MR Round Table: Fashion Journalism, Then and Now

Kate Betts, award-winning magazine editor and author of ‘My Paris Dream: An Education in Style, Slang, and Seduction in the Great City on the Seine,’ joined us for a discussion on the next wave of fashion journalism and its corresponding new media


In addition to round tabling around (see what I did there?)  fashion journalism, we have most recently tackled Burnout.

Leandra Medine: I want to hear a bit about your book before we begin talking about the difference between fashion media and journalism then and now.

Kate Betts, author of My Paris Dream, contributing editor at Time, previous editor at WWD and Vogue: The book tour starts next week. It’s weird to do a book tour for a memoir because it’s a lot of talking about myself, and I’m used to being a journalist and not talking about myself. But I’m excited about it because — and I say this when people ask me why I wrote this book — I wanted to tell the story about my career, but also how my career intersected with a personal passion of mine, which was Paris and France and French culture.

Nowadays, it seems like everyone is on this race to nowhere. People seem to think that there is a clear, direct path from college, and it’s not a clear path. It’s a path paved with disaster and tears and wrong moves, blood and sweat, yet everyone now condenses their stories to these small sound bites. I feel like the more interesting story is the struggle, and I wanted to tell that story. Kids coming out of college are confused and scared and too fearful to take risks and left turns, and you have to do that, otherwise you don’t have any character! You’re just a zombie or a robot, and that’s not good.

LM: I think one of the other problems is probably that the choice has become much more vast. America is marketed as the land of opportunity, right? The fact that you can build a business from your handheld device just adds one more convoluted layer to the equation.

Amelia Diamond:  I wonder if the ability to build a career from your phone is complicating things; if it’s stressing kids out to have so many options — there’s definitely a more entrepreneurial mindset now than there was when I graduated. Or maybe it’s liberating and enlightening.

KB: What’s that famous quote, “Freedom is its own prison?” Yes it is enlightening if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, but not everybody does, and that’s okay. Some people probably feel at some point in their lives that they have to have a path or stepping stone, or as Tom Ford calls it, “a ten year plan.” Some people are that way by nature, but even they need to step out of it at some point in their career in order to discover themselves. My book is very much about that. You have to get lost to find yourself.

I moved to Paris right after I graduated from Princeton and lived there for five years. I worked for Women’s Wear Daily — the book is about those five years and what it took to break into the fashion business. But I didn’t move there thinking I wanted to be in the fashion business, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent for Time magazine. And then I got a job at W because I wanted working papers, and John Fairchild had read a story that I wrote about hunting for wild boar – that’s another story – so I got the job and I ended up in fashion.

It was a very different time then. John Fairchild was a very interesting and powerful figure. It’s strange that he’s gone now. I just went to his memorial service last week. But you know, that was also a time in fashion journalism when the business was not global; every city was sort of its own village of these very closed, hierarchal societies of fashion. It was very much an individual’s business. The designers were individuals, the journalists had individual voices.

LM: I frequently talk about what is happening in Berlin right now, and the creative renaissance that they are undergoing, the way that fashion is evolving there, and its ability to flourish because it has not yet become an establishment — fashion with a capital F.

KB: Right. It’s still gentrifying. It’s still affordable to artists, is what it is. It all comes down to real estate.

LM: I’m sure that as a journalist in France at the end of the 80s, fashion wasn’t really the institution or establishment that it is today.

AD: Well that’s what’s interesting. Kate, you didn’t start as a fashion journalist. Cathy Horyn had the same story.

LM: Robin Givhan has a very interesting point about some of most venerated reporters and journalists in fashion: none of them actually wanted to be in fashion, right? They just had point of views, and liked using fashion as the language to share those points.

KB: Well for many people – more so for women, probably in the 60s or 70s – it was a way to get a job in the newspaper, on the “women’s pages.” That’s how Gloria Emerson, who was a Vietnam reporter and one of my professors at Princeton, started. She started as a fashion reporter at the New York Times and then finally, she was able to break out.

LM: I think Vanessa Friedman started that way at The Financial Times covering style.

AD: That lends itself to being well rounded and having an interesting background and unique references. I’m interested in seeing how that’s changing now with kids graduating with their sole focus as this major fashion-centric background — these kids who grew up educating themselves on

KB: My whole point of view with fashion was to put it in a broader cultural context, otherwise you’re just talking about clothes and that’s not that interesting. What’s interesting are the stories the clothes are telling — the people who are wearing them and the lives that they’re living. Fairchild was very much about that; that’s why he started W. It’s not really what the clothes look like, and I think he was one of the first people that got that. If you look at fashion reporters like Bernadine Morris (the New York Times’ fashion reporter until the mid 90s) she would just write about clothes, and people were interested in that, but it didn’t have as much resonance.

I think it was when Amy Spindler went to the Times, fashion started to be viewed through the lens of the music industry and Hollywood. That’s probably when it became a more appealing industry to go into. Kids coming out of school would go, “I can relate to this,” because it’s about music, and that’s a segue into a fashion. Now that it’s such a huge industry, it has come back to what it was: just writing about straight fashion.

What’s interesting about writing online versus print, though, is that it has so much more potential to be seen. It’s much more dimensional than just writing for a magazine. I can’t even imagine not writing for online anymore.

LM: You were at WWD for a while, the new magazine looks wonderful. It must be such an exciting time to be there. I’m curious about how you feel about new media. How do you feel about blogs — a site like Man Repeller, which started as a personal style blog but is now working to build itself as a media company?

KB: A lot of people sit around and go, “It’s so sad that the magazines are dying.” I don’t think it’s sad. I think it’s exciting that new media is giving people jobs and voices and a platform to talk about their point of view.

