes now. Fashion doesn’t have to operate or revolve around fashion week. You can have a really successful brand and not do any of that. Just exist virtually and be making more than a brand that shells out a ton of money for a show in Paris.

Do you feel today that as a reporter, you have to cover Paris in order to have a prominent voice in the fashion-media landscape?
Susanna: That’s an interesting question. We talk about this a lot. When it comes to Paris, I feel like we get the most stressed. Actually, I would hesitate to call myself a critic because even though I do write for publications, I am more into fashion cheerleading. I’m not like Vanessa Friedman, who works for a paper and can’t take gifts and so on. In terms of being in the thick of the action, you can’t get a sense of what is happening in the industry without seeing it happening in Paris, not just because of the shows but more because of the conversations that you have with your peers and colleagues at those shows. It’s what’s happening on the sidelines, the 15 minutes on the front row before the show begins. Those are the illuminating moments.
Bryan: It’s also the last leg of the tour. There’s stress because in a way…
Susanna: That’s where all the power players are.
Bryan: Yes, the barometer. In terms of access, it’s the hardest to get into.
Susanna: There’s still a lot of gate-keeping.
Bryan: A lot of gatekeeping. Paris is still very, very traditional. I’ve been going to the shows for like 15 years and every fashion week, four or five times a year, you notice what kind of seating we have or what allocations we are getting. There’s always drama getting the access, unless you’re an old-school editor in chief; that’s when you have the credibility to enter.
Susanna: But you are an editor in chief now!
Bryan: I know!
Susanna: So now you’ve felt it on all sides.
Bryan: I’m still feeling it on all sides and Paris is still that place where a lot of gatekeeping happens.
Susanna: There are definitely still moments in Paris that set the tone. It clearly has the most eyeballs, according to Vogue Runway’s top-ten shows or BoF top tens. Saint Laurent, I think was the top show this season. In terms of eyeballs, it’s still the city.
Bryan: It’s home to the megabrands.
Susanna: But it’s more because Paris is a natural meeting place, and the landscape is vast. Designers from all over the world somehow end up in Paris. It’s the nucleus.

‘I would hesitate to call myself a fashion critic, because even though I do write for publications, I am more into the idea of fashion cheerleading.’

Susanna Lau

What’s your relationship with Paris Fashion Week been like since the beginning of your respective careers and trajectories?
Bryan: We’ve paid our dues!
Susanna: I’ve gone from standing at most shows to, well, not automatically front row now. But we’ve definitely paid our dues. Can you remember your first show? I actually can’t remember my first Paris Fashion Week show.
Bryan: It was in 2010; Chanel was my first show. Couture was maybe in 2009.
Susanna: We weren’t super-close back then, but we knew each other, and I knew your blog had predated even mine, so why did you wait so long to come to shows?
Bryan: The expense!
Susanna: It is expensive.
Bryan: Looking back on my first Milan Fashion Week, I didn’t even stay at a hotel. I stayed at a friend’s student dorm; he is now working as a chief brand officer at a Parisian house.
Susanna: When I first went to New York I stayed on Phil Oh’s sofa in Bushwick.
Bryan: I did Craigslist before Airbnb!
Susanna: Paris, I went quite early. I started my blog in 2006 and I started working for Dazed in 2008, when I started going to shows. I had to attend.
Bryan: You got your credentials through Dazed?
Susanna: It was sort of a weird thing with PRs who knew me from outside of Dazed; sometimes my allocation would come from me and sometimes from them. Within Dazed you had to be part of the hierarchy so I’d either be getting a standing ticket or row six.
Bryan: It’s fascinating. I didn’t even get seated. I’ve been going to Comme des Garçons for the longest time and I’d always get a standing ticket. I never really got seated until I started working for Perfect. I was fine with it though because I love Comme.
Susanna: They operate a whole other hierarchy. It’s so small and they’re so loyal to their retailers and the stylists and editors who have really supported them. They’re one of the few that don’t just look at the media landscape and say, ‘This person is hot right now, therefore we’re going to have them.’

