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How Elizabeth Paton Became One of Fashion's Foremost Investigative Reporters

The "New York Times" correspondent shares how she built a reputation for uncovering meaty stories from all over the world.
Elizabeth Paton.

Elizabeth Paton.

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.

When Elizabeth Paton first entered the media landscape in the late aughts, writing about fashion didn't exactly pave the way to career clout and automatic respect from other journalists.

"Fashion was quite a gendered subject," she says on the phone from her home in London. "There weren't that many writers then who were really focused on the business side of fashion."

Still, fashion was the realm — first by accident, then by choice — that Paton found herself writing about for publications like the Financial Times (FT) in the U.K. and the New York Times in the United States. 

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Now a decade into her career, Paton has built a reputation for her investigative reporting on often-obscured parts of the fashion supply chain, whether in Bangladesh, India or Italy. And in doing so, she's helped prove that fashion reporting can yield stories that are just as ground-breaking and important as what's published in any other section of the newspaper.

"I believe fashion can be used as a means for digging into the biggest news stories of the day, whether that's race or technology or human rights," the current New York Times International Styles correspondent says. 

In the middle of lockdown, we chatted with Paton about her career path, the future of fashion's relationship with sustainability and why she thinks it's so important not to conflate journalism with activism. Read on for the highlights from our conversation.

How did you first get interested in journalism?

Media wasn't what I thought I wanted to do [right after school]. But it was 2008; the world started to implode. I thought, 'Maybe journalism is an interesting place to start things out while I work out what I want to do.' Twelve years later, here we are. That sounds mad, because media was a very unstable place. But I had the opportunity to get an internship at the Sunday Times in London. I interned for ages; there were no jobs. I would knock on the managing editor's door every couple of weeks and she'd be like, 'Go away!'

Except one day the answer was different. They wanted to hire two grads to help them set up the website, and I ended up doing a lot of business writing. After about three months, the editor at the Sunday Times Style Magazine wanted to hire me. At that point I hadn't thought that fashion was the route I wanted to go down and the salary was horrendous, but a mentor said, 'It's a job and it's 2009. Go.'

So for a year I was an assistant at Style. I was having a really useful time learning the nuts and bolts of magazines, but I wasn't necessarily sure that was what I wanted to do.

How did you decide to switch over to news?

I saw that Vanessa [Friedman] was hiring for a reporter at the Financial Times, so I applied. I was brought on to launch this hub for the business of luxury and fashion. At 24, I moved to New York, where I spent three years. I learned how to be a corporate reporter, which was really valuable. I did all the quarterly reports for big companies like Tiffany and JCPenney and J.Crew

It wasn't always easy, but it was good. They moved me to do more of the retail beat in New York, which is where I got my first taste of front-page stories. I realized that maybe this wasn't just a thing that I was going do until I worked out what I wanted to do next.

What differences did you notice between working in British and American media?

In Britain, they often move young reporters around from beat to beat to make them generalists, whereas in the States, people often specialize quite young. I went back to London partly for personal reasons, and the FT moved me away from fashion. It was quite tough to start covering the U.K. building and house construction beat, and I was also on the breaking news desk, so I had to be at my desk at 6 a.m. every morning. 

I worked extremely hard. I think in hindsight, that was actually the making of me, because I learned that I could write about anything — oil markets, the Greek debt crisis, the U.K. elections. But I did always find myself looking at the changes that were going on in the fashion and consumer industry space. I knew that I had expertise there and something to say. So when the New York Times job came up in 2015, I had to apply.

What kind of adjustments did that job transition require?

It was a big cultural adjustment, initially. But there was a real opportunity at that time to build something at the New York Times. I think it was a turning point in the media space — people were starting to realize that fashion shouldn't be sidelined as a major news subject.

The New York Times also tries to be the absolute best, so your reporting has to be watertight. Even now, the night before a big investigation goes [up], I feel sick about whether there's a correction that will pop up. I don't know if there are many other publications where you feel that level of pressure.

You've spent a lot of time as a fashion writer at publications that aren't centered on fashion. Is it ever hard to be taken seriously as a journalist in those settings?

Yes. I came into journalism in 2009; the landscape then was quite different. I got far more attention paid to me in the six months I did breaking news than I did in three years covering fashion and consumer businesses at the FT [back then], despite getting stories on the front page.

With the New York Times, it's not that people don't take it seriously. I think my challenge probably is that I'm a bit of a chameleon. I've always deliberately written across sections – Styles, but also Business and International. Most reporters sit in one silo, they have a single editor they pitch to, and a single editor that works through the first edit, whereas with me it often changes. It's a lot of me pitching. There's a lot of hustle involved. 

How did you build a beat around investigating supply chain issues?

I think the first person who really suggested that I should think about investigative journalism was Emily Steel, who went on to break the Bill O'Reilly story at the New York Times. She and I sat next to each other at the FT when we were about 23. When I came to the New York Times and realized that there were resources, that was one catalyst — this was somewhere that would really support me looking into those stories and could send me to the places I needed to go.

