It’s not unexpected when interviewing an interviewer that it begins with talk of recording methods. When I pull out my iPhone and open the recording app, Tilly Macalister-Smith eyes me a little anxiously. She, in turn, dives into her bag, takes out a sunglasses case (did I offend her? Is she leaving already?) and reveals an ‘old school’ (okay, not quite…) dictaphone with earphones: her weapon of choice. Seasoned, safe; guaranteed not to let the odd murmur slip the net with its multiple mics. We sit in Dishoom on a Bank Holiday Monday morning — a place that’s typically quiet, but today, is busy with the hustle-and-bustle of families walking in and out, and chai being regularly brewed. So, the iPhone moves from table to chair, to the seat of the couch on the level above us, teetering at mouth-level. Better to be safe- as Macalister-Smith- than sorry.
When I hit ‘record’, Mac-Smith as she’s known to friends and those in-industry, gets started on her personal history. In a deep, dusky voice, she talks being born in Somerset, doing an art foundation, and wanting to work in fashion- but absolutely not becoming a fashion designer. “I can’t stick two pieces of paper together,” she jokes. Instead, she applied to the Fashion Communication and Promotion course at Central Saint Martins- a four-year course where in her third year, she went to work on-placement for Jonathan Saunders.
“Although I knew I didn’t want to become a designer, going to work in a designer’s studio was an absolutely invaluable training. Especially with someone who is at that point in his career where everything was happening under one roof. We were screen-printing on a table in that part of the studio, making calls and doing Paris sales over there on the phone, and doing fittings over in that corner. You got to see everything, from the first line he’ll put on a piece of paper, to that dress being brought out of the door to a show. That, for me, now means that I can look at clothing and understand why it’s made in the fabric it is, why it’s finished with six buttons and not ten, why it’s placed that way — all those kinds of things. You start to understand the real business of fashion, which is post-production schedules — when the factories literally shut down in August- to get your fabric orders in prior to that, so you’re not getting your rolls of fabric back in September two weeks before the show, and finding out that things aren’t as they were planned.
After having worked with Saunders, she moved to America for a few months to work at Men’s Vogue, where the team consisted of journalists who reported for the New York Times and the New Yorker. They were talking about arts, culture, food, driving, and architecture, so the fashion department within the magazine was actually quite a small thing. Returning to London, Tilly finished her degree but stayed at Vogue, where she started out assisting Kate Phelan and Lucinda Chambers on fashion shoots, but gradually moved into working on the production team where she organised shoots, models, studios; then she took on the organisation of 10-15 editors’ schedules ahead of attending shows, while looking after the team and simultaneously working on features. This woman is next-level organised. When a maternity cover position at Vogue.co.uk arose, she took the risk and quit her full-time job to work in digital publishing. But, when MATCHESFASHION.COM received a £20 million investment, Tilly advanced further, and assumed the role of Fashion Features Editor for the e-commerce platform.
“They were building a magazine team, and I thought it was a good opportunity to go and start something from scratch. At that point, there was no point in leaving Vogue to go and work for somebody else in a similar job. I wanted something quite different.” Although Mac-Smith has now left her job at MATCHESFASHION.COM to go freelance, we start the ‘formal’ interview proceedings with reflecting on her time there.
“How do you monetise words now? Because everything has to earn its place on a page.”
You started the editorial aspect of the MATCHESFASHION.COM site from scratch — what was your initial idea? What was your research and what did you look at?
I was the Fashion Features Editor, and I had to think of the features we would be writing, and ways to speak to a particular readership. The biggest difference was moving from a publication that has a fashion-educated readership, to more of a consumer-based readership, where you’re talking about fashion in a very different way. People don’t necessarily know about Margiela, or Comme des Garcons. They want to shop, primarily. That was the hardest thing for me, and also why I looked to change my path. Talking about fashion in that way is super relevant for one particular audience, but I don’t want to speak with such broad brush strokes about fashion all the time.
How big was the team you were heading at MATCHESFASHION.COM?