Susie, you’ve spoken about how London’s appetite for subculture and style generated your interest in fashion. How do you feel about the relationship between the two cities’ respective fashion weeks? Do you find London designers need to show in Paris at some stage to help grow their careers?
Susanna: That is an enduring thing for designers in London because of who came before. The likes of McQueen and Galliano left a real imprint, a sort of pathway for designers to follow them.
Bryan: Stella McCartney, Victoria Beckham…
Susanna: To show in Paris, to get to Paris – it’s the end goal and over the years I’ve discussed this with designers like Jonathan Anderson, Christopher Kane, and others. They all have different takes on it and they have all felt differently at different times. There was a moment, maybe in 2008 or 2010 when London Fashion Week was getting really hot – Christopher’s collections were incredible; Erdem, too – and there was a real energy here like, ‘Oh, we don’t need Paris!’ You can be a really successful independent designer in London, but the limitation is that there’s only so far that you can go with building an independent brand. Very few have really scaled it up to maison level.
Bryan: Or they only last for like three years. That’s the fashion game of musical chairs.

Is that ultimately because business is business? Fashion was being referred to as an industry as early as the eighties, but nowadays it operates on a mass industrial scale – with a lot more zeros. If a designer doesn’t meet this financial criteria and demand, they can exit as soon as they enter.
Susanna: Longevity can be achieved as a creative director of a bigger house, a French house, where you have so much more to play with – an atelier, every resource at your disposal. Weirdly, it’s now become a thing again. If you look at things like Harris Reed going to Nina Ricci. For him, as he said on social media, it’s a dream – and I think it is still the dream. It’s this thing about going to and helming a house, but at the same time building your own universe. A lot of Brits have been really clever, with Jonathan Anderson being the prime example. He’s championed that idea of doing his own thing in tandem with Loewe. Most people would want that; you wouldn’t want to give it up.
Bryan: That’s one in a million though, when you think about it. It’s rare for a creative coming from outside Paris, getting that prime creative-director position. To actually succeed in it is another challenge in itself.
Susanna: There’s just a handful of positions. There are only so many available. When one comes up, it’s so crazy. I’ve had so many conversations with different designers who were up for different positions at different points. They maybe got to an interview stage, and some were offered it. Some turned it down, for sure; others lost out to another designer.

On the other end of the spectrum, there has been the rise of independents. We’ve obviously seen it in the past with the likes of Rei Kawakubo and Vivienne Westwood. Are we seeing that happen again with the likes of Molly Goddard, Simone Rocha, Grace Wales Bonner, and Martine Rose? Independence has been a key factor in their success.
Susanna: There has never been a better opportunity to be an independent designer in terms of getting visibility, but maintaining longevity is the issue right now because the whole retail infrastructure is difficult, even more so now with department stores struggling.So designers have to create their own channels. In terms of striking out as an independent, I think it is a good time to do that, but it’s about the support you get. If you’re talented and people notice you, people do cheerlead you, but maintaining that is the tricky part.

‘The editor with 50,000 Instagram followers – doing selfies, promoting themselves, and projecting their own tastes – is as much an influencer as us.’

