Representing the creative future

Mahoro Seward: “Fashion is the most immediate symptom of culture”

i-D’s staff writer & 1 Granary’s former editor on how literature got him into fashion

Mahoro Seward

Since its launch in the 1980’s i-D has gone from fanzine to global media platform; cementing its reputation as a champion of contemporary fashion culture in the process. As staff writer for the legendary title, Mahoro Seward is no stranger to documenting the most exciting talents coming out of the fashion, art, and music industries since permanently joining the team in 2019. With his academic background studying German and French literature, and a short lived stint working in finance, Mahoro’s approach to fashion writing is inspired, refreshing, and whip smart. We spoke to Seward about what he humbly describes as his ‘organic’ industry journey, carving out a niche in contemporary culture and staying in love with fashion during a pandemic.

You graduated from Oxford with a degree in French and German. How did you begin your career as a writer and what inspired you to specialise in fashion? 

I wasn’t the sort of teenager who’d pore over issues of Vogue in my bedroom, I was never obsessed with fashion, it was just something that was always on the periphery. I didn’t become formally interested in fashion writing until I was studying. Fashion was something I was interested in from an academic perspective, but it was also something I would look at online every now and again when I was bored. I began to join the dots between the two; clothing in a specific historical context of a book and then something like a Louis Vuitton runway collection today, and realised that you can look at them in the same way.

I  interned during my year abroad, which was my first experience working in fashion. After that, I decided I didn’t want to continue. There didn’t seem to be any money in it, and it wasn’t a world I had any connections to either, so I gave up on any prospect of pursuing it. After graduating, I worked in finance in the City for seven months and I hated it. It was so horrible, totally soul-crushing. But while I was at Oxford I’d written a piece for 1 Granary – my friend Jeppe Ugelvig was one of the online editors at the time; the first piece I wrote was a comparative analysis of Marguerite Duras and Comme des Garçons, which, in retrospect was really pretentious and probably wouldn’t get published now. They asked if I wanted to write for them again whilst I was working in The City, so I started contributing as more of a hobby I guess, a distraction from the total mundanity of my job. From there I contributed on a freelance basis. Then, eventually, Olya (Kuryshchuk, 1 Granary founder) asked me if I wanted a job, I took it and the rest is history.

“The way you approach analysing and critiquing literature is the exact same approach you adopt when looking at fashion.” – Mahoro Sewald

That sounds like a very organic process. 

Whenever I think about my career I find it quite difficult to explain exactly how it happened and what I did; I’m here and I don’t look back. There was a logical sequence of events, but yes, I feel like it was quite an organic unfolding of things. I was never really consciously applying for jobs or planning on doing XYZ. That said, I realise, and appreciate, how intense taking those first steps into fashion can be. I think I’ve just been very, very fortunate.

 

Has your background in languages influenced your writing or how you view fashion? 

Absolutely, I think it’s one and the same. Not so much because of the particular languages themselves; you could go and study any language and it would still be relevant. There’s that Wittgenstein quote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” When you learn languages you learn new vocabulary and new ways of thinking which allow you to contextualise your own approach to things from perspectives.

In terms of the literary focus of my studies, yes, it was deeply influential. You’ll find that across the industry, many fashion writers and editors have studied English literature, history, and languages. The way you approach analysing and critiquing literature is the exact same approach you adopt when looking at fashion. You take the same things into consideration: form, structure, context, political history, social history, et cetera.

“If it was essential to do a prescriptive fashion journalism course in order to be a fashion journalist, there would just be a single enshrined approach, which would be really boring” – Mahoro Seward

Is studying Fashion or Journalism at a degree level essential for aspiring fashion journalists?

If it was essential to do a prescriptive fashion journalism course in order to be a fashion journalist, there would just be a single enshrined approach, which would be really boring. What makes fashion writing so interesting at the moment is that we are seeing that more methodical fashion-focused approach but, then there are writers who’ve come from other backgrounds. I’m hedging a bet here but I’m guessing some of the people at BOF or WWD have backgrounds in economics for example. It’s birthed an entirely new genre of fashion writing which, as fashion becomes increasingly important, is vital. We need to have these varied perspectives that are formed in very different ways so that these evolving spaces are adequately commented on and addressed with rigour and nuance. So coming back to your question, I don’t think it’s essential but I don’t think it’s a bad thing either.

 

You’ve written for multiple publications as a freelance contributor, including more independent titles like DANSK and Calvert Journal in addition to starting your career as a freelancer at 1 Granary, how important is it for young writers to get involved with ‘smaller’ titles? Is there too much of an obsession with working at bigger publications? 

There’s a lot to be said here about confidence. I can’t in all honestly say I had the confidence that I would be able to pursue a career in fashion journalism when I first started, so I didn’t really think about pitching to larger publications at first. It was more of a hobby, more me thinking: “Oh, 1 Granary has given me a chance to do this, so let’s. It’s something I enjoy, but I’m probably not going to make a career out of it. It was a similar situation with DANSK, Jeppe was the editor there at the time and he again gave me a chance. By doing that, being given those opportunities, and receiving positive feedback, it made me think: “I’m actually okay at this.” That’s how I started to build my confidence.

