It’s very likely that if you’re reading this, your social media feeds are littered with a slew of fashion publications, online news outlets, style titles, e-commerce companies and journalists you admire. Never before has there been such a tidal wave of fashion content on a daily basis, whether it’s product placement, celebrity-focused ‘news’ or photo-heavy ‘listicles’ acting as click-bait for vital online advertising. Perhaps you really won’t believe which celebrity doesn’t look like that anymore. Or are you genuinely worried about the 10 fashion risks you should have taken by the time you’re 30? Maybe you really do want know the one reason Gigi Hadid almost didn’t become a model… Either way, the avalanche of fashion content, or content vaguely relating to fashion, is only getting bigger, faster and stronger and it begs the question: what does it really mean to be a fashion journalist in 2016?

Fashion writers today are likely to be tasked with an all-round sense of content creation and communication, ranging from social media, Q&As, video content, e-commerce copy and, if you’re lucky, good old fashioned long-form features on design, clothes and the fascinating moments at which fashion crosses over with culture and society at large. Today, brands and social media agencies are just as likely to be employers of fashion writers as newspapers or magazines. At publications, hardly any jobs are available for writers – most junior positions are paid 12-month internships – however, academic fashion journalism courses have never been more popular.

Not only have Central Saint Martins added ‘Fashion Journalism’ to its roster of fashion pathways, but independent companies, such as Condé Nast and Mastered, are charging eye-watering sums of money for access to their little black books, without any kind of scholarship or bursary schemes for students who can’t afford it – let alone the students that could actually benefit from such training. It all indicates that the demand to be a fashion journalist is heavily outstripping the supply of opportunities, and, what’s more, it shows just how much money there is to be made out of coaxing young people into faux educational institutions that promise them the knowledge and skills to land them a dream job at Vogue.

To put the record straight, we spoke to handful of heavyweight fashion editors to get to the bottom of what it really means to be a fashion journalist, and, more importantly, what being a fashion journalist actually is in this day and age. Forget those cash-swallowing fashion finishing schools; these are the people that can hire you and will train you to be the next generation of Suzys and Cathys and Tims. Pay close attention to what they have to say.

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Sarah Mower OBE is a Contributing Editor and Chief Fashion Critic at American Vogue. Hers is one of the most distinctive voices in the industry, having worked for over 30 years at publications including British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, The Daily Telegraph and Style.com, as well as authoring several books including Stylists: The Interpreters of Fashion. She is a decorated promoter of British fashion designers and holds the position of Ambassador for Emerging Talent at the British Fashion Council.  As a fashion critic, she is the essence of what it means to write intelligently and knowledgeably about design, business and trends.

“There are very few people who actually criticise anymore other than what a state she looks, how fat she is, a sort of trolling-type commentary.” – Sarah Mower

 

Fashion communicators are no longer the only communicators: brands, especially big ones, are now so involved with communicating their ideas directly to an audience. How has this changed fashion journalism?

The gatekeepers are not the same gatekeepers anymore. Now there are no gatekeepers – there are no gates! [Laughs] Long form journalism in fashion, it’s gone. Although perhaps, well there are far more fashion books now than there ever used to be: photography books and the rest of that stuff. I don’t know whether you can actually make any money in that area, but I used to be writing 3000 word articles. I still do occasionally, but it’s much more common to be writing a 200 word story for Vogue.com on a constant basis, so I don’t know. I just don’t know where all the thoughtfulness, where the fierce critique is coming from. Alex Fury is a shining example of that and he’s working in a combination of very old-fashioned, traditional ways, i.e. being the independent fashion critic – I don’t mean the newspaper Independent – I mean an independent-minded critic, which of course Suzy Menkes used to be and Cathy Horyn, and so on. His combination is that and his Instagram, so he’s straddling it. He’s fearless, his company doesn’t seem to care about what he says about who, whether he’s rude about companies or even a whole country, saying that Italian fashion is dead – that sort of thing. There are very few people who actually criticise anymore other than what a state she looks, how fat she is, a sort of trolling-type commentary.

