Fearless - Ep. 37: "The Fashion Critic" - Vanessa Friedman

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"The Fashion Critic"

Vanessa Friedman is the fashion director and chief fashion critic for The New York Times. Her approval is sought by the most famous and successful designers in the world and she has built a reputation as a brilliant, thoughtful and fair judge of what is relevant in this the most creative of industries. I talked to her about the challenge faced by people who make things from their minds, about the importance of structure, and about the high-flying nature of her secret hobby.


Three Takeaways

  • Explore other possibilities
  • Recognize intention in others
  • Allow people to express themselves

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 37: "The Fashion Critic" Vanessa Friedman

Happy New Year!

One of my favorite quotes comes from TS Eliot who once said, “to make an end is to make a beginning - the end is where we start from.”

As we end 2017, the question is what does 2018 represent the beginning of?

I’m a big believer in the power of intentioned leadership. So, if you want to use 2018 well, here are two intentions that will help.

First - make the biggest difference you can. Define big ambitions and solve the problems those ambitions demand.

And second, make decisions that teach you something new - about those that work for you and about yourself. 

Be guided every day by those two intentions, and 2018 will be an extraordinary year for you.

And with that, here is the first episode of Fearless in 2018.

The Fashion Critic

"I do think the other aspect of this, which shouldn't be underestimated, is how important it can be to the people who work for a company to feel that they are part of something that stands for a value choice or morality that is greater than just making money” 

Why does a business exist? That question used to be easier to answer than it is today.

The traditional and technically correct answer, is to make money for its owners - whether private investors or public shareholders.

The more recent reference point is usually described in ways that include the term Purpose - with a capital P. 

I believe the best companies show up with intent. And that intent was never better described than by Peter Drucker who famously described the reason for a business to exist is to create a customer.

Understanding the needs and wants of a customer - sometimes before they do - is the responsibility of the leader. 

Too many leaders spend too much time looking down and working inside the business. Fearless leaders are focused up and out. Looking to the future and fixated on how their company can make the lives of their customers better.

Do that relentlessly and with genuine concern, and the money side of the equation , starts to take care of itself.

Vanessa Friedman is the fashion director and chief fashion critic for The New York Times. Her approval is sought by the most famous and successful designers in the world and she has built a reputation as a brilliant, thoughtful and fair judge of what is relevant in this the most creative of industries.

I talked to her about the challenge faced by people who make things from their minds, about the importance of structure, and about the high-flying nature of her secret hobby.

Charles:                               

Vanessa, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this.

Vanessa Friedman:         

Thank you for having me.

Charles:                               

I like to start every episode with the same question. When did creativity first show up in your life, what's your first memory of something being creative?

Vanessa Friedman:         

God, probably making ... Actually, I know what it was. My mother used to spend ... We used to go on beach holidays a lot when I was little. We'd go to different islands, because we didn't have weekend houses so we always went to different places. My parents were very interested in traveling. We would go to the beach, and my mother, who I think had a very short attention span and very little patience for lying in the sun, would collect shells. She would have myself and my little brother collect shells for her, and we would get buckets and buckets of winkles and little, tiny angel shells and muscles. Then she would spend hours gluing them in incredibly elaborate patterns around very cheap kind of dime store picture frames that we would then have all over our house.

Charles:                               

What struck you about that? What was memorable about that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

That she was making something from all the stuff that was just sort of lying around. You know, that she was making something precious out of materials that were not generally seen as precious, and she would shellac them with clear nail polish.

Charles:                               

Did creativity play a role in your education? What did you study in school?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I studied history in college and creative writing. I did a minor in creative writing. I thought, at the time, that I would either become a fiction writer or write big and important treatises about fiction writers or philosophers, or something else that sounded very important to my 18 year old self.

Charles:                               

Were you interested in other peoples' creativity?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think I was really interested in language and how you tell a story, and the way that telling a story could affect a reader. Like a million other young women, young people I think, I read Joan Didion. I remember this so clearly. I read Joan Didion when I was 16 probably, 15 or 16, on our Christmas vacation from school, and thought this has changed my life, this has just gut punched me in a way like nothing else I have ever read, and then started thinking about what language could do and what writing could do, and how it could make someone feel and think and change the way they told themselves stories.

Charles:                               

What was the gut punch?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think it was just the rhythms of her words. I mean, truly, I think it was one of the very first times I really thought about the music of sentences.

Charles:                               

And the ability to actually have it impact people.

Vanessa Friedman:         

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:                               

You moved to London in England at some point.

Vanessa Friedman:         

1996. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:                               

What took you there?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I had just gotten married and my husband was a banker. His firm said to him, "Would you like to go to London?" and we thought yeah. No ties, no children, why not? Go for two years. We stayed for 12 years.

