Turning the Tables on Tim
This year, Tim Blanks, Style.com's editor at large, receives the CFDA's annual Media Award for—well, for what, exactly? He wondered aloud about that last we spoke. Is it for Fashion File, the Canadian TV show he hosted from 1989 to 2006, which seems to have been the primal scene, at least as far as fashion is concerned, of half the planet's style watchers? (There's not a country on Earth I've visited with Tim—and I've been to a few—where he hasn't been stopped by at least a few ardent fans.) Is it for the reviews he pens for Style.com, sizing up collections and designers, generously but gimlet-eyed? Is it the sensitive, worldly appreciations of everything from Antonio Lopez to Bernardo Bertolucci ? Or maybe just general, durable bonhomie, the instantly pegged cackle and smile he brings to an industry for which snipe and sneer are the norm?
I haven't the temerity to claim I am the man's biggest fan. Too crowded a field of contenders. He's been everywhere, known everyone. (He once seemed genuinely surprised to find I was not personally acquainted with Donna Summer.) Ask Raf Simons, ask Dries Van Noten, ask Tomas Maier— we did. And fan is relevant here, because it is the perfect word for Tim. He's an enthusiast, an appreciator himself: of fashion, of David Bowie, of much of the best contemporary art, of Japanese reality shows in which contestants are booted off gargantuan obstacle courses. "I've always been a fan about just about everything," he told me. "There's hardly anything I don't like besides bologna slices." If I can't in good conscience claim to be his biggest fan, I can in good faith say that he has taught me the lion's share of what I know about looking at, and thinking about, clothes. Though, in this, too, I have legions for company.
MS: Your early life defies easy cataloging: youth in New Zealand, university at 15, working for Bryan Ferry in L.A., shopping Seditionaries in London, editing magazines in Toronto, and hosting Fashion File…I don't know where to start. So I'll just think of search-engine optimization and say: Can you tell me at length, and with as many dropped names as possible, about your stint as Bryan Ferry's personal assistant?
TB: That was such a weird moment. My transitional moments coincide with other people's transitional moments, so I was always the archetypal ship that passed in the night—and sometimes picking up a passenger or two. My timing was off for years and years and years. I always knew I'd be better in my fifties than I was in my twenties, so I never had any angst about fading youth or anything, because I don't feel I ever was sort of young to begin with. I remember being devastated when I went to university—I would always hang around people much older than me—and when I was 16 or 17, I said to this girl, "How old do you think I am?" And she said, "I don't know, 28?" I was horrified.
It was your full beard [ laughs].
When I went to university, I did grow a singer-songwriter fuzz. A bit early Bob Dylan for a little while until, you know, the glam-rock premium meant you had to be smooth-faced.
I always like to imagine you as a kind of piratical explorer, going west with the night.
Well, there was just always so much going on. It seems like it was such a febrile time…Things happened in a way where they hadn't happened before. Whereas now, people are so infatuated with those moments that they want to relive them. It's interesting seeing the Bowie show [ David Bowie is at the Victoria and Albert Museum] and having a sense of how radical all those transformations were, and how frequent. I mean, he changed every year or so. All through the seventies he released at least an album every year, and you just don't get that anymore. You just don't get that sort of incredible momentum. One Direction released two albums in six months, but One Direction are not David Bowie, so there's not sort of that feverish anticipation of what's coming next. I suppose I kind of grew up with that in a way, that sense of "what's next?" and the excitement attached to that idea. And I suppose maybe, in a way, that's why fashion was a natural fit for me, even though I'd never thought of it as something I would do with my life. But it ended up being this thing that absorbed more of the things I'm interested in than anything else.
You mention that people now relive and relive the past—there's something so considered about that. Did all Bowie's transformations, and fashion's transformations—did they feel more spontaneous in the moment?
Well, there wasn't fashion then, really, was there? That was before there was ready-to-wear. I grew up in a relatively fashion-free world—I mean, people created things out of junk clothes they found in junk shops and stuff. That sort of was that DIY spirit of punk. Well, I suppose mods went to tailors, didn't they? But when I was growing up, there wasn't that kind of culture, so we made things. We made things based on what we read and heard, and willed these personae into being, from the most unpromising handful of ingredients. Everybody cut each other's hair. I used to boil linseeds to make this thing that would make my hair stick on end. When you boil linseeds it makes this glue, basically, like a wallpaper paste, which would dry to an absolute rock-hard finish that you could ride in flatbed trucks to rock festivals in the country with nary a hair out of place.
