Representing the creative future

Liam Hess: “It’s all about a sense of humour”

Buffalo Zine’s Features Editor on the funniest magazine in fashion, working for Vogue and how to get into the industry as a writer

Liam Hess: “It’s all about a sense of humour.”

To balance a career between an independent, niche publication such as Buffalo Zine and a large, commercial website like Vogue certainly needs discipline and a strong ability to adapt. Editor and writer Liam Hess humbly attributes his success to timing and shares how he went from art to fashion, his tips for a good interview, how to get paid on time and how to make it in the industry as a freelance writer.

When it comes to Liam Hess’s career as a writer, focus and hard work were of the essence. After graduating from a BA History of Art degree at University College London and getting work experience in established London galleries, as well as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Hess came to a conclusion that the overtly serious and generally lacking self-awareness world of commercial art wasn’t for him and decided to become a teacher instead.

Then, in 2015, while flipping through magazines in a bookshop, he came across “a publication of his dreams”, Buffalo Zine. The title, now with a cult status within the independent publishing industry, was founded in 2011 by David Uzquiza and Adrian González-Cohen, and is best known for its ever shape-shifting nature and amusing pastiche takes on formats such as cookbooks or interior decorating catalogues. In a spontaneously bold move, Hess decided to reach out to the founders via email and asked if the team needed help. Thanks to a fortuitous turn of events, Hess’s offer was perfectly timed, making him David and Adrian’s first official hire for the publication. On top of his position at Buffalo, Hess has been also successfully working as a freelance writer, having been published in The Guardian, Wallpaper*, LOVE, or The Face.

In 2018, after meeting Vogue.com’s fashion news editor during a press trip in Seoul, Liam Hess first started to write for the website and help out with the editing, and later continued assisting in the fashion news department when she decided to leave the title. After proving himself in this temporary stint, he was offered a contract to become a regular contributing writer, and has since then interviewed everyone from young designers such as Area’s Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk or Christopher John Rogers, to drag legend Lady Bunny and A-list celebrities like Lizzo or Dame Joan Collins.

 

You’ve graduated from a History of Art degree at UCL. How did you begin your career as a writer? Have you done any internships in the media industry?

When I was at university, I didn’t really have any intention of writing, I didn’t think that it was a viable career. During my studies, I was working as an invigilator at a few commercial galleries in London, such as Victoria Miro and Newport Street Gallery. Then, after I finished my second year, I was accepted for a 3-month internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice – it was a great experience, not only because it was paid, but also because other people who did it with me were from very diverse backgrounds academically. During my time, I ended up doing a lot of tours around the collection and I really enjoyed it – I realised that I would like to become a history teacher, rather than work in the commercial art world. At the same time, I was massively into fashion and magazines and had stacks and stacks of issues of DAZED and i-D that I had collected over the years, but it was never something that registered to me as a potential career. Then one day I came across Buffalo Zine in a bookshop and was like, “Oh my God, this is my dream magazine realised!” – it was their third issue, which was beautifully designed and resembled an Edwardian children’s almanac. So I just emailed them out of the blue and asked if they are looking for someone to be involved in the writing aspect of the magazine, and it was great timing, because the founders, David Uzquiza and Adrian González-Cohen, were actually looking for someone to help them out with this area. And so, we started to work on the following issue together, and it was just the three of us at the time.

My first ” writing project” came by accident. After graduating, I went back to Venice for three months to work in the American Pavilion. And the computer that I was stuck behind every day for three months had no internet connection, so to keep myself occupied, I decided to write a novel, which in hindsight, wasn’t very good – it was a pastiche of all of my favourite books at the time, such as ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith and Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’. But at the time, I did get in touch with a literary agent who said, “This is not good enough to be published, but I like your writing.” And he put me in touch with some editors at The Times’ literary supplement and I started writing book reviews for them – so that’s when I started writing freelance.

“I don’t think that a lot of people in the art world have a sense of humour about it, they think they are saving the world. “

How has your art background influenced the topics you like to write about or the way you approach a subject now?

I have to say that I actually don’t really enjoy a lot of art writing. There are a few writers and publications that I really like who have a sense of humour and lightness of touch, but a lot of it is generally very dense and inaccessible. That lack of humour is something that made me not want to stay in the art world. I specifically remember being at the Venice Biennale where the central work was people doing a reading of Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’. Meanwhile, outside the pavilion, there was a moored super yacht owned by Roman Abramovich. It was ridiculous! And I don’t think that a lot of people in the art world have a sense of humour about it, they think they are saving the world. Whereas I find that more and more fashion people are less precious about what they do and that shows in writing, which is wittier and snappier.