Charles:                               

What were you doing at the time when you made the decision to go?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I was working at Elle, and I was their writer at large. I'd actually only been there six months, but it was a time when I think American magazines were starting to become much more internationalized, and features, and fashion features, was kind of becoming formed as a discipline. I went to my then editor and said, "You know, you're a very European magazine. It's amazing you have no editors in Europe." She said, "Well, that's true." I said, "I am going to Europe. Why don't I be your culture editor there?"

Charles:                               

That's quite a piece of salesmanship.

Vanessa Friedman:         

So I became the European cultural editor.

I was really drawn to, and started my career, covering culture. I did TV, books, theater, movies, and I did it first at general interest magazines. I was at Vanity Fair and I was at The New Yorker, and then I went to Vogue. But, when I was at Vogue, I was mostly doing features, I was not really doing fashion. Occasionally, I'd do a fashion piece, but it was really, the focus was elsewhere. Same at Elle. Then, when I got to London, I was desperate for work to augment what I was doing for Elle. I started sending letters out to people, and a woman at the Financial Times, who ran the [inaudible] section, worked at Vogue and Elle, assumed that meant I was a fashion writer, called me up and said, "Write about boots." I was like, "If you pay me, I will write about anything."

Charles:                               

What drew you towards focusing on culture to begin with?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think I was interested in creators and people who made things from their minds really, and sort of who they were as people. You know, what their hallmarks were, what drove them, and how they developed that into, effectively, a job.

Charles:                               

Did you see themes emerging as you were starting to study that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think the incredible combination of self belief, and ego and drive that is necessary to be an artist of any kind, really the ability to be alone that much and to continue in a world where the kind of markers of achievement are complicated and few and far between, and where you're often not surrounded by lots of positive feedback in the way you are in an office environment where you write a memo, someone responds, you make a decision, something happens. It takes a very specific personality, and I would meet a lot of promising writers in particular, but also other kinds of artists who simply didn't want to be alone that much, didn't want to kind of wait that long.

Charles:                               

So they were looking for what, a short cut? They were looking for-

Vanessa Friedman:         

No, I think there were looking for just a different kind of self reinforcement, and feedback and sense of self. It made me realize that talent is only a really small piece of it.

Charles:                               

What were the stories that you were most drawn to?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think I was drawn to people whose output I was fascinated by. I was interested in Harold Brodkey, I was interested in Kurt Vonnegut, I was interested in Joan Didion, and then younger writers too, John Burnham Schwartz, people whose work I responded to I guess, on an emotional level.

Charles:                               

From your perspective, did it matter to you whether they were having a mass appeal, whether they were having a broad impact, or were you drawn to it just on a personal basis?

Vanessa Friedman:         

No, I'm very high low. I was interested in it professionally. If someone had had a big commercial success or was part of a conversation, I felt it was part of my job to try and understand why and what was driving them, and there were people I was just really interested in.

Charles:                               

Tell me about England.

Vanessa Friedman:         

England's really where I found fashion. I started out doing a fair amount of freelancing, but I would say after four years maybe, I ended up back in a full-time job, first at InStyle, which was launching there and I became their features and fashion features director, and then two years after that at the Financial Times.

Charles:                               

Did you enjoy freelancing?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I was a terrible freelancer.

Charles:                               

Because?

Vanessa Friedman:         

It takes a certain kind of personality I think to be able to enjoy the perks of freelancing, one of which is being able to stroll in the park in the afternoon if you don't have something to do. I was way too neurotic. As soon as I finished a story, I would start to panic and think oh my God, I need to get more assignments. Then I would have way too many assignments, then I would be stressed. So, actually, it was when I had my first child, I went back and got a full-time job. I thought I just needed to be able to control my working life now, and I needed to be able to like stop at 6:00.

Charles:                               

How fascinating. So, actually, almost exactly the inverse of the way that most women react to that situation.

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think it's the inverse of what most people think, but when you're a freelance writer, you're essentially always at the beck and call of editors who think only of what you're doing for them, not what you're doing for the 10 other people you're working for. When you're working across an ocean, which I was, I was working part for American magazines and part for British publications, the time difference essentially means you're working always and there was no off button.

Charles:                               

So, actually, being able to go into work at a specific time gave you a structure and a framework.

Vanessa Friedman:         

A structure, exactly.

Charles:                               

Do you like structure, is structure something that you do well with?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think structure is important. I think it's important for work, I think it's important for sanity, probably. Even when I was freelancing, I would have all sorts of weird markers of where I was during the day. I was not like get up, sit in your pajamas at your computer kind of person. I would get up, I would go out and buy the newspapers, and then come back and I'd be like, "And now I am starting my working day."

