During this candid conversation with the marvelous Mimma Viglezio, Vanessa Friedman talks about her serendipitous journey into the fashion world, sharing stories from her early career days, the good and the bad of the industry and her current role at The New York Times.
Friedman started out a freelance commentator on the fashion industry, writing for the Financial Times, American Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly before becoming fashion editor of the Financial Times in 2003.
"I think magazines have a different role than newspapers and it’s not really a critical role. Fashion magazines are there to be cheerleaders for the industry, they’re not formal marketing vehicles but they’re there to support fashion and to encourage readers who love fashion to love it as much or more. I think newspapers are there to provide information and be a filter of all the white noise that goes on in the world and to let readers know what they need to know that day to effectily go about their lives and those are different. Therefore, writing for different platforms requires different ways of thinking."
"Everything is political and people want brands to stand for something. Being wishy-washy is not acceptable anymore."
In her Polimoda Duets, Friedman doesn't sugarcoat her thoughts on the politics of fashion, openly acknowledging what desperately needs to improve within the industry with a pragmatic approach. "Everything is political and people want brands to stand for something. Being wishy-washy is not acceptable anymore."
Get to know The New York Times Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman in our latest Polimoda Duets.
Vanessa Friedman | Polimoda Duets #12
TRANSCRIPT | Duets with Vanessa Friedman
Mimma Viglezio: Hello. I'm Mimma Viglezio. I'm a creative consultant and a broadcaster and an editor. I'm here today to have a chat, a little duet with the wonderful Vanessa Friedman who is the fashion director of The New York Times. Hi Vanessa, how are you?
Vanessa Friedman: Hi, good. Nice to see you.
Mimma: Nice to see you too. We haven't bumped into each other since fashion week so it's been a long time. We're not traveling.
Vanessa: I miss you.
Mimma: Me too. Me too. I'm looking forward to our discussion. I have so much I want to discuss but of course I have to be conscious of time. I received many many many many questions from students and people that are very interested in knowing your point of view and things. I will try to put most of them into our discussion because most are following the theme I wanted to talk about anyway. Then in case at the end, I will ask you a few directly.
Let's start briefly from you and your career because everybody seems to be so interested about your success. Tell me, how does someone become the fashion editor of The Financial Times which the word—it is financial—and how that someone then go on and become probably the most feared fashion critic in the industry?
Vanessa: [laughs] I am not scary. I said this a lot and we've probably talked about this. I really ended up in fashion completely by mistake. I never planned it. I didn't study it in school. I didn't study journalism. I didn’t go to art school. If you had told me I would be doing this when I was probably the age of all the kids watching this, I would have laughed in your face and said something rude.
But, I turned out through fate or luck or dumb luck in a job that I absolutely love. I studied history at Princeton and I got into magazines and I thought I would do a lot of writing about arts and culture and worked at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and then did some arts writing at Vogue, moved to England when I got married and was freelancing and sent a letter to the FT, because I heard they were looking for freelancers.
The woman then who was running the “how to spend it" section, because they didn't have a fast fashion section, saw I had worked at Vogue, assumed that I knew about fashion and called me and said, "Will you write about boots?" At that stage in my life, sitting in a loft in Kentish town, I was like, I would write about tire treads if you paid me. That is how it all began.
Mimma: It's fantastic. It's very interesting when you say I never planned it because I didn't either. I started philology and I wanted to be an academic and then the last things that bring you into fashion and then it's actually interesting and then we got stuck. I also think that we have, and you do certainly because, as you know, I'm an avid reader or whatever you write, a vision which is a little bit more external and a bit less biased about the merits of the industry and a little bit more critic.
Vanessa: I got very lucky because when The FT finally decided to have a fashion editor in 2003, they literally never had one before. They didn't even have a fashion page before. They included fashion reporting in this bucket of how to spend it which also included vases and gardening at a certain point. They finally realized that this was a sort of interesting industry. It was a big industry. There was a lot of money involved and actually like readers maybe cared about this. They thought they'd have a fashion editor and they--I think I was the only writer they remembered, honestly.
Mimma: What did they remember?
Vanessa: I've been freelancing for them and they were like, "Well, how are we going to find a fashion editor?" I just happened to be there. I think I sent them a letter just at that moment.
Mimma: That's a little bit humble, probably they also saw some potential. Once a few years ago, you gave me a fantastic anecdote by something that happened at a meeting with readers of The FT or writers that-- what was it?
Vanessa: The FT was very conflicted about having a fashion editor. They knew they wanted one but they really didn't know what it should be or why they feel that comfortable with it. When I went in for my interview, for example, with Andrew Gowers who was then the editor, who was this big guy who looked a bit like Henry VIII, with big sideburns, literally, the first thing he said to me was “I never think about clothes.”
