On the (Sorry) State of Fashion Journalism

A Vestoj Talk at McNally Jackson in New York City, August 2017

On Sunday, August 25, Vestoj founder Anja Aronowsky Cronberg and online editor Alice Hines talked with an audience at McNally Jackson bookstore about the state of fashion journalism. The following is an edited and condensed version of the talk.

Scott King, “How I’d Sink American Vogue,” 2006. Courtesy Herald St, London.

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg: We thought it was a good moment for this talk because of the fallout after the publication of our Lucinda Chambers interview. As those of you who have read the interview already know, Lucinda was recently fired from British Vogue and talked very candidly about some of the problems that she found in her job, and in the fashion industry at large. The interview was the subject of a lot of water cooler conversations and quite some controversy. For us, an otherwise rather niche platform for fashion, what followed was a kind of explosion. Not even an hour had passed after publishing before I got the first call from a newspaper journalist saying, ‘Do you care to comment?’ For one solid week I was fielding calls from journalists.

In the conversations that Alice and I have had since, we’ve returned again and again to the question: why did this particular article cause such a ruckus? Why is it so hard for people who work in fashion to be critical of the industry? Who does it benefit to maintain the attitude of ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you?’ Today we want to use those questions as a starting point to talk more broadly about the current state of fashion writing.

Alice Hines: From my perspective, one of the most interesting things about the reaction to the Lucinda Chambers was that the things she said weren’t on the surface surprising.

Someone complaining about their job or saying that they don’t totally agree with the values of their employer happens frequently. But what Lucinda was saying were things you normally say in private; when they entered the public sphere it became controversial.

Anja: The was one thing in particular that a lot of journalists picked up on…

Alice: The quote was, ‘The June cover with Alexa Chung in a stupid Michael Kors T-shirt is crappy. He’s a big advertiser so I knew why I had to do it.’

Anja: That quote illustrates well what Alice was saying earlier about the dichotomy that exists in fashion between speaking in public and speaking in private, and about what journalists typically print. Part of the reason for this is the symbiotic relationship that exists between fashion writers and designers, PR people and salespeople – between those with a supposedly objective point of view and those with a very transparent agenda, i.e. to sell clothes by the brand you represent. In fashion there is such a strong schism between insiders and outsiders, and every insider lives in fear of becoming an outsider. In order to do your job in fashion you have to be an ‘insider.’ This means that you socialise with other fashion insiders, and that you, at least partly, play by the rules. The importance of playing by the rules or not biting the hand that feeds you is due to a few different causes, the most cited probably being the economic ties that exist between publications and big brands. The typical come-back is the cliche, ‘Big Name Journalist Gets Banned from Big Brand Show for Writing Bad Review.’

Alice: It turns out there have been headlines like this since the 1950s. That was one thing that surprised me when I researched the history of fashion criticism, that these tensions have always been there. It became a profession known by most Americans in the post-war era, in the 1940s and 1950s, and from the beginning the point was to promote what the Paris couturiers were selling. In 1938 there were ninety journalists at the Balenciaga show in Paris. And by 1957 there were five hundred journalists in Paris covering the couture shows. This is from a book by Kate Nelson Best, about the history of fashion journalism. Magazines were the reason fashion became a mainstream interest, at the same time that American retailers were first beginning to do authorised copies of what the Paris couturiers were designing. So as a suburban woman in New Jersey you could access fashion through reading about the shows in Vogue, and buying a version of a Paris-designed dress at Bloomingdales. So, in fact, all the history of fashion journalism is commercial. The economic relationships have always been a part of it.

Today as a writer in New York City those structural problems which make non-commercial fashion journalism difficult definitely impact me. I think lots of us have had similar experiences to Lucinda, of doing things that you aren’t totally behind either aesthetically or ethically. Vestoj is a project that I’ve been working on for about a year and I’ve been loving it. But I’m also just a working writer in New York City so I do lots of different types of freelance journalism and copy writing. And I’ve had editors at fashion magazines which I really like tell me that we don’t publish anything negative about designers at this publication. Not like we would lie in an article, but if it’s a negative article that’s not really part of our brand identity. And I could theoretically write an article in Vestoj criticising a client, but I’d lose the client I was copywriting for. That’s one of the big reasons why I’m freelance, actually, because no one client or editor can ever have total power over you, if that makes sense. If you lose a relationship with one person it’s not like losing your job.

