When it comes to critiquing the runway, few are held in as high regard as Vanessa Friedman, both the fashion director and chief fashion critic at the New York Times. With the Times having one of the widest circulations of any daily newspaper in the United States, Friedman’s job comes with great responsibility in communicating the often complex and nuanced symbolism of fashion to a wide audience.
We caught up with Friedman backstage at Decoded Fashion New York, a two-day event that brought together the fashion, beauty, tech and retail industries to talk about the future. Friedman was on-hand to interview Jonathan Saunders, chief creative officer at Diane Von Furstenberg.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: I want to start by asking you about your role as a fashion critic.
Vanessa Friedman: Like whether or not it’s dying? [Laughs]
We’re seeing a rise in bloggers and influencers — people who dictate taste to a wide audience but are not beholden to editorial standards — posting content like reviews of runway shows when they watched only the livestream. What is it like for you to see this, having spent the last two decades in this industry?
VF: It’s really interesting because when you’re a reporter, you write whatever you write, it goes out and, traditionally, that was it. And maybe someone responded to you, but you didn’t really know so much what other people thought. And so I think the more information that you can access about how the rest of the world is thinking, is great. I think it’s great being able to find out what other people think.
How would you describe your job?
VF: I think of my job as being to be a filter between consumers or readers and the kind of world that I spend most of my time in. It is my job to help people, whose lives are really busy and full of information coming at them from all directions, to understand what it is about my side of things that matters to them, that will impact them and why they should know about it.
How difficult is it sussing out the what people should know?
VF: Particularly at the Times, which has an incredibly broad readership, you have to work on two different streams at the same time: You are speaking to a very informed audience of industry insiders and peers and people who care deeply about this and know a lot about it, and you’re also speaking to a whole bunch of people who maybe just like Rihanna or who saw it on their Instagram and are curious about what’s happening. It’s hard to please both of them — I’m sure that I drop the ball sometimes — but you try your best.
How important is context to successfully doing your job?
VF: For me, it’s valuable and hopefully it’s valuable for readers. Garments are garments, really, it’s a jacket or a dress and it hasn’t changed that much in a long period of time, so you can trace its antecedents back and sometimes people are like, “Oh, that’s a Chanel jacket,” and you think, “It’s the Chanel jacket but it’s Alber [Albez]’s interpretation of Yohji [Yamamoto]’s interpretation of the Chanel jacket.” That’s the kind of parentage of it. And that makes it really interesting to think about, in the same way it’s interesting to think about any kind of history. If you don’t know where things come from, you make the same mistakes.
What sort of considerations do you make when dressing for a fashion show?
VF: Are my feet going to survive this day? Is my bag large enough to carry all the stuff I’m carting around? I think about what is comfortable, what is going to be warm enough, but not too warm that I get really sweaty. What can get you from the time you leave your house at eight in the morning to the time you get back at 10 at night.
How was the fashion show changed?
VF: It’s gotten a lot busier. When I started, New York Fashion Week was Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, essentially. It really was the working week because it was work. Now it’s all the time, till 10 at night, no weekends. But then fashion is 24 hours too, the communication is now 24 hours, so I think fashion week has tried to evolve its old structure to reflect new reality. Whether it can keep evolving or not, I’m not entirely sure.
Your review of Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 4 collection seemed to be as much about your experience as it was the clothes, and how the former informed the latter. How do you determine how much space to give to the show itself?
VF: I think if it matters to whatever your final point is. This is a question I struggle with a lot because going to shows is often perceived as very glamorous and often it’s really not-so-glamorous, particularly when you’re waiting a very long time for something or you can’t get out. The natural tendency is to want to complain about it. I tend to think this matters to me, it matters to my peers, but it doesn’t really matter to my reader if I had a hot, sweaty experience that wasn’t so nice at a show. But with Kanye, because so much of that show experience was about what he wanted to convey with his clothing or where he thinks his place is in the fashion world, the experience of being at the show actually had to do with what he wanted people to know about, so therefore it was fair game.