I was like, interesting way to start this conversation. I said, "Did you get dressed this morning? Did you dress yourself?" And he said, " Yes," and I was like, " You thought about clothes." That's sort of always been my approach. This is a subject that is one of the few universal subjects in the world, everyone thinks about shelter, how they're going to stay safe. They think about food, what they're going to put in their body, and they think about clothes, what they're going to put on their body. The rest is politics and personal taste.
That's an incredibly rich topic. Even though, for many, I'd say the first five years I was at The FT people were still saying things like, "FT has a fashion editor?" There would literally be emails going around the internal messaging system when we started doing share reviews that were in the first section with the arts reviews. We were like, "Can you believe it? The barbarians are at the gate, the sky is falling."
I think my moment when I realized that we had broken through was during one of the luxury conferences that you used to come to. I think it was the one in Switzerland and I was sitting next to Martin Wolf, and my younger brother was working at a bank at UBS at the time, who had come. Martin, who we know is the chief economist for The FT, who has this incredibly serious big brain, very scary person.
Mimma: Yes, a real intellect of economy.
Vanessa: Yeah. He said to my brother, "Did you ever think your sister would end up in this job?" And he said, "No, not in a million years." Martin said, "What did you think she'd be doing?" And he said, "Oh, I thought she'd go off into some super pretentious field, like philosophy, or writing about sociology and culture." Martin looked at him and he said, "What do you think she's doing?"
Mimma: That's Martin, the clever one. And you know it's very interesting you're saying this because I always tell people, I think there are not many people that talk about fashion in an interesting way. It's either red carpet or celebrities or, yes, there's fashion critics that are interesting. I think there is a lot of anthropology and sociology. It's such a big platform and, in the past, probably five years maybe, thanks to social media, it has become even more related and connected to what's happening in the street. Young people are so connected to fashion as to any other pop culture, music or TV or cinema.
I think Martin saw it right a long time ago, but what I'm also surprised is that, for someone like The FT, it's such a big industry money-wise and it was in-- when did you say, 2003?
Vanessa: It just started back then because-- You know, right? You were at
Mimma: I was at Bulgari still in 2003, on my way to Vuitton in Paris. Yes.
Vanessa: But it seems like so entrenched now. It seems so established, and everyone knows about these big groups and all this money, but in fact, Gucci Group was only created in 2000.
Mimma: I know but for 2003, the big conglomerate, the Arnault and Pinault and Richemont existed. Many people already had their salaries and their livelihood in fashion and yet, it was so hard. Someone asked me once, "Why did you even bother to go to university to be the Communication Director of Bulgari, what do you do, you buy flowers for events?" I've been used to this.
Vanessa: I think there's still a misperception about it, not so much in Europe, but certainly in The US still, partly because luxury isn't really-- it doesn't have the same presence here but LVMH I think is the biggest taxpayer in France.
Mimma: Yes, probably. Yet, I'm not sure they pay all the taxes that they should pay. It should be even bigger, but yes, it's interesting but, yet, now here you are and, as I said, when I said the most feared person not because I think you are unfair or evil, but because you say it as it is. This is one thing that everybody asked me about in these questions, how can one be objective in fashion criticism where magazine platforms and newspapers, they leave off advertising? I know that you've been in an American newspaper. You can get gifts or be flown to exotic places but still, do you have pressure from it,can you say? Do you have pressure from-- ?
Vanessa: No. Yes, I'm very happy to say I have literally zero pressure. The Times also take this incredibly seriously. FT also took it incredibly seriously. There is a real wall between commercial and editorial and I know I've written things that make our ad department less than happy because they have to go and be nice to brands that are less than happy. It's never come back to me. No one's ever asked me not to write something. The other thing is we actually increasingly don't live off advertising. Both for The FT for The New York Times, there is a real possibility. It will absolutely be reality that we are going to be funded by subscriptions as opposed to advertising.
Mimma: Soon, we'll we take over that amount of money that advertising was giving? Wow, I didn't know this.
Vanessa: Yes. That is what our business development office wants. That's where we're going to, that we will be independent of having to worry about advertising. Advertising clearly is still important and it is great to have it. I hope we're a vehicle for it but it won't be something that we're dependent on.
Mimma: That's very good because you're going to be even freer or more free than you are now, but I guess they're interested to know if you think, your opinion about the objectivity of your colleagues in platforms or magazines.
Vanessa: I think magazines' are a little different. They have a different role than newspapers and it's not really a critical role. Fashion magazines are there to be like cheerleaders for the industry. They're not formal marketing vehicles but they're there to support fashion and to encourage readers to love who love fashion, to love it as much and more. Newspapers are there to provide information, to be a filter of all the white noise that goes on in the world and to let readers know what they need to know that day to effectively go about their lives. Those are different. Therefore, writing for those different platforms requires different ways of thinking.