Susanna Lau

Over the past ten years, how has your rapport with the industry evolved?
Susanna: ‘Rapport with the industry’ – that’s an interesting way of putting it! Does that mean how the industry treats us? Or is it how we interact with the rest of the industry?
Both. In terms of how the industry interacts with these monikers you’ve created, and how you respond? The advantages and disadvantages of building a profile.
Susanna: Bryan, I don’t know how you feel about it, but I think we’ve become used to being lone rangers. Not that we don’t care about how we’re perceived within the industry.
Bryan: You’re Susie Bubble; I’m Bryanboy. Those are the identities that we’ve created for ourselves. Do you feel there are privileges that come with that? Do we get treated differently because of our identities?
Susanna: For sure. At the beginning people took the piss out of us.
Bryan: For sure.
Susanna: Endlessly. Bitched about us in their cars. They were snide. Not even snide behind our backs. Snide to our faces! Come on!
Bryan: I know. It still happens to this day.
Susanna: The animosity that I’ve experienced. I don’t know if the moniker rubbed them the wrong way. I think it was more that we came out of nowhere. Like suddenly, les bloggeurs were at the shows, taking up a seat that they might have gotten. I have gone past the point of caring about that. When you’ve had below-the-line comments on your own blog, you have to go past the point of caring. I have had everything under the sun. I take detailed criticism quite personally, like most people would, but I did take some things onboard and sometimes I do have to go back on things. I like it when people make me think about my own stance – I am not always right about everything! I mean, I would never say that I have the right view on things; I simply have my view. That is what conversation is about and I love a heated debate.
Bryan: I feel like because we created something ourselves and we do not have an institution, a corporation or outlet behind us, that we can survive on our own. Without their titles, who are they? We’ve seen the famous editors who created names for themselves but the moment that they were fired or let go they lost their clout.
Susanna: At the same time though, they do survive, they become bigger personalities. That’s why I was saying, every time I get asked the silly, ‘Oh, what do you think about the word “influencer”?’ question, which is so terribly boring and tiresome, it’s like, well, everyone is one…
Bryan: Everyone’s a fucking influencer.
Susanna: The editor with 50,000 Instagram followers is an influencer. In fact, a lot of them now have the same modus operandi as a blogger or an influencer. You know, selfies, promoting themselves, projecting their own tastes.
Bryan: Making TikTok videos.
Susanna: Yeah, and getting paid partnerships. What is that if it’s not influencing? Let’s face it, a lot of them have done it.
Bryan: When you think about it, we’re shills. We’re all professional shills.
Susanna: This is what I continuously repeat. It doesn’t matter if you’re reviewing or whatever. You are in the business of selling something. The role of a magazine editor is not so different from the role of an influencer – it’s just you have the pages to put your partnerships on.
Bryan: You’re servicing a brand.
Susanna: By promoting their name, by talking about them, shooting them, styling them – whatever it is you’re doing – you are helping a brand put stuff out there. They make new stuff for people to buy every season, for the 50 million seasons a year or wherever we are currently.

‘Because we created something ourselves, and we don’t have a corporation behind us, we can survive on our own. Without their titles, who are they?’

Bryan Yambao

How have your roles and responsibilities evolved over the past decade? In what ways have your respective career arcs been indicative of broader shifts in the industry?
Susanna: Bryan’s done the full cycle. What was it you said in your Perfect letter?
Bryan: The thing with me is that when I started, it was with a travel blog, and then it became a passion. Then of course, over time, the platforms have changed. We went from growing up on computers to now, when we are in a mobile-centric world where everything has to be image and video-based. With my trajectory, I just adapt with the times. Regardless of what platform it is, I want to make sure I’m on it. I’m early and I build an audience. The print side obviously came later in life because I felt bored doing stuff where I was front facing. I never had a traditional media background and have always been curious, just never really had a foot in the door. Then when Katie offered me the position, I thought, you know what, maybe it’s a good creative challenge, so I accepted. By being fully immersed in the print world, I really have a clearer sense of how things are behind the scenes. It’s very exciting.
Susanna: I started off in a magazine, in tandem with my blog and Instagram and everything; you need to gain the biggest breadth of skills you can. I already had a foot in the door of traditional media. Although, I would say that Dazed was a bit of a forerunner. We were creating a website, which, at the time, magazines didn’t really care about and now Dazed Digital is ahead of some of the other star titles, in London at least. I feel like your career is more aligned with the rise of different platforms; I’ve followed my instinct and what I want to do.
Bryan: You’ve always been true to yourself – you’re a writer!
Susanna: I love writing and telling stories. Having the opportunity to interview designers, whether it be in written form or a podcast, is a personal interest of mine as opposed to an assignment.