Anja: And then there are the social ties which are, arguably, equally important, especially for a publication like ours which doesn’t have advertisements. Being part of a community means that you’re not so likely to write critically about someone you really like, or will bump into at the next social event. How do I write professionally about someone who’s also a friend? Do I choose not to because I can’t be objective? As an editor and writer, those are questions I often have to ask myself. In fashion so much works on the personal relationships you develop with people over time. These are relationships that often flourish over nice lunch or dinner invitations, are maintained with beautiful gifts and other perks and culminate with exclusive access. For a journalist to get what your peers don’t can be very flattering. This is not to say that it’s all about implicit or explicit bribery: a good rapport can just as easily stem from a shared interest or aesthetic or though common friends. The genuine and the transactional often bleed together. Personal feelings can very easily cloud your judgment, but this is something that journalists tend not to talk about, perhaps because it’s harder to see your own failings in this type of situation. Because of it, I’d argue that self-censorship is very common for fashion writers.

Alice: Right, it’s typically a mental preventative state.

Anja: It’s how you avoid ending up in situations where your editor tells you, sorry we can’t publish this, it’s too critical. Or where some brand univites you to their next show. Typically it starts with who you choose to write about. Self-censorship is something that affects every journalist, whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s not exclusive to fashion. The insider/outsider dichotomy can be found in politics, in art, in science…

Alice: It’s interesting to consider how fashion compares to other fields, even if we can’t ever make a categorical judgment. I covered business for a while, and was writing about Walmart. I was covering labour strikes and doing some investigative work, and all my stories about the company were very, very negative. I had a confrontational relationship with my subject which was part of an agenda that my publication at the time, the Huffington Post, had about how they wanted this giant American retailer to be covered. It’s such a difference to be working in fashion where editors flat-out tell you we don’t write anything negative. I was tossing around a theory: are fashion journalists more likely to self censor? What is the root of that? Is it just because of the camaraderie you have? Or is there something deeper? Maybe it’s because fashion isn’t taken seriously by culture at large and we internalise that feeling. The thought being, ‘Oh you know, fashion is not a life or death situation.’ This is just a designer who wants me to change a quote; who does it really affect? Versus if you’re quoting something a politician or a PR flack for Walmart said, which might have concrete economic consequences.

Anja: As a journalist part of your ethics has to do with, does the public need to know this? Does the public have a right to know this? So how do you argue ‘Does the public need to know this’ when the question at hand is someone admitting that she thinks the Michael Kors T-shirt she put on the cover of a glossy is crappy?

There are times when I’ve upset interviewees by publishing something they told me during an interview but regretted afterwards, and every time this happens I have to ask myself anew, ‘Did I do the right thing by publishing it in the first place?’ I’ve found that judging every situation on its own merits works better than having a blanket response for every disgruntled interview subject. Once, for instance, I upset the entrepreneur Andy Spade by publishing something he told me about what he saw as his role in the shrunken suit trend that Thom Browne popularised. In retrospect he was worried that what he said had come off wrong, and that it might harm his relationship with Browne. In that case, I chose to keep the quote in question as is, since Spade spoke on the record. I felt that any post-publishing regret on his part was not my responsibility as a journalist. But there have been other times that have been more ethically ambiguous. I remember an interview with Tim Blanks, who spoke very candidly about Hussein Chalayan in the context of failure.

Alice: The quote was ‘[Hussein Chalayan] says other designers rip him off. I think he feels he just hasn’t done well, but the reason he hasn’t is not because of that. I was looking to do a perfume with him once and I think he’s just a very difficult person. Hard to work with. I love him but he can say the most inappropriate thing at the worst possible time.’

Anja: What Alice just read is the edited version. I edited the quote after Chalayan contacted me, very upset. He felt that the original quote was gossipy, unfounded and would hurt his position in the industry. And after hearing him out, I could empathise.

Alice: It’s complicated! When I’m in a cynical mood, I think the stuff I’m writing is frivolous and doesn’t matter that much compared to, say, labour strikes to use my earlier example. But when I’m feeling less cynical, I think that fashion is extremely important. Maybe we should all be taking what we write about more seriously. Maybe if as fashion journalists we stopped feeling that what we write about isn’t actually important and overcame this self-loathing element, then maybe the overall state of fashion writing would be better.