Charles:                               

Was the going out part important, to trigger the fact that I'm going to work, even if I'm just coming back to the same place?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I would go out at lunch and buy lunch at the grocery store across the way from my loft, and the guy thought I was completely out of my mind. He'd be like, "She's back again." Then at sort of 6 o'clock, I would move into the living room.

Charles:                               

So, tell me about going back to work full-time. What was that adjustment like?

Vanessa Friedman:         

It was interesting, in part because I came back at a different level than I had left and in a very different kind of job. For me, it was as much a learning experience about management as it was about being back in an office. Being back in the office was fine, and-

Charles:                               

And a different level in terms of going up the ladder?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Yeah. I was running a department instead of being in the middle of a department.

Charles:                               

Was that important to you? Did you want the management opportunity?

Vanessa Friedman:         

No, I think it just happened that way. But, I was very happy to have the management opportunity.

Charles:                               

When you were freelancing, you were writing, and they brought you in from that experience and said, "Now you should manage people."

Vanessa Friedman:         

You do both. The biggest difference between working for a British publication and working for an American publication is that British publications are much smaller and they have much smaller and leaner staffs, and because of that, many people both write and edit. That's very rare when you're talking with any sort of name brand, name media brand in the US. Here, people really want you to choose. You become an editor, you become a writer.

I think actually they can be really complementary experiences, because you are a better editor if you understand how writers think, and you're a better writer if you understand the structure that an editor is going to want to impose on you, and if you can actually do that thing, which is so hard, which is to take a sentence you absolutely love, but is stopping a story, stopping the flow of the story, and delete it.

Charles:                               

Did you find you had that ability? How hard was it for you to learn that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I'm much tougher with myself now than I used to be.

Charles:                               

So that's throwing away your darlings right?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Yeah. You're like, you know, you just love that flow of words.

Charles:                               

What was it like for you managing people? Did you step into that happily?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Yeah. It was a learning experience. I think it's definitely a different kind of exercise, and it's very valuable because you start to understand I think very small things like how incredibly important it is to tell people when they do something well. You know, to say thank you, to put it in writing. I mean, stuff that takes very little effort, but is often rarely done. I think I also understood pretty quickly that what you want to do as a manager is surround yourself by people who plug your holes, who are good at the things that you are not good at. I think there's often a tendency to want to be surrounded by like minded people who are attracted to the same things you are, but then you end up with huge gaps in your ability to do your job well.

Charles:                               

Was that always an instinct recognition? 'Cause I think everything you just said I agree with totally, but I see so few leaders who bring those instincts naturally. Was that instinctive to you or did you learn that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think I saw it in other people, and I think I knew it partly. I was scared too, I was like, "God, I have no idea how to book these British celebrities. Get me someone who can do that."

Charles:                               

I'm intrigued by the notion of you walking into a management position having walked out of a very flexible, dynamic situation that you had brought real rigor to. Did you instantly look to create structure and repetition, or reliable process, as you started to move back into the full-time world?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Definitely structure, and process, because I think it's easier for everybody around you if they're very clear on what their job is, what their responsibility is and who they report to, who reports to them, what is expected, and how much power they have to make decisions and get things done on their own. I tend to like to work with people who I think are very good at their jobs, and let them do their jobs. I'm not interested in micromanaging people, and I think people do better when they are empowered to make decisions within their own area ...

Charles:                               

When you're hiring people-

Vanessa Friedman:         

... and get on with it.

Charles:                               

When you're hiring people, are you looking through that lens of does this person bring this kind of independence, this kind of decision making?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Yeah. Do I feel like I would be able to trust them and not think about it, and just go off and do what I have to focus on.

Charles:                               

How do you interview against that set of criteria? Because obviously it's easy for people to tell you what you want to hear, but that level of trust is something that's quite hard to get past in an interview dynamic.

Vanessa Friedman:         

I don't ask them weird questions about what utensil they would be. I ask them a lot about what they think, and I try quite hard to get them to honestly critique both the work that I'm doing or work that we both may have read, because I'm interested in how they think, and also you need people around you who are willing to tell you what they think honestly and aren't scared to do that so very genially. I try to sort of create that kind of test scenario.

Charles:                               

You were in England, you said for 12 years. What brought you back?

Vanessa Friedman:         

We had been doing a kind of rolling two years, and I finally said, 'We've got to make a decision. We've got to proactively go or proactively stay, but we can't just keep floating."

Charles:                               

Was the decision to come back difficult or were you looking forward to that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

It was difficult, but it was also the right one.

Charles:                               

What were you worried you might be losing by leaving?

