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Vanessa FriedmanCourtesy of The New York Times

Elise By Olsen: In Conversation with Vanessa Friedman

The fashion director and chief fashion critic for The New York Times tells Elise By Olsen about her thoughts on the state of contemporary fashion journalism and the role of the fashion critic today

Lead ImageVanessa FriedmanCourtesy of The New York Times

This week, 19-year-old Norwegian editor and publisher Elise By Olsen (Recens PaperWallet) is the guest editor of, presenting a series of articles exploring the current and future state of fashion and art publishing. Alongside conversations with publishers, critics and image-makers, this guest edit offers an intimate insight into her own publications and working practice.

Vanessa Friedman says getting into fashion was one of the luckiest mistakes she ever made. The fashion director and chief fashion critic for The New York Times did not study fashion at university, she read history, before going to France to complete an internship at a law firm. Returning to New York, she decided to try her hand at journalism and it stuck: she freelanced for magazines such as Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and later was appointed contributing editor at American Vogue, covering culture.

It was while freelancing that she learned the Financial Times was looking for writers and so sent them a letter – and that’s where her journey into fashion began. “The woman there, Lucia van der Post, saw I had worked at Vogue and assumed that I was a fashion person, so she called me up and asked me to write a story about boots,” Friedman recalls, speaking over the phone from New York. “I said ‘I will write about boots if you pay me’, and that’s how I started writing about fashion.”

Around this time, fashion features editor became a role at magazines – American Elle realised they didn’t have one and so started sending Friedman to report on the collections (it would be the first time she had ever attended a fashion show). Later, the Financial Times in London decided to create a dedicated fashion page for the first time, and she landed the job as fashion editor.

Friedman is best known, though, for her role at The New York Times which she began in 2014, merging the roles previously occupied by Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes. It makes her role an amalgamation: on one side, she is a traditional newspaper fashion critic, attending the shows and reviewing the collections, on the other, she is a director of the newspaper’s fashion coverage, assigning and commissioning stories, and working with the publication’s various other desks.

I sat down with Friedman to discuss her thoughts on the state of contemporary fashion journalism and the role of the fashion critic today.

Elise By Olsen: We are both dedicated to fashion criticism, me with my publication Wallet and you with your work in The New York Times. Whether institutional or sartorial, I would say we’re both initiating critical dialogues, albeit in different ways. What’s good fashion criticism in your mind?

Vanessa Friedman: I think there’s a wide variety of fashion criticism. An independent press is important for every part of society, whether it’s political or professional. The role of a critic is to take a step back and look at how things are working – or what someone is doing – and say this is successful, this is not successful; there’s a potential issue and here’s why; here’s how it does or doesn’t work in broader society. That applies both to garments and how they relate to the individual, and for businesses and how they are constructed and function – and whether that’s beneficial to creating garments that work for the individual and for the people who are employed.

EBO: As consumers, we’re exposed to a massive amount of information online – the written word and analytical journalism might be more important than ever. As a fashion veteran, how would you describe the evolution of fashion criticism? 

VF: I think there’s a lot more fashion criticism happening and it comes in different forms. There are traditional critics, which is how I would classify myself – someone who doesn’t make it personal, but tries to look at the show and context and women’s lives and how women’s lives have evolved. Does this make sense, does it not make sense, has it changed, why has it changed? Is it going in the right or relevant direction? Then there are the big media platforms or personalities who have a much more personal relationship to what they’re seeing. I think there’s room for everyone, but they speak for different purposes.

EBO: Looking back on your own writing, do you think your voice has changed?

VF: You’re probably in a better place to judge that than I am. You learn more as you go and talking to a New York Times audience is different to talking to a Financial Times audience, because it’s much bigger and broader. But I don’t think my voice has fundamentally changed; my approach hasn’t changed and how I think about it hasn’t changed.

EBO: What’s your stance on ‘call out culture’ and the Diet Prada approach? In a fashion world where it seems as if you are either praised or cancelled, is it the traditional fashion critic’s duty to mediate nuance?