Mimma: Absolutely. I see you are going also a little bit towards that during fashion week. You were posting content, video content, and I've seen you on Instagram doing live Instagram which is very different probably from what you were used to doing because I guess your opinion is more-- It's not that when you talk, you don't think, but writing is almost different than talking. I guess even The New York Times has to go a little bit more towards these modern ways of discussing and offering content to their reader or opinions.
Vanessa: I don't know what you think but I feel like these are all complementary parts of a mosaic and the goal is to fit them all together. It's not that one replaces the other. It's not that there's no criticism that we're still committed to. We're absolutely still committed to criticism. That is a review of a show or a review of a collection. I just did one about the Gucci mini series that's--
Interviewer: Let's go there in a second.
Vanessa: I think it's also exciting that I can have a casual conversation like this with you on Zoom or on Instagram and people can just like tune in at their lunch hour and see what we're chatting about. It can make me or other writers or consultants like yourself seem like real people as opposed to just blank name on paper. That's a fun way to interact with readers too.
Mimma: I couldn't agree more that-- I'm a strong believer in things to coexist like cinema and TV or print and digital or whatever. However, I do think that now there is this run towards who's the best one to offer stuff online and with COVID where we were all in our houses. I'm always a little bit worried about the quantity instead of quality. When it's too much and it becomes like pollution for me, and so I'm always looking towards those people that have a voice that I believe in in writing or in other contexts to give me something like this and it's not just the place but that's just me.
Vanessa: You have to understand-- I mean as with anything, like someone who wants to be a designer, someone who wants to be a writer or somebody who wants to be a consultant, you have to understand why you're choosing to do something. There has to be a reason why you're doing something on Instagram that you couldn't do in a review, or something in Zoom that you couldn't do on Instagram and then there'll be like real substance to that action or that decision or that product because there's a reason you're choosing that platform or that technology and it's not replicable. I think if you're just doing it because you feel like everyone else is doing it, and you have to get in there, that's not a good reason.
Mimma: Exactly. I think in everything. Even when I advise young designer, and I said, "Be honest and do what you really feel you should be doing. Don't do something because you think that's what we expect." Let's go to Gucci. I was thinking about talking about Gucci. It will be very interesting to know what you thought, but it's not really to judge the film or the fashion in it.
I am absolutely passionate about the biggest voices. Gucci have said, "Fine, we're not going to do a show, but we're going to give you something different." They come up with a Fashion Film Festival, GucciFest, where not only they have this narrative that they bring on every day, and maybe we're going to explain a little bit more what it is if anyone still doesn't know. Also, they give the platform to some new talent in a negative way, so they pick them. They decide which one have the right to be.
I follow a few of these, and for someone like Bianca Saunders to be on the Gucci platform, it's gigantic. It's much bigger than anybody can imagine it is. For me, that’s great praise to Alessandro and Marco and whoever decided to do this. For me, it's very interesting also to see it as a slow movement towards change, towards something that will happen, that will make things different. Before you telling me what you actually think about the thing, I would like to hear what you think about what I just said.
Vanessa: I mean I agree, and I just wrote about this, so by the time people listen they might have seen this, read it. When shows first went digital, and we started talking about and thinking about what that could be, I got really excited about the potential and the idea that this could create a new form of expression, a new kind of narrative when that really was not a perfume commercial, not a music video, and not something we've already done, not a live stream of a show that happens to be in an empty room but actually something different.
I was really disappointed largely by what happened in July, and then again, a lot of what happened in September. I do think there were some interesting shorts in particularly by Thebe Magugu and Marine Serre, where they really created something that wasn't what we had seen before and felt new and provocative and made me think and also showed their clothes. I was like, "Huh," and it was the right amount of time because the other thing is there's a very limited attention span that we all have for watching these things online.
But mostly, it didn't feel different. It didn't feel risky. When Gucci announced GucciFest, I was like, "Finally, it has happened," this idea, because I think in my head, was imagining like Kwibi, better fashion, essentially like sort of mini Netflix series with super high production values and stories, where the clothes played a supporting role but showed how they function in life. That seemed like what Gucci was planning to do. They had Gus Van Sant. They had all these real, legitimate film people involved.
So I got very excited and I also agree that, by making it an umbrella under which they gathered all these younger, newer designers that don't have the marketing budgets of a GucciFest, they very brilliantly position themselves as this-- further cemented themselves as a tastemaker, position their empire. They paid for these films. It was very beneficent, and that I thought was really smart. I was super excited to see it all.
Mimma: But? I sense a but coming.
Vanessa: [laughs] I do think the short films worked really well. The young designers worked really well. I loved what Bianca Saunders did, I have to say. I thought it was really charming and smart, and her clothes were perfect in that context. I thought what Mowalola did was really interesting. I love the Collina Strada like video game, which I do think is another example of how you can take what was the starting point, was their fall fashion collection, take that and take it to a new level of interactivity because you can actually go to their website and play the video game, like crushed by the rolling avocado.
