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NYT's Vanessa Friedman on Why Fashion Criticism Isn't Dead

Vanessa Friedman, the newly minted fashion director and chief fashion critic for the New York Times, welcomes the adversity of her role.

A rare entity in the exclusive, competitive, and sometimes petty world of fashion where freebies and favors abound, the professional critic's job is to voice their true opinion, no strings attached. The gig invites the difficult task of discussing the literal frills of the beat—necklines, fabric, sequins, and so on—while also delving deeper into the je ne sais quoi of the industry, explaining to readers why exactly it all matters so much.


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Often, the job comes with consequences too. Former New York Times critic Cathy Horyn was banned from Carolina Herrera and Dolce & Gabbana fashion shows because her criticism was found "slanderous." Robin Givhan, the Washington Post's fashion critic, lost her front row seat at Chanel after criticizing Karl Lagerfeld. As New York Magazine aptly put it, "criticize a designer's work, and you can forget about an invitation to the next show; gush about it, and lose your integrity."

Vanessa Friedman, the newly minted fashion director and chief fashion critic for the New York Times, welcomes the adversity of her role. After 11 years as a critic for the Financial Times, Friedman assumed her current position in March. So far she's questioned the need for flash-sale sites and young designer awards and explored why Beyoncé hasn't obtained style-icon status; next week she'll debut her NYFW analysis for the paper. Racked caught up with Friedman to talk about critiquing designers, her and why she thinks it's important to question politicians' wardrobes.

Tell us a little about your background.
I went to Princeton and have a BA in history. I was at the Financial Times for 11 years as their fashion critic editor. I had written for them when I was living in London for 12 years until they decided to have a fashion editor, so I sort of created that section. Before that, I had been at InStyle when it launched in the UK for two years, and before that, magazines in New York.

Were there any professional experiences that really shaped you?
I was at the New Yorker for a couple years as an editorial associate— that's really where I started writing. They teach you to be a general reporter and writer, and you learn the way you learn in school. You learn to research your topic, and I approach fashion that way. I asked a lot of questions and spent a lot of time learning about it. I was lucky in a way because when I got to FT, it wasn't known as a fashion platform, so I had some time to figure it out.

Were you always interested in fashion from a critical perspective?
No, I liked fashion from the consumer perspective, as a fun thing to do. I used to read fashion magazines, but I never really thought I would have a life in fashion. When I was in school, I was much more interested in big cultural ideas and didn't really understand the connection between fashion and culture, which is something that I'm really interested in at the moment. I fell into it all by accident, luckily for me.


Photo: Getty Images

What is the responsibility of a fashion critic?
We're a middleman between the designer and the consumer. The critic's job is to explain to people who walk into a store and are faced with racks of clothes what those clothes may be about and what they may be responding to. People will say, "Hey, that looks like something I want to wear," and the job of the critic is to explain to them why—why they recognize themselves in that, why it seems relevant, why it's happening now, what it has to do with what came before, and where things are going.

Is it hard to explain to people what you do?
It isn't hard at all now. I'm proud of what I do! I really like it, and I think I have a great job. When I first got into fashion, a really long time ago, it was harder, but that was as much because of my own lack of understanding about the point of fashion as any judgments anyone else was making. For me now, fashion is simply an incredibly useful way to talk about identity and politics and pop culture, possibly the most useful way because it changes all the time and reflects changes around it. My feeling now is that if people dismiss it, they're not getting something.

What's the most difficult part of the job?
Criticizing people. It's hard. I'm very aware of how much work, heart, and effort every designer puts into a collection. You feel bad if you're saying that all that effort didn't work in the end, that it wasn't successful. On the other hand, I think if you're not willing to do that, then when you say something is good, it doesn't mean anything. You really need to be able to do both those things and be as fair and objective about both sides as you possibly can.

Is it a struggle to be honest? Are you ever worried there will be backlash?
No. It's my job, and I think brands know that If I was scared of writing about it, then I shouldn't be doing this stuff. Criticism given constructively is useful, and I think most designers can appreciate that. They may not like it, but they do appreciate it and given some time, you can have a really productive discussion about it. Being a critic is not about brutality. There's no point in slamming something just to slam it; that's not part of the job.

Have you ever been banned by a brand?
I have not! Knock on wood.

Who are the designers that excite you?
It's always interesting to see what Miuccia Prada is doing because there's so much thought that goes into it, and from a critical point of view, it's interesting to react to. It's exciting to see new designers, so I'm very interested in what Jonathan Anderson is going to do at Loewe. It's interesting to follow the progression of Nicolas Ghesquière at Vuitton, or to see how Marc Jacobs does now that he's concentrating on his own brand. But really, I try to be as open-minded about it as I possibly can because it's really about what a designer's doing, not what I expect them to do.