When we first started, there were about 15 people on the editorial team. By the time I left we were up to about 40 people across video and social, media and marketing, features and product-copy writing, and styling. I wasn’t overseeing 40 people, but that’s how big the team was.
You’ve written, edited, commissioned, liaised with press, organised and worked on shoots – what do you enjoy doing most?
Interviewing. I love hearing people’s stories, and if I could’ve had anybody’s career it would’ve been Lynn Barber’s. To have that contact with people is how you learn.
I recently had a conversation about how one starts as a writer, but slowly does less and less writing as part of their job. Instead you move into managing people to do the job you initially wanted to do. Have you found this?
Definitely, and that’s a really important learning curve, because I think that when you’re taking on more and more responsibility, you absolutely do less of ‘putting words on a page’; you’re signing off people’s holiday reports and organising people. The administration of those roles is much more time-consuming, and that’s another reason why I wanted to leave, because I wanted to do something much smaller and grass-roots. That way you get to do the thing you love doing everyday. The thing is that MATCHESFASHION.COM was growing so fast that the role had exploded, so that by the time I left, it was very different to what it was when I started. Even in 24 months, which is not a long time.
To some people, freelance sounds like a ‘bohemian’ thing where it’s hard to survive. But it felt like the right time for you?
I was doing a lot of freelance anyway while working at MATCHESFASHION.COM, and it got to the point where I was just trying to juggle and stretch myself to do everything. I had to make a choice. So, it wasn’t something that I’d do out of the blue, I had a network of things that I was doing, and I had ideas about what I wanted to do. Also, not all writers work this way, but I have a good balance of working with people and brands on projects where they want advice on how to build out content, so that counters the things that you do that you don’t get paid for so well which can sometimes be the things you really want to do.
In your career, do you act on certain morals when thinking about writing for publications — are there certain commercial publications you wouldn’t work for even it pays well, because it’s not what you believe in?
Yes, although I can’t think of an example. You kind of cross those bridges when you comes to them. I tried out the middle-ground, between independent editorial and commercial, and I learnt a huge amount from that. But what I learnt was how to be a manager- how to commercialise content- and what’s interesting about that now is that you see even newspapers are trying to find ways of making the editorial content commercial. You have to think, how do you monetise words now? Because everything has to earn its place on a page. That, I definitely feel I gained experience in. Maybe I was on that curve quite early on. I feel like I’ve kind of worked in it for two years already. I just want to go and do the things that I love again… I don’t know, work in a museum or something (laughs)!
“There’s so much content that’s tailored to how you feel. I feel like I’m constantly consuming; it’s really difficult to switch-off.”
Do you notice if there’s still a real difference between the value of what’s published online and what’s printed on paper? I get the feeling people still think that something in print is somehow better than something that appears online- like it’s more ‘exclusive’.
Some people do think that, and I think in some cases it’s still the case. Where you notice the biggest difference is the reactions from brands. And when you used to call on a brand to say, ‘we can’t put that in an issue but we can put it online’, and they’d be ‘yeah’ (shrugs), now they’re like ‘great! even better!’, because they know it’s going to be more accessible, and available for more people to find. I think it really depends on the mentality of the brands or people that you’re talking about, or the designers that you’re working with. Some people are still not that interested.
Online has a broader reach than print… Who do you think buys magazines? Do you buy them?
Do you know what, I haven’t bought magazines for a while. What I find myself doing now is, once a season, I’ll go and do that scoop of seasonal magazines, and with that I’ll include some monthlies that I haven’t read for a while. The way that I get my content now- my news, my research- is all online. I buy magazines to look at beautiful shoots- to have on my coffee table, or as a collector’s item. But I got an email the other day saying, ‘subscribe to Vogue’, clicked two buttons, and now read it on my phone.
How do you keep up with content when there’s so much great stuff online? Every day twenty new interesting and relevant articles appear —how do you filter those, and decide what’s worth you taking the time to read?