Vanessa Friedman:         

There was an international aspect to being in London that I thought was really valuable for my children, who really had a very different, and I think a very singular idea of what the world was because of the way they grew up, who really thought it was a place where everyone moved around all the time, and it was great, and you met people from different countries and different cultures, and they brought all this information, new information to the table and to a relationship. It was exciting to go to a new place, and you should want to go to a new place, and you should want to meet new people, and you could trust them because they would take care of you. I was worried about closing those doors for them.

There's also something that is incredibly liberating about being foreign in a culture, because you just do not feel the same sense of responsibility for the mistakes that are made, or the bad decisions that are made. There's a kind of lightness to that, particularly at a time when the world is very chaotic, that for good or ill you don't have ... you know, you're implicated in those decisions.

Charles:                               

When you came back to the State, you came back to do what?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I came back with the FT.

Charles:                               

Oh, the same thing.

Vanessa Friedman:         

I brought my job with me.

Charles:                               

Did you go to them and just say, "I need to do this job over there," how did you pitch that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I said, for family reasons, we'd like to move back, and I think it would actually be good for my job. You know, the FT has a big presence in the United States, so was interested in building its presence here, and I had spent a long time creating and building its reputation within the fashion industry in Europe, but it had less of a profile in the US. It was an opportunity to help that here. I spent a lot of time traveling and working remotely anyway, so I think for them it was a little bit like, "Yeah, we never know where you are anyway. It's fine."

Charles:                               

We should spin back actually because I'm really interested to know how the FT opportunity came about for you, because obviously that was a massive shift for them, a big leap of faith on your part. Talk to us about how that relationship formed, what was the genesis of that, and then how did you take it forward?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Part of it was very good timing. I had been at InStyle for two years. That was a terrific learning experience for me 'cause I'd never worked at such a mass market magazine, and I think that's a very useful tool for any editor or writer to really learn how to communicate on a variety of levels, and speak to a broad group of people as opposed to a more kind of specific niche audience.

But, I was ready for another challenge and I think I read in some media gossip column that the FT was changing editors. I thought, oh, maybe something's happening there. I had freelanced for them, doing fashion, for three or four years before that, so I wrote to one of the editors I knew there and said, "Hi, checking in. Anything going on?" She wrote back and said, "You know, we're looking for a fashion editor. Would you be interested?" And I was like, "Yeah, I've got nothing to lose." So, I did a memo for them, and I think part of it was the FT is an institution that has a lot of writers and reporters and editors who've been there for a very long time, who joined straight out of school, who really went up through their training ground, and clearly if they were going to bring in a fashion person, they were going to be bringing in someone from outside.

So, I think there was a certain baseline of comfort with me, 'cause at least I'd written for them, that they were attracted to, and I think I thought it would be kind of fun and probably hadn't though terribly much about really what I was doing. It ended up being one of the best professional experiences I had had, and really changed the course of my life.

Charles:                               

What made it great?

Vanessa Friedman:         

The opportunity to make something from scratch, to decide what it meant to cover fashion in a newspaper that had never really ... you know, that had covered it in desultory ways, but not in a really systematic way, and certainly not in a consistent way. It made me think about what fashion meant to me in a way that I could write about it, that not only changed what I thought of the industry, but opened up huge amounts of avenues, both conceptually and creatively for me.

Charles:                               

Did you walk in with an awareness that this was a big opportunity to create something in your own image to a large extent, or did that occur to you once you got there?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think it just happened. I think when I first went in there, it was more, okay, how am I going to fill that page today, and after a year or two it kind of took form. I spent about a year doing their sort of basic features, you know, writing features to fill part of the page, and assigning features to fill the other part of the page, and when I started doing a column and thinking more about my own approach to fashion and what that would mean, I think a lot of the ideas and the strategies that I use now really came into play.

Charles:                               

Alan Ayckbourn was once quoted as famously saying, "I don't know what I think until I write it down." Was that kind of the experience that you went through as well, that the act of actually defining your own particular point of view about fashion had then informed what you wanted the FT to stand for through a fashion lens?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Yeah. I think I learned ... It was a kind of give and take as I went, and there was ... You know, what was so wonderful is because the FT didn't really have any kind of reputation in the fashion world, and no one was particularly paying attention to it in fashion, I had the great luxury of having a couple years to really experiment and to play around and to learn as fast as I could before people really started to look at it.

Charles:                               

What did you discover was your point of view about fashion?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I realized that the reason that a reader of a general interest newspaper, financial newspaper, is going to read fashion is to know how it fits in with everything else they do in their life, and that what they relate to, in terms of a kind of short hand, are people like them or people they aspire to be. One of the ways to communicate why it matters is to pull somebody who they know, whether it's a politician or the leader of a big company, or any other public figure, and use them as the model and the test case. That got me thinking about the way everyone uses image in public life, and the way image becomes a form of communication. As the world has gotten more and more visual, those issues and those questions I think have gotten ever more imperative and ever more universal. You know, there is nobody, I don't care what they say, there's nobody who doesn't think about fashion on some level.

