How Vanessa Friedman Became One of the Foremost Critics in the Fashion Industry

The fashion director and chief fashion critic of "The New York Times" details her career path from studying history to becoming one of the most important voices in the business.
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'New York Times' fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman. Photo: Courtesy of 'The New York Times'

'New York Times' fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman. Photo: Courtesy of 'The New York Times'

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

People who work in the fashion industry tend to fall into one of two categories: Those who planned to pursue fashion their entire lives, whose jobs carry the weight of a kind of manifest destiny, and those who stumble into it unexpectedly, a sort of happy accident.

Considering her role as one of the most venerated voices in the business, it seems surprising that Vanessa Friedman falls into the latter category. But thanks to a misunderstanding on the part of Lucia van der Post, who was then editor of the "How To Spend It" section of the Financial Times, Friedman's career track switched from contributing art and culture editor to freelance fashion writer.

"She saw I had worked at Vogue, assumed that meant that I was a fashion person and said, "Write me a story about boots,'" Friedman recalls with a big laugh. "I would've written a story about truck tires if someone had paid me."

Perhaps it wasn't the future Friedman had planned for herself, but it's worked out well for her: After a two-year stint at InStyle UK, Friedman became the first-ever fashion editor of the Financial Times in 2003, where she edited Style pages and the Luxury360 vertical, wrote a weekly column and created the paper's annual Business of Luxury conference. Eleven years later, The New York Times came calling, offering Friedman the role of fashion director and chief fashion critic, filling roles once held by Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn

Not bad for someone who admits she was once "super pretentious" about the world of fashion (she's come around since then) and who never even intended to become a full-time journalist. Read on to hear how Friedman has navigated her career in media thus far, how she views her own role as a critic and what she thinks needs to change inside the fashion industry.

What first interested you about working in media?

I was really interested in writing; originally, in fiction, and then just in all forms of word usage. I think that's how I found my way here. I got into magazines first, and newspapers kind of laterally.

I went to Princeton; I studied history and I minored or got a certificate in European Cultural Studies and Creative Writing. I thought it would be fun. I wrote a historical novel for my thesis, which, I don't know how I got away with that honestly. [laughs] I also wrote about the Weimar and Bauhaus and I speak no German. I don't know how I got away with that either!

Then I went to Paris and did an internship at a law firm there, and while I was doing that, I started moonlighting at a magazine called Paris Passion — which was not a porn magazine, it was a precursor of Time Out — and just kept going from there.

What were your first steps in the industry?

I was like, "What do I wanna do? Do I want to be a lawyer or do I want to do writing? Whither my life?" I came back to New York and I took the LSATs. Then I decided I could always go back to law school, but you are never a 40-year-old editorial assistant, so I should maybe try that first. I got a job at Grand Street; it was a literary magazine run by Jean Stein, at the time out of her house on West End, and my job was to go in, make the coffee and turn on the lights, and then she and her partner would come out in their bathrobes. [laughs]

I did that for three months, then I went to Vanity Fair and started working in magazines. I jumped around a lot. I mostly did culture, started writing at The New Yorker, where I went after Vanity Fair, with Tina Brown, and then went to Vogue as a contributing editor, but really wasn't doing fashion and beauty. It was mostly art stuff — same at Elle. Then I moved to London and started doing everything because I was freelancing.

How did you end up in London and what were you doing when you first moved there?

I got married; my husband worked at JP Morgan and they said to him, "Would you like to go to London for two years?" I was like, 27, and we had no kids and no apartment, and were like, "Yeah, we'll go for a little bit, it'll be fun!" And we stayed for 12. [laughs]

I was sitting in our loft in Kentish Town, I knew one person and had this very part-time contract from Elle to be their European editor, and realized if I didn't start calling people, no one would really care at all that I was there. So I started just madly sending out pitches and letters — which is something I just sucked at, beyond. I had so much neurosis about it. It would take me a week to craft one — and five years after I started, I got much better at it. [laughs] 

How did you find freelancing?

Terrible! I was a terrible freelancer. There are people who are really fantastic freelancers and really good at balancing work with the ability to pursue other interests and hobbies and all that, and I was just completely neurotic. As soon as I finished a story, I would go into panic meltdown mode and be like, "I have nothing to do!" And then send out millions more pitch letters and then get way too much work and then panic about that. When I had my first child, which was in 2000, I decided I needed a full-time job again because I needed to control my time.

Had you ever wanted to work in fashion?