Where and when did you first wash up on the banks of fashion? What fashion first spoke to you?
It would've been when I came to England, I think about '77. Seditionaries was ludicrously expensive, but you'd scrimp and save and you'd buy, like…a red silk scarf printed with "No Future." Really just a piece of red silk—not even hemmed or anything, just a frayed piece of red silk—that would be 5 pounds. And that would be a third of your weekly income, which you were also paying rent out of. Then bondage trousers were maybe 40 pounds. And I just scrimped and scrimped and got those sort of totemic things.
Then the Japanese seemed to come along quite soon after that. When I moved to Toronto in 1978, I came back to England for a little while the following year. And my boyfriend at the time and I just went completely bananas in Yohji Yamamoto on South Molton Street, when it used to be there. I bought this insane sort of gold cupro coat. I went to La Coupole. I felt like the cock of the walk. I swanned off to La Coupole in this gold cupro coat, and I managed to spill an entire dish of snail butter down the brand-new coat. So I ran to the bathroom and stuck it under the tap, and I didn't know that cupro went absolutely rock hard when it got wet—it was dry clean only, like one of those Japanese fabrics. So my brand-new gold Yohji Yamamoto coat turned into this lump of Kryptonite in the sink at La Coupole. I always have bad luck like that with high fashion. Someone was always trying to tell me I shouldn't really be moving in that rarefied strata, and that I was better off at the lower end of things.
[My initiation was] the eighties, I suppose, the early eighties. Gaultier, Yohji, Comme [des Garçons].
All quite extreme.
Oh, and amazing. The Face coming out, and Blitz, which was that sort of fashion consciousness. Extremely, extremely expensive. Claude Montana. I couldn't afford Claude Montana, but I had cheap versions of Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler. I think I might've gone from Seditionaries to Montana to Mugler to Yohji and Comme, and then it was all Yohji for a long, long, long, long time. Because it was so kind to the fuller-figured gentleman [ laughs].
When did you first start going to the shows?
Nineteen eighty-six or eighty-seven. I persuaded my editor [at Toronto Life Fashion] to let me go, and I think the first time I went was Couture in Paris, and whatever the season when Saint Laurent did the Braque guitar and the Picasso dove [Spring 1988 Haute Couture]. The woman who was running Saint Laurent in Toronto took me under her wing. I mean, Toronto was an amazing city in the eighties. It was a city where everybody European wanted to try to test the waters for America. They said they wanted to see how America would relate to their clothes. They would open up a boutique in Toronto first, so it was very, very fashionable.
So when I went to Paris, this woman who was running Saint Laurent [there], she was a big deal, and she kind of took me around and I got to see things I'd only read about in W magazine, like Nan Kempner's ankles. I guess I was always interested in fashion, but then when I actually started working for a magazine, it became more of a thing I could do—I knew a lot about it. I remember I found out who the woman at the Chambre Syndicale who was in charge of tickets was and I sent her a huge big bouquet of flowers from her favorite florist—you know, total kiss-ass, but it really worked. After that, I always got the tickets I wanted. I went back, I kept going back, and then a couple years after that I started doing Fashion File and it just created a whole other reason to.
"When I look at old videos of those [shows], the memory just never, ever fades. I was really like the country mouse showing up with my belongings in a hanky on my back and just gawking at this stuff. It was thrilling."
What do you remember from those early shows?
It's funny—I always keep things, I'm a pack rat. So if I'm ever poking around, I find runs of shows from Saint Laurent or Ungaro, and there would be 150 looks—the shows just went on and on and on, but you were mesmerized. The Montana shows were just incredible and so slow. I mean, glacially slow. When I look at old videos of those things, the memory just never, ever fades. I was really like the country mouse showing up with my belongings in a hanky on my back and just gawking at this stuff. It was thrilling.
Is that the big change you see from the shows today, the pace?
Yes, definitely. I think when cable TV—when Jeanne Beker and Fashion Television and Fashion File and more shows started covering fashion—you could see the change then. When people started to think about how they would play on TV or how they would play on film, that's when you started to see the pace picking up. I suppose at that point it was about the clothes, still, and then it became about the models and [then] it became about the designers and [then] it became about the audience and all these changes that all conspired to make things move faster and faster and faster. And then the whole notion of change became a novelty. That's when you get into these cycles that spin faster and faster and faster. That's one of the changes. The emphases have changed over the years, too.
For the better or the worse?
