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How Dana Thomas Went From Fashion Model to Hard-Hitting Luxury Reporter

Dana Thomas's path to journalism was far from conventional.
Dana Thomas signing books for students at the Savannah College of Art and Design last Thursday. Photo: SCAD

Dana Thomas signing books for students at the Savannah College of Art and Design last Thursday. Photo: SCAD

Fashion writer Dana Thomas has never been scared of chasing a good story. In her first book, "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster," published in 2007, she chronicled how luxury brands had sacrificed quality and exclusivity for accessibility and profit in recent decades, casting the world's biggest luxury companies in a less than flattering light. In her last book, "Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano," Thomas explores how the pressure to maintain multi-billion dollar fashion brands destroyed two purely creative people at their centers. 

I sat down with Thomas after a book signing at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she presented the thesis of her book to an audience of students. I asked her about her early career as a fashion model, how she started writing about fashion and the repercussions of telling the truth about the biggest luxury companies in the world.

Why have you chosen fashion and luxury as your subject?

Actually, it chose me, weirdly. When I was a teenager, I was a model in Philadelphia because my parents did not save for my college education and then they were getting divorced. They had me do some modeling in Philadelphia and I did ads for Gimbels and Strawbridge's and Wanamaker's in the Sunday paper or whatever, junior wear looking really cute. Then I got picked up by Elite New York when I was 16 for a summer and then I got picked up at 18 too, once I finished a year of college, to go to Europe to work with an agency in Paris and an agency in Milan — one that doesn’t exist now called Prestige which was aligned with Elite and with another agency called Riccardo Gay in Milan. I did that for three years, lived in Paris, a little in Milan, traveled around the world.

And then I took my money at 21. I was fed up, I did not want to be a model anymore, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I loved writing and I wanted to be a White House correspondent and along the way I would take off a semester here or there and go back to college and pay my tuition at a state school in Pennsylvania because it was cheap. Then I went back to Washington, D.C., and went to American University because I knew it had a good journalism program and I knew I wanted to work at the Washington Post. I wanted to write about politics and I took so many political classes and history classes as electives, I almost wound up with a minor in both. 

I got this job at the Washington Post as a news aide on the national desk even before I graduated, answering the phone and running messages back to the White House correspondents, to these young investigative reporters like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Specter and all these really amazing rising stars. I was so happy.

Is that where you learned to report?

Sort of. I was hustling out local stories for the district weekly. Once you’re on staff as a news aide you’d look for freelance stories and work for other sections of the paper. Then the legendary fashion editor Nina Hyde needed a new fashion assistant for the summer and as I was the only news aide at the time who spoke French and some Italian and had lived in Paris and knew who YSL and Givenchy were and how to pronounce their names, they said, ‘You are going to work with Nina.’ The first night I did that she was covering an event — Nordstrom had just opened in Tysons Corner and it was a Calvin Klein event to celebrate the opening. Calvin had just come out of rehab and he had just married Kelly Klein and Nina wanted the story. His PR people situated it so that Nina was not next him at dinner and would not let her near him during cocktails because they just knew she was a hard reporter. I never saw anybody work a room like her. So she talked to her girlfriend Peggy Cooper Cafritz and they switched the name plates. I thought that was the most genius thing I’d ever seen. She had her notebook next to him and hit him all night and worked him over and got the story.

She sent me out a couple of days later to do my first interview with Oscar de la Renta who was launching his new cashmere line at Saks in Washington. It was a luncheon and I got to do an interview. I came back and Nina said, ‘Now you write it up for the column.’ And suddenly it all made sense. In the beginning I always thought that modeling and the whole experience in the fashion industry for seven years, from the time that I was 14 until 21, was a chapter of my life and when I was done with it, I closed the door and never looked at it again.

