Last night at the Commonwealth Club, Katrina Heron, former Editor-in-Chief of Wired, interviewed American Vogue’s Fashion News and Features director Sally Singer for an hour in front of a crowd of about fifty. I was lucky enough to attend, and coincidentally my chair was right behind Ms. Singer’s parents, who live in the east bay and sat with adorable rapt attention as their daughter was interviewed on stage. I sat there in my black and white Isabella Tonchi cape, scribbling on my notepad. Heron tapped a gavel three times on a wooden table (this IS how all Commonwealth Club meetings have opened and closed for decades) and the interview began.
Singer wore a lipstick-red print Thakoon dress, black suede Tabitha Simmons fringe-y buckle boots (“I urge you all to anchor your frocks with a heavy shoe,” she said), a black open-front sweater, a smattering of gold rings that she absentmindedly played with throughout the night, and gray tights that she admitted to having purchased at Wolford earlier that day because she was so chilly. Ah, San Francisco in June. I believe it was Mark Twain who once said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
Heron began the interview by pointedly asking Singer what she felt The Next Big Thing (I swear, I could hear those capital letters in the way she phrased her question) for the fashion industry was. Singer said that right now, in terms of the fashion industry, it is an incredibly tough time for designers. She pointed to the closing of Veronique Branquinho and Christian LaCroix’s filing for bankruptcy last week as unmistakable signs that we are living in unsteady times, and even the strong and steady do not survive. “They did everything right,” she said, a cloud of sadness cloaking her voice, explaining that things were not lavish or outrageous at those houses. They made no mistakes, and yet this happened to them, which translates to no lessons being learned.
Talk of shopping habits during a recession quickly turned to fast fashion. Singer said that fast fashion is fine for those who would want, say, “a whiff of Balmain, because nobody can afford Balmain” but that she is concerned about wastefulness. Heron asked if all people are buying just basics now, and aren’t really shelling out for wacky statement pieces.
Singer said that she felt that quite the opposite was true. She said that folks who spent a lot on classics and basics were going about things the wrong way. A so-called ‘basic’ black v-neck sweater changes from season to season. “How?” Heron asked somewhat incredulously. “The neck changes, the shoulder changes,” Singer explained, “and then it just looks all wrong. What works in retail right now are things that are special.” She said that people shop emotionally, and often turn to pieces with more emotional investment value as opposed to basics. Seeing, let’s say, something outrageous like a purple faux-feathered chubbie and deciding to spend your money on that as opposed to another pair of black pants and a white blouse, because the chubbie will make you happy every time you wear it, makes the most sense, and so what if you repeat yourself a lot? What’s the big deal?
As an example, Singer informed us that working at Vogue is not a contest to see how far you can stretch your wardrobe via maximum rotation, wearing a different outfit every day. “It’s not like high school where you’re like, ‘I can’t wear that sweatshirt on Thursday because I wore it on Monday,’” she said. Singer cited senior-level Vogue staffers like Grace Coddington who often wear the same thing day to day and week to week because they love it so much.
Heron said that many signs pointed to the fact that The Next Big Thing in media was the disappearance of print, and that she was curious to know how Vogue was going to survive. Singer acknowledged that websites like style.com play a major role in delivering the very first images of the runway shows to the public, and that the internet obviously moves much faster than print does. But with all those images, Singer says, there is a lack of context. She explained that the most important aspect of writing fashion copy is “finding the argument.” One cannot just say that the clothing looks cute; one must figure out what’s relevant to the industry and for people to wear. One must make a reader think how they present themselves in the world, because “fashion allows you a fabulosity that the world denies you.” Websites can deliver images, but an actual magazine provides the reader with context, and a magazine like Vogue keeps the excitement and drama of fashion central to our culture, as well as mentoring new designers. “I like websites,” she said, “but I love magazines.”
The subject of models vs. celebrities on the cover of American Vogue was brought up as well. Singer said that when she first began at Vogue, there were about nine models and three celebrities (usually actresses) on the cover each year, and today, that ratio has flipped, and the magazine now sports three models on the cover each year “if we’re lucky.” When pressed as to why that is, Singer spoke of an ability of the consumer to relate and identify. Can they relate to a 35 year old woman who’s maybe been married and had a kid or two and made some interesting life choices, or some 16 year old model from Estonia who has interesting cheekbones and a cool haircut? Who is an American woman going to relate to more, and who will sell the magazine? The 35 year old actress - although she is a ‘celebrity’- is infinitely more relatable, Singer explained.
And with another tap of the gavel, the evening was over.