Mimma: I thought that the young director, once again, and I go back to what you said about digital fashioned way, they were probably the most honest, so the purer. They don't have the pressure that people expect a 7, 10 million production. I'm thinking about the Dior and Louis Vuitton. Nikolas did something amazing in Paris, but that's a different story. Usually, these young people that usually have very small means, but a lot of creativity, what they do is that they do things that look like them or look like their fashion sound and feel like what they are.
Again, I'm talking about Young Kasondra, it's not only because I read it after, but I thought he was so honest, those clothes, those men, those words, that music that's exactly who she is. She wasn't trying just because she got money to do this, to do something that she's not. That comes up in all the others in all from the video games to a little bit more political, a little bit less political and whatever. What I thought about, I'm going to add a few here about the Gucci film, which is not over. We've seen four episodes. I was trying to watch the fifth before, but it wasn't on yet.
Vanessa: I saw it all.
Vanessa: I saw it all.
Mimma: Yes, because probably you've been sent it. I haven't, I'm not a VIP. What I thought about the film was that it was a little bit too brainy and I know Alessandro and I love Alessandro, and I know the Italian culture where they put too many words, too many concepts. Then for people that are not Italian and don't read the subline, it comes out a bit complicated. If on one side I loved those dialogues, that didn't mean anything because I thought that was quite ironic. On the other hand, sometimes I'm like, well, come on. Why are you asking me this effort?
I'm not stupid. Yet I don't get it. I have to rewatch it. I love the fashion. I always did and you and I remember a discussion, at the Yom Kippur in Milan where you couldn't work to the show because it was Yom Kippur at the beginning of Alessandro. I was totally pro and you were more, "Hmm." I still love his fashion and I still adore what he does, but not convinced about his films at first.
Vanessa: I feel about his film the way I feel about all his fashion, which is that I have never seen a man who needs an editor more.
Mimma: Oh, that's a good way to put it.
Vanessa: Gus Van Sant is an amazing director who has had an incredibly storied career that has gone in many different directions. I felt like this film could have-- this partnership because it really seems to be a partnership between Alessandro and Gus Van Sant, it could have gone in many different directions. It could be like Goodwill Hunting or Milk, or My Own Private Idaho or Elephant. There are so many different sides of Guz Van Sant's creative expression.
The film I think that it is closest to maybe was a film called Sea of Trees and The Ringer that website once in writing about Gus Van Sant's career describes Sea of Trees as a hallmark card that thinks it's a haiku. That's where we are with this series. It was incredibly well-intentioned. It was brave and risky and I'm glad they did it, but seven episodes of that film, really, that was a lot of Gucci and it was a lot of the same mood and tenure.
It doesn't have any tension. It doesn't really have a story arc. It doesn't really have any hard edges. It doesn't have that emotional or narrative pull that keeps you watching until the end because you're like, "What happened?" The same thing happens all the time. The same way his clothes are the same, the same thing happens with his clothes all the time.
Mimma: I thought the first episode of what I've seen. I haven't seen it all, but the first episode for me, it was probably more interesting because there was a lot of politics in it. It was all about this Silvia. I don't even know if she's really transgender because she refuses to be a woman or a man, whatever, but this transgender Spanish person on TV and these texts about what this mean for society and what it is.
I'm not going into too much detail, but that was interesting for me because, like it or not, there was a narrative that I'm interested in. Again Gucci has a big platform and Alessandro's obviously been always drawn towards this kind of queerness that I still think needs a lot of explanation, a lot of acceptance, et cetera, et cetera. Then the next episode I thought, Oh, it's going in a different direction or that has disappeared, or maybe I have to understand it, and I don't. That for me was a little bit the problem.
I don't dislike seeing this queer and weird fashion of Alessandro in fake real life. People go in and doing things, dress like that. I think it's quite funky and funny. I always tell people, if you go to a Gucci store, then you can buy anything and wear it the way you want. That's what I like about their fashion.
Again, to go back to the idea. I think all the other big brands are like, "Oh my God, why didn't we do it?" It's fantastic that they did it and that they added other designers in it to show what they think it's worth following. This is bringing me to the fact that we and probably you too, we come more from an era of competition and where everything was secret and two designers didn't want to be photographed in the same room and now everybody's friends and everybody collaborates and designers are friends and supporting each other. I like that, don't you?
Vanessa: Yes. Although, I do think that the GucciFest, it wasn't even called Gucci and friends Fest, right. It's called GucciFest. This is about Gucci as the feudal chieftain bringing these young brands in. It works very much to Gucci's favor to be this beneficent. I do think it's good they're doing it, but I don't think it's selfless.