I just think it's changed. I saw amazing things then, I see amazing things now. People talk about the fashion show becoming an obsolete device or whatever—I don't think it ever will. It's easy to think that things are changing for the worse, until you step back and take a long view. And I've been going to shows for 25 years; that is what amounts to a long view in fashion. I mean, Suzy [Menkes] has a longer view, and Cathy [Horyn] has been doing it for as long as I have. But there's not that many people who have the luxury of that long view, so you can see how things that maybe were around 25 years ago kind of come back. It is just eternal recurrence. But I think that's the way it is. I think there were probably people sitting around in the Parthenon who were saying, "Oh, I remember that."
Are there people or things that you miss from the old fashion world that haven't returned?
People who aren't around. Obviously there are people who I knew…But you see, that's another thing: I've been very, very lucky in my life. I've either been very lucky or very thick-skinned or something. Since I've been doing this, there have been very, very hard times and there have been times that have been emotional trials and so on. But I've never, ever felt cast down by any of it. I always quote Groucho Marx—he said, "If you lay an egg, walk away from it." Tomorrow's another day.
I suppose it would be great to see it all again, just to remind myself of it. But I suppose if there was stuff that was fabulous then, there is stuff that is just as great now, and there are threads that run through the whole thing—Karl Lagerfeld or Steven Meisel, these threads that run through the years that kind of tie things. And I suppose more than thinking about what's gone, I'm just dying to know what's going to come. It would be wonderful to have a really long view, like a hundred years or something. I would just love to know what the future's going to make of it all. If it's going to be like the way we think about silent movies or something, you know?
I will say that in fashion, which is a strange thing, there's more respect for the experienced voice. There's more curiosity about the experienced voice than there is in some other areas I've worked in where the premium is on this contemptuous teenage way: "Don't trust anyone over , blah, blah, blah." In fashion there is a trust for people who have seen things, who can remember things. I think that's partly the result of personalities like Lee McQueen being so galvanic but so mysterious to people.
Do you feel you have a responsibility to be that conduit between innocence and experience? You talk about Lee McQueen and having direct experience; there is going to be a diminishing subset of the population who has that. Do you feel the need to transmit that?
No, I don't feel a responsibility, but I'm available for consultation if anybody wants to do it [ laughs]. He might've been a funny example. There are loads of people who knew him much, much, much better. Even somebody like Christian Lacroix, who was a phenomenal designer, really phenomenal designer—I'm dying for posterity to make restitution to him for the way he's been treated. But just knowing stuff like that, being part of a very vivid moment…
My role was to record; I wasn't there as a sort of party-boy hang-around type, and actually I never, ever got to do that anyway. I was actually there as a recorder of it, so right away that gives you the kind of role where you were a conduit and your whole position was to acquire and transmit information. So you become like a back issue of a magazine—a walking, talking, fleshy back issue of a magazine, you know?
I think that gives you very little credit, because what distinguishes your body of work is the incredible context you bring and the references you bring to bear—which is much more than a mere recording. How important is that to you? How conscious are you of it?
It's not something I do deliberately, because it is just the way I think. My enthusiasms are my enthusiasm, so if I'm a religious viewer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a religious reader of Harlan Coben…it's just the way I think, so it's the way I write. It's nothing deliberate—I would never, ever say, "Ooh, I must drop in a reference to Laura Palmer at this point"—even though Laura Palmer's a pretty good reference. You never go wrong with a David Lynch subtext these days. It's funny, because it would have been [Roman] Polanski a while ago.
But I think I'm fascinated by context. I like reading a history of something. I especially like reading vernacular histories of things. I think that Graham Robb book Parisians, that vernacular history of Paris, is the most fabulous book because it's sort of what the chambermaid was doing while Marie Antoinette was having her head chopped off, that sort of thing. You know how people say, "Oh, in a previous life I was Cleopatra," "In a previous life I was a high priest of Karnak," or something? In a previous life, I was a stable boy—or the chambermaid [ laughs]. I was that person. I suppose that makes things relatable for me, and that's the way I think. Especially something I love, and I do love fashion and I do love movies and music and books, I really love them. I just love what other people make. I'm fascinated by what other human beings are capable of doing, and I'm fascinated about why they do it, and I think it's all about context, really. Nobody does things in a vacuum. If you're writing about what they're doing, you can't be in a vacuum, either. I think it's impossible not to end up writing about other things, especially with something like fashion, because fashion is absolutely everything in the end, isn't it?
