Model on a fashion show runway

As chief fashion critic and director for The New York Times, Vanessa Friedman has written odes to Karl Lagerfeld and Kenzo Takada — major designers who passed this year — and considered the fashion statements made by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has explored the choice of outfits of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and the role of style in how Amy Coney Barrett portrays herself publicly. She also has probed complicated and timely issues: sustainability and the true cost of disposable fashion; the inherent racism within the fashion industry; gender inequality; and the reality of becoming a fashion victim. All this, as she told Storyboard, quite by accident.

New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friendman

Vanessa Friedman

Friedman joined The New York Times in 2014, after 12 years as fashion editor of the Financial Times. She also has worked as fashion features director for InStyle UK, an arts contributor at The Economist and was the European editor at Elle US. Her freelance work has appeared in Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

She told Storyboard how her career led her to The New York Times, about the misconceptions of being a fashion journalist, and about the responsibility of reporting on fashion as a cultural beacon within a global environment. Our Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did you start your career in fashion journalism?
I’d been an editor at the FT for 11 years and I kind of created the fashion editor role for them. Because of that, I knew a variety of journalists in the space and so when The New York Times was looking for someone, they knew me already and I was one of the many people they contacted.

I’d been in journalism for years before that. My first journalism role was at Vanity Fair, where I started as an editorial assistant in 1992 or 1993. I worked there, then New Yorker, then Vogue and Elle. I moved to England and I freelanced for five years. I worked at InStyle when it launched in the UK for two years, then I went to the Financial Times. That was my first newspaper job and my first job focused exclusively on fashion. Before that, I’d been doing mostly culture.

Was fashion criticism always your goal?
It was NEVER my intention. Nor was being in “journalism.” I got into magazines because I loved writing and had snobby ideas about culture. I never studied fashion or journalism and had never considered a career in either. I ended up in newspapers and fashion completely by mistake, but it was a very lucky mistake.

What is the specific role The New York Times wants to play in reporting on fashion and who is the demographic being spoken to?
It’s hard to identify a specific demographic because we reach a broad swath of people. As far as fashion goes, we see ourselves as people whose job it is to translate this particular part of the world for our readers, letting them know what matters to them and how it will affect their lives. I think that’s true no matter what you’re reporting on.

Since 2014, there’s been intense focus on climate change, misogyny and the #MeToo movement, exploitation of fashion workers, and this year, Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus. How has the reporting of fashion been affected by this?
We’ve been reporting on sustainability in fashion since 2009. It’s the same as any issue in any other sector. You look at what these broad social movements are — political, cultural and social change — and how it applies to your sector. Fashion is in the world, and therefore what happens in the world shapes it.

Do you ever struggle to find a story that’s right for The New York Times?
I think the challenging thing can be that sometimes you feel like you need to be part of the conversation happening online when sometimes it’s a better story if you don’t react immediately — if you step back and consider something and think about the broader conclusion you can draw with more time and more reporting.

You’ve written about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Can you tell me about how that story reflected on her as a person?
To me, fashion is an expression of identity at a specific moment in time. I spend a lot of time thinking about how that applies to people in the public eye, not necessarily just fashion people. For Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I looked at her colors, which were a very deliberate use of clothing to express both her mood and her opinions, and what she thought of as her role as a woman.

Looking at the hotly contested U.S. presidential election, what do you think Biden and Trump have been saying with their choice of clothing on the campaign trail?
Trump’s image is very rooted in an idea of Wall Street meets Titans of The Universe, the Reagan age. His ties, his suits all hark back to that time. Biden is much more interested in looking ‘of the people.’ he’s like your cool dad, and he looks like that with his aviators. Kamala (Harris) just looks very competent and her Converse sneakers are a big thing.

I’ve watched your interview with Matthew Williams on Instagram. You’ve interviewed him and Virgin Abloh among others. Which new designers are you finding most exciting?
From this last round of shows, I was very interested in what Thebe Magugu is doing. I was very interested in what Christopher John Rogers did. I think Charles Jeffrey is very talented. I liked Imitation of Christ – she’s not new, but I think she’s very talented. Bethany Williams was great, and Grace Wales Bonner.

How often do you work with freelancers and what advice do you give to writers who are pitching to you?
We work with freelancers a fair bit on NYT Styles, probably more than most other sections of the paper. The best advice is to just think about your own special body of knowledge. Tell me about a designer, a trend I don’t know about. Obviously, we can’t be aware of what’s happening all around the world, so I really love hearing about stuff I don’t know about.

How do you cope with a 24/7 news cycle?
You just have to decide when you’re not working anymore. Not endlessly checking emails, Twitter, Instagram and trying to plan a little bit. I also have to be tougher with myself and remind myself that it’s not a crisis if I don’t open my email.

Have the Instagram and other live interviews been a nice connection in this time of lockdown?
It’s hard not being in the office, not being able to travel for shows and be around the fashion community which, twice a year. is a very fertile community to be planted in. There were people from all over the world that I’d only see during collections. You just don’ have the same conversations on Zoom as you do when you’re sitting next to each other. I miss that a lot.

Cat Woods is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. She writes on music, arts, design, women’s wellbeing and fitness. She has been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Shondaland, Washington Post, Huffington Post and more.

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