 

You’ve interviewed an amazing variety of subjects, from Lizzo to Pamela Anderson and Dame Joan Collins. What in your view is crucial for making your subject feel at ease and getting a great interview? What do you consider to be a great interview?

I think that when you’re starting out, it’s necessary to be over-prepared and come up with a lot more questions than you will be able to ask. It also hugely depends on the subject and circumstances, but it’s always important to make the most of the time that you are given. When I was interviewing Joan Collins, I was only given 15 minutes on the phone with her, so I drove straight in and started asking her quite provocative questions. Also, it’s important to read previous interviews with them to get a sense of what the interviewee will respond to. Based on the research, I knew that Joan Collins would be willing to say some crazy shit, so I threw out some wild questions out there and it worked. When I asked her what her least favourite item of clothing is, she was like, “I hate jeans, I hate ripped jeans!” And that quote ended up on the Daily Mail. [laughs]

 

What was the interview you were most nervous about doing in your career and how did it go?

There are two interviews that I immediately think of, and they were both for Buffalo. The first one was my first interview ever and it was with André Leon Talley, I was terrified! Me and the photographer got a train from New York to his house upstate. It was this amazing postcard chocolate-box kind of house with a big veranda around it. And he was sitting on his veranda wearing a huge brocade silk coat that was custom designed by Tom Ford, which he let me know straight away. [laughs] He was very snappy at first, but he then eased into it after he realised I’ve done loads of research and it ended up being a really fun conversation, we even ended up weirdly staying in touch after. Another one was with David Bailey, who is notoriously a very difficult interviewee. And he was definitely like that with me, very cranky and dismissive. But luckily, I came armed with a hundred questions, because there were so many questions that he was not interested in answering at all and would shut them down. But it ended up being a really hilarious interview in print!

“In order to break in, the ideas have to be quite bold and opinionated, and with a strong voice that will get noticed.”

You’ve written for an impressive array of publications as a freelancer. What advice can you give to young writers trying to pitch to magazines? What is crucial for a successful pitch?

I think it actually took me embarrassingly long to figure out what the editors are looking for, especially digital editors, who often want something buzzy and with a timely angle. So usually my first instinct would be to look for movies or exhibitions that were coming out, not realising that the editors would be familiar with them way before me because they would receive press releases two months earlier and assign those stories either in-house or with their regular freelancers. So I think that in order to break in, the ideas have to be quite bold and opinionated, and with a strong voice that will get noticed.

 

And be super personal in order to establish your voice quite effectively?

Yeah, totally. I have quite a few close friends who are brilliant writers and even though they can write well about pretty much anything, they do have their specialities in terms of expertise or a field of interest. And if there is a story that relates to one specific topic, then they are the go-to person for it. I wish I had been better at carving out a niche in that sense, I think it’s a really valuable asset to have.

“It takes ages to establish yourself enough and build those industry connections in order to feel secure enough that you’re going to have a steady flow of work that will allow you to sustain yourself financially.”

What advice do you have on managing freelance work? How do you handle payments and communicating with clients or finding work as a freelance writer?

I think that the main thing is to make sure that you have a second income. For the first two and a half years of being freelance, I was teaching on the side. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to make enough money from just writing. It takes ages to establish yourself enough and build those industry connections in order to feel secure enough that you’re going to have a steady flow of work that will allow you to sustain yourself financially. Also, in terms of money, you have to be aggressive and not be shy about it, that was the mistake that I would make in the beginning of my career. It’s tough because a lot of the time, you feel awkward because the editors commission you, you send your invoice and then it doesn’t get paid on time, it’s 30 days later, and it still doesn’t get paid. And then you email the editor about it and you’re scared that they are never going to commission you again. But often, the editors are fully aware of this and they don’t have the power to do anything about it. I think a good thing is to ask your editor about a contact for someone in the accounts department – if you email them daily in the week before the 30 days are up, they will pay you on time.

Also, more general advice on freelance writing not related to money is to not feel too sensitive about the edits. In the beginning, I used to be very proud, work on the pieces for ages and make sure that every word is just right, and then overthink it and feel awful when the editor would make changes to the text. But actually, you just have to lose all your pride and trust your editor, because 9 times out of 10, they know better than you. Although there’s nothing more frustrating than a bad editor that will fuck up your piece or leave loads of spelling mistakes after changing the wording. In that case,  you just have to bear it and pretend it never happened – there are worse things in life and it’s not that big of a deal.

 

How do you go about coming up with ideas for the format and theme of each issue of Buffalo Zine? Was there a particular issue that was the most fun/challenging to work on?