Writing in that way sort of expects and demands that readers join your level of culture, which is a big undertaking.
Yeah, but my level of culture isn't Veronese and Kierkegaard. My level of culture is sort of Hitchcock or David Lynch or Buffy or the Deftones. If I am pretentious—I don't mind pretentiousness; I think pretentiousness is used as a put-down by people who are insecure—I wouldn't want it to be off-putting. What I do love about the Internet, for example, and the way I read is when I'm reading something…I read on the Internet. I love the fact that you can just whiz to Yahoo, whiz to Google, look something up. I've always said it's like having the library of Alexandria at your fingertips. It's just this gigantic reference, and I just think if you're reading something—that's why I don't feel the obligation to explain everything. I might just put it in a reference without saying what it is particularly, because you can look it up if you were keen, you know?
I want to talk about the pace of what you do, at least what you do for Style.com, because I know, perhaps better than most, that you see the show and then you rush back to the hotel room, pop the Sancerre, and write your reviews that same night. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having to make that kind of snap judgment, and to express yourself so quickly?
Discipline. I'm very undisciplined. I'm very lazy. The advantage of that immediate response is that you just have to do it. There's just no way around it.
I'm very proud of what we do. It honestly holds up. If you go back and look at old stuff, it does hold up. It takes on a life of its own, just because there's nothing else like it around. And it gets substance. It's like Fashion File videos that just seem like absolutely nothing when you're doing them, and now you look at them, when 20 years have passed, and there's something else now. Actually, the funny thing is the reviews become something else very, very quickly.
You know, designers will say, "I didn't really know what I did till I read what you wrote." Your perspective in the moment becomes a perspective with the passage of time—no, your perspective in the moment becomes the perspective with the passage of time, which I think is fascinating because there is nothing else. In a hundred years when people want to know what a designer's career was, this is the kind of thing that will be the reference.
This is the vernacular history.
Yeah. In a way, it's the oral history of contemporary fashion.
Does that responsibility give you pause or make you nervous?
No, no. The thing is, it just is. It was John Lennon, wasn't it, who said "Life is what happens when you're making plans"? We've done it for so long. And because you've done so much of it and you had to do it and there was no time to think, it ends up having the substance or authenticity or integrity. It just happened, and it had to happen so it did happen. Then time does the rest. There are times when it just seems we're hard done by what we have to do. You sort of feel like you're pissing in the wind. But we're very lucky. And I'm very grateful for the opportunity because I was never going to sit down and write One Hundred Years of Solitude or record a double album. I think whatever I did was always going to be slightly ephemeral, so I'm grateful that my ephemerality has been given concrete boots by the passage of time and the fortuitous intervention of fashion.
At the risk of losing friends and alienating people, who are the designers whose work is most important to you, who mean the most to you?
Miuccia Prada's my favorite designer always. Even when a collection doesn't work for me, it's always the most incredible depth of thought that goes into it. I think maybe as the collections get closer to her, in some funny way, she just gets better because they're so intelligent; on one level incredibly cerebral and then on another they're very, very sensual. There's not many people that can strike that balance.
I love what she does. I love what Raf Simons does. I love what he's doing at Dior, that each collection is better than the one before. The Resort collection, I thought, was incredibly strong. I like talking to him about what he does, too, because in a funny way he has a sort of outsider point of view that's always fascinating. I love Anna Sui. I just love everything she does. Raf's a fan, Anna's a fan, they're fans of fashion. I think the affection and the love of what they do is so seductive. Karl Lagerfeld is fascinating. I think at the moment, of course, I'm very big on London because the diversity here is, I think, almost unprecedented in all the time I've been covering fashion. And Duckie Brown. I must say Duckie Brown. I think they're amazing.
What does winning this award mean to you?
Without wanting to come off all Sally Field-ish, it's the only award that somebody like me or you could win; it's the only award for what we do, isn't it? Just to get it is so humbling because it's voted for by all the people you work with. How often have we said to each other, "Who even reads this stuff?"
I've never, ever had an award before. When Diane von Furstenberg called me up, she said, "You know how you say nobody ever appreciates your writing?" I don't remember when I said that to her—I thought, oh God, was I drunk? She said, "Well, guess what? You just won a CFDA award!" I remember I was standing on Bond Street with snowflakes the size of plates coming down on me and I was in a grrrr kind of mood. I didn't know I was eligible for something like that. I thought it was only Americans could win that award. And so I was surprised, and then I was really thrilled. It means a lot.