New York Times Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman Carves a Niche in an Ever-Changing Industry
The former Financial Times fashion editor will speak at Marist College’s undergraduate commencement ceremony in May.
Photo courtesy The New York Times
Vanessa Friedman is building a legacy. As the fashion critic and director for both The New York Times and New York Times International Edition, Friedman is already something of an icon in the fashion and journalism spheres. It’s hardly a surprise, given the achievements on her curriculum vitae. Before joining The Times in 2014, she cut her teeth as the inaugural fashion editor of the Financial Times for 11 years. Prior to that, she collected clippings at prominent publications like Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Entertainment Weekly. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?
Of course, Friedman isn’t just a journalist. She’s also the published author behind Emilio Pucci and is an honorary professor at Glasgow-Caledonian University. Next up, she’ll add public speaker to her resume as she takes the stage to address soon-to-be graduates during Marist College’s undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 25. In advance of the occasion, we touched base with her to talk rising through the ranks, making global conversation, and why it’s ok to pursue unexpected passions.
Congrats on being named Marist’s undergraduate commencement speaker! Have you been to the Hudson Valley before?
Vanessa Friedman: One of my best friends lives in Woodstock and runs the bookstore, The Golden Notebook. I also used to do trapeze in New Paltz and my family and I used to hike up there. The Hudson Valley is part of my mental landscape when I think of New York.
When did you first become interested in fashion?
I didn’t study fashion in school. I grew up in a house where we read Vogue and Mademoiselle and all sorts of magazines, and I liked clothes as a kid, but I wasn’t particularly focused on it. I never thought I would go into fashion. Nor did I plan to go into newspapers. I went to Princeton [University] and majored in history and minored in creative writing and European cultural studies.
What did you do after graduating college?
When I got out of school, I went to Paris for about two years and worked at a law firm as an intern. When I was there, I also started doing extracurricular work for a magazine.
When I came back to New York, I started to look into magazines. I ended up working at Vanity Fair as an editorial assistant. Then I magazine-hopped for a couple of years. I went from Vanity Fair to The New Yorker to Vogue to Elle and sort of gradually made my way into writing as opposed to editing.
What about your big break? When did that happen?
In ’96, I had just gotten married, and my husband and I moved to England, to London, and I ended up freelancing for a couple of years. One of the places I was freelancing for was the Financial Times. I had just written them a cold letter; I didn’t really know anyone in England. The woman there…saw I had written at Vogue and Elle assumed I was a fashion person. I had never written about fashion, but at that stage I was so desperate to do anything I was like, “Sure, I’ll write about boots.”
I started doing some fashion writing, but I was very all over the place [with content]. I had my first child in 2000 and decided I needed a real job. Some people are great freelancers, but I was not a great freelancer; I was a neurotic freelancer. As soon as I’d finish writing a story, I’d pitch another.
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So where did you go next?
That’s when InStyle was launching in the UK, so I became their launch features and fashion features editor. I did that for two years, then I had another child, so I decided to see what else was out there. At that point, Financial Times had just changed editors, so I emailed one of the editors to ask what was going on.
She said, “How interesting, we’re actually looking for a fashion editor.”
I said, “Well, that sounds kind of fun.”
That was my first all-fashion job, about halfway through what is now my career span. I stayed there for 11 years, then came to The Times.
What drew you to The Times?
I grew up in New York, so The Times is my paper. The opportunity that was incredibly exciting was the coverage in The Times and the digital transformation of it. That was impossible to resist.
[The Times] is an amazing palace to work. It’s an enormous platform, and with that comes a lot of responsibility. I’m still learning, which is actually really nice.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in journalism and in the fashion industry nowadays?
It’s keeping pace with a world that is in transition in multiple ways and dealing with massive issues like climate change and privacy and what that means in the midst of the [fourth industrial] revolution.
It’s hard. I think as journalists we’re all in the position of having to figure out how you balance the time you need to report and analyze with the need for instant response and instant reaction. It is important to have time to get perspective and see something in broader context. That’s where the added value as a critic and a journalist lies — the ability to put things in context.
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What gets you excited to get out of bed and go to work each day?
The great thing about fashion, which took me a long time to figure out, by the way, is when you’re writing about it or thinking about it, you’re really writing about everything. It is a prism and a discipline that connects to almost every part of life. Fashion is essentially about identity and communication. You can write about business through fashion, social life through fashion, culture through fashion, politics through fashion. That’s an incredibly exciting and rich gift to any journalist.
I think about this a lot, actually, about the question of the social contract and the individual against the group, which is essentially what Rousseau was writing about. Everyone might not want to read about that, but they do want to read about “likes.” It’s the same story.
Who wouldn’t want to get up and think, “What do I get to think about today?”
Without giving away your speech, do you have any words of advice for aspiring journalists?
One of the most important lessons I learned was that it was really valuable for me to have spent so much time not being in fashion before being in fashion. The industries and sectors bleed into each other, so the more you understand the dialogues, the more you pay attention to what is going on. Nothing is an island anymore.