Editor at Large
Get to know the fashion world’s top critic: Vanessa Friedman.
By Bee Shapiro
If there was a first seat of fashion journalism, then Vanessa Friedman, a discerning, reedy redhead whose writing exudes a certain frankness and pragmatism, would be perched on the pulpit. In mid-2014, Friedman closed out an 11-year run at the Financial Times, serving as the London-based paper’s first-ever fashion editor, and joined The New York Times as fashion director and chief fashion critic. A few months in, she’s settled on her oeuvre: a blend of business, breaking news and select barbs (including one famously directed at Beyoncé for her lack of fashion influence). Here, she talks about her past, present and what she’s looking forward to within the industry.
When did you take an interest in fashion writing?
I was actually a history major with minors in European cultural studies and creative writing—my thesis was a historical novella about Bauhaus and Weimar. When I got out of school, I went to France for two years and worked for a law firm called Coudert Frères. I was torn between law and magazines. I started moonlighting at an English-speaking publication called Paris Passion, which was like Time Out.
So why not law?
I came back to the U.S. and thought, “If I do magazines now, I can always go back to law school. But no one has a 40-year-old editorial assistant. It just doesn’t happen.” So I went to work at Vanity Fair and then The New Yorker, where I just wanted to start writing. It’s hard when you’re starting out to get people to give you assignments. So I began doing beauty stuff for Allure and then writing for Vogue, but mostly about culture, not about fashion. Vogue then offered me a one-year contract, but I decided to move to the U.K.
I had just gotten married. It was 1996. My husband was working at J.P. Morgan and they said, “Do you want to go to England for a year or two?” We were like, “Yeah! Why not?” We ended up staying for 12. While there, I became the European editor at Elle and was also looking for freelance work. This woman at the FT thought I had done fashion before because I had worked at fashion magazines, so I started getting fashion assignments. Somewhere in there, I had my first child, went to InStyle UK, had my second child, left InStyle UK and joined the FT.
Why not stay as a freelancer with the kids?
I actually found it was harder to balance freelancing with family. When you’re freelancing, you’re really at the beck and call of people. Someone would call me from the U.S. at 5 p.m. on a Friday and say, “Can you do this story for Monday?”
Back to the FT, why was the paper interested in fashion at the time?
The FT had always had fashion stories in what was called the “How To Spend It” section. The woman who started the section was Marion Hume, who went on to run Vogue Australia. It was sort of a hodgepodge of consumer stuff. She would sometimes cover shows, and then there would be coverage about spas and stories about vases or aprons. It was great; I could do whatever I wanted as long as it felt like it was in the vein of the FT.
So when The New York Times position opened up, what were you thinking? Or why did you move back to the States?
I was in New York already—in Brooklyn—for a couple years. And, you know, it’s the Times. If you grew up in New York, it is the romantic ideal of what a newspaper should be. It was too exciting of an opportunity to not want to do it. For me in particular, the combination of The New York Times and the International New York Times was such a great opportunity.
The outgoing Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn has always held you in high regard. Did she offer any advice?
We knew each other just from being at the shows and through work. We had a nice lunch at ABC Kitchen and she offered me some friendly advice.
Is there a way you want to shape or direct your coverage?
I feel very strongly that there’s a news imperative at a newspaper. It’s true for features and for the actual section. It’s our job to be really responsive to the news and to break stories, and to also be aware of our kind of reader in the broadest sense.
What do you think of social media?
I like to tweet; I don’t really Instagram. I felt like at a certain point I had to pick, and so I picked Twitter because I’m a words person. It’s actually really interesting to have a very quick-hit way to express yourself and then also have a way to express yourself daily with a blog, then a considered opportunity in a column and then a longer-term piece in a feature.
What do you think is interesting or exciting in the fashion world now?
After Angela Ahrendts [former CEO of Burberry who is now at Apple], I would love to see more women at the heads of companies, both creatively and corporately. There needs to be more diversity.