I often wonder who the audience for serious fashion criticism is…

Well I‘ll tell you who’s reading it: it’s the company owners, and the buyers. That’s what it always used to be. And you know, if you have a strong enough voice, an authoritative voice, they’ll take notice of you.

In terms of writing about fashion design in the wider context of design, or fashion photography in the wider context of photography, it seems limited.

Well, you know, there can be an upside to this – fashion exhibitions: a well-curated fashion exhibition. It doesn’t have to be on the scale of Savage Beauty, but it can be the immersive experience where people can think and contemplate; have their minds blown by fashion and take it in with video and paintings. You know, everything to do with the culture that fashion is embedded in. And then of course there are catalogues and the rest of it. That is what I think, if I was your age, I would be doing now. And then I guess there are movies too, and videos. It’s just moving into a different place.

1granary-Lisa Armstrong via fashionweekdaily.com
Lisa Armstrong is the head of The Daily Telegraph’s print and digital fashion team – one of the most successful cross-disciplinary platforms of a British newspaper’s fashion content. Formerly fashion editor of The Times, Armstrong is a career journalist, having started as a features writer for Elle UK and British Vogue, where she eventually became fashion features editor. She is still a contributing editor to British Vogue, for which she pens long-form profiles and features, and has also written for American Harper’s Bazaar, The Sunday Times, and The Financial Times.

“Study anything but fashion.” – Lisa Armstrong

How would you become a fashion journalist in 2016, Lisa? What did you study?

Intern for a newspaper. It’s the best all round training. Study anything but fashion. You need a broad education. You should know about fashion anyway. I studied English and French literature. My French has been very helpful when it comes to interviewing French designers who don’t speak English. I didn’t do any internships. My first job in fashion was as a writer for British Vogue. I came to fashion via the features department.

What are your most valued skills as a fashion journalist?

What I value in others is intelligence, wit, perception, original observations, perspective and taste. There is no average day as a fashion editor. Depending on the length and type of story – it can be anything from an hour to write a 500 word show review to days or weeks of research for a 3000-4000 word feature. Key resources for research is the Internet and talking to people who know the person you’ll be interviewing.

How do you train your interns?

Thoroughly. We don’t ask them to make coffee. We challenge them and if they rise to it, the sky’s the limit.

What would you advise a person with no experience to do as the first step?

Practice long form writing. Forget all you ever learned about academic writing. Journalism wears its knowledge lightly – but is not necessarily any less informed than the academic variety. Always check spelling and grammar. Use Instagram, develop your eye and write interesting captions.

What’s your favourite piece of fashion journalism?

Impossible to pick from 25 years of reading, but I can say that Georgina Howell inspired me to do fashion journalism. All aspiring fashion journalists should read her collected interviews.

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Olivia Singer is the fashion features editor of AnOthermag.com, a hub of design, photography and cultural features, and contributes to AnOther, the print counterpart. Alongside writing and consulting for a variety of brands and publications, she has written for a range of publications including Dazed & Confused, Lula and Into The Gloss on themes ranging from fashion and beauty to arts and politics.  

“I spent a long time freelance transcribing for other journalists, and it was one of the most helpful things I have done for my career — getting to hear how people actually interview other people is an absolute godsend.” – Olivia Singer

How would you become a fashion journalist in 2016, Olivia?

I would write for anywhere I could, as well as I could: blogs, student magazines, friends’ websites. The only way to get better is through practice. Someone once told me that it didn’t matter where you were writing for — whether a blog or a newspaper – but that the cardinal sin in journalism was thinking a publication wasn’t worth trying your absolute hardest for. I would build a great website; a strong social media presence and I would send emails to people who I respected asking them if I could ever take them for a ten minute coffee next to their office to ask for their advice. I’ve gotten some really good advice that way.

What are your most valued skills as a fashion journalist?

Listening to people, both inside and out of the industry, and engaging with the world outside of it. People can see what a collection looks like; it is my job to present an opinion and contextualise it, both within contemporary culture and fashion history. It might sound trite, but the joy of it is that there really isn’t an average day. I am incredibly lucky, because I get to go to a lot of interesting places to speak to fantastically interesting people. Plus, because I get to work across print and digital, my turnarounds on stories depend massively – it might be a few hours or a few months.

