Vanessa Friedman serves as fashion editor of the Financial Times, a position she is the first to hold. A graduate of Princeton University, she has written widely on art, fashion, culture and politics for such publications as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue. Her unique ability to bridge the gap between the fashion image and intellectual commentary has led her, prior to her current position, to serve as Arts Contributor for The Economist and European Editor for American Elle.
How would you connect fashion to elegance?
I don’t entirely. I think that elegance is a way of being in the world or a way of thinking. Fashion is an expression of social and political identity at a specific moment in time.
What is the role of history and art history in your conception of fashion?
Fashion is a continuum. It began when people started putting an adornment on their body and it is ongoing. Watching it change over time is a way to understand, again, questions of identity in the past and present, and how they have evolved.
Would you describe fashion as a language and a discourse, as Barthes did?
Fashion is a visual language, a way to communicate identity signs around you. The question is: can people read it in the same way that you intend it to be read?
The word "intellectual" was coined in a time of great political distress.
Does fashion have a political role? And in which way?
Of course it does. Fashion indicates membership in a group, and politics is all about membership in a group. You wear fashion to indicate political allegiance, or to repudiate it. I think any form of dress is fashion: a military uniform can be fashion. Everywhere, there is the need to belong to a group. As all social groupings break down, be it political parties, or the Church, or religious beliefs in general, people find their allegiance in other places, and it can be brands. It can be Gucci, Céline, and you get a whole bunch of people walking around saying: I define my choices by this brand, as seen in my handbag. Fashion has its own global empire.
"The word 'fashion' is dress-specific, whereas 'style' is a larger aesthetic choice"
How would you relate the concept of "fashion" to the one of "style"?
The way I use the word “fashion” is dress-specific, whereas “style” is a larger aesthetic choice. It can refer to a way of thinking, a value-system, how you decorate your home…
What does fashion have to do with intellectuality?
It depends on how you define “intellectuality”. The question is: how self-aware are people when they make fashion choices? Everyone makes choices about fashion, and those choices all have to do with how they want to be perceived by other people. Some people understand this, are more conscious and analytical about it than other people. So the more aware you are of your own choices, and the more aware you are of the meaning other people’s choices convey, I suppose, the more intellectual you are about clothing.
You spoke a lot about issues of identity. But at the same time fashion is
often described as form of culture, if not culture itself. How does the
relation between identity and culture play out in fashion?
Your cultural choices are part of your identity: what kind of food you like, what kind of books you like, your value-system, it is also part of culture. Most people’s choices have to do with their desire to be part of a group: and that group can be 16 year-old girls who like Justin Bieber, or 18-year-olds who relate to Selena Gomez's desire to break away from her Disney-defined image, which is effectively breaking away from a certain kind of defanged childhood. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question, however: it is very hard to pinpoint its place of origin. People call it “zeitgeist”, in a kind of abstract and inarticulate effort to encompass the various influences that create a trend, be it a political movement, or a cultural movement. You get a film like The Bling Ring, you get a book like Crazy Rich Asians, and suddenly a moment of consumption is defined by culture. And the irony is, by the time you define it or identify it, by the time it makes it to the big screens, or the shelves of Barnes & Noble it is probably already gone. Whether the consumer knows why they choose to wear pink shirts, to go into Juicy Couture or Bloomingdale’s, and buy them is another matter. They choose to go for that look, instead of a cowboy look, on a subconscious level because they’re probably trying to do something that fits their peer-group culture, or the culture of the group they wish to join. But do they articulate it that way to themselves? Doubtful. Also, it's worth saying that fashion itself is now a part of pop culture. It's become entertainment.
You serve as fashion editor of the Financial Times, and fashion today is, of
course, a considerable industry. How would you define the impact of the
industry on fashion, as you defined it?
It is a big global industry in a way it never was before. And the thing we tend to forget is it's incredibly young. Fashion as an industry, especially one listed on various stock markets, has only really existed since the turn of the millenium. LVMH didn't exist until the end of the last century – Bernard Arnault didn't buy Dior, upon which his empire is built, until 1985. It has become so huge, so fast, it's hard to imagine none of this existed 50 years ago; that fashion was mostly local. And it's a great privilege to get to see an industry develop, especially because when it industrialised, it did so because what the executives who ran it understood was they could tap into these universal cultural and political desires – identity, aspiration – and monetise them. This has made a lot of people very rich, has led to the elevation of the designer to celebrity level, but has also created a situation where, for any company that is public, there is a constant quarterly demand to report higher earnings. And that has led to a certain short-termism in strategic thinking that is arguably not good for fashion. It has also driven the constant store openings we keep hearing about, as that's the fastest way to increase revenues – though not necessarily profits. But at a certain point, you have to ask, how big is big enough? Because as Groucho Marx said, "I wouldn't want to be a member of a club that would have me" – or something like that. At a certain point, if everyone can buy something, they may not want to any more. And we are now at the point where we have to at least raise the question.
In two weeks Donatien will be interviewing the artist Grayson Perry.