Who Is the New York Times’ New Fashion Critic, Vanessa Friedman?

In the ever-changing (crumbling?) landscape of fashion criticism, where compensated cheerleaders and peacocks now reign supreme, it’s big news when a turnover presents itself at the Styles section of the venerable New York Times. Which is exactly what happened a week ago when it was announced that Vanessa Friedman will be joining the Grey Lady from the Financial Times, where she wholly created the fashion section and lent tremendous fashion authority to its salmon mousse-colored pages. Though not officially, Vanessa replaces Cathy Horyn, who stepped down from a stellar career at the Times for personal reasons.

It’s been made clear, however, that the approach, scope and tone of the incoming chief fashion critic (and fashion director) will not necessarily be the same as that of the outgoing, whose less-than-fawning yet always honest commentary was widely celebrated — if disparaged by those on the receiving end.

So what can we expect from the new guard? To begin with, like her predecessor, Vanessa is thoroughly no-nonsense, exuding a serious demeanor worthy of her scrupulously pulled back crimson hair and vise-grip of a handshake, offered with no air kiss behind it. I know this because I interviewed her for Industrie magazine about four years ago at the FT offices. I found her to be highly focused and articulate, yet also ready with a gentle quip and a friendly smile.

As it turns out, after some digging around for the issue, the interview provides quite a few glimpses into how Vanessa Friedman may decide to run the section. Here are the most intriguing snippets…

You’ve been the Financial Times’ fashion editor for a while now.
Seven years. When I first started here, there was a sense that fashion would sit nicely in the weekend section, where it would be whatever it was. But it’s grown significantly in those seven years. Before I got here, we didn’t have fashion reviews. Sometimes they did them, sometimes they didn’t.

A lot of magazines and papers will start a fashion section for the celebrity quotient or to attract fashion advertising.
It was different here. I think it was really in response to two different realizations. One was the fact that actually the readers did care about clothes. They buy clothes and this was a service that we should be providing. And also the realization that the fashion industry, or the luxury industry, was a big industry and, therefore, something the FT should cover. It’s a big business, real meat and potatoes stuff. Having said that, when I was hired, the idea was not that I would do the business side of it. That kind of happened.

Do advertisers hold any sway at the FT?

You said that quickly.
Really, they don’t. And because of that, I think it would be very hard for me to go back to glossy magazines, after having been in a situation where you really are free to follow the story, good or bad.

Glossies, too, have a separation between church and state, or claim to.
Well, they’re not critical. They’re there to serve readers in a positive way, to show them what’s good about something. So, fair enough.

How does a fashion house attract a young clientele?
By making good clothes. In an industry based on products, in the end the products will sell themselves. If the products are bad, it doesn’t matter how you dress them up. It’s not going to work with the young consumer, who wants humor, irony, narrative. They’re not into that this-is-our-history cheesy narrative.

Did you say snarrative, like snark and narrative?
It’s not a bad word. What I mean is, like the Cadbury adverts with the gorilla banging the drum. It was a really famous ad, which had nothing to do with Cadbury and at the end just said Cadbury. The marketing of no marketing. The willingness to abandon your product and do something funny or tell a great story.

Some fashion critics, for example Cathy Horyn, are known for being opinionated. Is that something that you see in your future, moving more into strong opinions, getting banned from shows and whatever else it entails?
I think I have some strong opinions already.

For sure. But I mean really laying it out.
Yeah, and I’ve been lectured by designers. Sometimes they’re not happy with things. I’ve had to go and meet them and listen to them.

Like who?
I got lectured by Giorgio Armani.

He lectures everyone.
He felt I misunderstood him.

Did he call you personally?
No, I went to talk with him backstage before a show and he lectured me. I think I had written something about his Emporio show a couple days before. And he thought I hadn’t understood it and he wanted to explain it to me so I understood it. It was fine. It wasn’t awkward. If someone doesn’t agree with what I write I am perfectly happy for them to tell me.

What’s the future of luxury?
Ha! It depends on how you define luxury. I think the future is China. The future is Brazil.

Because they’re buying?
They’re buying, yeah. That’s the new marketplace. And I think the future is good. There will always be someone who wants that stuff. There always has been since the beginning of man. People want to decorate themselves for their own enjoyment. You can love something and while other people won’t get it, you still love it. Taste is personal.

Taste is usually personal, but a lot of times taste is what the neighbor is doing.
I think even in that context it’s personal. I mean, between Gucci, Chanel, Vuitton, Hermès, which one do you buy? It’s a personal choice. The stores are all next to each other. The choice to spend your money on that or an incredible piece of art, or a piece of furniture, or a trip somewhere, is personal.

Do you ever feel disillusioned? You know, a luxury label comes out with some magical new thing and it’s supposed to be about heritage, but it’s made in China.
I have absolutely no problem with anybody making anything in China or India or Sri Lanka, as long as it’s made responsibly. I think the whole ‘has to be made in France’ or ‘has to be made in Italy’ is crap. Industries move. They always have, they always will. What really needs to happen and what these places like Italy and New York, with its garment district, should do is not think about how to keep their industries as they are, because it’s not going to happen, but how to repurpose the people who are in those industries. They should take that manpower, those skills, those machines and figure out what it can do next. I feel really strongly about this.

Are you thinking about writing another book? I really enjoyed your Pucci book.
The Pucci book was fun. I learned a lot. I always thought everything they did there was abstract, Op art, swirly stuff. But the swirly stuff is actually a doodle of a mosaic from the Duomo that [Emilio Pucci] saw from a window, or the floor of the Duomo or the ironwork in his gates. It was all based on what he saw. He drew what he saw.

That’s fascinating.
And I had no idea. But if you see the original and you see the squiggle, you’ll see it’s exactly the same thing. As a Jewish American, someone who has a particularly truncated history going back two generations, the idea that they have a Botticelli that was given to them by Lorenzo de’ Medici is mind-blowing.

Wait, the Puccis had a Botticelli given to them? Somehow I missed that.
Yeah, he gave them four at some wedding, but they all got sold off along the way to pay for whatever aristocratic debts were incurred in various wars. Three are in the Prado [Museum, Madrid] and one was in London in a private collection. It was auctioned at Christie’s in the 80s, and Emilio flew to London, bought it and brought it back to Florence. It’s a great story. His widow said it was the proudest moment of his life that he brought the Botticelli back.

Do you have any other books planned?
I spent a lot of time as a book reviewer in my previous incarnation and I always felt that there were a lot of books in the world that didn’t need to be in the world. And if I was going to do one it would have to be one that would need to be a book, not a magazine article. Because otherwise there are too many. And it absolutely had to be done by me.

If you could do a book similar to Pucci on anyone in the world, who would it be?
Well, there are two people whose memoirs I would love to ghost, Diane von Furstenberg and Leonard Lauder. Because they’re just fantastic people who have seen a huge amount and have fabulous stories. They’d be fun to spend a couple months with.

You’re in touch with Diane. Ask her. You’ve probably already hinted it to her.
I’ve suggested it. Diane’s done her own books.