How do you prepare for interviewing an esteemed figure in fashion?

I read everything that I can lay my hands on about them, and then I think about what I want to know that I can’t already find out. I also try to watch filmed interviews or listen to recordings if I can, so that I can prepare myself a little for what they might be like in person. I hate reading questions from a notebook (even more so from a printout), so I try and go in as prepared as possible, so that I can hold a semblance of a natural conversation with a few pointers rather than a script.

How do you train your interns?

I spent a long time freelance transcribing for other journalists, and it was one of the most helpful things I have done for my career — getting to hear how people actually interview other people is an absolute godsend. So I try to explain how and why I interview the way that I do, and then have a chat about recordings that they have transcribed for me. I really value initiative; if people go above and beyond, I try and do the same in return — and I am always happy to read over work or pitches to suggest where they could be improved. I am obsessed with accuracy, which I think is something often abandoned in digital publishing, so I hope that my being pernickety rubs off in a positive way…

What are your favourite pieces of fashion journalism?

I feel very biased towards my publication, but: Susannah Frankel on Alexander McQueen in AnOther S/S15, Hans Ulrich Obrist on Miuccia Prada in AnOther A/W08 and Jo-Ann Furniss on Raf Simons’ last collection for Dior on AnOthermag.com. Also, I deeply love Alexander Fury’s show reports, because he doesn’t shy away from the politics or economics of the industry, and Vanessa Friedman’s for the same reason. Harriet Quick on the Belgians and, of course, Suzy Menkes on it all.

Would you advise to study fashion journalism?

I don’t think university is the be all and end all; when I’m looking through applications, I’m genuinely not that fussed about formal qualifications – I’d rather someone has great writing samples (whether published or not) and an engaging cover letter than a degree.

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Born in China and based in London, Tianwei Zhang studied MA Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins and is now Editorial Associate at Business of Fashion, where he developed the first International edition: BoF China. He has also contributed to a number of publications including Vogue China, Harper’s Bazaar China and Nowness.com

“Time is traffic, especially when you are working for a news website.” – Tianwei Zhang

What did you study, Tianwei? How did it help to become a fashion journalist?

I did my BA in marketing in China and then I came to CSM to pursue fashion journalism at master’s level. I would say I did my BA for my parents. It’s common in China that if you are at the top of your class and get a high score in matriculation test, you are very likely to end up in business school, because that’s where people with high scores go. I didn’t like it, but it did give me a business mind-set, which turned out to be super helpful at Business of Fashion.

Describe your average day at work. How long do you have to write a story?

I go to the office at 10am with a cup of medium black coffee to wake myself up. After checking e-mails and social media, I will begin to communicate with my colleagues in China via WeChat to learn what’s happening, and what should we write about. Then I will put my pitches in Trello, a masterpiece of task management, and develop it over time. It usually takes a week to finalise a story, since BoF has very high standards on original content. It has to be long form, well researched and justified with lots of third party opinions and intelligence. Since I am in London while most of the people I interview are in China, the waiting can sometimes be very painful. In some cases, I need to be super responsive and quick to deliver breaking news to our Chinese readers. Time is traffic, especially when you are working for a news website. If I can get the news out even just one minute quicker than our competitors in China, we can get 100+ more shares on social media and inherently thousands of traffic to our site.

How did your first fashion journalism job differ from your studies?

The difference between school projects and working is that I now need to be very careful about what I write, because people really care about what BoF China has to say. That puts a great amount of pressure on my shoulders. I am very good with highly opinionated pieces and expressing what I think, but BoF is the opposite of that. Even though you have an opinion, you have to express it with other people’s words. It’s difficult to be you and maintain an authoritative tone at the same time. But after a year and a half of working there, I think I have finally begun to appreciate this kind of reporting style.

What would you advise a person with no experience to do as the first step?

Think twice before you decide that you really want to be a fashion journalist. I mean, the pay is poor, the working hours are long and the sense of achievement fades in seconds. At the end of the day, the only thing that will make you wake up, get out of bed and go back to the office is your genuine belief and interest in fashion journalism. If you are just looking for fun, fame and wealth, other pathways in fashion will be more suitable – like being a blogger.