Instead, I got put on this path and it just made sense. I was using that knowledge that I had, that experience that I had and those people that I knew. I'd worked with all the great photographers and all the great magazines and all the great designers. I had been a model for the Paris haute couture, for Italian Vogue. I didn’t do shows because back then the shows were all done by Amazons like Jerry Hall and Iman, but I did a couple shows — I did Alaïa and I did Agnes B. I loved the whole idea of the style section. I covered parties, I covered state dinners, I got to go to the White House. Then I met this Frenchman at a wedding and he said, 'Come live with me in Paris, I want to marry you.' So after covering the Clinton inaugural, I moved to Paris and got married.

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I left the style section and worked as a stringer for the Post. I started stringing for Cathy Horyn who was the new fashion editor who replaced Nina, who had died of breast cancer. That was the first time I was covering shows. I would file for Cathy and she'd put it in her column. She'd say, 'Go on behalf of the Washington Post and file me copy, tell me what you think is great and what pictures we should have.' She taught me how to do that which was really great. 

But then I landed this gig at Newsweek and I became the cultural writer there. It was like doing what I did at the style section in Europe with a travel expense account. So I got to to Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival and write about what was going on in the Paris Opera or the Grand Palais. I interviewed Helmut and June Newton at their place in Monaco, David Bailey in London, Olivia de Havilland working on "Gone with the Wind" — really cool stuff. Twice or four times a year I would do an advance piece on the shows and then maybe a follow-up piece on business and what happened at the shows because Newsweek was happy to have beautiful girls in the magazine, otherwise it was all politicians and death and war. But then the business was changing and I wasn’t doing trend pieces, I was starting to write business stories and my business stories were going in the front of the book in the business section as opposed to the back of the book in the features section. I was quickly learning and would go and see the CEOs and say, 'Explain to me what you are doing.' I wound up becoming a fashion business writer, very rarely writing about trends, once in a while doing profiles but usually in a business angle, which was really interesting. And then I turned that into 'Deluxe.'

You've always gone after stories people in the fashion industry don't want told. Have you ever lost sources because of that?

Yes, I haven’t been to a Versace show in a long time and I haven’t been to a Prada show in a long time. There was a time when I was banned from Louis Vuitton and then I got invited back. It wasn’t that I was officially banned, they would just say, 'That invitation is not forthcoming.'

Did that affect your research?

No, I have YouTube and but more importantly that was four different companies in my career who at one time or another said, 'We don’t want you to come to our shows.' And that's okay because I don’t really write about shows. And meanwhile I got letters and phone calls and emails and invitations to lunch and invitations to speak at in-house conferences from dozens and dozens of very important companies and CEOs of major brands. I couldn’t because that was a conflict of interest. I had CEOs tell me, 'We’d realize we’d gone off message, we’d gone off path, we’d lost our way and you helped us open our eyes and bring it back,' and that was really great. Jil Sander called me about a year ago, she’d read the book said, 'Oh my gosh, Dana it's the best thing you’ve ever written.' Tom Ford cited it in an article saying how much he’d loved it and was reading it. I got handwritten notes from designers saying thank you so much for writing this book, you told the truth. 

The primary reason I could was because I’ve always worked for news outlets versus glossies. I’ve worked for the Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek magazine and nowhere along the way anywhere in my career did anyone say, 'We're not going to run your piece because we are afraid of losing advertising money.' They said, 'Don’t ever worry about that, just go get the story.'

 I remember when I did that piece on John Galliano in 1999, which was the first piece that was really — I wouldn't say it was critical of John, but honest and really looked at who he was as a person truly, as opposed to this myth the machine was making. Amy Spindler told me, 'Go for it, don’t worry and if they kill the advertising, we’ll find advertising somewhere else.' And so that gave me the freedom to do what I needed to do and what should be done and that goes back to my Washington Post days and my desire to be a campaign reporter coming from the world of Woodward and Bernstein. It was part of the culture there that you should just be fearless and go for it.

The consequences haven’t been as bad as they seemed they would be?

They need me more than I need them. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodation in Savannah to cover its week-long speaker series, SCADstyle.