Ever since documenting the seminal Fashion-able? shoot by Nick Knight and the late Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen for Dazed & Confused’s 1998 issue; Susannah Frankel has forged an ongoing collaboration with Dazed & Confused which led to being appointed as fashion features director of AnOther Magazine when it launched in 2000. Following a spell working at Blitz magazine, (alongside the likes of Iain R Webb and Kim Bowen) Frankel was appointed as fashion editor at the Guardian before moving to the Independent in 1999. Her 12 years at The Independent have cemented her reputation as one of the industry’s most thoughtful, highbrow heavyweights, equally adept at lengthy, intimate profiles on Phoebe Philo or Karl Lagerfeld as she is at dissecting her own shopping foibles in her weekly column, Susannah Shops. In the course of a conversation with Frankel in the impressive atrium at Northcliffe House, she reveals what makes a good fashion writer, the first fashion show to give her goosebumps, friendships within the industry and the future of fashion.
Growing up, what status did fashion have in your family?
My mother and father both really loved fashion. My dad wore Tommy Nutter suits and my mum wore Ossie Clark, Mr Freedom. Biba and, occasionally, Yves Saint Laurent – I remember those pieces especially vividly. I never envisaged working in fashion or writing about it. In retrospect, though, it is easy to see that because I was exposed to it, I understood it, or at least understood the excitement of it. We didn’t think of it as a career back then - it wasn’t really like that. I knew early on I liked writing and I was obsessed with reading. I don’t think it occurred to me for a second I would end up working in fashion.
Who were some of the fashion writers that had an impact on you?
I didn’t really read fashion magazines though I always looked at Vogue. I started to read style writing in the 80s – people like Julie Burchill and Paul Morley. Then I went to work at Blitz. At Blitz I was more involved in editing. I edited the art and architecture coverage and coordinated fashion. Gradually I was getting more and more interested in it. At that point, fashion photography was becoming less literal and more powerful for that.
What was the first fashion show you saw that gave you goosebumps?
The first show I went to as fashion editor of The Guardian was John Galliano’s debut haute couture collection for Givenchy. When the Guardian employed me I think they maybe thought that I was a ‘proper’ journalist – by that time I had freelanced for many different titles covering arts, books, lifestyle – a broad church. I think they hoped that I would come at it as a real person and I just didn’t. The second I got there I was swept up by it. There were these enormous dresses and I just thought this is so beautiful! I was completely blown away by it. I also felt at home with that whole mid-90s thing – I was the generation it was talking to because we were all these 80s kids.
And what was it about the show that made you realise its power?
It took you to another place and the imagery involved, particularly the imagery someone like Galliano was proposing, was so lovely and so extreme – it was breathtakingly beautiful and so sensitive in a way. People often assume that a male fashion designer is forcing a female body into a mould and I think that’s so wrong. You can see the Comme des Garçons show with the padding at the hips and shoulders or the Yohji Yamamoto show that was about brides and widows or the Chanel show this season – they are all completely different proposals of women in different worlds. It’s not just romanticism. It’s incredibly powerful – emotionally and sometimes intellectually as well.
What makes a good fashion writer?
I would say be really respectful towards what you’re looking at because you’re making a living out of other people’s creativity and ideas. Take the time to really look at it. Also, don’t ever think something is too difficult from the point of view of either price or construction. Never dismiss things. The best fashion is about ideas, images, aspirations. I think it’s nice to approach fashion in a non-consumer way. You’re not patronising people saying "buy this or that", you’re saying "hey look at this, isn’t it amazing".
People believe fashion journalists are in the pockets of fashion designers. But I choose to write about things I like because I’m quite evangelical about fashion. I honestly enjoy spreading the word. If I’m privileged enough to have access to this world, I feel driven to convey what I see to a broader audience. Earlier on I was occasionally catty and I regret it. That sort of tone may make entertaining reading but I understand now the amount of work that goes into a collection – even a bad collection – and to dismiss it outright seems silly. That said, I don’t think it’s right for every writer to eulogise about everything. There are ways of doing it.
"When you wear fashion it’s very personal, and with a good designer, you feel their handwriting in the clothes you’re wearing"
Do you feel your loyalty is to the designers or to the paper or magazine you’re writing for?
Both because I love The Independent and I’ve worked for Dazed and AnOther for longer than anyone else. It can be a difficult balancing act, particularly with the news desk. It’s not easy being fashion editor of a newspaper because you’re not always working with people who understand the industry and you’re sometimes working with people who are suspicious of the industry. I’m very lucky to be at the Independent because they’ve always allowed me to have my own voice. They are incredibly generous and there is a trust there.
With designers, do you cultivate friendships or try to keep distance?
It depends. There are some cases where I can’t possibly be objective. I was closer to Lee than to any other designer I think. I just loved him. I also feel very attached to Hussein. Generally, especially in the case of young British designers, I feel as if I should be supportive. More generally, it’s not easy to be objective once you’ve interviewed someone a few times and you know them – I don’t see how you avoid that. Fashion writing is also very subjective, very personal. When you wear fashion it’s very personal, and with a good designer, you feel their handwriting in the clothes you’re wearing. So you’re wearing their clothes, you’ve met them before, you know they’re great. Fashion writers are often accused of hyperbole but, really, how boring is a person like Miuccia Prada ever going to be? She’s going to be amazing.
Even for a McQueen novice like me, his retrospective at the Met was overwhelmingly emotional, so I can’t imagine what it was like for you to see it for the first time?
I didn’t see the show. I don’t know how I would have felt about it. I was involved with it on one level – I wrote part of the catalogue – and feel very protective of anything to do with Lee. I know Sam Gainsbury would have done an amazing job – she knew him far better than I did and would have done him proud. Part of me didn’t want to see a show of Lee’s work because that’s not how I would ever want to see it. I like to see the clothes on the body. I think because it was Lee and Lee had died recently… I find it difficult to read about him or watch him on TV.
Is there anything about the future of fashion that is unsettling you?
Yeah I think there’s too much of it. People shouldn’t see investing money in clothes as something vain or wrong but people should buy less clothes and buy carefully. But I’ve been banging that drum for a very long time!
How do you manage to stay interested in fashion without becoming blasé?
Because it’s always different and there are always new things. There are so many designers and they are talented, educated and every now and then someone will bring in a new fabric, change a cut or proportion or do an amazing mise en scene that will take you somewhere.
And when was the last time you got goosebumps at a show?
I guess McQueen’s show after he died. I watched it with Jefferson and found it amazingly moving. How sensitive was that? On the part of the models, Sarah, Sam, Peter Philips, Guido, the whole team. That team of people came together and did something so extraordinarily sensitive. They were exceptional and terrible circumstances but still they were capable of that level of perception and sensitivity and that says it all really.