VF: We report on some of it, but not all of it. We report on it if we think it reflects a bigger issue that hasn’t been completely understood by fashion or by consumers. Or if something has changed, like when the Mexican minister wrote a letter to Carolina Herrera. That’s meaningful because a national government is getting involved in one of these issues. Sometimes it can be gratuitous online or feel unfair. This is a big conversation that everyone is having and it is right to have it. The times have changed and so fashion’s approach to these issues needs to change. Things that were completely acceptable, that no one blinked at five years ago, are no longer acceptable. We have to both acknowledge that fashion has a history of appropriation and flash inspiration, and that it is deeply embedded in fashion and that has always been the case. It still needs to change. Those two things are not necessarily something we should get upset about, but that we need to acknowledge and try to grapple with.

“An independent press is important for every part of society, whether it’s political or professional” – Vanessa Friedman

EBO: So what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? How do you form your opinions?

VF: I try to think about what the designer is saying and where things are going; if what they’re saying seems relevant and solution-oriented. If it makes sense in their own history and the history of the brand, I certainly think it’s interesting. I don’t necessarily think of things as good or bad, I think of them in the context of themselves. Are they successful? If this is their goal, have they been successful in reaching it? Are they expressing themselves clearly? Also to a certain extent, is it wearable, or is it supposed to be wearable? Obviously for Rei Kawakubo, her point is not to make wearable clothes, so there’s no point in asking if it’s wearable. Half the time she doesn’t even try to make clothes. But if it is something that is supposed to be wearable, is it wearable? There’s a lot to it. I don’t think any designer should ever make the hobble skirt again. I don’t think designers should ever put diapers on the runway. There’s no grandmother in the world who wants to wear a diaper. There’s nothing about contemporary society that says women should wear that, so if you create that you are not serving your customer. Everyone should think in that way.

EBO: And how many reviews do you write a month for The New York Times?

VF: During fashion week I write a review a day, every day, except once a week when we don’t publish internationally. [The frequency] varies and depends on the schedules. Otherwise I do one thought piece a week and a newsletter every week. I’ll do news stories as they arrive. It really varies. This week I did three pieces, but two of them were co-written. It’s a newspaper; when news happens news happens.

EBO: How do you compare or distinguish between fashion coverage, versus analytical or critical journalism? What’s the difference between a journalist and a critic in fashion?

VF: If we’re covering a news piece it’s generally reported, based on primary source investigation or interviews, and it doesn’t have much opinion in it. If I’m doing a critical column it tends to be primarily opinion or analysis – also based on reporting, but with more of an understanding of what I’m thinking and then writing what I think.

EBO: What parts of the fashion industry do you think are depending on criticism today, if any at all? 

VF: [Laughs.] It’s certainly important to designers because you can measure your success in sales, but often what is sold is so far removed from what is originally made that those things are not necessarily compatible. It’s a critic’s role to be honest about whether they think something is working or not working, if this is a good idea or not and here’s why. It’s really important to be able to say here’s why and do it in a way that’s not gratuitous or personal or mean or anything, but in fact useful. There’s a certain amount of cultural criticism that can be directed both at the corporate side of things and the creative side of things, to help realise that what they’re making has not quite caught up to where society is going and where their consumers are going. That’s really important, especially in a global world where it’s often very hard for brands to understand how things are being perceived.

“Our responsibilities [as fashion critics] are to be as fair, clear-eyed and thoughtful as we can about what the designers are doing” – Vanessa Friedman

EBO: What are our responsibilities, as critics, to the fashion industry, the designers and to ourselves?

VF: Our responsibilities are to be as fair, clear-eyed and thoughtful as we can about what the designers are doing, for the women and men who buy what they’re selling and for the people who are influenced by what they’re selling, the people who are being used to influence others by what they’re selling and the people who work for them within the organisations.

EBO: Having originally come from an arts and culture background, do you feel like an outsider in fashion? And how has that ‘one foot in, one foot out’ perspective shaped your writing?