Mimma: Well, not actually selfless because everything is publicity. Of course, this goes in the marketing budget, but it's like when a tennis tournament has the name of a brand because they pay for it all. This is a fest that is paid by Gucci. It's not Gucci and the friends because the friends didn't pay for anything. I disagree on this one, Vanessa. Not for the sake of Gucci. I disagree on the principle, but maybe I misunderstood?
Vanessa: No, what is really smart about Gucci doing this is that, while it is being generous, it is also reinforcing its own position as the empire builder, and as the brand on the top of that empire. These younger brands are getting to do this because Gucci is allowing them to do it and making it possible. It's good for everybody, but also very
Mimma: I get the fact that nobody is completely pure in their actions, but am I surprised or--? I'm a marketeer at heart. I grew up in companies that were asking me to do things that would influence buy. I also judge these things by that lens, and I think this is brilliant. It's a genius idea. It's Alessandro's, but whoever, if someone's in the marketing department or communication department came up with it, kudos.
Vanessa: The thing I was talking about with the tension, which I would like to hear your thoughts on too, is that I agree that Alessandro has been really at the forefront of inclusivity, particularly when it comes to gender and non-binary stereotypes and breaking through some of these walls. It was one thing to have the philosophers talk about this stuff, but you didn't see any of the struggles that individuals who are trying to break through these barriers undergo in the world.
Sylvia was like surrounded by friends and supporters and love. There isn't any of the harshness of reality. It was a very soft-focus padded silk-lined world, which is Alessandro's world. It's all about love and acceptance and friendship, but the real world outside isn't, and there wasn't any of that difficulty.
Mimma: That's the difference of the role of a brand that is doing a marketing, a great one, creative and filled with generosity to others, things like this, or Steve McQueen doing a documentary about it. That would be more about the Black Lives Matter but I mean that, no other names came to me. I think that's the difference between doing the documentary to portray the situation, to show a situation or being a little bit political within your brand.
Actually, this brings me fantastically into the other thing I wanted to discuss was, should brands be political? Because we have seen during last Fashion Week, digital or not, much more in Paris and New York, than London in a little bit different-- than Milan which was not at all, but the fact that brands try to be political, and in America, it was all against Trump and and pro-vote in the election. In Paris, it was about all the other things we've been discussing from racism and diversity and whatever.
What do you think about that? Because some brands do it in a way that makes me cringe, and it's like, "You guys never done anything. By the way, I work for you, and I know how bad you are behind the scenes." Some others, especially the new upcoming designer do it in a much more honest way. I think about people like Bethany Williams, who really devote. She's so young, and yet she gives 20% or whatever she makes, 30%, to causes for every collection and that's for real. She has the right to talk. What do you think about politicizing your collection or your brand?
Vanessa: I think right now, everything is political. People want brands to stand for something, clearly, and if that upsets some of them, that's okay. I think that being wishy-washy is not really acceptable anymore. I also think if you're going to stand for something, or if you're going to declare allegiance to something, you have to really mean it. You have to accept the kind of criticisms, and the work that comes with making those kinds of declarations. I think you saw that a lot with the social justice movement this summer when brands were all sticking black Instagram squares, on their feeds.
People were really like, "What the hell?" I mean, these are brands that have no black people in positions of power, no black people on their boards and you can't just say, "Oh, I'm with you." You have to actually demonstrate commitment to understanding what that means and to effecting change. I think some of them were getting there, but I still think fashion has an enormously long way to go. I think it's a really complicated question and it's really tough and important. Companies are just starting to wrestle with it. What do you think?
Mimma: Well, I couldn't agree more. My problem is that, as you know, I've worked for the biggest groups in the world. I don't want to mention names here also because as I told you once, the day I really talk, then I would have to change job because, you publish that book and then you disappear, but I’ve also been behind the scene. I fought for some things, and I've seen how it didn't work.
Also, I do believe that, for instance, here now comes to me, apart from the political brainwashing, but I also believe that being sustainable and politically fair, it's not only about doing one look in your show, with a recycled fabric, but it's also a human right. Human rights starts within your company, starts in the way you treat your employees, the unfairness of pay within your company, how many young people that you have unpaid, because they're interns and because they can afford it, while some other couldn't afford it?
Or do you really track your supply chain down to the last person in some countries who is not paid? I know, things that happen and I know that things that happen still today, inside companies that are headed by people that are loved and thought about the most sustainable and the most fair, it's not true, it's all fake, or it's mostly fake and it still is.
I come from too much within to be reassured. That said, I believe in the young generation, and I talk with them and I work with them and I mentor them and I think they really believe. They are convinced that they can make a change. Yes, I agree with you, that when you post a black square, you better do something for that beyond meaning, not only sending money to a charity because so people will know, but also start from within and put people of color at the top if they're worth it, if they're talented. There's none. There still are none.