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Ana Kinsella is an editor at Bon magazine, a bi-annual fashion and culture magazine based between Stockholm and London. She also writes regularly about fashion, women and lifestyle for the Sunday Times Style, AnOther and Style.com, as well as editorial and film projects for brands including Ports 1961, Selfridges and H&M, and was the editor of 1 Granary’s first issue.

Patti Smith’s advice was first to build a good name and then to keep your name clean, and I think about that with every piece of work I do.” – Ana Kinsella

 

How would you become a fashion journalist in 2016, Ana?

Find out what interests you most and go really deep with that. Write a blog or make a magazine with friends. Prove you can do it, and then pitch wildly to publications you love, but with ideas that contain original reporting and research, because these are skills that will go further than just a fun or interesting voice. I think Patti Smith’s advice was first to build a good name and then to keep your name clean, and I think about that with every piece of work I do. If it weren’t as good as I can possibly make it, why would anyone ask me to work for them again?

What did you study? How did it help?

I studied English Literature and Philosophy for my BA at Trinity College, Dublin, and then did my MA in Fashion Journalism at St Martins straight after. The BA taught me to read closely, to write concisely and to go deep into the subjects that interest me most. The MA was a lot more vague, and I’m still thinking about what I really learned from it, but it certainly gave me an amazing introduction to how the fashion industry works. I also made a lot of brilliant friends at St Martins who work in fashion media now, which is an undeniably useful thing as a journalist.

What are your most valued skills as a fashion journalist?

I always admire tenacity and smarts in others, and I think they really boil down to having a genuine curiosity about the subject. I hope that I have that curiosity within my work – I think I do – because that’s what gets you started, gets you into a project, and what ensures you’ll do a good job on it too. I want to find things out, to learn things, as selfish as that might be. It’s kind of the engine that powers you.

Describe your average day at work. How long do you have to write a story, or work on an issue?

I cycle to the office for around 8am if I have freelance work to do, and work on that until 9.30am. Then at Bon, we juggle client work and our projects for the biannual Bon Magazine. We might have an editorial meeting in the morning, then I will prepare and write some client projects through the afternoon. In our office we take turns cooking for each other, eating lunch outside by the canal, and now I don’t know how I could ever work in an office that didn’t! In the afternoon I might discuss upcoming shoots with our art director and fashion editor, and then work on my own interviews for the next issue. We have an intensive two- or three-week production period, usually in the Stockholm office, where we work long hours to put the magazine itself together, which is fun and draining in equal measure. Late night fast food options in the Stockholm area are limited, to say the least.

Name your favourite piece(s) of fashion journalism.

I don’t think there is any fashion writer as good at distilling genius, elucidating it to the rest of us, as Cathy Horyn. I love her profile of Raf Simons from 2005. So often when fashion journalists try to tell the general reader that a designer is talented, it can come off as pretentious or alienating. Not this one! For similar reasons I love this profile of Andre Leon Talley by Hilton Als – it’s such a clear window into a world that few of us will ever exist in. All French interjections, Vogue headlines, signature lipsticks – it’s a potent gulp of all the vaudeville theatricality of fashion, which is really what entrances so many of us about it, at the end of it all.

What do you feel is the biggest misconception about fashion journalism?

Maybe it sounds silly, but fashion journalism is about so much more than just fashion. Obviously it’s important to be well-versed in designers and trends, but fundamentally so much of my job is about communicating with and to people, finding out what they’re like, what they want to read and to learn about, and then figuring out how best to provide that. Fashion has a huge commercial, product-y aspect, of course, but unless you’re a market editor or working for a big weekly glossy, it’s best not to be too obsessed with product and product alone. You can get lost in hemlines and nail art trends, and it can be alienating for your reader. For the most part, I feel my time is often better spent reading the New Yorker than going to a press day.

What are your key resources for research?

The Internet, of course, but also just talking to people who know more than me. At St Martins, Penny Martin told us the first thing to do when you finish an interview is think which part you’re dying to tell your best friend, and then make note of that immediately. So I like to circumvent that by talking to my friends about it before the interview.