VF: I guess I feel like an outsider, although I’ve been doing this for so long now. I have very good professional relationships with many people. But I consider myself a journalist first, not a fashion person first, that’s the difference. People with busy lives, who are not necessarily fashion people, read The New York Times’ fashion coverage and our job is to explain to them what impacts the choices they make when they get dressed every morning. And how those choices fit into all these different forces that are shaping their daily lives, whether they’re political, cultural, economic or professional. The more you know about those forces, the more you can situate fashion in this broader panoply of the world.

EBO: You studied history: is that historical perspective still present in your writing?

VF: Yeah, I think so. We [fashion critics] don’t make judgements in a vacuum. There is a background to all of this and the more you understand about it, the richer and the more you can fairly judge something because of the motivations behind it.

EBO: Do you think criticism is a more respected discipline in other cultural endeavours such as art, film or music?

VF: I think other cultural endeavours are more respected than fashion, period. Therefore their criticism is taken more seriously than fashion criticism, because they in general are taken more seriously. That’s increasingly not the case. There’s a broader understanding of fashion as an incredibly powerful and important form of expression and it’s an enormous economic power in the world. It probably pays as much tax in France as any centre in the economy, if not more, and is an enormous employer of people. It increasingly has its tentacles in many other worlds, whether it’s technology or Hollywood or sports.

“I wish models were more respected, I wish they had a better financial system for their job and I wish they could unionise. I wish there was more diversity within corporations, but I think they’re actively trying to make that happen” – Vanessa Friedman

EBO: What do you think characterises fashion criticism?

VF: I don’t think it’s any different to any other criticism. It’s often about clothes. Art criticism is often about paintings. It’s the subject matter. But the broader subject matter, which is identity, society, culture, is the same.

EBO: You’ve said: “I think, like any form of criticism or any area, you have to learn your subject. You’ve got to do research and interviews...” Who are your favourite current voices in [fashion] criticism, and how important are these to your work?

VF: I read my peers because I enjoy what they write, but I don’t read it as research for my own work. I think Robin Givhan is great, Cathy [Horyn] is great, Alexander Fury is really good and I like what Jo Ellison does at the FT now. It’s a small group of us. I don’t read that many fashion publications, I do have a look at them, but I spend as much time reading non-fashion publications as I do fashion publications, if not more.

EBO: I think fashion journalism has been in a poor state for a while and is still far from ideal; visual content often trumps textual content, in-depth stories are branded and low-key based on commercial interest. Do you think fashion criticism will have a resurgence soon – perhaps with the new generation?

VF: I think we’ll have to wait and see. We’ll see a lot of really talented people coming into it, whether it’s actors, creators, executives or writers. You see it already, when I talk to kids who are in high school or college and there’s an astonishing number of smart kids who want to get into fashion. When I was at school that was not the case, fashion was not seen as something that serious people would do and now it is, and I think that’s great.

EBO: Lastly, what changes would you like to see in fashion journalism or fashion in general?

VF: I would like us all to have more time to do things. That would be nice. I wish the system would get a little more rationalised. I don’t really see my job as to say ‘I want this change or that change’, I see myself as a reporter thinking about the now. I wish models were more respected, I wish they had a better financial system for their job and I wish they could unionise. I wish there was more diversity within corporations, but I think they’re actively trying to make that happen. These are some of the big issues we’re wrestling with as a society, and fashion is also wrestling with that. One of the great things about fashion is that it does change and it is an industry that is predicated on change – it has to do better by itself and by its consumers. The other thing I really wish would change is that we would make less product. I wish the next generation of consumers could understand the value composition of something that is made of amazing materials by a human hand and that it’s better to save money and buy that one thing and keep it and take care of it, rather than to buy tonnes of stuff and get rid of it really quickly. I wish that brands could start to grapple with the life of a garment once it will be used in their stores as much as they’re grappling with the beginnings when they make it. I think these are all important issues that we need to talk about.