Here are two white women talking about that, but that's the reality. I don't know if I answer, but that's what I think. It makes me sad and it makes me angry more than sad. Sometimes, I yell at screens and TVs and articles like, "That's not true. I know it's not."
Vanessa: Yes. It was really interesting though. We did a Zoom at the beginning of fashion month with Virgil Abloh and Tory Burch and Antoine Arnault and.
Mimma: Right. I was there.
Vanessa: It was right after they'd announced Kim Jones was going to Fendi. I asked Antoine if they had considered any designers of color for that. He just said, you know, "Nope, we didn't." I think part of it was they had actually already started that conversation probably before the Black Lives Matter movement began. That doesn't mean they couldn't have readdressed it. I think it does just reflect how hard it is to change the system and how entrenched in it, brands and companies still are.
Mimma: You know, someone high placed in the industry once said to me, recently said to me, "What if there's no designers of color that are worthy of that place?" I'm like, "Well, look harder. Look deeper." People come up with things like there are none. Also, I don't want people to hire Virgil because they feel they have to. That's maybe I'm going too far but then sometimes I feel that some of these groups, they do think because it's cool or because they have to.
When Thebe Magugu won the LVMH award, I followed him from before he was cool. I was filled with joy and love but, come on. There was no doubt that he was going to win it. They needed an African. Yes, maybe there are some other very good African designers, especially in South Africa. Yes, it's better than not happening but is it honest? Do they really believe? Do they really want to now help Thebe becoming the next Kim Jones? You know maybe better than me. Do they really believe?
Vanessa: I don't actually care if they believe it or not. I think he's talented enough to get to that level of success and has an understanding enough of the kind of layout of the fashion landscape to get to a level of success where he's going to matter. His video during fashion month was fantastic. I think it was one of the best.
Mimma: Yes. He was one of the best.
Vanessa: Yes. It was so smart. For you guys, if you haven't seen it, he had found a book, a non-fiction book that was written about women mostly who graduated from college and become apartheid spies or spies for the apartheid government meaning they had sort of-- They'd been red sparrowed into the ACLU or the ANC and other of the anti-apartheid groups to report back on them.
He did voice-overs from the book, created CCTV footage. It was very grainy and acting out scenes from it. Had the people in the scenes wearing his clothes, but the clothes were very much a kind of background to the action. Then he did things like he used the thumbprint of one of the spies to create a polka dot pattern on a dress. It was just so layered. I learned so much and the clothes look great. That was such a good way to do it.
Mimma: That's important. You have to have a great product. That's what I tell everybody. You can have the best narrative, the best PR, the best intentions. If the product is not good and it's not the right price, then it will not work. That's what I love about Thebe or other people like people that upcycle. Another one that I discovered in the British fashion council, the British council here three years ago. He is the best upcycler in the world. He does couture with couture or with high fashion. Again, why am I excited about him? Because he's honest, he never produce anything that were made from new, but because his collections are extraordinary. That's what matter. Thebe is another one. He is South African. He is black. He did the best film of Fashion Week in Paris, for sure, with a great product because if the product is not good, don't do fashion because it won't sell.
Vanessa: I remember it's funny. When we were all talking about star designers, and there was a whole debate over like, do you hire star designers? Do you find the good number twos? Where do you go? Who has the power? Unless they're talking about Tom Ford. At one point, Tom Ford said, "Look. Until I did that, that Gucci collection and whatever was '94, '95, the sort of developement one. No one knew who, I was." The collection makes you the star. It's true, and it's like, you live or die on that collection. Fashion has a very short memory.
Mimma: The last collection can kill you and can kill your career. Then you go into oblivion.
Vanessa: You do a lot of bad stuff. Then you do something that is brilliant. Everyone's like, "Woohoo," [laughs] I could never do it again.
Mimma: Exactly. Sometimes, it even happens with people that are a little bit more famous. I don't know if you agree, but I remember when Pierpaolo and Maria Grazia were together on Valentino and we laughed where they didn't-- I'm sure I know who have thought it was Maria Grazia and you hired her. Then suddenly, when Pierpaolo was doing it alone, it became the brand that everybody was crying out and the shoot-- I absolutely adore what he does. I know in disagreement, but we never thought about him in the same way we thought about him now, yet he was.
Vanessa: Do you remember when they first got the job when they replaced Alessandro?
Mimma: Yes. she was there for what? One season, two seasons?
Vanessa: She was there, I think two seasons. Then they replaced them with Pierpaolo and Maria Grazia. Their first two, I think two or three seasons were really not so good. It did not look-- it took them a while to figure out what their thing was. It's interesting--
Mimma: Well, give them time. Sometimes I remember-- what's his name? I know him well. Oscar de la Renta English boy.