Charles:                               

You think everyone in society has some point of view or is affected by-

Vanessa Friedman:         

If you get dressed in the morning, even if you are a nudist and you don't get dressed, you are making a choice about what you're putting on your body, and there is a reason for those choices, and they often have to do with how you want other people to perceive you at that moment, what role you are playing in your life that day.

Charles:                               

As you look at fashion, do you separate the person responsible for it from the things that they are producing, or are they completely inextricably linked?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think if I'm reviewing something on a runway, which is a very specific expression in that moment of a designer's intent, because they're choosing not just the garment, but the shoes, and the hair, and the make up, and the frame, and the backdrop and the model, then you need to look at it in the context both of the person who made it and the brand where it was made and the history of that brand, and, you know, the person who might wear it, and how those two things relate, and whether, in fact, the designer is right about who might wear it and whether they might like it, what they're trying to say about the woman who might wear it or the man who might wear it.

But, once it's out there, once it's in the stores, it really doesn't matter what the designer wanted, because then it becomes an object that is purely seen through the prism of the person who walks in and tries to buy it or tries it on. Then you have to think, okay, what does it mean to that person. Forget the designer.

Charles:                               

When you walk into a runway show, are you conscious that you're being sold? Do you feel like you're watching a movie, for want of a better description, that you're looking at a total narrative that somebody's presenting to you, and you're there to judge the totality of the story? How do you analyze a presentation like that, 'cause obviously they are so crafted and so thought through to your point?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I don't think I'm being sold 'cause I don't think I'm the ... I'm not the target of what I'm looking at.

Charles:                               

Even in that moment? Because your review carries a lot of weight in the industry, so someone cares about whether you think it's a good show or a bad show.

Vanessa Friedman:         

Right, but I'm not the target of the clothes. The target of the clothes is the end consumer. My job is to say will this work for the end consumer, what is the designer trying to say, what are they thinking, are they right, is there a woman who would wear this, who is she, why would she like it, why might she not like it. Same with a man. So, I really don't think it's about me, but I do think you judge the statement of the designer.

I'll often be talking to someone afterwards and they'll say, "You should come back to the showroom, there's so much else. You can see all the other things we have." I had this conversation once with Giorgio Armani. He got upset because I hadn't ... He didn't think I had responded well to I think it was bloomers or some form of short pant he had put on the runway. He said, "You don't understand. Back in the showroom I have tons of other things and you need to come and look at that." To me, what a designer chooses to put on the runway is what they're ... That is the short form of what they're trying to say. That is the filtered statement, and that is what I am there to look at.

Charles:                               

Yeah, that makes sense. It strikes me as a director or producer saying, "You didn't like the film? Come and see all the other bits we shot that we didn't put in the film."

Vanessa Friedman:         

Come and see the outtakes.

Charles:                               

"Maybe you'll like it better if I do this a different way." Yeah, I think that's a fascinating perspective. So, your journey through the Financial Times gives you a voice, it creates a framework for you. Tell us about the evolution from there.

Vanessa Friedman:         

I was there for 11 years, and then the New York Times opportunity came about.

Charles:                               

Were you looking to leave the FT at that point?

Vanessa Friedman:         

No, I was very happy at the FT. I had been there long enough that I'd managed to kind of shape it to what I wanted, and-

Charles:                               

Which was what, as you see it?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I had managed to give fashion a voice throughout the newspaper, which, when I started, really was not on the table. When I started the FT, people would still ... When we started doing daily reviews during shows, which just seemed like a no brainer since they're already sending me to go see them, you might as well get more bang for your buck, get more words, people would send messages around the internal messaging system saying, "Can you believe it? Fashion in the first section. The sky is falling, Barbarian at the gate." I was like, "I'm on this system, guys. I can read that too."

You know, by the end of it, I think it really, both because the fashion industry had become such an enormous financial industry globally, and because it was very clear that the readers of the newspaper did care very much about what their clothes meant, it really became a subject that was treated with respect as legitimate for almost everybody.

Charles:                               

When you saw those comments ... I'm always fascinated by people who have been disruptive, certainly in a creative environment, and clearly you have been that. When you saw those comments, what was your instinctive response to that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Eye roll.

Charles:                               

You didn't care?

Vanessa Friedman:         

For anyone working in fashion, certainly 15 years ago, you were very used to people thinking you were superficial or frivolous or unserious. People used to say to me all the time, "Oh, yes. I read Vogue in the hairdresser," or, "Yeah, I saw the FT when I was on the airplane."

