Representing the creative future

Olivia Singer on the democratisation of the front row

British Vogue’s fashion news director shares her spontaneous journey into the fashion industry and calls for more clarity amongst young creatives

As is customary to interview someone you’ve looked up to for a very long time, the laws of the universe prevail, technology glitches, and the hopeful polished performance is already undermined by a shoddy internet connection. Naturally, in over a year of Zooming, such digital malfunctions have proven exempt until this point, but perhaps it was somewhat fortuitous that it happened with Olivia Singer, who recalls an early interview she conducted with an icon of her own and the unanimous fear amongst all journalists: not recording. One hour and three minutes later, this recording successfully stopped and Singer affirms why she is one of the leading journalists of her time, relinquishing the humanity that is so often forgotten in the fashion industry.

Singer’s ascension to becoming a richly valuable voice in fashion media – sitting as Fashion News Director at British Vogue – stems from her journey on the path less trodden. Meandering pursuits outside of the prosaic passage into fashion school, instead, she took jobs in call centres and kitchen portering, scribing her true passions for intersectional feminism between shifts. Through her perseverance, she has become an authority by the depth of her analysis of the zeitgeist, and in doing so, she dismantles the jaded tropes of the industry, governed by privilege and ephemeral trend proving that visibility is today’s currency.

Despite an unorthodox venture into the fashion industry and the refreshing admittal of anxiety she still gets in interviews, Olivia Singer isn’t one to shy away from what she doesn’t know, nor share the industry’s hard reality. Catching up to discuss these explicit truths that greet young creatives as they march towards the entrance doors into fashion, she addresses the financial taboos of becoming a writer, how a stoic hierarchy is slowly shifting so that we’re all on the FROW, and how the fashion industry’s food chain is re-calibrating once more to prove that your best writer is only as good as your best editor. Perched cross-legged on her sofa, lighting several cigarettes throughout the call, each pursed to her lips and a cat sporadically traversing the screen from time to time, Singer, is reclined comfortably, assuming the role she heralds so fundamental to the future voices of the industry: your very own intergenerational mentor.

Scarlett Baker: As a dominant voice in fashion media, did fashion play a fundamental role in your childhood?

Olivia Singer: No, not at all. Growing up, I didn’t even think about fashion as a career. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I went to university and studied English Literature. I’m from London so I grew up around a lot of music and around people who were creative in some capacity just through clubs that I was going to when I was young. I never thought about it as a job. When I went to university, I specialised in feminism and after my studies, I didn’t know what to do. So with very little planning, I ended up moving to Paris with a vague hope of learning French so I could work in bringing an intersectional feminist lens to the media. But I’d just moved and I had no money so I started working as a waitress.I couldn’t speak any French so they let me work in the kitchen. After a year or so, I started working in a vintage store buying clothes for them. On the side, I was organising feminist festivals that were very much about intersectionality when feminism wasn’t as much of a buzzword as it is now so there wasn’t a great contemporary political movement for that sort of thing in Paris. It was still very second wave there, around the time of the burqa ban, the Slutwalk, and the LadyFest.  When I started doing that, I was very disillusioned by everything in my early 20s and ended up coming back to London not knowing what I wanted to do.

SB: How did you navigate this confusing time with no clear direction?

OS: I still had friends in London who were working in creative industries. At some point, I ended up sneaking into a Meadham Kirchoff show and my mind was just blown. It was all about the feminists that I’ve ever been interested in. I couldn’t believe that in ten minutes you could see this world that felt like it resonated with so many of my interests, the riot grrl feminism energy. I just hadn’t realised that fashion could be a vehicle for that. I bumped into Isabella Burley who was then the Fashion Features Editor at Dazed and who I’d know since I was  15 from clubs. I said to her, this is amazing, I love this. I’d always written blogs for feminist journals and zines so she said why don’t you write about feminism for us? This is how I wrote my first piece for Dazed. Simultaneously, I was writing a lot about beauty because I was really interested in how this space itself gives the right of expression and community for women but is marginalised as frivolous or vain. I lived in situations where I had nothing in common with the women I lived with, apart from the fact that we would paint each other’s nails or do each other’s hair. I was really interested in the fact that even when I had no money, beauty was a form of self-expression in the way that fashion can be – I just didn’t have money for the clothes. And so, I was writing about beauty in a vaguely feminist perspective for a bunch of places online like Into the Gloss, xoJane, and Wonderland. I would just do it all cold and randomly email people. I pitched this column about feminist icons and their beauty routines including my feminist icons, Shirley Manson, Lydia Lunch, Stoya, Cosey Fanni Tutti; a bunch of self-determining women speaking about how beauty makes them feel, outside of the patriarchal structures I was very lucky that I when I started writing about those things, there hadn’t been a huge boom of writing through a feminist lens. If people wanted a feminist take on something from a 25-year-old girl, they could hit me up.