I think I had never considered it. It had just never seemed like a career path that I knew about. I didn't know anyone who worked in fashion. I liked clothes — I read Vogue growing up, I read Mademoiselle, I read Seventeen, I read all of them — but it had just never really seemed like something that was related to me in a professional context. And also, I've said this before, I was super pretentious and thought I was gonna write big, important pieces on philosophy and that fashion was not that, which I think shows more about my own ignorance at 21 than anything else.

I also had never thought I'd go into journalism. I ran literary magazines, but that was what I considered short-term writing. The fashion thing happened completely by accident.

How have your feelings on fashion evolved since then?

Dramatically, obviously. [laughs] When I was at the FT, I did a luxury conference and Martin Wolf, who was our chief economist, used to come and speak there. Once, we were at a dinner in Switzerland [where] my brother was working at the time, so he came along and he sat next to Martin. Martin said, "Did you think your sister would ever be doing this?" And Alexander said, "No, I thought she'd be writing big pieces about philosophy and identity and social movements." Martin said, "What do you think she's doing?" 

I think that's what I had to learn to understand: Fashion is actually this incredibly useful and rich prism for looking at all these questions that I was fascinated by, like identity and politics and social change and diversity. As soon as I understood that, which took awhile — it probably took me longer than most people! — I realized how rich it was, and how lucky I was.

But I also had to overcome [preconceived notions] — particularly because it was 2003 when I went to the FT; I was the first fashion editor they had ever had. There were lots of people who still worked there who thought it was an idiotic idea to have a fashion editor, who were shocked when we started doing reviews of fashion shows in the first section. I mean, literally, they would send around messages on the internal messaging system saying, "Can you believe this? Isn't it a disgrace?" I was like, "I am on the internal messaging system, guys!" 

You have to learn how to think about that and not to be abashed by that in any way but think, "Actually, you're the one who's not getting this because, in fact, you thought about what you wore this morning." Everybody thinks about what they wear. That's also what makes fashion interesting. There's three universal subjects, right? There's shelter, food and what you put on your body. Everybody thinks about it.

Vanessa Friedman at the 2019 Fashion Scholarship Fund Awards Gala. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Vanessa Friedman at the 2019 Fashion Scholarship Fund Awards Gala. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Tell me about how the opportunity at FT came up and what it was like to build up their fashion coverage.

I had freelanced for them a couple years before, doing fashion stories. After I had my first baby, I went to InStyle in the UK when it launched and did that for about two years, had a second child, and felt like I'd gotten a lot out of that experience but probably had reached the end of my time there. I had seen that the FT was changing editors, and so I just sent a letter to Gillian De Bono saying, "What's going on?" She was like, "Well, something that may be relevant to you." In fact, I'm convinced that half the reason I ended up there was because I was one of the few fashion writers they remembered. 

It was a really scary thing for me to do because I'd never done all fashion before; I knew a fair amount about it, but not that much, and I was starting something from scratch. But that turned out to be an incredible boon, because I really could invent it. I could think about the question of: What does it mean to write about this subject that is essentially peripheral to the core business of this newspaper, but yet impacts our readers' lives and what they care about? I think that's true for most readers of general newspapers — fashion is something that matters to them, but it's situated at the nexus of all these other forces that are shaping their lives, so your job is to explain how it relates to those forces.

After 11 years, you moved to the New York Times. What was it about the role that was appealing to you?

Oh, it was extraordinary. I mean, the New York Times is my hometown newspaper. I grew up idolizing it and reading it, and the opportunity to put its fashion coverage together was really exciting. To see it holistically — International New York Times, NYT, all the online platforms, all social media — and think about what that could mean going forward was just really exciting. The reach and mission of the Times is, I think, pretty unique.

What were your goals coming into the role, and how have you seen those happen or change now that you've been in the position for five years?

I think my vision was mostly to try and figure it out! In the beginning, it was really trying to understand the newspaper better, understand its readers and how best we could serve them, and discover all the amazing people who are here, and then to see how we could integrate fashion better throughout the paper — which is something that had happened, but I think it picked up speed and it's something I'm really proud of. Also, just [finding] ways we could play, ways we could use all these different platforms now to help put the world together for people, connect the dots.

How has social media affected how you approach your job?

It's a great way to have a conversation with readers; that, I think, is the most exciting thing. For a long time, you'd write something, it would come out in the paper, or even online, and that would be it. Sometimes, people would talk to you about it, mostly the people who were in it, but not that much. Now, you hear about things endlessly and immediately, both people who love it and people who really think you're a total idiot and should never write anything ever again, or people who have really thoughtful responses and additions to what you've written.