Charles:                               

Has anyone ever taken you non seriously?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Yeah. I mean, once, when I ... When I first started at the FT, I was at lunch with the Earl of March, who had a big racetrack, country house, and I think it was a Rothschild, and the Rothschild, who was an older man, said to me, "What do you do?" I said, "I'm the fashion editor of the Financial Times." He laughed so hard, I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He could not believe that the Financial Times had a fashion editor. So, coming out of that, I wasn't particularly surprised that there were people at the newspaper who thought fashion was maybe not a great idea.

Charles:                               

What was your response to that moment?

Vanessa Friedman:         

To the Rothschild?

Charles:                               

Yeah.

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think I probably felt a little sad.

Charles:                               

So, the New York Times opportunity comes along. As you said, you weren't looking to leave the FT, what drew you here, since we're actually sitting here, at The New York Times today?

Vanessa Friedman:         

You know, it's my hometown newspaper. The romance of the New York Times, of what it stood for, of what it had achieved, was something I grew up with. There was no way I was going to resist  that. I still think, you know, it's one of the most extraordinary newspapers, if not the most extraordinary newspaper that exists in publishing at the moment. The resources that the Times will devote at a time when so many other papers are cutting reporters, cutting foreign bureaus, the resources the Times will devote to primary reporting and to bearing witness to events all over the world, to stories that aren't necessarily news stories yet, but that someone has found, is just unparalleled.

Charles:                               

Were you nervous, were you excited, were you ... How did you react to the opportunity?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Both. Both. I also think it's, you know, the chance to learn something when you're middle aged, as I am, to be taken out of your comfort zone and to be challenged, and to be nervous again and excited, is really important. I think it's something that we should all look for and strive for, because it makes you better.

Charles:                               

A number of women that I've spoken to, who've taken on significant positions, have said to me that at a key moment in their career, they were given an opportunity, and their instinctive reaction was I'm not ready for that yet. Did you suffer that, or did you feel like I can do this?

Vanessa Friedman:         

It was very clear that if I didn't take this, it was not going to come around again. I would be an absolute dodo to give that up.

Charles:                               

Did you set yourself goals or ambition for taking the job? Were you defining for yourself what success would look like in any way?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I'm not a real preconception type of person, which I know a lot of people find quite weird, but I really, when I start something new, just go into it wanting to see what it's like and then react to that. I think that when you go in with too many preconceptions, you can make mistakes, and often you're disappointed. It's better to just absorb for a while.

Charles:                               

What did you discover?

Vanessa Friedman:         

That the Times is unlike any of the other places I'd ever worked. You know, I learned to think about language even more than I had before, that this is a place that really values the way stories are constructed and told, and it is a place that really believes in seeking out a story and finding it, and not just waiting for the new bulletin to come across your email. You know, that is the responsibility of a reporter, of every reporter, no matter what department you're in, to find your story and then to tell it.

Charles:                               

What kind of stories have you been drawn to?

Vanessa Friedman:         

A lot of the same ones that I was looking at at the FT, how do people in the public sphere deal with questions of image, and what does that mean for the rest of us. I'm also interested in some of the bigger themes that are impacting fashion, whether it's sustainability, or human rights, or gender issues, and I think there's a real opportunity here for us to cover those.

Charles:                               

You look at the fashion world obviously through an aesthetic lens as you've talked about, an image centric lens, but you also look at it through a business lens. When you look at the fashion world today, what do you think are the characteristics that are present in the most successful fashion houses? What are the best ones doing well that other people aren't?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Treating the people who work for them well and with respect. I think the balance between corporate and creative is key, and having a kind of intertwined relationship between what used to be two silos in an industry is very important to success going forward. Similarly, for a long time, digital sat in a kind of pod unto itself, and sustainability sat in a pod unto itself, and I think increasingly those two sides of the business need to be just systemically woven into every department, every decision, so that it's not like let's bring that guy in, but in fact this is part of every conversation we're having, because they're so clearly going to shape the industry going forward, going to shape consumer decisions going forward, and it's very hard to play catch up if you haven't started already.

Charles:                               

The fashion business is very much one of the very best examples of the intersection of art and commerce, isn't it? Obviously you have to have a powerful creative force built within these companies, but, to your point, you also have to have a powerful commercial capability. Where do you think most companies make the mistake? Do they tend to veer too much towards the creative side and are too indulgent, or do you think that they veer too much towards the commercial side?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think certainly in the past they veered toward the creative side, then the pendulum swung completely the other way, and now it's kind of edging back. Increasingly, I think 'cause there's so much white noise in the world, and there's so much product, and everyone is a designer, and everyone is a writer, and everyone is a critic, the thing that really distinguishes a successful brand, whether it's an individual or a company, is having a very specific and clear point of view and being able to express it. You're seeing that more and more in fashion houses as the creative side, I don't want to say is given all the power, but is given the ability to create a coherent message across all categories that are consumer facing. You need that consistency of idea and aesthetic to touch and to draw the consumers you want to draw, otherwise it's confusing.