“I didn’t go to fashion school or grew up reading magazines so I thought ‘Shit, I’d better get researching.’ ” – Olivia Singer

SB: How did you go about reaching out to people?

OS: I just emailed them. I was really into the writer Cat Marnell and because I wrote for xoJane, I emailed her asking her: “How do you do it? How does it all work?” She replied to me advising to just pitch places and they commission you. I would find people’s email addresses and just message them.

SB: I think starting out it’s something people still find difficult to overcome and bite the bullet. 

OS: Absolutely. And just remember, I had no internet, no computer, no money, I Twitter messaged Cat Marnell and she just said do it. I didn’t have any particular end goal… I started writing about beauty, then about fashion, and then I heard that a job was going at AnOther Magazine and someone asked me to come in and interview for it. I went in and Laura Bradley and Agata Belcen asked me about myself, I was pretty honest and two days later, they hired me. I was really surprised that it just sort of happened. At this point, I really did have no money. I was writing articles for 30 pounds a pot, I was working whatever random job. When I started working at Dazed, I found my first contract. I was working three and a half days a week, the other half I would work somewhere else in a shop, and in the evenings I would write. I just made it work. When I started working at AnOther, I was so overwhelmed that that could be a job so I worked super super super hard. I had no life basically at that point, I just worked constantly. I would get home from the office and write or come home from my other job and write. But I’d read everything. I didn’t go to fashion school or grew up reading magazines so I thought ‘Shit, I’d better get researching.’ I read everything that I could possibly read. I was incredibly lucky to have then Laura Bradley who hired me, Susannah Frankel, and Jo-Ann Furniss who were women that looked out for me and gave me advice if I needed it. But most importantly, they told me that I could do it. They used to tell me I was a good writer so I’d go off and do it. My job eventually evolved from being an online fashion writer and I got more and more responsibilities and made a lot of friends. I truly loved the people I worked with. Dazed as a company is a place with no boundaries – it’s chaotic, but that means you can be whatever you want to be. That’s true for a lot of the places in the industry where the pay might be bad and there’s not much organisation but it also means you can make your job into whatever you want. So I got involved in everything they asked me to do and always said yes.

“More people are engaged with conversations around fashion than ever before which forces brands and organisations to address issues that matter to a generation of consumers. ” – Olivia Singer

SB: What kind of stories piqued your interest in your early years starting out at AnOther?

OS: What I loved as soon as I got into this industry was the people I could work with and how open they’d be with me. Jo-Ann used to say to me it’s the best job for people like us because we’re really fucking nosey. You can ask people questions and they’ll answer them. I got really into interviewing people like the sound engineers behind fashion shows. I was a young journalist, I couldn’t interview Miuccia Prada so I’d interview those behind the scenes instead, or find the buyers- finding left-field ways into topics. I learned so much about fashion and the more I learned about it, the people in it, and the way fashion can, when at its best, reflect the society at large and question and challenge or mirror, the more I loved it.

SB: Where do you think the industry sits at the moment? Do you think presently, it’s at its best?