It’s a battle to not drown under the amount of news and think-pieces. Especially with things like Instagram, where you can just spend hours staring at the same screen. There are certain sites you look at where you know you’ll always learn something: Business of Fashion, The New York Times, T Magazine. It just depends what kind of mood you’re in, because there are also those articles on Refinery 29- 5 new ways to eat an avocado, which I read this morning- and it’s like the guilty pleasure of watching cats on YouTube. There’s so much content that’s tailored to how you feel. I feel like I’m constantly consuming; it’s really difficult to switch-off.
Being a writer/editor/journalist, it seems as if it’s hard to situate yourself within that stream of comment and news- to think about where you sit within that, and how you can stay relevant.
That’s a good point. Sometimes you might put something up on Instagram, and then you have this pang of ‘why did I bother? I’m just annoying everyone. What was the purpose of that?’.
Yeah, that’s a really valid point. I don’t really know what I think about that. I think when you get to a point where you realise how accessible things are online, that’s when you become really passionate about only attaching your name to things you really believe in. I think what’s becoming important across content- journalism, buying, and every aspect of fashion- is this idea of ‘the edit’, because people are now so overwhelmed by availability and variety, and everything we could possibly want now being at our fingertips.
“People think that being a writer is just putting words on a page. Being a writer is so much more than that. It’s being able to approach different courses of conversation, making people feel comfortable, getting information out of people. It’s setting up those interviews; it’s organising yourself. It’s so much more than putting words on a page. “
Are there any ethics in editing?
Yes, there’s a code of conduct, and it’s really important. But it’s more about behaviour, and how to conduct yourself as a journalist. You cannot give people money to talk to you, you know (laughs). I think it’s really important, and I have two very important editors. One is Sarah Harris at British Vogue, and the other is Vikram Kansara at Business of Fashion, for very different reasons. Vikram is so vigilant and so precise. What’s interesting about that is that although it’s a digital medium, he treats it as print. That was such a valuable lesson to remember: that everything you do should be as if you can’t change it; that everything is factually correct. It’s a really good lesson to remind yourself that you have to be that thorough.
I found it interesting when reading our interview with Dan Thawley of A Magazine Curated By, that he would send a review and CC six people in, who would all credit-check, proofread, etc.
I think some organisations are set up to work with that kind of support, but what is becoming more common, sadly, is that there are just no resources, so you have to take on a lot more. Now, when I’m freelance writing, I don’t always necessarily know what the resources are at a magazine, so I have to be a writer, an editor, a sub-editor. You have to do that work yourself, because you can’t guarantee that it’s going to be done. What happens if that piece goes up and it’s not correct? You have to be vigilant.
You mentioned the ethics of journalism, and not giving people money to talk to you — in a similar vein, do you think it’s still taboo to be friends with designers?
I really don’t think so, but I was watching Lou Stoppard interviewing Sarah Mower on SHOWStudio recently, and Sarah was saying that she never expected to become friends with designers. That wasn’t her motivation. I don’t think it’s my motivation, but I also don’t think it should count against you. It doesn’t mean you’re going to give them an easy ride. I think it’s harder interviewing people you know when you have to go hard on them, and be thorough. It also depends on the kind of piece you want to write. There are different types of interview, and critiquing is one thing; painting a picture of the way that somebody works is another thing. So it depends on the kind of writer you want to be. And I’m not posturing to be a hardline critic, necessarily. I think you have to be challenging, but I don’t think you have to be damning for the sake of being damning.
Would you want to do a different job?
What we do in terms of interviewing and writing… People think that being a writer is just putting words on a page. Being a writer is so much more than that. It’s being able to approach different courses of conversation, making people feel comfortable, getting information out of people. It’s setting up those interviews; it’s organising yourself. It’s so much more than putting words on a page. The other thing that I’ve worked out over the last year, and this might sound ridiculous, is that writing can be a career. Journalism can be a career. I used to be like, ‘I definitely can’t describe myself as a writer’. But you get to a point where you get up and do it every day, and you manage to pay your rent at the end of the month, so hold on, you must be a writer. That has made me realise the importance of ethics a bit; I want to protect what we do.
Words and photography by Jorinde Croese
A special thank you to Dishoom