Would you say that brands think like publishers nowadays? They want to create the content for themselves.
Susanna: Yes, the broader shift in the industry is that brands have become content creators themselves. They need feeding as much as our blogs did back in the day. They have essentially adopted a similar mentality of constantly needing content. Bryan, I don’t know how many times you blogged a day but…
Bryan: Three or four times. The most annoying thing was long-form. When you think about it, you spend the whole day shooting, taking pictures, and then you go back home at night. It’s really a luxury to post 20 pictures, write a thousand words.
Susanna: Loading up my SD card and then editing all the pictures. Carrying a DSLR. We were photographing, editing on Photoshop. We taught ourselves so much shit.
Bryan: Now we just take pictures on a fucking iPhone.
Susanna: During the pandemic, you were acing TikTok video editing like no other. This new class of content creators don’t really get the dues they deserve. There’s a real lack of respect and snobbishness about what’s seen as jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none.
Bryan: I think so, but the current class of content creators…
Susanna: They have teams!
Bryan: Yeah. We didn’t have teams; we had each other! Now that they have teams, how different are they from a traditional magazine? They have a stylist, a photographer, an art director…
Susanna: The only difference is that they are the face of everything, and they are operating their own media empire that can be more easily leveraged into a personal brand, which you’ve definitely done. Have you done collaborations?
Bryan: I’ve done Prada collaborations, but I don’t have my own brand!
Susanna: I got asked that the other day by my hairdresser…
Bryan: Same! I’m always getting asked when I’m going to come up with something.
Susanna: He was like, ‘But you’re famous’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m not really.’
Bryan: Starting my own brand is not for me.
Susanna: It’s not for me either.
Bryan: It’s not for us.
Susanna: That’s the one area that I would probably never go into.
Bryan: It’s very bold.
Susanna: The personal brand empire. I just think that there’s so much stuff out there; I don’t know if I could add anything.
Bryan: And the pressure. You have to offer something new and have something to say. The pressure of coming up with stuff constantly. That would drive me mad.
Susanna: I have thought about doing little things.
Bryan: You wanted to have a cafe!
Susanna: No, I want a line of pastel stockings. I always want really cute knee-high stockings, but I can never find them. Maybe I’ll just do something stupid and little like that. Something completely irrelevant.

‘I used to be a hot mess. That’s what I was known for. Times have changed, platforms have changed, but I still love provoking and entertaining people.’

Bryan Yambao

What do you consider your best skills? What have you learned over the past decade?
Susanna: Good question. I do feel like we ask ourselves this all the time. You evolve. I love learning. I taught myself HTML when I was like 13; I’m a nerd, and I love it. I’m really happy with just trying to teach myself a new skill, download a new app, and figure things out. I’m not going to say that I have mastered a lot of everything but at least I give it a good go. You can but try!
Bryan: That’s the thing, I feel like I never evolved. I’m always an entertainer, a storyteller.
Susanna: That’s not true.
Bryan: The way I treat all the platforms at the moment is exactly how I treated my blog back in the day.
Susanna: I think, through video, you’ve gained confidence in your persona.
Bryan: It’s the same persona I had with pictures! I used to be a hot mess. That’s what I was known for. I love telling stories. I love entertaining people. I love provoking. Times have changed, the platforms have changed, but the messaging and the actor is still there. It’s the same.
Susanna: Your skill is definitely engaging audiences and entertaining them as well. They could be totally uninterested in fashion and still love you. But at the same time, you’ve got that audience who are industry professionals and who are here for your content.
Bryan: And you’re a terrific writer, a journalist. I’ve always called you my personal oracle of fashion. You love nurturing relationships with young talent. You are the queen of FOMO. You need to be there all the time.
Susanna: I’m everything, everywhere, all at once. The writing, the uploading onto CMS, the taking of pictures, the downloading of pictures, the editing of the pictures.
Bryan: And not many people do that!

‘I taught myself HTML when I was 13; I’m a nerd. I’m really happy just teaching myself a new skill, downloading a new app, and figuring things out.’

Susanna Lau

It’s not too different from putting a magazine together.
Susanna: Exactly! I loved Dazed because everything was within your control. I don’t think I’m someone who does well directing a team; that’s why I’m not a magazine editor. I like working within my own space. That’s just my own personality. I don’t do it for money, that’s for sure.
Bryan: It’s not about money; it’s about having an eye everywhere. That’s a great talent.
Susanna: It’s still exciting to me to see the beginnings of things. Sometimes, it’s more exciting than when you see them later on in their careers.