Vanessa: Peter Copping.
Vanessa: Peter Copping.
Mimma: Yes, Peter. You can like it or not, but they didn't give him time. The guy did two collections and he was out. Is it fair? Is it right? Are they commodities, but this is another discussion. Sometimes I think--
Vanessa: I would love to know what you think about the sort of designer, like the ideal designer tenure is, because I remember talking to François-Henri Pinault when Alessandro-- not Alessandro, Frida and-- what's his name?
Vanessa: Patricio left. He essentially said 10 years is enough. There certainly is an idea in Corporate America. 10 years, the CEO is enough. After 10 years, people run out of ideas, and they stop being able to renew the company. You need to replace them with someone who has a different perspective. Now, of course, designers seem to stay between like one and three years. Then they decide they want to move on. Again, I remember talking to François-Henri. I think probably about--
Mimma: More often they're tired, then they decided to--
Vanessa: Well, but both. He said that there was really hard to get designers to sign on for extended period of time because they wanted to reserve their own ability to leave, too. It has created a very weird situation I think. What do you think?
Mimma: First, I want to say about the CEO because I was there at the Frieden Patricio time. I know the situation. In the Gucci group, that was called like this at the time, we had people that we thought were very good to turn things around. Then people that were very good, or they were better to manage for the medium-long term. It was different jobs.
I remember Mark Lee when he took over Gucci. Gucci really needed some turn around. We used to call him factories, where he was not very popular. He was not very lovely, but he was really turning things around. Then wasn't the best for the long term because it was difficult to-- I mean, It's very hard for me to now say things but do you see what I'm trying to say?
With the designer, it was a little bit different because I remember Frida was adored eternally by Pinault and Poler, who was my boss at the time, even whatever she was doing, she was adored because they had decided that she was the right one and someone decided. I remember once I went to see her collection in Florence and I had been a bit critical with her, I was hated.
I almost got myself fired because it was so strong the support behind her that, even if I was an executive, I was in the executive committee, I wasn't allowed to say anything again. That's to say that designer is not only about how great is their fashion for people like you, fashion critic, but it's how much it sells and how big are the margins. There were so many things that people out there don't know. Frida sold. Frida was selling a lot. I once said, "It looks a little bit like an expensive Zara." Trust me, that didn't go down well but it was selling.
Patricio has just taken over and they were becoming a couple and it was untouchable until they were not, and then boom, out. One day from the other. I don't know if I'm explaining what I'm trying to explain but for people outside and people that are listening to this, they have to know that it's not always what you see and it's only about they tell you someone decided to move on and after they fired him. No, but it's also why certain designers that-- I put myself a little bit into the critic thing, think it's not, "I don't understand." And yet they stay forever because they make money for the shareholders.
Vanessa: That seems to be the narrative around Maria Grazia too, all right. I think--
Mimma: To mention her, she's untouchable because it sells but in a way, Vanessa, this is business. Our CEO or Arnaoult or Pinault would tell you, "Why not? That's why I'm here to make money." That's why, when I was in the Gucci group and this is a long time ago but I would still stay the same when I was trying them at the time it was the Christopher Kane and the Todd Lynn, I was trying to have them buy these people. I remember François-Henri Pinault telling me, "Why? I want to buy Armani and Ferragamo. I want it to be big."
I was like, "No, because you don't have any fashion credibility. You don't have fashion kudos if you don't also have this brand that maybe lose your little bit of money but they will inspire the rest." Then they did it afterwards but it didn't go down well with the whatever.
Vanessa: That's the genius of Raquel Kubo, right? Because she manages to have for like Comme Des Garçons at the very top where she can have a show where she literally says, "I'm trying not to make clothes." You're like, "Well, okay." Then she has this whole pyramid underneath her of shirts and pants and t-shirts and stuff that is fun and sell and it pays for her staff. It pays for her to be able to sponsor designers like Dunia and Kei from Noir. She and Adrian are a brilliant business.
Mimma: I couldn't agree more. I also think that when you own Armani and Ferragamo and Gucci at the time, now it's a little bit more directional. You need to give me something that is more directional, that brings fashion-forward, that changes the-- Now, the young people they ask for that more. Suddenly, we are the Matthew Williams and the Virgil. When I was there, it wasn't like this.
I remember going to Alexander McQueen shows, these shows that were just amazing. I Had Polet and Pinault calling me in the office the next day and said, "What the heck? What was that?" This was their understanding of fashion as you understand it. God, I have talked about nothing I wanted to talk about, then it's almost an hour.
There was another thing I just wanted to touch quickly with you upon monopoly or monopolium. I don't know how to say that. I was thinking about Farfetch, Ali Baba, and Richemont. I guess everybody is right about these union. Actually, I don't know if you were still there but it was at the time that I was still part of The FT business of fashion summit and Mr. Rupert--
Vanessa: You were there in 2015 where he got up and said, "Everyone come and join my big e-commerce platform.