OS: We’re in a really interesting time. More people are engaged with conversations around fashion than ever before which forces brands and organisations to address issues that matter to a generation of consumers.  Sometimes we see brands addressing socio-cultural, socio-political, socio-economic issues because of cancel culture and Instagram. Brands are talking to a very savvy generation and people see gratuitous or tokenistic efforts to engage with the zeitgeist, and that has forcibly democratised fashion in a way that’s never been done before. There is no front row that I’m sitting in that you can’t sit in, or any kid in the world can’t sit in. We now all have the same seat and social media allows now, for better or worse, everyone to have a voice. The future of fashion is in brands that have a message behind them. Fashion is people wanting to buy things that resonate with their identity in some way. People are now more attuned to sustainability than ever before, people want to buy into brands that reflect their personal value systems and brands are being encouraged to be more visible than ever before.

“The companies that have decision-makers from a new generation and aren’t from an old way of doing this are leading the way. ” – Olivia Singer

SB: Do you think this exists across the luxury conglomerates as much as it does amongst new and emerging designers?

OS:  The companies that have decision-makers from a new generation and aren’t from an old way of doing this are leading the way. It’s very rare to see conglomerates doing it right. There are a couple. Gucci has been getting it right because of the work they do behind the scenes from supporting creatives of colour, exploring sustainability and their infrastructure that they’re less vocal about. Gucci has listened to young people and has hired them to talk openly about where the company should be directing its future… It takes time for those changes to be made in conglomerates – it also takes willingness and money – but it means they’re a little bit ahead of the curve.

SB: What advice would you give to those people that don’t necessarily have an obvious pathway coming out of university or even those that didn’t go into higher education?

OS: I really don’t think it matters and I say that with my chest. You get fresh perspectives from people coming from fresh places and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t studied. I didn’t study fashion or knew anything about the industry. What’s incredible about the internet is that you can educate yourself. I used to go through Cathy Horyn’s show reviews from 1994 or browse through and find anything Tim Blanks or Robin Givhan had ever written, or go on Vogue Runway and look at a collection that I liked and read a different perspective on it. The most important thing is that young creative perspectives are what this industry craves. This whole industry is obsessed with newness and youth and the unheard voice. Leaning into what you know and what you feel is a really important lesson. For example, there aren’t a lot of fashion journalists doing a lot of interesting stuff about TikTok. It’s changing the way fashion is worn, consumed, and how people reflect their identities. If you’re young and this is part of your world, then you have a perspective on that that nobody else has access to. If you’re young and you’ve lived through this pandemic observing fashion from the same distance as the seasoned journalists who’ve been working in this career for decades, you’re seeing it through a new lens. It’s really important for young people to believe and hear that their voice is as valid as anyone else’s. It might just take a minute to articulate it and develop your voice, particularly when you come out of university. If you’ve done some sort of humanities degree, you’re going to name-drop Foucault left, right, and center and you need an editor to strip that shit out. If you’re writing for a publication or copy for an e-commerce website, you can make that stuff good. There can be this idea that if you’re not writing for X, Y, Z publication why bother? But the reality is, if I had interviewed Miuccia Prada when I was starting out my career, it wouldn’t have been a very good interview.

SB: How do you know when you’ve written a good piece?

OS: Pride. It’s something that you only really get with hindsight. I never read my pieces back, once they’re written, they go into the ether. But I was looking for a quote from someone the other day and found I did an interview with Pierre Bergé just before he died. It was one of the last pieces I did for AnOther before I moved to Vogue. It was the most anxious I’ve ever been about interviewing someone. I read it back and thought I did a good job actually.  If you’re giving anything less, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.

“I’ve worked for people who I have wholeheartedly believed in what they’re doing and that makes me want to give them everything I’ve got. There’s always going to be a cultural cachet to certain publications or brands, but the reality is that they’re composed of normal people.” – Olivia Singer

SB: Let’s talk about your transition to Vogue and what the average day looks like for you. I imagine no day is quite the same?

OS: It’s actually not. Like discounting the pandemic and working on the sofa. I would have happily worked at AnOther forever, but when Edward Enninful got appointed to Vogue it was the first time I ever thought about working somewhere else. I had no career trajectory in mind, but I thought it was so amazing. I’d never thought that before and then I got an email asking to come and meet him as he assembled his UK team. Again, I was very honest and I guess he liked me before he offered me a job. The day-to-day was always going to be different because there was a big shift taking place in the magazine. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve worked for people who I have wholeheartedly believed in what they’re doing and that makes me want to give them everything I’ve got. There’s always going to be a cultural cachet to certain publications or brands, but the reality is that they’re composed of normal people. It’s still about working with my team and making things the best they can be.