You both work for more conventional titles now, like BoF, ES Magazine, Perfect, going by your real names. Do you find that the traditions and customs behind fashion-media publications, and more specifically the role of fashion journalists, have opened up in recent years? Journalism and the definition of a critic feel both wider and more inclusive.
Susanna: Opened up? BoF has op-eds from a variety of people. Imran [Amed] was a blogger, so I think he’s more embracing of voices that have something to say, whether they’re a journalist or not. I would say yes because, you know, what is a traditional fashion journalist? I know a lot of writers who didn’t study fashion journalism; I didn’t. The way that fashion journalism operates is still very much by the book. You know, you get commissioned, you have a word count, you have a rate. You write and then that’s whipped into shape by the editor or whatever, so the process hasn’t really changed that much. At Perfect, do you feel like things are by the book?
Bryan: No, definitely not. Also, what does by the book even mean? Perfect is so different compared to everywhere else. Sure, we always have an editorial meeting where we discuss what we’d love to do in the next issue, and everyone has an input. Everyone can be a critic. How do you define a critic anyway? Are you a critic because you have a TikTok account and you criticize the clothes just by watching the shows? Or are you a traditional critic like Vanessa Friedman or Cathy Horyn? Sure, everyone can say something about fashion nowadays because of the platforms available, but how do you define what a critic is?
Susanna: Fashion has embraced this newer wave of fashion critics, the HauteLeMode and those types.
Bryan: Is it criticism as entertainment?
Susanna: It is! Maybe a Cathy Horyn or a Vanessa Friedman wouldn’t view that as fashion-critic work. They wouldn’t look at Stylenotcom’s account and think this is a fashion critic.
Bryan: What’s fascinating about when we first came out, all the news headlines were ‘bloggers are the new critics’, ‘bloggers are the new journalists’.
Susanna: Yeah! Except we never claimed to be.
Bryan: No! It’s their fault. They pigeonholed us into something that we weren’t and aren’t.
Susanna: They created this print-versus-digital dynamic.
Bryan: Yes, which is very poor. I am not a critic; I’ve never considered myself a critic, and it’s fascinating when our audience is like, ‘When are you going to write about this and what is your opinion on this?’ I serve as a cheerleader for the industry. I love championing people I love; I love championing talent. I’m not out there to criticize.

Are your commitments to the talent, or at least the reader, not the consumer or the wider industry?
Susanna: Definitely. I would say that I’m more of a cheerleader, too. It’s better to celebrate than to constantly pick at the scabs of what’s bad in the industry, and there are many poor things. Yet both of us speak up when we feel strongly about something. We’ve both got into hot water…
Bryan: Many times!
Susanna: Many times for speaking up. It always feels very organic. It’s not strategic when we do it; it’s like verbal diarrhoea.
Can you give me an example?
Susanna: When Chanel did that feminist-protest show, that was the first time I really went out on a limb, and I was quite scared of them rescinding invitations, but I think they said that they appreciated the criticism. When you weigh in on things like Kanye’s ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirt, that will inevitably lead to debate. Then during the pandemic when Michel Gaubert attended a party that featured these weird masks with Chinese slanted eyes on, like Asian eyes, I did go off on one with that. Then afterwards we had a dialogue privately about it, and we learned, he learned, and it was a rare moment of acceptance and embrace. It’s those private moments that make progress in these discussions; it’s not just about creating drama online. That is between him and I.
Bryan: We’re driven by what’s going on; we’re triggered by what’s happening – but again, it is not our job.
Susanna: No, but at the same time, I feel like we’ve become more confident in speaking up.
Bryan: When it’s warranted.
Susanna: And maybe that newer class of influencer is a bit more passive.

