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.
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.