Some people go straight to the top and get their pitches accepted by larger publications — and that’s great! But I don’t believe everyone needs to start out that way. One thing I will say is that there’s more room and opportunity to develop your own tone of voice and writing style by contributing to smaller publications, you’re not as governed by a very established house style, for example. I found it important to have those spaces when starting to figure myself out and what my thoughts on things were. There’s a certain directness of engagement, and even if you’re not producing the best work of your career, you’re really able to plunder the depths of what interests you to write about and ask yourself why you’re interested in it. But also I can’t really speak on that, I still have a long way to go in terms of figuring out exactly who I am as a writer.

“When you pitch an idea you have to ask yourself, why exactly is a topic interesting and why should I be the person to write it? A lot of people feel really impassioned by things, which is great, but if you’re a white, middle-class person pitching a story about, for example, Black working-class designers, you need to sit down, shut up and think if this is really your space or not. ” – Mahoro Seward

What did starting your career at 1 Granary teach you about both the fashion and journalism industries? 

I still have so many questions about the fashion system at large that I don’t know the answers to. In terms of fashion, It was really interesting to see how industry ideas and stereotypes map on to people at the very beginnings of their careers. In terms of journalism, It taught me how difficult being an editor is. It’s much, much, much more admin work than I thought it would be. And it can be very difficult to be really direct and hammer home your editorial vision. Getting to a point where you’re assured enough in your vision to do that is a real process, one that I’m very much still involved in. One thing 1 Granary did do, though, is make me much more receptive to criticism. It’s very easy when you’re writing to be quite precious about your work and to sometimes take it personally when an editor gives you more words and edits than there are on the first draft itself. But, being on the other side of that, I know it’s not personal. They want to work with you to make it good, and good means different things for different titles.

 

What advice can you give to young writers trying to get their work published? What do you look for when reading a pitch?

It’s weird because learning to pitch came relatively late for me,  at first, I was mostly being commissioned. This sounds really bad, but when the time came for me to actually sit down in a meeting and pitch, I was so terrible. I feel like it’s something that I still need to finesse.

In terms of what I look for, it’s important that you show conviction in your idea and you’re able to back it up. You have to ask yourself why exactly a topic is interesting, why other people should find it interesting, and why you’re the right person to write it? Recently, with everything going on in the world, a lot of people feel really impassioned by certain topics and causes, which is great. But if you’re a straight white, middle-class writer pitching a story about, for example, queer Black working-class designers, you need to sit down, shut up, and take a hot minute to think about whether this is really your story to tell or not. It’s really important to position yourself as a person who’s able to give a genuine, comprehensive insight into a topic, and in order to do that, you have to be very honest with yourself. Being able to respond to further questions is also essential. When you’re pitching, you’ve got to dig deep into what it is you’re trying to say. Imagine you’re sending your idea to an editor and they’re like: ok, this is interesting, but what about this, that, and the other? You need to be in that position before you send it, that you’re confident you can elaborate on something you’re planning to explore. I’m speaking from experience, as I’ve definitely come up short in this respect before.

“There’s nothing wrong with appreciating an item of clothing as something that is just really nice to look at or wear, but it’s also a sociohistorical artifact. ” – Mahoro Seward

In addition to fashion, you also write about art, politics, and pop culture. How important is it for writers to view fashion in a more broad-spectrum? How do you stay in the know?

It’s imperative. Anyone who still believes that fashion exists in an echo chamber needs to leave the room; we’re long past that era and it’s all for the better. It’s cliché, but fashion is the most immediate symptom of culture; it’s something that everyone engages in to some extent. You can’t think of fashion without looking at politics, psychology, art… they all come together in an extremely complex way. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with appreciating an item of clothing as something that is just really nice to look at or wear, but it’s also a sociohistorical artifact.

 

You’ve been working as a staff writer at i-D since December 2019. How did you first get involved with the title and what was the transition like from a specialised platform like 1 Granary to i-D? 

I started in April 2019, while I was still at 1 Granary, working a couple of days in their office on a freelance basis. As such, the transition to working full time wasn’t that extreme as I already knew the team really well and was familiar with their system. Obviously, when you join full-time you get to see another side and you realise just how many more things there are to learn. That being said it was definitely a very different way of working. It was a much larger, more formal working structure, which took a little bit of getting used to.

But, there are also some similarities. i-D is a place where everyone does a bit of everything to a certain degree; there’s still a hierarchy, and the roles are distinct, but we work more flexibly than I know people do at other publications. Everyone works across both print and digital, for example. And while I’m a staff writer, I also edit and commission. It’s quite a fluid environment in the same way that 1 Granary was, where we all did literally everything. Sometimes, from what I’ve heard anyway, some larger publications can be very corporate in their structure and roles are very vertical, which isn’t the case at i-D.