Fashion has not been able to avoid cancel culture, although perhaps less permanent in its potency and effect compared to other industries. What effects do you see this having on designers, brands, media and individuals who work in fashion?
Susanna: I wrote about the anatomy of a fashion scandal. It is almost like the industry courts controversy and that isn’t anything new. There are very few things that keep a brand cancelled. There’s a bigger mechanism for the apology and the ‘make-good process’, but everyone has a very short-term memory so ultimately everything is forgotten.
Bryan: No one can really be cancelled because a lot of these brands have money behind them. People move on, continue what they’re doing and then they’ll pay everyone, you know. What I do like about this whole movement, when you think about the early 2000s compared to now, is it really serves as a check and balance to a lot of what’s going on in the industry. If we didn’t have cancel culture, we would never have heard of the things that were alleged to have happened with Bruce Weber or Mario Testino.
Susanna: There are people within brands now who are checking this stuff; they’re much more stringent and I think that’s a positive thing.
Bryan: Even with the range of models we had growing up. I never saw anyone who looked like me. Fashion has never been so diverse.
Susanna: Sure, you could call it representation by checkbox.
Bryan: Performative is better than nothing.
Susanna: When we criticize quotas as performative, is it better than ignorance?
Bryan: It’s a lesser evil, whether it comes from a pure place, at least there’s progress.
Susanna: One can only hope that the next generation of designers will change the industry. Those changes don’t come fast, but they’ll bring a different set of eyeballs with a different world view.
Bryan: Fashion has never been more global, more seen. People look into everything now and there’s no room for mistakes.
Susanna: If you make a mistake it will blow up and I think that is a good thing when the evidence is there. Sometimes some of the things that are reported are misguided. Stories can get blown out of proportion, like the reporting around the Balenciaga scandal. That was very convoluted, and people were getting the wrong end of the stick. We need to be more mindful of how these things can blow up and what we put out there.
Bryan: What’s fascinating for me is when some of the brands are saying we’re inclusive, we’re diverse, and then they have their all-white atelier taking a bow, not a single person of colour on the design team.
Susanna: Those kinds of culture changes take a long time to shift. I don’t know if those things are purposeful, but changes are coming. You can criticize cancel culture, but it opens up the conversation.

A few years ago, Cathy Horyn wrote: ‘There’s a danger in reading too much into the fashion choices of a person, particularly a public figure.’ Would you argue that today, on the contrary, it seems more important than ever to be examining these things?
Bryan: My personal relationship with fashion is a reflection of where I am in my life. I never really felt a need to change. When I wear clothes, I wear them because they’re authentic to me. I mean, I’m 41; I love Chanel and Hermès. It’s different to when I was 25 and I couldn’t afford either. Fashion is a reflection of who we are at any given time or moment, and the beauty of fashion is that you can express yourself creatively. It doesn’t need to be strategized because of where you are in your professional career.
Susanna: Honestly, I’ve never thought to do that. And maybe that is to my detriment actually because I remember someone told me that designers would take me more seriously as a journalist if I dressed down.
Bryan: What? In all black?
Susanna: Yeah. Someone actually did say that to me once. And it hurt, of course. To ask me to dress in an all-black suit. I would feel so uncomfortable; I’d rather walk around in a bikini.

As early influencers and bloggers, have you been strategic in how you’ve evolved, as social media itself continues to evolve?
Susanna: When Instagram started, it really set the pace for paid partnerships and so you had the traditional influencer whose sole role is to sell stuff through paid posts. Today the title is a bit more blurred. It means everything and nothing at the same time.
Bryan: You could be a dog and have something like 3,000 followers. A doggy influencer.
Susanna: Essentially, it’s promoting things for people to buy.
Bryan: So, that’s what you think an influencer is today?
Susanna: Well, that makes me sound very cynical, doesn’t it? We should just call a spade a spade. We’re in the business of selling new things, and there’s a myriad of ways to do that.
Bryan: There’s also influencers who refuse to sell anything or those who don’t get paid.
Susanna: That’s true.
Bryan: Anyone with an audience can be an influencer. When we started, we never set out with the goal of becoming a professional shill like, ‘I want to get into advertising, you know.’ There was no template. No one was doing this back in the day. We did not set out to get paid.
Susanna: I already had a well-paid job in advertising; I just did it on the side. Before work, after work, in my lunch hour. It was like, ‘Oh, I really like fashion, but I didn’t study it and I don’t feel comfortable going into the industry, but I do this side thing that I can dip in and out of and have fun.’ It was a hobby, really.
Bryan: It was like an outlet. A storytelling outlet where I would just talk about what happened in my day or I would scan magazines and share my opinions. It was a hobby.
Susanna: When I started my blog, I didn’t see the kind of content that I wanted to read about so I created it myself. I would go and see small designers that no one was covering and do stupid outfit pictures. It was the beginning of the selfie era.
Bryan: Now my 13-year-old niece is telling me that she wants to become an influencer. When you hear the word you immediately think, ‘Oh, you can make a livelihood from that.’
Susanna: Free stuff! Loads of trips! Glamorous!

