The naked truth
This is my last column for the FT – after 11 years and approximately a million words, I am embracing that thing so beloved of the fashion world: change. It’s not nearly as easy to do as it is to watch on the catwalk every season but if covering this industry for the past decade-plus has taught me anything, it’s the value – literally – of new perspectives.
I am not just talking here of how designers come and go – though during my tenure I have seen the rise and fall of John Galliano; Raf Simons jumping from Jil Sander to Dior; Givenchy getting through three designers (remember the Julien Macdonald days?) before settling on Riccardo Tisci; Ungaro trying a Lindsay Lohan experiment; Helmut Lang going from high fashion to contemporary; and Tom Ford entering, exiting and re-entering. All of which culminates with the situation we have today, where designers consider themselves as work for hire as opposed to the living representation of a house.
I am not even talking about how brands get bought and sold, go public and private and, maybe, public again (yes, J Crew, I am thinking about you). I am talking, rather, about how the whole opinion of fashion – including my own – has changed.
When I began, I had no idea what I was getting into. No idea that the luxury personal goods market would grow from a €128bn industry to a €220bn one; no idea that fashion would become a part of global pop culture, with the red carpet absorbed into the celebrity job description; no idea that the corporate and the creative sides of the industry would vault their silos and merge; no idea that image would become so important, thanks to social media; that every public figure would have to start paying more attention to their clothes.
When I began, I had no idea that I was getting the privilege of not only working with extraordinarily talented and dedicated journalists but also having a front-row seat in the story of how an industry develops and embeds itself in life.
After all, when I began, this newspaper, along with most serious people, were still sceptical that fashion had any relevance for them. In my job interview, the first thing the FT’s then editor (who had accepted the proposition that it was time to have a fashion editor, a job that had not previously existed at the newspaper before, but clearly felt conflicted about it) said to me was, “I never think about clothes.”
Later, after I had been hired, I found myself at lunch with the head of a major bank who asked what I did. When I told him, he laughed so hard and turned so red – “The Financial Times has a fashion editor?” – that I was worried he was about to have a heart attack. In my early years it was not atypical to discover messages on internal email bemoaning the fact that fashion reviews were considered news. And I admit to understanding where they all were coming from: if you’d told me when I was at university that I was going to be a fashion editor, I would have told you that you were full of garbage; that I was going to spend my time with big books and big thoughts. (I was as pretentious as any 21-year-old.) What did I know?
It’s hard to pinpoint when fashion became part of the fabric of public life: somewhere in between Bernard Arnault’s understanding that what was a collection of family artisans could be an industry, and Steve Jobs seeing that the rules of luxury could apply to any product, and Michelle Obama leveraging clothes as strategic spin. By then it had become a part of the life of this newspaper, which understood (I would venture to say) more quickly and thoroughly than any other news outlet, the importance and influence of the sector.
As to why, I think it has to do with a combination of money and personalities and globalisation and branding – all factors that are heavily present in the fashion world and that make it relevant to various other sectors (and sections). Plus, it employs lots of people and accounts for lots of GDP and helps promulgate national image throughout the world, and so on. This is what the brands themselves like to point out.
Beyond that is an even more basic truth about why this subject is worth so much investment of time and attention: everyone has to get dressed in the morning. Everyone, on some level, thinks about clothes; about how they want others to see them, metaphorically as well as literally. It is one of the few universal subjects.
What’s interesting is that we have only recently been willing to admit this. Instead of that banker laughing about the FT having a fashion editor, the heads of private equity firms now email me about what their colleagues wear. One of my most popular columns was about Lloyd Blankfein’s wardrobe; another, about Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodies, sparked more hate mail than anything else I’ve written, mostly along the lines of, “You idiotic British woman, what do you know?!” (I am, in fact, American). You know something has changed when even the US president volunteers thoughts about his suit-selection process in a profile not written for a fashion magazine.
So, now, if anyone ever challenges me about fashion and its legitimacy, I have a very simple answer – one that I wish I had had in that long-ago job interview, and one I would like to leave with you.
Why does fashion matter? The world is not run by naked people.
More columns at ft.com/friedman