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Journalism should never be activism. They are two different things. But I do feel a sense of responsibility to tell those stories and keep learning. If you are an activist, your agenda is to further a specific cause. Quite rightly, there are a lot of activist groups and NGOs looking to improve the livelihoods of garment workers or people in the fashion supply chain. That is a really important job. But that is not my job.

My job is to identify situations where there is an important story to tell and just try and lay the facts out as clearly as I can. Oftentimes you're coming face-to-face with real devastation, and it's hard not to feel really sympathetic or even angry. But I think that's part of being a reporter — trying to balance humanity with the fact that your job is to frame that story and present it to readers without becoming biased in your reporting.

How do you build sources for stories that are reported from other countries and across language barriers?

If you take Bangladesh for example, I cultivated sources there by following people on social media or LinkedIn and asking people when interviewing them who else might be good to speak to. Source-building is an art, and I don't think it's an easy one. But you get used to throwing out a cold email or asking for an introduction.

And once you have a reputation for writing about a specific area or specific country, people come to you if they think you're on the money or they think you might be able to add context. And that's something you always have to be very careful with — when people talk to you, often they have an agenda. You have to work through that and think, "Why does this person want to speak with me?"

How do you toe the line between having enough of a relationship with a source that you can get access, but not becoming so friendly that it interferes with balanced reporting?

It's a constant push and pull. I always strike up a chat with whoever I'm sitting next to at fashion week if I've never met them before. But I've never gotten too cozy, for that exact reason: You don't want to have to write about your friends. I know other reporters who have been in those kinds of situations, and it's just not one I want to find myself in. I have people in the industry that I call friends, but as a rule I try and keep things professional.

How do you find a good mentor?

I think it's important to be able to cultivate those relationships without seeming too mercenary. I think if you find people that you may have a rapport with, you may be able to spend some time talking to them. If you are living in cities, try and go to panels where those people are talking. And if you don't live in cities, as a rule, most people try to be kind and generous with their time and resources [if you reach out]. Not everybody, and often if you don't get a response it's really not personal. But I think you just have to try. Journalism is a notoriously tough industry to crack into.

How has reporting on fashion changed your own relationship with clothing and consumption?

There have been instances where I have seen things and pledged never to buy from a certain brand again, or where I have seen such enormous volumes of product that I felt physically sick. But equally, humans have been adorning themselves to express themselves since the dawn of time and I enjoy that.

In recent weeks I've been thinking hard about who I want to survive. Make no mistake: So many businesses are going to go under. Unless people are really considered in their purchases, a lot of those names that you always thought were going to be there are going to go away. 

Three months ago there was a real focus on how fashion could improve its environmental and social footprint. In 2019, it sometimes felt like that was the only thing anyone could ever talk about. But a lot of those brands are now fighting for their very survival. It's going to be really interesting now to see how people engage with sustainability. If they've got big problems closer to home, are they going to be thinking about what's going on in far away countries?

Do you feel like you've had to dress a certain way to be taken seriously either by other journalists or other fashion professionals?

I don't think [about] how I present myself in the slightest when I'm out in the field. At the same time, it would be naive if I said I didn't sometimes worry about my image in the industry. Particularly because so many people do use their distinctive physical or style characteristics to strengthen their ability to be recognized, whether it's Anna Wintour's bob or Alber Elbaz's glasses. I don't have any of those characteristics. But I think that kind of reflects who I am.

I've always made an effort to look smart and presentable. I only really worry about my image on the final days of Paris Fashion Week when I'm kind of emotionally and physically exhausted. As a rule, I think people aren't interested in me because of how I look — that's not my value to this industry. I'm not telling you what to wear, and I never have. So I don't know if how I dress is of particular interest to people. 

How do you think writing a book can or should fit into the career of a journalist?

It's a big source of revenue for a lot of reporters. But you've got to have a really good idea that's not been done before. And you have to pick a subject that's not going to evolve so far beyond when you've written the last word that by the time you publish it it's out of date. It takes a year, effectively, to get from when you hand in that draft to when you actually see the book on the shelf. And a lot of the things I'm interested in are very fast-paced.

So basically the short answer is that it's a challenge I would really like to tackle, but I'm not going to write a book for the sake of it when there are mediums at my disposal where I can tell the stories that I want to write at the pace I think I need to write them. I will write a book when I feel like I can write the best possible book I can — maybe the tip or catalyst I need hasn't arrived just yet.

What tips do you have for aspiring reporters?

Don't beat yourself up if you don't know exactly what you want to be, if you spend a few years trying one route and have to pivot. I've found who I want to be and how I want to work as I gain professional experience. 

Be specific if you reach out to somebody for advice. Don't just say 'I want to be a fashion journalist.' Say, 'I'd really like help on thinking about how to pitch,' or 'how do you structure a story?'

Write constantly. Work experience is not as available as it was when I started out; I'm aware that the landscape has changed and those opportunities aren't necessarily there in the same way. But you've got to get practice.

And lastly, you need to be active on social media. It's not about how many followers you have — it can be exhausting to have a presence, but it's a way of promoting your pieces and finding stories. Don't pitch over social media, but get a sense for who's steering the desks at what publications, and see what they're tweeting and what their interests are.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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