Fashion journalism: the fine art of, well, a fine art


imageIs fashion journalism the same craft whether the results run on glossy magazine stock, the World Wide Web or inky newsprint?

With this question in mind, I set out to discover the art of fashion journalism. “It’s an investigation into a subject. That’s what journalism is, right? Reporting on a subject,” Financial Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman tells me. The influential fashion critic Suzy Menkes from the International Herald Tribune agrees, noting that newspaper journalism doesn’t differ from any other kind of journalism.

    “A writer should bring to the subject, an inquiring mind, background research and information, an open viewpoint, an interest in what others might say on this subject. And there should be the application of good journalistic standards: honesty, integrity, ethnical standards.”

Fashion journalism involves reporting on fashion and economics, Friedman adds during our brief conversation. Writing about fashion relies on the specificity of the issue itself, on the one hand fashion – clothing, accessories, luxury goods – and on the other, the fashion industry as part of a market economy. Clothing has a social function, as Suzy Menkes reminds me: “Clothes not only define ourselves, but our position in society and, above all, the times in which we live. [...] Fashion mirrors society, but very few people respond to that consciously.”

Friedman describes it as part of “identity politics,” though she relates this quickly to the business side, as “fashion is a business, build on the idea that everyone has to put on clothes and people make choices about those clothes based on identity.”

Fashion journalism is often associated with what seems its core activity, the reporting of high-end designer fashion and fashion shows. This can be interpreted as expertise writing on consumer products. Brands and branding can be seen here as another “hot” topic, in particular with its relation to identity politics. See: Who’s put the app in apparel? and Brand Tiger Woods.

Fashion journalism can also mean business journalism, interpretational reports on business results or situation of a specific fashion company, eg the relationship between Zara and its parent company. See: Lagerfeld to Help Tod’s With Its Hogan Brand. The term fashion journalism includes sociological essays like Friedman’s “Suit ability” series, interpreting politicians’ outfits in specific situations. My personal favourite here is an essay on Angela Merkel, cloaked in an off-white jacket, during an EU meeting with George Papandreou, prime minister of Greece and Vanessa Friedman’s reference to the “White Knight”, a term generally used in the domain of corporate mergers and acquisitions. See: FT Suit ability: Enter the white knight.

    “Those stories are just about what someone was dressing, in terms of what they were trying to communicate about themselves. [...] There was no product story. The product was the person, not the dress.”

Fashion is not only part of culture; it is art in itself. Menkes, a fashion editor and trained art historian, imagemakes a statement with her elaborate writing itself, laced with rich references to art. Among the 2,688 IHT online articles published by Menkes, the interested reader can find her reviews, as the latest on the New York’s Metropolitan Museum “American Women: Fashioning a National Identity” exhibition or on an exhibition about iconic actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly. The New York Times/International Herald Tribune regularly provide video reports on their website, too. See eg Sixty Years of Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent Revisited and 25 years of London Fashion Week.

Art and fashion have a long liaison, Menkes informs me, dating back at least to the 1920s and ‘30’s, when Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated, followed by loose co-operations between designer Christian Dior and artist Christian Berard. Menkes explains here to me that the last 10 to 15 years, most probably since the founding of the Florence Biennale in 1997, “designers have been cozying up to designers in search of immortality.” She withholds herself from too much enthusiasm for collaborations, as they often tend to be based on financial agreements rather than creative output.

    “The Louis Vuitton collaboration with Takashi Murakami was genuine, because he is, in Japan, a Warhol figure – a multi-platform artist. But I have more problem with Marc Jacobs channeling Richard Price nurses. Like so many of the ‘art’ scenarios, I think a journalist needs to keep in mind that these are now often financial arrangements – as, on a different subject – celebrities wearing designer clothes.”

Do fashion journalists in turn influence the fashion industry? This question supposes a fashion agenda; Vanessa Friedman claims she doesn’t have one. But she does contend that FT reporting on consumer products can drive sales, as “the FT is an informational publication and people who read it, tend to act some of what they read.”

Same with Menkes: “Journalists are basically a conduit to the public.” An icon herself in fashion, she nevertheless “like[s] to winkle out young designers.” See eg: Fashion Spotlight: Alexis Mabille. The legend that “an editor can make or break a designer” proves not always correct as a number of young feted designers failed as creative directors of big brands. Suzy Menkes’ take: “You can put an unknown designer into the public arena – but it is up to him to make a success for the work.”

How did the financial crisis impact fashion reporters? “The journalist’s job is to report on what is happening in the world, clearly. And definitely something happened,” Vanessa Friedman tells me.

“It affected buying patterns, it affected companies. Some companies went bankrupt. And all of that is a story. You know, it just provided another story. [...] Some publications went bankrupt and people lost their jobs, but ... If you’re doing your job as a reporter, you are reporting ... on what is happening. And if what’s happening is good, you report that. And if what is happening is bad, you report that. But it’s the same job. It doesn’t change.”

Menkes explains further that fashion editors at newspapers – in contrast to their counterparts in magazine publishing who stay busy with rather extravagant photo shoots – are not major cost centres of the newspaper but are simultaneously considered “a draw for advertising.” So while magazines had to cut costs, newspaper fashion journalism remained the same. image

As new media surges with its subsequent empowerment of citizens, the way fashion is covered changes. Fashion shows are Twittered those days; some even have their own Twitter accounts, a la London Fashion Week. Here in particular Suzy Menkes warns: “[A] journalist (and blogger/journalists) should be aware how much manipulation there is by the powerful brands, seeding ideas, placing products and even making favourable Twitter comments.” Friedman points out that with the reliance on visuality, fashion journalism may be better positioned to adapt to changes. Furthermore it has always engaged into various forms of media.

And for young journalists who want to make a career in fashion journalism? Stamina and a wide range of interests are helpful. As Vanessa Friedman says,“The more you learn about everything else, the better fashion journalist you are. [...] The more you know about what’s going on in culture and arts and politics and economics, the more you understand what’s happening in clothes.” How to get into the job? Just get going!

    “Fashion writing is something that you just do – and in some ways, it has never been easier to get into ‘print’, as there are so many opportunities via blogging and web sites. ... When someone who writes well and has a fresh voice, she will find a space and a place much more easily than people imagine. But print journalism is obviously shrinking at the moment and employment is generally tough. As with any journalistic area, persistence and energy go a long way.”

The significance of fashion journalism cannot be denied. For a while, there has been this trend of women wearing tunic/dress over trousers/jeans/leggings, “seeming vaguely like the Shalwar Kameez,” which in its original form is worn both by men and women.  I also follow this trend to a certain extent, without giving it a second thought. Suzy Menkes, though, connects it to the absorption of Muslim attitudes in countries with a substantial Muslim population. This “example of unconscious response” can also be observed also among Muslim women, who wear trousers/jeans/leggings from fashion stores with their traditional dress. “None of this is a deliberate statement about diversity. It just happens.” It’s interesting to become aware of those cultural changes (paradigm shifts?). And after all those elaborations about fashion and fashion journalism, everyone will agree that clothing and the awareness of our own clothing – as provided within fashion journalism –  can impact one’s standing in life, as Suzy Menkes puts it nicely:

    “I don’t think that people have ever gone around saying: ‘Feminism is in the air, so I must wear a mannish jacket with big shoulders so I can stand shoulder to shoulder-pad-to-shoulder with men in the boardroom.”

Still, they do. And why not try it, once in a while, in terms of identity politics and as a matter of re-connotated mimicry, both in dress and trousers at the same time?

Flickr images from users Carlo Nicora, marcokalmann, juliana_fredenburg