Charles:                               

Should fashion companies aspire to having a purpose? Can they have a purpose, with a capital P, in the way that brands are talking about more and more over the last decade? Do you see that as a realistic platform for a brand to be built around, or do you think that, at the end of the day, it comes down to aesthetic and taste?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Fashion by definition has a purpose. The purpose of fashion is to make the lives of the people who buy it better, period. To give women power, to give men confidence, to make them feel more themselves in the world as it exists at that moment. Fashion, to me, is an expression of identity at a specific moment in time, and as a designer, your job, as a brand, your job is to trace that evolution and reflect it. That has always been true. At a certain point, I think ... Clothing has always had a valuable purpose, it is not just superficial or dormant. It has meaning to people who see it and people who wear it. It can also have a morality, and in fact it should have a morality, certainly for its supply chain and for the world it exists in.

 I think that increasingly we are seeing that consumers care very much about that. The fact that Patagonia is suing the Trump Administration over the national monuments is really significant, because they have made a very conscious and calculated decision that it is more important to their consumer base that they stand up and take a position than that they keep quiet and hope they're not offending somebody by talking out. I think we're going to see more and more of that.

Charles:                               

I think you're right. I'm sure that that's true, and I think the best brands are filtered and self filtered through that kind of purpose driven lens, aren't they, where they really are clear. It was an interesting conference, your conference, that I was at a few weeks ago. The leader of a company made some reference to standing for femininity, and I vividly remember you calling him out and saying, "Sorry, that's not enough. You can't just be that." What do you think are the issues that brands should be standing for? If femininity, as a reference point, is not enough, how substantive an issue do you have to stand for in order to create resonance with the modern consumer, do you think? Because modern consumers see through that kind of superficiality very quickly.

Vanessa Friedman:         

I don't think everyone has to go quite so far as to sue the current administration.

Charles:                               

Sue the government.

Vanessa Friedman:         

But I think that the most important thing is to have integrity and to have follow through, so that if, as a designer, or as a company ... I do think the other aspect of this, which shouldn't be underestimated, is how important it can be to the people who work for a company to feel that they are part of something that stands for a value choice or morality that is greater than just making money. So, I think that deciding what those values are - and it can't be something as sort of anodyne as femininity because if you're a woman's clothing company, at some level of course you're doing femininity, otherwise what are you doing - is going to be part of doing good business.

Charles:                               

Do you think it's easier ... Maybe easier isn't fair, but let me ask the question anyway. You can tell me whether it's fair or not. Do you think it's easier today to be a fashion brand that is single located and that comes through a very specific geographic cultural lens, or do you think it's possible to be a consistent powerful brand on a global basis, given the changes and the different dynamics of societies around the world these days?

Vanessa Friedman:         

I think it depends what your goal is. You know, I often ask CEOs of fashion brands, "How big do you need to be?" I have only been given an answer twice. Usually they say, "Well, you know, I'll know when we're the right size." Once, I spoke to a man who ran a jewelry brand who said, "50 stores, that's good for me. 50 stores globally works." I think designers like ... What's interesting about designers like Dries Van Noten and [inaudible], who still run their own companies, is that they are very clear about how much they need to do to take care of the people who work for them, to keep their businesses healthy, to keep their creative juices flowing, and how much is too much and will become a negative force on their work. They are able to stay in that place, and to grow at a pace that works for them, while ignoring some of the outside pressures that I think impact other businesses and make them, you know, drive them to more and more stores, and more and more stuff. I do think that more and more stuff is a huge problem these days.

Charles:                               

I couldn't agree with you more. One of the fascinating aspects of building a creative service business is how you make the transition from the founder to the next generation, right? You see it obviously in some of the larger, more historic brands, but I think it's one of the great challenges. What have you seen, or where have you seen examples of really, really powerful, creative leaders and founders building businesses that they then have built in such a way that allows them to pass it onto the next generation? Do you see many examples of that, or do you-

Vanessa Friedman:         

In fashion? No. No. I mean, I think, as you said, in any creative business, it's incredibly hard for someone who's built an empire of any size to confront what is effectively their own mortality and plan for the future. Most designers would like to go on forever, because they think their work will go on forever. The great tension is that if you really want your business or your brand to go on forever, then you really have to plan for what comes next. Steve Shiffman said the, “after I'm dead strategy”, which is still my favorite term. But, no, most people can't do that, won't do it, and it creates crises, crises of faith, crises of planning, financial crises.

