Insiders #100: Tim Blanks

For the hundredth edition in the Insiders series, we speak to fashion legend Tim Blanks about Bryan Ferry and J.W. Anderson

“A strange sense of loss seeps from fashion for Fall 2015,” wrote Tim Blanks of the A/W15 Alexander McQueen show on style.com. “Maybe it was the mourning exhibition at the Met; maybe it's being fed by binge-watching Penny Dreadful or, for the more arcane among us, The Crimson Petal and the White.” One of the many pleasures of reading something by Blanks is seeing how deftly he sneaks in both high and low references into his work, able to distill a collection with his sharp, concise style whilst at the same time placing it into a wider cultural context. Born in Auckland, New Zealand, Blanks first came to prominence as host of Canada’s Fashion File and this year marks a 30-year career in fashion that culminated in winning the Eugenia Sheppard Media Award at the 2013 CFDA Awards, the prestigious industry award for fashion journalism. While he continues as contributing editor-at-large on Another Man and contributes to various other blue chip titles, it’s his widely anticipated show reviews as editor-at-large for style.com that the industry awaits each season. With the recent news that style.com is to be relaunched as Condé Nast’s ecommerce venture while all editorial content be migrated to a new website, voguerunway.com, big changes may be coming for sure but we can still count on Blanks’ voice and words to help us make sense of it all.

Music is quite often an entry point into fashion – did glam do it for you?
No, glam wasn’t my entry into fashion. The thing about glam was it was not about fashion, it was about style, and we made all our own clothes, and improvised. My exposure to fashion would have been through Life Magazine – maybe a piece on Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding dress. It wasn’t really fashion, it was more about style.

And you were less interested in fashion as a kid?
When I grew up I would have never had seen a Vogue or anything like that- I wouldn’t have seen a fashion magazine. But I was drawn to people who were visually different. I loved Marc Bolan when I was very young. The very first time I was exposed to David Bowie was with his Space Oddity album, and I was just completely overwhelmed. And then later on, Bryan Ferry with Roxy Music. I suppose my concept of style was shaped by them.

Like with music, sometimes I think of fashion as revenge of the nerds
Fashion embraces more creative disciplines than any other – it’s more inclusive than anything else. I think music is quite inclusive too. They have a kind of empathy. In most cases it’s about the least beautiful people making themselves into gorgeous freaks. 

You had a variety of jobs early on, including working for Bryan Ferry.
Oh that was a moment. That was in LA in 1977.

So being exposed to the culture of celebrities so early, what did that kind of teach you?
You know what, it wasn’t until John Lennon was murdered that there was an “us and them” situation. There was no mystique around famous people. It was incredibly accessible. It was very easy. Punk was like that too.

Working the different jobs that you did, a bit of art direction and animation, how did this all lead to your first job in fashion?
A complete accident. I was in Toronto and I wanted a full-time job at a fashion magazine, so they gave me a full-time job – simple as that.

You once were quoted saying, "fashion is either wish fulfillment or revenge." Is that something you still believe?
Yeah, I guess when you think about it, it is either or. It is a world which allows reinvention, and reinvention is often revenge. And reinvention is always wishful. You know, fashion is a fetishistic activity. I think the other thing I think about fashion is – if you’re going to credit the sexual ambition of fashion – people who have never been sexual, or allowed themselves to be sexual, that’s the whole part of the wishful thinking. And the outside world would look at that and say, that is gross, that’s not sexy at all. But internally, it’s extraordinarily sexual.

Who were some fashion writers you read growing up?
I just read writers. I didn’t read fashion writers. To be honest, if I had to put one person that I read as a writer, without even being conscious of the fact that she was a fashion writer, I would say Kennedy Fraser in the New Yorker.

What’s been a pivotal moment in your career that has been instrumental in really shaping it?
I don’t know, I don’t think my life was particularly ambitious- it sort of just happened. A big thing was going to CBC in Canada to do Fashion File. So that was a moment. Also Jamie Pallot at style.com: meeting him was a huge moment for me because it took me to style.com.

You host Throwback Thursdays on style.com, where you look at iconic catwalk moments from the last couple of decades. Do you think there’s something missing from fashion shows today or do you think fashion still has the capacity to surprise
Absolutely yes I do. I mean the scale of it has changed, but I think that you can still see the grandness – it just might be intellectual now. You saw that it in the Helmut Lang show in the mid-nineties, which was not grand in terms of scale, but it was coherent. There was a vision. The brand came from this scale of vision. And the way that the vision was so completely realised through the use of the models and through the incredibly conceptualized seating and the music he used.