This leggings piece that I just did, I loved reading those comments because they were such a rich source of experienced information and so educational for me. I really like Twitter for that. I don't do as much on Instagram, because I'm very grounded in words instead of images, but I like looking at other people's Instagrams and it's a good source of ideas. 

Working at the Times comes with its own weight, but you also have become such a respected voice in the industry. Does that come with any pressure?

High stress! Very high stress. I think the stakes are much higher, because you want to be fair. I think it's important to have opinions. I think it's important to be able to say when something is bad, as well as when something is good, and to help people know how to think about something. But, the most important thing is not to do it gratuitously, not to do it as a performance, but to do it in a way that is actually helpful and kind of calm — and maybe a little funny. Ideally, a little funny.

How do you approach your runway reviews?

I think there's a big difference between the job of a traditional critic and the job of people who are — I mean, bloggers is a kind of stupid word and I don't really know what to call them, new media platforms or something like that — but the more recent strain of criticism that comes out of social media, that is a much more visceral reaction to and much more personal reaction to something that's seen. It's something like: "I like it, I don't like it, yuck, here's why."

Whereas I feel like it's my job to not make it personal, but to try and understand what the designer is saying about women, in my case — men in Guy [Trebay]'s case — and their particular place in the world at this time, or where they're going and whether it's going to help them or not help them, be effective or not effective, and if it makes sense in the context of what that designer or that brand has done before and just to describe that. Those are my criteria.

Do you feel like you still have the luxury of time to synthesize that stuff or do you feel pressure to react faster?

Both. I try hard to find a compromise between the two that I think serves readers and serves the Times to put us in the conversation at the right moment but doesn't succumb to the pressures to be so immediate that I'm going to spit something out that I haven't fully digested and that I will regret the next morning.

Have you ever regretted anything the next morning?

No. 

How have you seen the role of the fashion critic change with the democratization of fashion, and where do you see it going in the future?

I mean, that's the big question: What do you review? It used to be really simple: You reviewed the runways. But now, you can review a red carpet, you can review the street, you can review a sneaker drop. I don't think we've really fully grappled with what the right answer to that is, but I think certainly, you have to keep your eye on a lot more than just what's happening on the runway. In some ways, that may be the least of it.

I think the other side of the democratization of fashion, which is something I'm really interested in, is what it has done to the cycle of fashion, because I feel like a lot of that comes from the rise of fast fashion and mass fashion — which, in many ways, was a great thing. I genuinely believe it came from a very good place, this idea that everyone should have access to style, all the time, no matter what the price point, no matter what social caste you're in or economic strata. 

But it somehow has produced a situation where we've gone from, "Everyone should have access to style," to, "Everyone should have access to new style every week and buy it." That has trickled upwards to contemporary fashion to high fashion to the luxury end of things and it has become one of, I think, the biggest contributing factors in the glut of stuff that we're now wrestling with. That is part of the sustainability conversation, and one that I think we should talk more about. We tend to focus on manufacturing and production and chemicals and that's important, but so is everyone's responsibility to maybe buy less.

How are you able to sort through that noise?

We're lucky — we don't get sent things because we're not allowed to take them. [laughs] That sort of frees us a little bit. We do some shopping stuff, but not that much, because I think it's not really a newspaper's role. It's something that magazines and websites do very well. But I think there's a real question, which I'm fascinated by and struggling with, is how do you change behavior patterns? It's really hard. I don't know what the answer is. How do you get people to change their definitions of value and what holds value? But that's something I think we've got to figure out.

Vanessa Friedman, Adrian Joffe, president and CEO of Comme des Garcons and Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at TimesTalks Presents Adrian Joffe x Andrew Bolton Discussing Rei Kawakubo At The Met in 2017. Photo: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

Vanessa Friedman, Adrian Joffe, president and CEO of Comme des Garcons and Andrew Bolton, curator in charge of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at TimesTalks Presents Adrian Joffe x Andrew Bolton Discussing Rei Kawakubo At The Met in 2017. Photo: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage

How can someone build up skills to become a more traditional fashion critic over something like a new media blogger?

There's nothing wrong with that! It's valuable, I think it's good to have that and good to have people expressing their opinions, because in a way, we've all been fashion critics since we were little, to a certain extent. I know my kids, at three, are like, "Ew! I'm not wearing that." Or like, "Yeah, give me that dress."