“There are times when your own foresight and self-awareness aren’t enough, and in those events, it’s just a case of being accountable for your mistake and learning from it.” – Mahoro Seward

Working at a title that’s dedicated to championing youth culture and has historically been a platform for new and undiscovered talent, how do you celebrate this without virtue signalling?  

I don’t think virtue signalling or exploiting are things one ever sets out with the intention of doing, but I do believe they sometimes happen unconsciously. There are times when your own foresight and self-awareness aren’t enough, and in those events, it’s just a case of being accountable for your mistake and learning from it.

In terms of avoiding those situations, though, I guess you really have to question what your motives are. Why are you doing this? What is in it for you? Is this just for clout or to appear like you’re part of a trendy social movement? Or is it about a genuine desire to help an undiscovered talent gain exposure? Frankly speaking, these are questions I’ve only started to consciously ask myself recently, and they’re ones I intend to embed in my writing process going forward. I used to rely much more on instinct, which I still think is important, but I do think it’s vital to really question why you want to platform someone. Generally, with me, either I personally find their work interesting to look at, or what they have to say is really pertinent. And young designers and creatives are often much, much more able to do that than bigger brands.

 

What’s been your favourite project or interview you’ve done whilst at i-D?

I really enjoyed interviewing Michèle Lamy, she’s absolutely hilarious. It was amazing just listening to her talk about her slightly surreal fairy-tale of life for an hour and a half. Otherwise, I’d say one of the interviews I did for the recent activist portfolio that’s part of our 40th-anniversary issue. My conversation with Kai-Isaiah Jamal, for example, was just so incredibly open and frank. Rather than wallow in all these serious platitudes about how BLM and its consequences should be discussed, it was earnest, enlightening and, at times, really funny. That’s the best you can hope for. Interviews are often very weird situations, you’re sitting down with a complete stranger to discuss what are often very intimate aspects of their existence. But, in that context, I really felt at ease and it was a very meaningful conversation — which I then had to chop down by 800 words.

“This whole situation has opened people’s eyes to the plurality and possibilities of fashion. You don’t need to go to a show, you can watch it on your computer and still be able to review it.” – Mahoro Seward

In the wake of Covid, the way we consume and document fashion has changed drastically. What do you think of this new way of presenting fashion digitally and how will it change fashion and fashion writing?

It works for some, it doesn’t for others. Years before now, long before the pandemic was even a twinkle in the world’s eye, there were examples of people who were amazing with digital mediums and were able to run with that. This binary discussion of digital vs physical is redundant; if anything, this whole situation has opened people’s eyes to the plurality and possibilities of fashion. You don’t need to go to a show, you can watch it on your computer and still be able to review it. Of course, you’d like to be there, but what actual impact has it got on your ability to do your job? The whole situation has revealed to everyone that the old way of doing things, which was upheld as sacred, never actually was. The defining moments of my career at i-D, the things I’m most proud of covering, have all been during the pandemic from my kitchen table.

 

Is that a strange concept to think about?

It’s going to be very, very hard to bring designers back to working towards this one-week-where you present a collection on a runway. Look at how people are presenting collections now: huge brands that were fashion week mainstays are still releasing lookbooks and films months after Paris Fashion Week would normally have ended. Regarding the digital versus physical debate, I don’t think one is better than the other. I personally enjoy the physical, ephemeral experience of a catwalk show, but I don’t think it has much of an impact on the way the actual garments are presented — and if I’m reviewing, I typically refer back to still images anyway. There are designers who are showing their work better on film and digital platforms than they ever did on the runway. If anything this current moment has really forced us to rethink our structures and how people fit within them. It may not sound particularly rousing or optimistic, but I think the most constructive future we can work towards is one in which people are just allowed to do what they want with their practices and aren’t expected to fit into these arbitrary frameworks.

“It’s perfectly fine to have moments of frustration and to be reluctant to give in to this neoliberal expectation that we always have to be having the best time and measure our success in terms of productivity.” – Mahoro Seward

What advice would you give to any young fashion writers feeling frustrated with or falling out of love with the current state of the fashion industry? 

It’s perfectly fine to have moments of frustration and to be reluctant to give in to this neoliberal expectation that we always have to be having the best time and measure our success in terms of productivity. Like at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was like: “Living my best lockdown-life! I’m making banana bread and having the best fucking time!” Like, people are dying, the world is on fire, it’s ok to feel bad. Your job is a very important part of your identity construction but it doesn’t have to be who you are all the time. Then again if you slump into feeling depressed and demotivated and it’s consuming your existence — as it did mine around the summer — it’s, of course, good to have personal strategies to help pull yourself out of that. Workwise, what I found really helpful is trying to remind myself of what made me love fashion so much in the first place. For me, it will always be Comme des Garçons SS97, “Dress meets Body, Body meets Dress”. Whenever I look at it, there’s always something new I see in it. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way about that collection.

 

What are you planning on now, what’s next for you in your career?

Now’s not the time for anyone to make any far-reaching plans. I’m super happy to be in a full-time job that I really love with a team I really click with. My plan is to just, you know, live out my days at i-D. Other than that, let’s see what the world is saying in 2021.

1 Granary

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With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

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