Anja: Vestoj has a manifesto, and one of its points is to always take fashion seriously. I know so very well what Alice is talking about; I come across that attitude all the time. Maybe part of it has to do with fashion traditionally being a women’s business. This dismissive attitude reflects how women value themselves working, and how society at large values the work women do. Talking about work with colleagues and peers, attitudes are often very polarised. Either people have this almost self-consciously ironic stance where everything is play, and fashion is all, ‘so what, it doesn’t matter!’ And other times we overcompensate and do make our work a life or death scenario which gives rise to fashion clichés like a PR assistant running like mad at two AM to get mini Coca-Cola bottles for Karl Lagerfeld somewhere in the Chinese countryside.

So the question to end on is, bearing in mind what we’ve talked about, the trials and tribulations of fashion writing, how could we actually create an industry that is ethically and morally upstanding? Is it actually possible to create that kind of environment within fashion, and if so, what can we do on an individual level as well as on a grander systemic level? What role do each of us play in creating the industry that we want?

Audience member 1: I’m curious in the wake of the Lucinda Chambers interview after it was published for a brief time, it was taken off the site. And when it came back it was edited, a little bit. I’d love to hear more.

Anja: Well we were threatened with a lawsuit. We got a letter from lawyers representing Conde Nast and Edward Enninful, and I was spooked. I frankly didn’t know what to do at first. Was this intimidation, or was Vestoj about to be sued?

Alice: Needless to say we don’t have a large legal department at Vestoj.

Anja: What they took issue with were some very specific lines. I got legal advice about how to handle the situation and made the decision that the best thing for Vestoj, considering the David and Goliath nature of the situation, was to edit those lines.

Audience member 1: You said that you can’t categorically talk about the fashion industry vs. another industry in terms of criticism. Which brings to mind the Valentino Spring ‘16 show, inspired by Africa. It felt quite insensitive and perhaps irrelevant to refugees that there was this fashion show. [When] companies like Uber get criticism, that forces them to respond and change. Valentino doesn’t.

Alice: I think what happened with Uber, when there was the boycott in New York following their decision to run Ubers to the airport during the protest at JFK following the immigration ban, they experienced a serious ding to their business. A lot of people deleted Uber. I would guess that the controversy around cultural appropriation didn’t hurt Valentino’s books…

Audience member 2: You have to understand, Valentino is an Italian company. In America, designers react differently, for instance the raver girl Marc Jacobs show. People were like, those are dreadlocks, this is cultural appropriation! And [Marc] was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ In America you have to respond. [In Italy] they don’t care. The buyer of Valentino, is that customer a refugee? [The customers] are just seeing embellished garments that they can wear to an event. [The Valentino] ad campaign was shot in a village, and they had these villagers in the back. They only used one black model, everyone else [just] has cornrows. I saw it as a joke, but I’m not looking to Valentino to present the perfect story of this culture. I never see fashion as being on the right side of race relations.

Alice: Do you think fashion could be better? Or because it’s about glorifying certain standards of beauty it will always have these problems?

Audience member 2: I think it can be better. With fashion there’s old generation and new generation. When you’re talking about Karl Lagerfeld and that assistant running to get the Coke, that’s the old side of fashion. For people my age who witnessed the downfall of the economy, it’s not that serious.

Audience member 3: You identified things that hold back fashion journalism, and I’m curious if there are any attempts to break those financial ties. In terms of the economics, looking to a model directly supported by the readership [for example]. It’s something I’d be willing to pay for. The most serious fashion journalism is in publications not devoted to fashion because they have different streams of revenue from advertisers across industries.

Anja: With Vestoj, we’ve certainly tried alternative models; we’re funded by London College of Fashion rather than by advertising. But we can’t get around some of those social connections we were discussing earlier. I sometimes say that I’d rather be an insider shouting than an outsider pointing fingers, and that attitude is something I try to bring into the work that we do with Vestoj. Advertising as a way of subsidising publishing has been around since the mid nineteenth century, if I’m remembering correctly. Noam Chomsky writes about this in Manufacturing Consent. He describes how a lot of leftwing and radical press directed towards the working classes or sympathetic to unions, for instance, fell by the wayside because their content wasn’t attractive to advertisers. And readers started to realise, when you can buy a newspaper cheap, why would you buy one that’s expensive?

