Vanessa Friedman On Bad Reviews, John Galliano and Fashion's Diversity Problem

by Mickey Boardman / photographed by Fumi Nagasaka
A good review from Vanessa Friedman, the fashion director and chief fashion critic of the New York Times, is what designers pray for in the wee hours of the night. Before joining the Times this year, Friedman spent 11 years as the fashion editor of the Financial Times, despite having started her career as a culture writer. ("They were like, 'Write about boots!'" she recalled. "So I said, 'OK, as long as you pay me.'") Meeting me at the Lambs Club, a hotbed of high-powered publishing types near Times Square, she wore a black pantsuit with her signature red hair pulled into a bun. She's super sharp but friendly; her demeanor says, We can have a fun chat, but really I mean business. As I dug into my kale and snow pea salad and Vanessa nibbled her cold poached tuna salad, we chatted about the importance of bad reviews, the difference between newspaper critics and magazine critics and whether a certain designer is the Joan Crawford of fashion.

Do you feel like because you're a critic you need to say negative things, or do you feel like you just say what you think, good or bad?

I think it's your job. I say this a lot: if you aren't willing to say when something doesn't work, then when you say it does work it doesn't mean anything. There's no, like, "Oh, I've done three good reviews, now I need to do a negative review." You just have to honestly react to whatever you see.

What do you think about that fashion world or system where that's the case? Where people might think something is terrible, but then they write about it and it's all, "Oh, it was inspired by his trip to Japan..."

I mean, I don't think everyone is saying it's great if they really don't think it is. Sometimes you have to read between the lines, but I don't think I'm the only person who is willing to say something isn't good. And I think newspaper critics' jobs and magazine critics' jobs are different, and that's fair. Magazines are much more champions of the industry. Their job is not to speak truth to power; their job is more to kind of support power. Which is fair enough, and in a way it's the reader's responsibility to see it through the right lens and to interpret it properly.

Have you ever been banned by a show or gotten in a fight with anybody about it?

No. I've been spoken to -- politely. And disagreed with. But it's never resulted in anything more than that.

From whom?

Mr. Armani spoke to me once. Someone at Apple spoke to me. I've also had a lot of designers, after I've been critical of them, not even speak to me in a negative way but want to talk about why I think what I think. They want me to explain myself more, which I think is completely fair. I owe it to them. If you're going to criticize someone, you've got to be willing to explain your thinking and talk to them about your point of view, even if it's uncomfortable.

I have to at some point get to John Galliano.

What do you think about John?

I have a friend who is outraged that anyone would hire Galliano and thinks it's far too
early to even think about it. I feel like if Abe Foxman from the Anti-Defamation League thinks it's OK, it's OK. I'm always fascinated by the difference between really talented assholes and really nice people with no talent. Because there are so many of both. To me, if you're talented then you should be allowed to work. Joan Crawford was a great movie star; she would never be mother of the year. I don't think that her being a horrible mother erases the fact that she was a great movie star. So that's how I feel about John Galliano. He's the Joan Crawford of fashion.

He would probably like that [laughs]. I have mixed feelings because I think the kind of "fashion machine" clearly got to John, and I find it weird that he would come back in at a level that demands the amount of production of having menswear and womenswear. In a way, I was hoping he would use this opportunity not just to learn something about history, but also to think about fashion again -- what fashion means and what it takes. Whatever you think of Gaultier ending his RTW, the idea that you would be like, "Hey, I'm just not going to do this anymore" is an interesting idea.

I applaud him; I think that was an amazing thing to do. A lot of other people should do that.

John had that opportunity. He could have said, "I'm going to open my own house and I'm going to do made-to-order garments for certain women. I'm just going to be super special and protective of my own mental health and reputation and everything." Fashion probably would've loved that and applauded him. So I feel like, in a way, there was this chance to do something really daring and use his history and all the mess to kind of produce something really different. But he didn't take that. There's a whole other question: does the designer now have any responsibility to the history and heritage of the house, or can it just be whatever they say it is at the time that they are there?

A lot of designers at old houses do work that has nothing to do with the house.

Phoebe Philo was incredibly straightforward about it when she took over Céline. She said to me, "It is whatever I say it is. I really don't care at all about what it was; it's whatever I make
it when I'm there." And clearly for that, it was easier because people didn't really know what it
was. I feel the same way about Alex Wang and what he did at Balenciaga. Whatever they
wrote in the press notes about it having to do with the fishing nets at Balenciaga's Spanish childhood town, it really was Alex Wang. In a way, I'd rather see him do that than some sort of pastiche of Balenciaga.

Do you blame designers for trying to be commercial? Do you judge them?

Fashion is made to be sold. I totally get that. On the other hand, I love Comme des Garçons. That really is someone in their own head, doing their own thing. It was so much itself. That's what I get really excited about: when something is just clearly its own vision. It's like Rodarte. They are in their own world, their own heads. Sometimes it's a Star Wars collection. It was great. Sometimes it's Swan Lake in 40 looks. Céline is incredibly commercial, and I like that too.

It always seems to me that weirdly fashion is a little bit discriminating against women. But if you're a cute boy, it seems that it helps propel you to the front of the line very easily. Do you think that's true?

Certainly there's a dearth of female CEOs. There are more female designers now than there used to be, but there aren't many. It's also true with African Americans and diversity on the runway. My friend says, "You want to change the model situation? You change the CEO situation, change the designers." How many black designers are there? Two? That's crazy. We have a lot of Asian American designers, but I don't really understand why we don't have more African American designers. I think it's also that when people get into power who are representatives of minorities, that's when the situation shifts.

Are there any celebrity designers you like?

The Olsens are really good. I think Victoria Beckham. Both of them are really smart and super humble. I was fully prepared to take out my whipping stick and start whacking at them. I take my hat off to them. They did it really well: We are super humble and sit in a room with you and memorize our speeches. It's really smart.

When Victoria Beckham did those little shows for 15 people and walked you through... I am a starfucker and I admit it, but I left thinking, "Am I crazy, or were those clothes fabulous?" I know you're from the New York Times and have to remain dignified, but are there any celebrities that you get excited to see in the front row?

I was really excited when Madeleine Albright was at Vera Wang. It rocked my world. And Ellsworth Kelly at Calvin Klein. That was exciting. I was taking pictures of him with my phone.

Do you worry about the future of newspapers?

I think if there were one to be left standing it would be the New York Times. So we're relatively in a safe haven. But I'm sure I'll be gone by the time it's gone.

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