In fact, one of my favorite stories that Harold Koda told me once is that they measure the decibel levels in different departments at The Met and the Costume Institute always has the highest amount of talk, because it's the one exhibit that every visitor feels they can legitimately have an opinion on, whereas Kandinsky or Renoir, they tend to stay a little quieter. 

I think, like any form of criticism or any area, you have to learn your subject. You've got to do research and interviews and I think taking yourself out of it a little bit is a lot of it. Then developing a voice that people respond to and trust and want to talk to, like the voice in your ear. 

What do you think people misunderstand about your job?

They think it's really glamorous and it really isn't. [laughs] This is my endless complaint and I feel bad complaining about it because, of course, it's so much better than any other position. But when you're up for the 15th day in a row until one in the morning at your computer, which you got back to at 10 p.m., where you had your dinner, and you're writing your review and everyone's like, "You are swanning around Paris drinking champagne with celebrities!" You're like, "Not really!"

What's your favorite part of the job?

Learning all the time, getting a front row seat at what is a great industry full of fascinating people and one that really does let you think about all these different parts of the world and what's going on. Politics, business, culture, arts ... all of it is in fashion. That's just really fun.

What do you think one of the most challenging parts of your job is?

Getting it right. But I think that's true for all journalists — the biggest challenge is being accurate, being fair. It's hard to criticize people. I feel bad if I write a negative review, because I know how hard they work and I know how much angst and emotion is wrapped up in doing a collection. I don't think it's fun to tell someone their big new idea was a bad idea. 

Afterwards, I will always talk to anyone that I write about if they want to address anything I say — which they do. I get emails from designers or I get calls saying they want to meet and talk to me about what I've written and I will always do that because I think you have to. If you write something, you have to stand behind it and be able to explain it. But I also have been at parties with designers after I've written a review and I go and hide behind whoever is standing next to me so maybe they don't see me there. [laughs] 

I mean, doing the Mario Testino/Bruce Weber investigation was hard, because I know both of those men and I know what they've given to fashion and I know that was a really difficult story to tell. But on the other hand, we felt it needed to be told.

Have you found it more difficult to get access in order to do your job, now that people have an outlet to tell their own stories via social media [and branded editorial]?

Yes, but I think that's generally true. I think that's just the product of the place we're in right now. I don't think it's anything to do with the Times. The Times has its own pluses and minuses for people. I feel like it's important for all reporters to band together and, as much as they can, try to push back, because you just get much better stories ... I think the subjects get much better stories when there's more access and agreement.

What is something you wished you'd known before starting out?

That mistakes can be the best thing that ever happen to you, and that you need to be open to almost everything these days, because opportunities come from the weirdest places. You just can't get locked into your idea of what you need to do next or where you need to go next. When I said I was going to freelance in England, someone told me it was the worst mistake of my life and I would never get another job.

What do you look for in writers or people who want to work for you?

Good ideas, ideas that I don't have. I think we get a lot of pitches that are, "I would like to do an interview with Alber Elbaz now that he's doing a collaboration with Tod's." I'm like, "I can figure that one out myself." 

But I'm fully aware of my own ignorance and shortcomings given how big the world of fashion is now and how big the influences are that are coming from all different directions, and so I like nothing more than when a writer can tell me something I don't know about what I might see next or tell me something I'm missing. I look for that. Then, voice and also just the ability to really report, which is something that I feel like sometimes we undervalue a little bit.

What advice would you give someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

I would say learn about lots of things that aren't fashion, because the more you can put the world together and the more you see how it fits together, the richer anything you write or report will be. 

Go to the place where you can do the most, not the place that has the most famous name — which is not a particularly original piece of advice, but is definitely true. When I left The New Yorker, people were like, "Oh my god! You were in writer Valhalla! How could you possibly leave?" But it was very clear to me that I was never going to do much more than "Talk of the Town" at that stage, and if I really wanted to learn to write, I needed to go somewhere and do a lot more of it, so I did. 

Then just do it a lot. Really. Whether that 10,000 hour rule is actually apocryphal or true, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

What is your ultimate goal for yourself?

Honestly, I don't know. I feel like I'm still learning so much here and I still have so much more to learn that I don't feel like I'm at any kind of end point of, "Okay, now I need a new goal." I'm really here to do it better and do it bigger and make everyone else understand how incredibly fabulous fashion is, and relevant.

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