SB: How did you navigate the shift in audience from AnOther to Vogue?

OS: If you’re reading AnOther, you know who Rick Owens is and you are probably into him. What I found interesting about Vogue is that the woman reading it doesn’t have the intricate knowledge of Rick Owens, or Rei Kawakubo and the histories of these niche designers. It’s about being able to contextualise those culturally and aesthetically, in a way that resonates with a broader demographic. It was a real recalibration for me, and when we first put Grace Wales Bonner in Vogue and I’d followed her work from the beginning of her career and written everything about her for AnOther, seeing here in print going out to all of the people who read Vogue around the world who might of otherwise not known who she was, that truly excited me. The idea that someone could be picking up Vogue and come across a profile of a woman who addresses culture and identity is so exciting to me. You could be on a shopping page and see a Saint Laurent handbag and also see a Mowalola or Stefan Cooke. I didn’t think I would love a shopping page but now I do!

“This industry is based on interpersonal relationships and I would look at it that way because publications and brands are only as good as the teams who make them. ” – Olivia Singer

SB: Do you think young people are encouraged to forward plan their career trajectories and there’s still a great deal of emphasis on having an end goal?

OS: For me, it’s been more of a spontaneous process. Rather than watching the publications, it’s been about looking for people to work with. This industry is based on interpersonal relationships and I would look at it that way because publications and brands are only as good as the teams who make them. I always feel like I’m on some sort of Edward Enninful PR campaign but I love my job and I love working for Vogue because I love working for him and how he treats his team. It’s not because I walk into Vogue house everyday, but it’s because I get to sit alongside people whose opinions I respect and try to make something good together.

SB: You mentioned earlier the sense of disillusionment you had in your early 20s, figuring out your way into the industry.  A lot of this in the modern day is exacerbated by social media. How far would you say Instagram has taken on a new role amongst young creatives as a portfolio space for young people and what pressure comes with that?

OS: It’s hugely beneficial. I’ve been sitting in this room for 18 months now so social media is how I find talent, new conversations, and new perspectives. Of course, it can become hard to create professional boundaries but I’m not the avatar of that – I have none. But it’s amazing as a portfolio. Reactive responses have proven themselves so far in this industry to not be the foundation for this sustained change that needs to happen in order to make this a fair of space that eradicates barriers to entry along lines of race, gender, class. We saw a huge wave of social media support for an array of different causes, most prominently last year with Black Lives Matter in addressing racial inequality throughout the industry.  A lot of those conversations have stopped and while social media can be really important in bringing certain issues to light, that’s the start point. Someone getting taken down on social media can be seen as a win. But people come back, and lots of people have very short memories of this industry. It’s about looking at how we can translate Hot Topic issues into sustained structural and systemic change, which I don’t think comes about just from the grid.

“I think it’s important for young writers to know there is very little money in this industry and there are no conversations around that.” – Olivia Singer

SB: What questions would you say that young creatives should be asking themselves and through their work going forward?

OS: I think it’s important for young writers to know there is very little money in this industry and there are no conversations around that. My advice would be to find people who can be really open and have a sounding board about the industry so you can address what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. You’re not going to be able to pay your rent living in a capital city at the beginning of your career based on editorial.  You have to find financial stability for yourself and then build everything else on top of that, otherwise, it’s impossible.  This conversation really needs to happen from the beginning. It’s sad and I wish it wasn’t the case and that people paid wages properly but they don’t. Talk to your friends about money. What about day rates? Has anyone given you any advice on how much you should be charging? Conversations around money, particularly for women, are agonizing. You just got to start having it. It’s considered uncouth or unglamorous and it’s the reality of it. It’s a job and you need to be able to live from it. It’s hard knowing your worth when you feel really grateful just for the opportunity to be part of something but that can easily turn into exploitation and you need to feel it out with your peers which is why intergenerational mentorship is really important.