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Last but not least, Roger Tredre is the pathway leader of the MA Fashion Journalism course at Central Saint Martins. From 1996 to 2006, he was the editor-in-chief of WGSN, the online fashion trends and research business. In the 1990s, he was arts correspondent at the Observer and fashion correspondent at The Independent. 

“Browsing through magazines and books with an open mind is a treat and very underrated.” – Roger Tredre

What do you say to applicants considering spending £27000+ on a fashion journalism BA?

Check out the quality of teaching before committing, by speaking to former students on the course. Plan carefully for financial stability, explore every award/grant that’s going, don’t waste the holidays.

What is the structure of the course?

It is a three-term course running from January to December, with the most intensive teaching focused in the first six months. It’s technically a Pathway, one of three that sit within the MA Fashion Communication course. We take only eight to ten students every year, so it’s tough to get in. Other fashion journalism tutors include Julia Robson and Joanna McGinn, who are both excellent and really bond well with the students. Fashion journalism at MA level at CSM is focused on writing and editing. Naturally that is not all we do – a few very good stylists have emerged over the years – but the reputation of the course has been built on quality writing. The shadowing project in the first three months, where students ‘shadow’ an MA Fashion designer, is a very popular part of it too. There is a long list of guest speakers that also make an important contribution.

What is the final project?

The final project gives students lots of freedom to write about exactly what they’re interested in, but the idea is that the content is targeted at the area of the media explored in an in-depth Market Report, researched over the summer and submitted in October. The final project is submitted in early December. A Work in Progress and Networking event takes place in mid-October, with alumni invited: we just started this in 2015 and think it’s going to be a big success for years to come.

What do you feel is the biggest misconception about fashion journalism?

The work is fun but harder than outsiders might expect. Fashion journalists are still not taken seriously by old-school journalists. That attitude is changing, but more slowly than I might have expected. Great writers on fashion can often write brilliantly on all aspects of modern popular culture – and are at the heart of lifestyle journalism.

What are your key resources for research at CSM or any other institution?

Online is the key, but I enjoy browsing the racks in the library at CSM: browsing through magazines and books with an open mind is a treat and very underrated. Of specific titles, WWD.com remains an essential read for fashion journalists.

Who do you feel a fashion journalism degree is essential to?

At MA level, it’s perfect for students who might have studied a humanities subject at BA level and now need the vocational framework to move into fashion journalism. We can also help students who have studied fashion or textile design, but realise that they would prefer to write about it.

Do you think it’s harder for International students with English as a second language to take to the course?

It’s definitely harder – they have to pass a challenging IELTS test, for starters. But they bring a great richness to the course. At CSM, for example, we have a strong tradition in discovering and nurturing great Chinese fashion journalists: Yoanna Liu, Min Wang, Sophie Liu, Ying Wang, Tianwei Zhang.

Judging from the range of opinions on offer here, it’s clear that there may not be a definitive answer or route, but what each journalist has expressed is the need for natural curiosity and the impulse to write, in whatever format and for whichever publication – preferably one that you’ve created yourself and has a unique perspective on the industry. While it is difficult to assess what exactly a fashion journalism course is worth, it seems that the general consensus is that it is not at all necessary. What is preferred by large is experience, from the ground up, and a personal interest in fashion – by that, I mean actual, researched interest in specific movements, design, style rather than fashion news or celebrity style. These are the qualities that will stand out when you’re applying for positions at publications that you admire and engaging in conversation with editors and writers who can support you. Also, don’t forget that getting your foot in the door is only the beginning. If you do succeed in landing an internship or getting an editor’s attention, you’ll be required to pitch stories that you’ll have to write, so don’t get ahead of yourself and then fall through, or suggest topics that you’re not qualified to write about. As the editor of a bi-annual women’s magazine recently said: “There’s no point in you writing about Jean-Paul Gaultier in the 1980s if you weren’t there. That’s not your world. I’d much rather you write about what you and your friends are doing in Hackney, because it’s a real point of view.”

Words by Osman Ahmed

Featured image: Susan Sontag 

Profile pictures: The Internet / Instagram

Olivia Singer photograph by Laura Coulson 

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