‘When we started, we never set out with the goal of becoming a professional shill. There was no template. No one was doing this back in the day.’

Bryan Yambao

Has the arrival of new media such as TikTok turned digital-media publicists at fashion houses into gatekeepers to the younger generations of influencers?
Bryan: A lot of the kids nowadays would never be able to go to a fashion show. Imagine how you and I have fought for our seats at the table.
Susanna: That’s true! Remember when the TikTok kids turned up a year ago.
Bryan: And they’re all front row now! See. This is where we start to sound like traditional media.
Susanna: I’ve embraced it. I remember we were looking at some TikTok kids in the front row and I was wondering whether they looked at us the way that we used to look at Tim [Blanks] or Sarah Mower. I remember asking you, ‘I wonder if they’re scared of us?’ And you were like, ‘Nah! They don’t even know who we are!’
Now you feel like the ‘old guard’?-
Bryan: I think influencers today have a fast track compared to our generation.
Susanna: They have ingratiated their way into the industry; they have an allocation now. At every PR agency, it’s digital first.
Bryan: For most brands!
Susanna: Social-media managers. Those are jobs that didn’t even exist when we were coming up. A whole other industry’s spawned up.

Do you feel that there’s a greater sense of segregation between influencers and other industry roles, with ‘influencer zones’ at the shows in Paris, and notably at Gucci’s Autumn/Winter 2023-2024 show in Milan?
Susanna: It’s always been there. When I was digital editor of Dazed, I would always get put in a digital section. What you have now is that brands have realized that editors’ needs are different to influencers’, so they’ll have influencer-specific trips, influencer-specific seating…
Bryan: Are you noticing that there are more influencers now than traditional media?
Susanna: No. There aren’t more – they’re just more visible, that’s all.
Bryan: Most magazines are digital-first now.
Susanna: Traditional ad spend has definitely gone down. That’s why magazines have reduced the number of issues. Most have turned their attention to digital. It’s swings and roundabouts.

‘We were looking at the TikTok kids on the front row, wondering whether they looked at us the way we used to look at Tim Blanks or Sarah Mower.’

Susanna Lau

We’ve seen fashion become increasingly politicized over the past decade. What do you make of fashion’s relationship with politics and society? Should fashion’s appeal transcend politics and the political beliefs of the wearer?
Susanna: Of course! But does it need to wade in on politics? That I don’t know. Does everyone have the capacity to do that?
Bryan: It boils down to this obsession with relevance and headlines. Fashion uses current affairs to be part of the conversation or as a reaction to what’s going on. If you ask me, I’d rather see a collection that’s beautiful and pure that doesn’t wade into what’s out there.
Susanna: This goes back to what I was saying about brands as content creators – 24-hour fashion news cycles didn’t exist 30 years ago. Brands constantly feel like they need something to talk about or something to announce so that’s why they do a charity tie-up, or a collaboration with an artist or activist. Those kind of things signal that a brand wants to be part of a wider media agenda. It’s marketing more than altruism.

How do you feel about the shifting dynamic between fashion, celebrity culture and entertainment?
Bryan: Well, fashion has become entertainment.
Susanna: The relationship between celebrity and fashion has always been there. Like red carpets…
Bryan: It all started when Anna Wintour started at American Vogue. Celebrity was her main agenda.
Susanna: This might be controversial but I remember there were a lot of people on the Fashion Spot forum complaining when celebrities started being used in campaigns instead of models.
Bryan: That’s antiquated discourse. When you think about it now, brands are bigger than they were before. Louis Vuitton was like a €2-billion brand in 2003, now it’s €20 billion. In a way, these brands have become bigger than Cadbury or Colgate. They need that mass appeal, that machinery, to sustain this level of growth.
Susanna: And in order to attract maximum eyeballs, you need to align with the biggest stars, not just a star.
Bryan: Look at Lionel Messi at Louis Vuitton.
Susanna: Messi is beyond fashion.

