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July 22 2014

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A Sign of the Times: Vanessa Friedman on the State of Fashion Criticism and Her New Gig

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Vanessa FriedmanChange is a’comin’. In the last six months, The New York Times’ key fashion critics and journalists—Eric Wilson, Cathy Horyn, and, most recently, Suzy Menkes—have departed the publication. (Wilson decamped to InStyle, Menkes is headed to International Vogue, and Horyn left for personal reasons.) But that’s not to say that the paper—which, thanks to Wilson’s wit, Horyn’s rapier pen, and Menkes’ learned insights, has offered up some of the most entertaining and informed fashion reporting of the last two decades—is losing its clout. Yesterday, the Times confirmed industry suspicions when it appointed Vanessa Friedman, formerly of the Financial Times, as its chief fashion critic and fashion director. Like her NYT predecessors, Friedman, who became the FT‘s first fashion editor in 2002, has a knack for not only critiquing fashion, but for helping us to understand it in a broader historical and cultural context. All one needs to do is read her recent takedown of Jeremy Scott’s first Moschino outing—which opened with the line, “Kiev was burning and in Milan, Jeremy Scott made his debut at Moschino with a series of bad jokes”—to understand what I’m talking about.

Friedman insists, however, that she is her own journalist—not Cathy Horyn, not Suzy Menkes—and when she dives into her new post next month, she plans to stick to her guns and honor her own voice, rather than focus on living up to the reputations of those who came before her. Here, Friedman speaks to Style.com about her new gig; the state of fashion criticism; and why, despite all the Internet’s white noise, readers still crave an expert opinion.

You were just hired for one of fashion journalism’s most prestigious positions. But why, in this day and age, is fashion criticism so important?
I think any kind of criticism is important, whether it’s fashion or another form of cultural analysis. And I think it always has been. There is a lot of talk about the rise of the blogger and social media and how everyone’s ability to become a critic has made formal critics less important. But I think what everyone is finding is that there is room for all sorts of opinions, some of them educated and some of them just literal. And I think the Times is an incredible platform to bring an educated, contextual, impersonal, analytical, historical, multicultural analysis to a forum, whether that’s books or music or movies or fashion.

Some say fashion critics aren’t always treated with the same respect as other reporters. Have you found that to be the case? Does fashion criticism deserve the same amount of respect as other forms of reporting?
Honestly, I haven’t found that to be the case. You know, I currently work at a highly financial-oriented newspaper, and I feel as legitimate and respected here as anybody. I think that if you treat your subject with seriousness and respect, other people tend to treat it the same way. The Times has a history of treating it that way, and I think that’s terrific. What’s interesting about fashion at the moment is that it has become a pervasive element in the general pop cultural conversation because of social media and the rise of visuals as a primary communication device. The first thing everyone talks about, whether they’re talking about film or music or presidents, is what they’re wearing. And that makes fashion a really interesting subject to look at, and one that’s relevant in a very broad context.

Given the power of advertisers these days, do you think it’s possible to be an unfettered critic? Do you feel you’re able to say what you want to say?
I’ve never, ever had an issue with this. It’s never crossed my mind and it’s never been something that’s been brought up to me. My feeling is that if you are a critic, what’s important is to be fair, and people respect that. They may not like it, but they are fine with it. And if you’re not willing to say when something is bad or a mistake, then when you say it’s good it means nothing.

What is your vision for the Times? Are you planning on changing anything?
I think it’s too early to say. I’m really excited to get to the newspaper—which isn’t going to happen for a couple of weeks—and meet everyone. Clearly, I’m a different person, a different writer than Cathy or Suzie or anyone else, so whatever I bring to the table is a specific point of view. But I think I’ll see when I get there.

In that same vein, how do you see yourself fitting into the team and the history of the New York Times in respect to Cathy? She had a reputation for being a spectacular—but often ruthless—critic. Do you aim to be the same?
No. I aim to be me. I would never aim to be the same as Cathy. She was terrific, and I have enormous respect for her and read everything she wrote. I loved sitting next to her at shows, I loved talking to her about lots of things—fashion and beyond. But we’re different people and we’re different writers. What I do will be different.

Your Moschino review was pretty sharp-tongued. What kind of response did you get to that piece?
Some people liked it, people agreed or disagreed. It was mostly via Twitter. I think Jeremy [Scott] tweeted his Facebook likes. But no one said anything, no one called me from Moschino and said, “How could you do that?” There was a reason I said what I said, it wasn’t just gratuitous, and hopefully I expressed that. I really look forward to seeing what he does next.

Speaking of Twitter, do you think the digital world—blogs, online publishing, and social media—helps or hinders formal fashion criticism?
For my own purposes, I think it’s great to have multiple ways to communicate with readers. It’s really interesting to know what people think of what I write. Twitter and blogs facilitate that. I think it’s just another dimension of how you can think of brands or a collection, and that’s really valuable.

Other than the word count, do you write differently for Twitter than you do for the paper?
Sure. Twitter to me is a conversation. If I want to write a 1,000-word review, I’m not going to do it on Twitter, and hopefully it can’t be condensed into 140 characters. If it can, then maybe I should think more about what I’m writing. The important thing is really to differentiate between a blog and a tweet and a column or review.

The Business of Fashion recently published an article questioning if this generation can produce a fashion critic like yourself or Cathy Horyn. Do you think that’s true? And if so, is it the writers’ fault or is it due to what fashion publishing has become?
I think it’s too early to say that a generation is not going to be something or not going to produce something. I think that’s unfair and probably inaccurate. Communication needs change, and clearly what’s going on with technology is affecting how everyone communicates, how everyone’s roles evolve, whether you’re a banker or a fashion critic or a political reporter or a lawyer. And I don’t think that’s bad. There will always be a need for some sort of analysis and an informed opinion, and despite all the white noise and opinions we see on social media, people still want real information and facts.

Which critics do you read and admire?
I read all of Cathy’s stuff. I read Suzy, and I will continue to read Suzy. I think Sarah Mower is terrific. Tim Blanks and Nicole Phelps at Style.com are very good. I think Robin Givhan at New York magazine is really interesting, and a lot of the British critics like Susannah Frankel are great.

From what I understand, you’re taking on the roles of Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn. That’s a pretty big workload.
I think it’s going to look slightly different. The whole style department at The New York Times is being reshaped to correspond with the international and national newspapers and communities. So I don’t think it’s just let’s put the two worlds together and make it one. I think it will be something a little different. At the Financial Times, I cover the global industry and I see fashion and luxury as a global industry. It’s one topic, so it makes sense to cover it as one topic.

What would you like to see change in fashion journalism and criticism today?
I would like to see more communication, more back and forth conversation. I’m really interested in what nonprofessionals think, as well as other professionals. And I think having that kind of active conversation is terrific.

I only bring it up because you mentioned conversation, but what do you think about all the open letters that fashion critics were receiving?
I think I missed some of them. I wrote what I thought about what happened with Cathy, and I think it’s a little silly to have those conversations because they are not about give and take; rather, they’re about accusation in public. But it’s everyone’s right. So if a designer or a brand chooses to do that, it’s their choice.

Do you ever think that designers can be too fragile? You rarely hear about an artist or a filmmaker throwing a fit when he gets a bad review.
I have no way to know if that’s true or not. For all I know, Martin Scorsese is behind closed doors kicking the wall. I think the fashion world is smaller than the film world, and it has a tendency to be more nitpicky. It loves to look at itself and make dramas of itself, and that’s partly due to the fact that it’s small. So I don’t know if people are more sensitive in it or if we just like to talk about the fact that they’re sensitive.

Photos: Courtesy of The New York Times

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