Photo: Getty Images

What's a fashion moment you hated?
Drop-crotch trousers are not my favorite, but that's not exclusive to any designer. Many of them attempt to resurrect that every once in a while. Diaper pants, hobble skirts, anything else that limits a woman's mobility—that just shouldn't happen.

What are the staples in your own closet?
I've been wearing the same thing for years. I wear a lot of dresses from Azzedine Alaïa. It's sort of my investment uniform, I guess. You buy one a year and wear it once a week. I wear a lot of jackets from Dries Van Noten with jeans. Also, Reed Krakoff. I tend to wear things that are not immediately identifiable just because I find that's easier for me, but with all the whole street style stuff, I'm constantly disappointing people! It's always the same thing again and again, and I think photographers now know my entire wardrobe.

Does your job make you want to shop a lot?
I don't shop that much in general because I have three kids and a full-time job! I spend most of my free time going to swim meets.

What do you think about fashion bloggers?
Like with any writer, some of them are very good and some of them are less good. You find the ones that you respond to. It's nice to have more people expressing their opinions! I'm all for that. I think that blogging has a place in the world, and also that a lot people we refer to as bloggers are not really bloggers anymore. They have tiny media businesses and calling them bloggers is misleading. I'm all for evolution and change—I think it's kind of silly to be like, "No, you can't come in!" That would be super hypocritical of me.

With bloggers scoring sponsorships and benefiting from gifting, do you feel the integrity of fashion journalism has been compromised?
I don't think it's necessarily limited to bloggers. It's every person's responsibility to maintain their own integrity, and in a sense, there's an onus on the reader to have a healthy dose of skepticism when they're coming at any of us. I don't think it's necessary that every single website have a giant disclaimer, although many of them do, and legally people are now obligated to reveal if they've gotten a gift from a brand. As a reader, you should be able to understand what that means. I don't think a lot of bloggers are purporting to be objective critics. Part of what people like about them is that they're responding to what they see in an incredibly personal, immediate, and emotional way. "I love it, I don't love it, I want to wear it, I don't want to wear it"—these are questions I don't particularly think about.

There aren't as many fashion critics as there used to be. Why do you think that's the case?
The general print media landscape is shrinking, so there are fewer and fewer writers in lots of different sectors; I don't think this is unique to fashion. But there still are critics: at the Washington Post, the LA Times, the London Times, the London Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent, the Evening Standard, the Wall Street Journal. The rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.

What's your relationship with the other critics? Is there competition?
No, they're my sisters in arms. Sure, there's competition, but there is in every kind of journalism. That doesn't mean they're not friends and it doesn't mean I don't respect them enormously.


Photo: Getty Images

Where do you see the fashion world heading?
In terms of design, I really don't know, and that's part of what I like about it. You sort of wait and watch with as much anticipation as anybody. In terms of the business side of things, we are going to see more consolidation; we're going to see increasingly different kinds of owners looking to buy into luxury. We're seeing it now with private equity and state investment authorities from Qatar to Singapore. There's also going to be a big generational shift. There are a lot of designers who are still incredibly active, but who probably in the next 10 years may retire. Similarly, there are a lot established editors in the same position, and these are people who have shaped the fashion world for a long time, so when they move on and new people end up in positions of authority, we are going to see a lot of changes. I'm not sure what shape those changes will take other than that they will come, but that's going to be really interesting.

What industry trends are you seeing right now?
Clearly we're moving back to a time when more designers are able to do two brands at once. There was a time for a while where that was not the case. During the recession, there was an idea that you really buckled down and just did one thing. We're in a major period of fashion brand extension, be it hotels or sportswear or childrenswear or food or technology. I also think that the inter-relationship between technology and fashion is getting more established. After a long period where we all sat around and said, "Why don't they have designers to design wearables?" we're seeing that happen more and more.

What are misconceptions about fashion that you wish you could change?
That fashion is silly, that it's superficial, that smart people don't think about it. In fact, that anybody doesn't think about it is just totally untrue! Whenever somebody says to me, "I never think about fashion," and I get that a fair amount, I say, well, "Did you dress yourself in the morning?" They say, "Yes," and I say, "Then you think about fashion." It is one of the few universal subjects. I'd like it to be part of the conversation, since it goes along with the whole question of public image, which I think is increasingly important. If a politician gets up there and says, "Will you stop asking me about my clothes?" I think the answer should be "No." The questions are not really about their clothing choices, they're about how they're trying to manipulate people's ideas and assumptions about them through how they look. That's a very important question.

What are the challenges you're looking to tackle at the Times?
What I hope is that the New York Times increasingly becomes the most important outlet for fashion news and a place that really does set the agenda in the industry the way it does in almost every other area.

Do you feel like it doesn't do that now?
It does in some ways, but I think it has not traditionally been an outlet for news about fashion. It has a real historic and honorable position in criticism, but it's seen as less of a news outlet than, say, Women's Wear Daily. The Times should be breaking fashion news. It's done that some of past, so there's no reason we couldn't do a lot more now.

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