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Art & Culture / An Intellectual Fashion

An Interview with Vanessa Friedman

In his column, Donatien Grau speaks to prominent thinkers and creatives about fashion and its connections to contemporary creativity

Madeline Kahn in High Anxiety by Mel Brooks
Madeline Kahn in High Anxiety by Mel Brooks

An Intellectual Fashion takes on Vanessa Friedman, the current, and first, fashion editor of the Financial Times with a unique ability to bridge the gap between the fashion image and intellectual commentary

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.

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