Mimma: Yes. I was there. Got up on the stage and said, "Everybody join." He was saying, "If we, the big groups," I'm going to not tell you to tell our audience, "the big group doesn't get together, we will not go anywhere." Now, they have put money into Farfetch. It shows that they have a genius. He's laughing all the way to the bank and I'm happy because I had some shares, so they went up. They've done this big conglomerate and there is Net-a-porter and Yoox in there because they belong to Richemont in part. What do you think about this huge thing that are going to monopolize the world? Are you pro, against? Are you afraid of them? Do you think they are right? What do you think?
Vanessa: When it comes to luxury e-commerce, because that's essentially what we're talking about, right? It's unclear what's going to happen. I think there is Amazon and there is Alibaba. Then in between are all these luxury platforms that were created, the big ones, which are Yoox, Net-a-porter, Farfetch, but also matchesfashion.com and Modus Operandi, and there are things like List, and the brands, there's 24Sev, what LVMH has tried to do, they're all still losing money.
It's really hard to compete. I do think what this deal shows, what this alliance between Farfetch and Alibaba and Richemont and Artemis shows perhaps is that there's a kind of shift toward the East, maybe as in opposition to Amazon, which has also tried to seize the moment and make more inroads into luxury. They opened their luxury stores with Oscar de La Renta, Altuzarra, and Roland marae. They created stores for the British fashion council and the council of fashion designers of America during the pandemic to help young designers. They had this enhanced credibility with the luxury they didn't have before. That is a big elephant. So I don't know if you remember Scott Galloway?
Vanessa: Scott Galloway, he's a technology watcher and entrepreneur who used to come to the conferences also. He said, “Sometimes you will team up with your rivals because they are not your enemy.” Essentially, he sees this as the axis vs the allies.
Mimma: Again, I hear what's behind Rupert's head and we heard him saying it publicly and getting all the PR people in the world saying, "Oh my God, what did he say?" and the phone ringing. I understand also that there is this need to prepare against Amazon, who's desperately trying to get into luxury and fashion, all of that. I'm really scared about these big things that are going to monopolize the business. We've seen what's happening with social media. I think we're going against them. People are going to make money. Don't get me wrong. I'm just being a little bit more realistic here or ethical. I don't know. I don't know. It scares me a little bit. It scares me.
Vanessa: This is one we're going to have to wait and see how it plays out.
Mimma: Yes. Listen, just three minutes because we're going to go outside of the acceptance for a video, but there's still one thing that I would like to ask you that came in from someone outside. What is of value in creation? This is completely different and we're not talking about business, but to someone who is a fashion critic, what do you value in new collection, in creation?
Vanessa: It's something that you already talked about it. It's a designer that has a point of view. The single most important thing, for any designer big or small, is having your own thing. It's knowing what your thing is, and it's not the thing the other guy does, and it's not something that guy over there does. It's the thing that you stand for. It's what you bring to the conversation, how you see things, and that is what makes something compelling and special and worth coming back to. It is really hard to find. It's what writers call voice. It's, what's your voice? For a designer, it's what's your silhouette, your silhouettes, your voice, your print is your voice.
Mimma: I couldn't agree more. I would add to this, but not add, but say that one of the reasons why it's so hard to find, that you just said, it's because of the fact that these young people are bombarded by images. They live on screens and we all do. Content is so accessible that it's very hard to find your voice. I usually tell my students, "Don't do it. If you don't have an idea that is original and you strongly believe in it to the point that you're going to impose it to the world, don't do it. Go and work for someone else. Find a different root, but don't do it." That's what would be my advice.
Vanessa: I mean it's funny because a lot of people talk about Azzedine Alaïa when they talk about a designer they want to be like or that they read this whole perfect design world and that is someone who absolutely had a voice, which he was dedicated to, to the exclusion of everything else. He spent a huge amount of time in the wilderness. He was really big in the '80s and then the '90s came and he was not a '90s designer. It was not his thing.
He was like, "This is my voice and I'm sticking to it." Because of that, he spent probably 10, 15 years being on the outskirts of fashion before we came back round to him and started understanding that someone who had that consistency and belief in their own vision had sort of enormous value. It is tough and you know it is. You have to have a huge ego and real commitment to what you think, because fashion, things go in and out and sticking to it is the toughest thing.
Mimma: Yes. I think this is a great note to end this discussion. I would go on and on and on but I can't. Thank you very much. I hope that people enjoyed it as much as I did and I hope to see you soon in real life.
Vanessa: Yes, me too. Nice to see you, Mimma. Thank you.
Mimma: Thank you, Vanessa. Bye.