One thing that is striking is the change of pace of fashion shows nowadays.
Oh god, yeah. Saint Laurent used to be an hour and a half, showing 180 looks. When you think of Highland Rape by McQueen, it’s always thought of as this assault. If you actually look at the whole show – which is more than half an hour long – between the looks that everybody remembers, there were 20 or 30 others. So it’s funny because shows like Montana, where the models moved so slowly, were absolutely incredible. It’s interesting in comparison to a Vuitton show today where the models literally race down the runway and it’s over in eight minutes. The Galliano shows were amazing, the Gaultier shows were staggering, they were like gigantic imperial entertainments. But, I also remember a Martine Sitbon show from 1990. Drag queens used to bus in from all over Europe just to see Martin Sitbon. I mean, she was huge.

What is the key to being a good fashion writer?
I think curiosity is very essential for a writer. If you have nothing else, have curiosity... and if you’re not curious you wouldn’t be in the job in the first place. If you’re not curious, why would you subject yourselves to all these people who you have absolutely no interest in. Why would you do that do yourself?

Do you have a piece that you are most proud to have written?
I don’t keep anything so I don’t know. I know things that I enjoyed writing. I enjoyed writing a piece on Balenciaga when V first started, because I just loved Cristobal Balenciaga. I'm a real potterer. I always used to potter through books and the internet lets me potter through all day long. I just follow all the links. Like a writer nobody ever knew about, and now you can go find it online – I love that.

I think it always comes back to your teenage obsessions. I think whether you are a designer or a writer, you’re always relating back to the things you first fell in love with.
There’s an interesting thing about making things right. If you have something that wasn’t working then, you can try to make it right now. I saw J.W Anderson’s cruise collection a few days ago and I absolutely loved his sense of going back to his beginning. Of being able to redo it with everything he has learnt since then. I love that sense of being able to go back to history, to make it the way you want it to be. Now you have the technology, and the experience. So I will go back to things I loved and revisit them and kind of bring them in another way, or go back to the things I love and find out they make no sense to me anymore.

Everything is so instant now, do you think you’ve ever written something that you’ve regretted or thought that you didn’t go far enough?
Probably. But there’s nothing I can do about it; it’s out there on the internet. The funny thing is people will say to me, "oh you really didn't like that, did you?" and I would say "I loved it!", and then go back and read the review and think “What, how did that come out as I didn’t like it?” So sometimes things seem incredibly clear to me when I'ms writing them, but when I go back later on I think, "oh, all I had to say was I really like this" and I didn't do that. Sometimes I have all the things I want to say written down and it’s really clear but I just don’t do it, and I wish I could go back and put it in as it would have made such a difference.

And has the rule of the critic changed over the years? What gives authority to a critic?
This is the question that I get asked most – the world of criticism and fashion. Fashion is the only creative industry that never had the critical panel. Everything else had the critics. I mean, it had the personalities but it never had the people that were the benchmark. Fashion never had those reference points. I think that’s why somebody like Cathy Horyn is really important to us, or Sarah Mower. But I think now, fashion is finding a weight for itself – maybe a little bit.

How do you keep that critical distance?
You just hope that everyone appreciates that you’re doing a job. You must never think that these people are your friends – you still have to do your best to not get sucked into all that. To be honest, a lot of the time I’ve said something a little bit scruffy about people and they’ll come and say thank you. And my friends in fashion have been friends for a long time. I would like to think that they’d be my friends even if I didn’t work in fashion anymore.

After so many years in the business, what keeps it fresh for you?
It just always is. You just know when something is going to be in your life forever. You find a way to make it eternally new. There’s always a way in. All the time I’m telling myself this is the job I love because either people don’t have work or they’re doing something they don’t want to do, that is eating them away. And I really love what I do. 

More Features
Fashion & Beauty50 Questions with Bob Mackie
Design & LivingFrom Witches to Freud: Six Books That Inspired Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria
Fashion & BeautyA Case for Wearing Patchwork This Winter
Art & PhotographyThomas Demand and Elizabeth Diller on Refraction and Reality