What is it about these brands that make them beacons of quality?
Susanna: What they’re selling are obviously the values of craftsmanship and heritage. That is very much what their brand value is trading on. But also, cultural significance. So when Vuitton does a collab with Yayoi Kusama, they communicate around that cultural weight. It’s a lot of different things, whether you believe that value is rightly attributed is up to you. But for now, they’re winning in terms of the way they communicate values of longevity, history, craftsmanship, and creativity. I still love a lot of Nicolas Ghesquière’s work at Vuitton; it’s still very important for me. It’s very design-led; I’m still a fan. They have put their belief in that as a company, so all of that is communicated and they’ve been able to leverage all of that into growth and sales.

At Balenciaga’s last show, Demna’s show notes stated: ‘Fashion has become a kind of entertainment, but often that overshadows the essence of it, which lays in shapes and volumes and silhouettes.’ What are your thoughts on the spectacle of fashion overpowering the clothes and the collection?
Susanna: I’m very clothes first. I couldn’t give a shit about the ‘fash-tainment’ element. Cynically speaking, it’s great for eyeballs; it’s great for traction. You get a great video of a mental show and put it up, of course your engagement goes nuts. My highest-engagement video of last season was the Coperni robots, even though I actually didn’t really love the clothes.
Bryan: We went from using celebrities to designers trying to create viral moments.
Susanna: It’s the designers who have decided that a moment or a viral aspect or ‘fash-tainment’ works for them.
Bryan: A lot of these designers were doing that before the word ‘viral’ had even been invented. Look at the Chanel sets when Karl Lagerfeld was there. Look at McQueen and Shalom Harlow.
Susanna: A public-participation element actually lays it bare to more criticism. My video was going viral but there were also lots of critical comments on it. It’s a risk. You want to have that ‘fash-tainment’ moment, but do you want pure eyes or do you want people saying, ‘I love this and therefore I will buy this dress?’ Isn’t the point to love it, then buy the dress? So if you’re doing that and all you’re getting is someone going ‘Ooh, look at this funny robot’…
Bryan: A lot of it is just noise.
Susanna: I don’t mind noise as long as it’s backed up by something solid.

‘My highest-engagement video of this last season was the Coperni robots, even though I actually didn’t really love the clothes.’

Susanna Lau

When did fashion become part of pop culture? When did pop culture become fashionable?
Susanna: Hasn’t it always been thus?
Bryan: I do feel that fashion became pop culture the moment that brands became megabrands. The moment that brands became bigger than celebrities. Fashion is pop culture.
Susanna: It’s not even pop culture. We’re talking about household names that are interwoven into the fabric of day-to-day life. We’re so used to living with brands and names that people won’t even be able to recall what Prada’s aesthetic is. Like, who’s Raf Simons or whoever? But they will know the brand name. Those brands are flexes. It went from luxury aspirational to now being able to go to the Prada Caffè at Harrods and have a £10 cake.
Bryan: They’re like £15! And Dior cookies are even more…
Susanna: What I mean is that brands have built out the lifestyle aspect so much that it just becomes every day. What was your TikTok tagline?
Bryan: It was: ‘Elevating everyday experiences.’
Susanna: That’s what brands do now.
Bryan: They’ve gone from luxury, aspiration and fashion to really becoming lifestyle brands. Dior Maison has plates, place mats, tennis rackets. There are Chanel surfboards!
Susanna: Are we just going back to the eighties when brands had weird licenses like Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes and stuff? I mean, Saint Laurent is now the producer of this Pedro Almodóvar film, so they’re getting into film and entertainment now. The way fashion is touching people is not just through a bag, a magazine or a blogger. That’s why fashion is so omnipresent that everyone on the street will be able to identify something.
Bryan: The notion that fashion needs to be really exclusive and rare, that verified couture perception of fashion is antiquated.
Susanna: It’s got to be about the level of success you want to obtain. Do we all need to be a megabrand, a mega-celebrity?
Bryan: It’s not for everybody. Look at Rei Kawakubo at Comme or Azzedine Alaïa. He refused to be part of this machine.
Susanna: I’m not as interested in the pop-culture aspect; I’m shit at recognizing celebrities.
Bryan: Brands have become bigger than the celebrities.
Susanna: I just look at the clothes.
Bryan: Clothes first.
Susanna: Yes, please, clothes first.

Taken from System No. 21.