Audience member 4: To return to these themes of criticism and accountability and industry — Alice read a quote from Lucinda Chambers, where she said, ‘Michael Kors, he’s a big advertiser with us.’ That’s crazy. Michael Kors is a corporation. It’s not just a person! We joke about how U.S. tax code treats corporations as humans, but the fashion industry treats corporations like humans [too]. Why is it impossible to divorce those things from each other?

Anja: I guess it’s impossible because the brand and the person at least started out being one and the same, before developing into something else. After all, Michael Kors is an actual human being who probably, in this case, has a relationship to Lucinda Chambers, as much as his company has a relationship to her company.

Alice: I think this relates to the concept of persona. Lots of companies want to have this brand identity where you think of it not as an abstract entity, but as having warm, tangible values. Companies pay insane amounts of money to craft this. And in fashion it’s ready-made; the person who’s at the head of the company becomes that core brand identity. So I think what’s happening in fashion is by virtue of the business model and the way it’s structured around creative directors.

Anja: I remember interviewing Nicole Phelps at Vogue a few years ago. She described fashion journalists as ‘storytellers.’ We don’t want to read about the faceless many that make up a brand. We want to read about the individual. That’s how we empathise or disagree or in any case have a reaction.

Audience member 5: I’m not sure if the Chambers case is representative enough to address the very broad question about the state of fashion journalism or self-censorship. I feel that the confluence of circumstances was left out. You were asked [why you took the article] down. It’s a time when things spread a lot faster than they used to, and also there has been an interest in recent times in behind-the-scenes fashion, magazines like Industrie, System, and documentaries attest to that. And the Chambers story fed directly into a pop culture narrative of the evil fashion industry, the most famous example being the movie of the same publication just a different edition. So can we just say that the reason this particular interview became such a big deal was it made for a great story; a quirky older British woman that used colorful language [and who] dresses in a specific way, vs. the established universally beloved young editor? I believe the interview [was] also rather salacious. So I wonder if this was one major point why it became such a big deal, and maybe speaks to the fact that this is not such a representative [example]. I don’t look at Harper’s Bazaar, for instance, for serious fashion journalism.

Anja: But why not? That’s what we’re trying to pick apart, right? Why wouldn’t you?

Audience member 5: But I don’t look at a Katie Holmes and a Jennifer Aniston movie for, like, serious cinema.

Anja: But why does Harper’s Bazaar equal a Jennifer Aniston movie in your mind?

Audience member 5: I think it has to do with things becoming much more transparent and spreading, and suddenly people who are not in the industry having more of an interest in what happens behind the scenes. You talk about the sorry state of fashion journalism, but I’ve also heard people talk about the golden age of fashion journalism, because you have publications come about in the last decade that do a great job. I mean they’re niche, not everyone knows them, but the person who is really interested in fashion, maybe starts out consuming Vogue and Elle, but you graduate from that. I’ve worked for publications where my editor would have shot himself before putting a Michael Kors T-shirt on the cover.

Audience member 6: Seconding that, I think an important question is what is the site of fashion criticism and what is fashion criticism, even? There is a lack of history compared to other genres of criticism. And in my experience as an editor and journalist, often fashion criticism is pitted into a lifestyle magazine. Is lifestyle journalism different from fashion criticism? Is reporting different from criticism? Another thing I’ve thought about a lot as an editor is that my writing is always made smaller [to give way to] more images.

Anja: We often make distinction between glossies like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and independent niche magazines, of which Vestoj is one. Or we conclude that serious fashion journalism is what you find in newspapers; in glossy magazines you find style tips and other trivial content. But the point is that those separations are not as hard and fast as that. A lot of independent magazines have creative agencies for example, and you have to be mindful of relationships with current, and future, clients. I would hazard a guess that for the magazine you worked with that wouldn’t have put the Michael Kors T-shirt on its cover, Michael Kors wasn’t a big advertiser. So that choice may have been easy to make, but what about the times you feel pressure from someone whose goodwill you actually depend on?

Among my peers I often come across an attitude that says, ‘Well, I’m different.’ I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself. ‘I do things right.’ But I don’t think it’s very productive to think like that. Rather than pointing fingers at others, why not look at yourself first? Maybe the whole idea of objective journalism is defunct. Maybe we would be better off being open about objectivity not existing. We’re human beings aren’t we? It’s very hard to be objective when you’re a person in the world, influenced by certain forces. I would always argue that it’s better to be self-aware and admit your agenda, even when it’s not flattering.


Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s editor-in-chief and founder

Alice Hines is Vestoj’s online editor