I do remember a time — probably in 1994 — when people at magazine publishing companies were like, “How can we make this Internet-thing go away?” That’s a direct quote. The new media is scary for a certain generation of people, I guess. I think it’s exciting, and I really respect the fact that in the journalistic sense of things, it’s a personal style blog but you’re still feeding the beast. You’re still getting up every morning and finding the story. That’s journalism. It’s new journalism. You have a curiosity about a certain world and you look at it from a certain lens.

I’ve heard people say, “Ugh, the bloggers.” Disrupting the hierarchy of the front row is scary for some people, but it’s also necessary. Did people get upset and complain when television took over? No, they were excited about it.

LM: I’m sure there were some complaints from radio stars.

AD: Video killed the radio star.

KB: But it didn’t!

LM: And here we are coming right back to it, with a podcast push.

KB: Right. And it’s just another medium or media to telegraph your message.

LM: What we talk about at MR is the need to share that content on the devices that people are taking their brain breaks on. So if they’re not on their desktops and they’re on their phones, then we need to make our content consumable via mobile. It’s as simple as that.

KB: And video becomes more important every day, which is another form of storytelling.

LM: That’s unique to me too though. So many of the incredibly important journalists in fashion don’t have an onscreen presence, or journalists don’t in general. And a lot of them are not very articulate when they’re speaking. Well I guess David Rakoff did – I return to his This American Life special, once every two months, it’s one of my favorite things to listen to. You assigned to him a tremendous piece about couture in the 90s. It was a stunning piece of literature.

KB: Well let’s go back to the beginning here. Good writing is good writing, and that’s what it’s all about. So when you’re a great writer, it doesn’t matter what or who you know, it’s how you tell the story. But you’re right, it’s always interesting to bring people in from the outside world, it’s oxygen because it can get kind of close in the fashion ranks.

But people still want to be told what to do and what to wear, and they still need people with a strong point of view to tell them that. So where do they turn? When I was reporting for the Business of Fashion or even at Vogue, whenever the trend would be “Personal Style!” all the retailers would hate it. Personal style means everything goes, and the consumer doesn’t like that.

LM: But we no longer live in a world of trends. The trend really is personal style. Especially because fashion week seasons are so immediately consumable, and can therefore feel obsolete by the time the clothes hit the sales floors. The 70s have not yet shipped, and I am finished with them! If I see a suede skirt come September…

KB: I feel like the trends are coming from the mass market now.

LM: Right. I wrote a story about this. Could it be possible that a high fashion house is taking cues from Zara and building a collection on that?

AD: Lauren Sherman wrote a great story for WSJ about how men’s fashion week showed a ton of (what are essentially) runway versions of the Patagonia fleece.

KB: Trends have always come from the streets. Designers look at what people are wearing.

LM: It’s just more meditated now. It’s about feeling invisible and living your life, and feeling understood.

AD: My favorite time to think about in fashion – and it would be uncomfortable and suffocating now – but back when trends were dictated by hemlines. They really were — generally — either up or down.

KB: Well they had to be! Because if you had a mini skirt this season, you didn’t need one next season, you needed a long skirt. So fashion had to react against itself.

AD: But now it’s like, “Do I show my legs, or cover them? Because I have both options in front of me AND in the same print.”

KB: Well it is and it isn’t though. There are still trends, and I think it depends on where you are. Maybe there aren’t runway trends anymore. People used to ask me, “Why does every fabric mill suddenly make floral prints one season? And then stripes the next?” But it’s because of the fabric mills. It starts there. They have to sell the fabric, so they’re not selling cobalt blue two seasons in a row. They’re selling marigold one season and then people come back and they say, “No no, now it’s cobalt blue.”

AD: So secretly, at the core of the fashion industry, is someone sitting there–

KB: In a booth.

LM: When you were at either Vogue or WWD, what did the old guard look like?

KB: WWD was its own thing and it wasn’t changing that much. However, it seems so crazy, but at the time, Christian Lacroix was the new guy on the block. Karl (Lagerfeld) was relatively new at Chanel. I remember trying to convince W to do a story about Helmut Lang. He’d only been showing for two seasons in Paris. He lived in Vienna, he didn’t believe in trends, his idol was not Balenciaga, it was Levi Strauss. All he wanted to do was design jeans and t-shirts.

I remember Fairchild looking at me like, What are you talking about? But I thought this guy was really great: “He’s going to be really big!” And they were like, “No Kate. Go back to your desk and quiet down.” So yes, I always felt like I was on the edge somehow, and that was a big transition from that old school couturian Emanuel Ungaro, Karl and St. Laurent, to Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana. They were the kings of Paris. Then this new generation of Helmut Lang was coming up. Miuccia Prada a little bit — she was just starting to show handbags and luggage. And Tom Ford! My god, he was an assistant at Gucci, and nobody cared about him! I remember wanting to do a story on him and being told, “He will always be an assistant.”

LM: When we talk about Alaïa and Montana and the designers who ran Paris back then — that was a very different time to be in fashion. You either were in it, or you weren’t. Who’s running the show in Paris now? Is it Alexander Wang’s Paris? I don’t know, I think it is. I think Paris belongs to the cool kids, the exclusive, you-can’t-sit-with-us Riccardo Tiscis of the world. But it’s also so much easier to access fashion now, because of Instagram.

Suzy Menkes talks about the black crows of fashion, and how in her heyday, it was such a different place. It’s so hard for someone like me to sympathize because this is the fashion that I’m living, but I can understand the nostalgia, I just can’t imagine it.

KB: It was a circus then too. Trust me.

Kate Betts’ new book, My Paris Dream, is awesome.  Buy your copy here. Follow Kate Betts on Twitter and Instagram, too.


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