Charles:                               

If you were advising companies like that, what would you tell them?

Vanessa Friedman:         

You've got to force the founder to pick a successor and to ideally work with them, because the other issue you have whenever you've got a founder creator at the head of something is that there's often so much emotion involved with the people who work with them. They're so dedicated to that vision and that individual that it's very hard for them to make a transition to another kind of leader. I think it can work better on the commercial side of things than on the creative side of things. I think there are a number of examples of family companies that have transitioned pretty well from a founder to a professional CEO, and that has been an easier transition than on the design side where 99% of the stories are of someone who simply did not want to engage with the idea.

Charles:                               

We're entering an era, right, where we're going to suddenly see a whole cascade of founder driven companies lose their founders. I mean, you would know far better than I, but you mentioned Giorgio Armani, how old is he now?

Vanessa Friedman:         

80s, I think.

Charles:                               

There's a litany of companies, that you could name more quickly than I, that seem like they're going to be faced with this reality sooner rather than later. What do you think the fashion industry looks like 10 years from now? Any idea?

Vanessa Friedman:         

If I could answer that I would be so rich. No, I think ... I think it's not my job to predict. In fact, one of the things that's exciting about being a reporter, or critic, is watching these things happen, watching them evolve. I've seen fashion effectively become an industry. When I started, it had just barely, barely become a public industry, and to watch it grow over the last decade and a half has been a fascinating ride. I'm really interested in what's going to happen in the next decade, but I would never venture to predict.

Charles:                               

What would people be surprised to learn about you that they don't already know?

Vanessa Friedman:         

My secret hobby is flying trapeze.

Charles:                               

Is that true?

Vanessa Friedman:         

That's true.

Charles:                               

How often do you do that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Once or twice a week.  If I can. When I'm not at shows.

Charles:                               

Good heavens. So, you train, you ... Do you just perform for yourself? Do you-

Vanessa Friedman:         

I would not call it performing ...

Charles:                               

What would you call it?

Vanessa Friedman:         

... it's more like playing.

Charles:                               

How did you get into that?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Through my children.

Charles:                               

Wow. I'm not even sure what the right description of it ... Do you trapeze with them?

Vanessa Friedman:         

When I can, yep.

Charles:                               

That's fantastic. What are you afraid of?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Bad things happening to my kids.

Charles:                               

Nothing for you personally?

Vanessa Friedman:         

No.

Charles:                               

Any idea what comes next for you?

Vanessa Friedman:         

Good things, I hope. I think just really more learning. It's the best thing about this job, is the opportunity to just endlessly find out new things and push yourself.

Charles:                               

So interesting. I wrap every show with three takeaways that I've heard, so let me try these on you and you can tell me whether they resonate or whether I just haven't heard you at all. I'm drawn to the fact that you have demonstrated, certainly through what you've described today, a relentless willingness to explore other possibilities and to see what's next. I think that the journey to England, the journey back, all seemed to me, and certainly the work you've done here, all seemed to me to be informed by a curiosity about what else might be possible. It seems pretty clear to me that recognizing intention in others is important to you, that understanding what their motivation is and getting inside the human side of the conversation as well as the external presentation seems pretty important to you.

Then I think there is ... The third thing I would say is that there's a real generosity is terms of how you look at what other people are trying to do. There's a warmth I think, and a sincerity about the fact that you recognize that the challenge of people trying to express themselves is not a straight line and that there is uncertainty around that, and there's I think a degree of courage around that. I think it seems to me that you are open to allowing people the room to express themselves and to providing an interpretation of that.

Vanessa Friedman:         

It's funny you say that. I think some designers might disagree. One of the hardest things about being a critic is being willing to say when something doesn't work, because you know how hard the person has tried, you know all the hours that have gone into it, and the pain and the stress. It's really difficult to say, "Yeah, but this time around it wasn't successful." But, I also believe, as deeply as I believe anything, that if you can't say when something isn't working, then when you say it is good, it just doesn't mean anything.

Charles:                               

Yeah, I think that that's absolutely right. It really does strike me that, for somebody whose job it is to judge other people, you bring a real empathy to that

Vanessa Friedman:         

The most important thing to me is that someone, whether they like or not what I have written, believes that it's fair, that I haven't brought prejudices or personal feelings or anything to the table, that I really am trying to look at it with as clear a vision as I possibly can. Although, Marco Bizzarri, who is the CEO of Gucci, did give an interview one in which he said I was the biggest pain in the neck.

Charles:                               

You can't please all the people all the time.

Vanessa Friedman:         

I said, "I'm putting it on my gravestone."

Charles:                               

Vanessa, thank you so much for being here today. I've really enjoyed this.

Vanessa Friedman:         

Thank you.