I’m not usually so involved in coming up with an overarching theme for each issue, it’s mostly David and Adrian. But it’s usually quite surprising which issues are challenging to work on and which aren’t. I think the most challenging one was the issue that is also probably my favourite – the S/S 2017 issue, which was shot entirely within our office building on Hackney Road. We had Pamela Anderson on the cover and she came to our office and was shot at the front desk signing in. And our office is in a space at the top of this huge building, which is mostly owned by a very old-school East London framing company, so it’s full of East End geezers. [laughs] And when they saw Pamela walking through, I think their jaws literally hit the floor! Another favourite was the cookbook issue (A/W 2018). I really liked that one because even though it had only a handful of features, they complimented each other really nicely and the design of it was amazing. But it was also one of the most hellish issues for me, because it was a cookbook with over a hundred recipes that were submitted by fashion people, and some of them were super abstract and needed a ton of cross-referencing in terms of measurements and other technicalities. So I almost lost the plot figuring out that one! [laughs]

 

What in your opinion sets Buffalo apart from all the other titles on the market?

I think it’s the sense of humor. We have so much fun making the magazine and we’re always in hysterics while putting the issues together. There have been so many times that David and Adrian would show me the covers and I would be in stitches. I don’t think there are many other fashion magazines that are like that. It’s all about that mix of being cheeky, poking fun at fashion and doing a parody of it, but also at the same time paying an homage to it – there’s always a real love there for the industry. A good example of that was the S/S 2019 issue when we copied covers of 10 other independent magazines. And even though that could read as a bit facetious and arrogant, what made it feel funny and genuine was the fact that we put a hell of a lot of time and effort into replicating the kinds of covers that these titles do, in order to make a proper ode to them – so there’s always a level of respect there.

 

How did your role as a contributing writer at Vogue.com come about?

Two years ago, I went on a press trip to Seoul in Korea, and one of the people on that trip was a fashion news editor from Vogue. And we got along really well – again, this was another case of getting work through meeting people in the industry. And it took me really long to meet enough people to be able to get jobs this way. And so, I wrote a few pieces for them, and then, her boss was going away for a week and she needed some extra help with editing. So I ended up doing editing three days a week. Then, she left and they couldn’t find anyone to replace her. So I spent six months helping to fill in for her role. And through that, I got offered a contract to work with them as a contributing writer.

“I think the main thing that I’ve noticed with Vogue is the departmentalization.”

How many pieces are you working on per week?

I usually write two fashion pieces, one shopping piece, and one living piece a week. Also, I usually do a day of editing for the living and beauty sections as well. But the amount sometimes changes from week to week.

“It sounds so corny, but my advice is: Be nice! Don’t perpetuate the negative stereotypes of people who work in the fashion industry.”

In your view, are there any differences between how you work in the UK to how you work in the US?

I think the main thing that I’ve noticed with Vogue is the departmentalization. I previously worked in-house at i-D for a bit and it was very hands-on, it wasn’t very siloed, even between editorial, video, commercial, socials: everybody could have a go at doing something or other, and there were a lot of ideas being thrown around – it didn’t really feel so restricted in terms of what your role was. Whereas with Vogue, everyone’s role is very defined. They have a production team, a photo team and a design team. When I write a piece, I write the copy, then, I email it to my editor. She gives it an edit and forwards it to the production team. If you want a nice GIF for the piece, then you Slack the design team. You send them the images and they create it for you. Then, they will pass it on to the production team, which will put it in and upload the piece. They also have copy research teams, who fact-check every article, tidy up the grammar and make sure it’s within the Condé Nast house style. I don’t think it’s necessarily a difference between working in the US versus working in the UK, and I don’t think either system is better or worse. It’s just a matter of scale – it’s the difference between working at an independent title and working at Vogue, which is a massive content machine with so many different assets and components.

 

Do you have any advice for an aspiring writer that wants to get into the industry?

It sounds so corny, but my advice is: “Be nice!” Don’t perpetuate the negative stereotypes of people who work in the fashion industry. Most of the people I’ve met are actually really nice. With maybe a few exceptions. [laughs]

 

Is there anyone you wish you could interview, but haven’t yet?

Kate Bush. She’s my queen, I’m completely obsessed with her. She’s notoriously private, so I will probably never be able to do it, but I still hold out hope.

 

What’s your relationship with social media like? Do you think it’s useful in your work or are you sick of it?

I think it’s very useful. I discovered loads of things on Twitter and Instagram that led to stories I have written for Vogue. It’s also good to use them as a CV or portfolio of your work. When I was starting out, I would always post about the articles I’ve written for publications, and many times, people that saw the posts and started following me would reach out in the future to commission me for new stories. I’m not so good about doing that these days.

 

What has been your career highlight so far and why?

This is my career highlight! [laughs] I’ve interviewed so many people over the years and this is the first time I’m ever being interviewed.

 

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