‘She’s a fashion journalist, what does she know?’

The New York Times journalist Elizabeth Paton makes a compelling case for critical fashion journalism in the era of Fake News and fast fashion

WORDS BELLA WEBB
IMAGES ETHAN HART

2020
18th January

When I was younger, my godmother would send me her old copies of Vogue, with well-loved pages folded at the top and her favourite looks circled by an excitable red pen. I wanted nothing more than to see my words printed on those pages. But as I got older, I grew frustrated with the vacuous nature of mainstream fashion journalism. When I looked at fashion, I saw a very different image to the one in magazines. I saw skinny models influencing what my friends ate for lunch; exclusion by way of race, class and gender infiltrating catwalks and closets alike; inequality writ large on Friday night outfits, purchased in a hungover haze, but fuelling environmental damage halfway across the world. When a friend sent me Elizabeth Paton’s writing two years ago, I finally felt like someone else was seeing that too.

Elizabeth is the International Correspondent for The New York Times’ Style section. Her CV highlights include The Sunday Times business desk and the Financial Times news beat – not the traditional route into fashion journalism, and certainly not the most glamorous. When she graduated in 2009, the UK was in the depths of a recession and she only turned to journalism after realising Law was “deeply lonely and high-pressure.” But fashion focused on glamour and glitz for so long that it was blinded to the injustice being sewn into the industry. Elizabeth’s work counteracts that. 

When she started working in a pre-iPhone era, being a Digital Assistant meant using a GoPro. Now, the majority of her articles are published online, and social media commentators are her loudest critics. Here, Elizabeth shares insights from a career split between London and New York, fuelled by KitKats and steered by the mentorship of Vanessa Friedman.

“I was working with the guys who ate crisps for breakfast and had been news hounds for twenty five years, who expect you to write 500 words in 20 minutes. It sounds crazy, but you get used to it and run on adrenaline.”

What does your job actually entail? 

I have four different buckets. I’ve got breaking news – a major deal, the hiring or firing of a CEO or designer, an obituary – the stories that need to be published fast. Then I have analysis pieces, which are my bread and butter. The third bucket is fashion week coverage, which dictates my entire year. Fashion week is unwieldy, so I have to be rigorous. It means that October to December is really valuable for longer stories. That’s the fourth bucket: investigations and deep-dive pieces. 

After carving a niche in luxury fashion and business at the Financial Times, you were sent to the news desk. The path you thought you were on was interrupted. How did that move impact your career? 

Some British newsrooms believe that young reporters should move around and they shouldn’t become specialists too young. That can be at odds with the American culture, where people are encouraged to become specialists as young as possible and build a brand on that. The FT – being a more traditional, establishment newsroom – felt that covering news was important for my progression. Looking back on the last decade in terms of training, it was the most valuable thing. I knew a lot about fashion and business, so I felt very comfortable on that beat. It didn’t really test me. Suddenly, I was writing about construction, local housing, oil markets in Nigeria… For a period in 2015, I was running the Greek Debt Crisis blog. It bolstered my confidence that I wasn’t just a fashion specialist, but I was a journalist first and foremost. 

What was it like, working in breaking news? 

I was working with a couple of the old-school hacks who manned the early morning desks – the guys who ate crisps for breakfast and had been news hounds for twenty five years, who expect you to write 500 words in 20 minutes. It sounds crazy, but you get used to it and run on adrenaline. I ate KitKat chunkies for breakfast every day for nine months. I wrote about anything that broke. While it was exhausting, it gave me a new confidence in my abilities as a reporter. 

How did The New York Times opportunity come about? 

The Herald Tribune and The New York Times merged. Cathy Horyn was the NYT critic and Suzy Menkes was the Herald Tribune critic; both of them moved on and Vanessa took that role. Once Suzy moved to Conde Nast, they had a space for someone international. I came to this job feeling confident in my abilities to cover traditional fashion stories and break the mould. I wanted to show that fashion should be considered a hard news subject and a valuable prism for looking at race or climate change, technology or gender, or any of the newslines that dominate headlines every day.

How does fashion journalism differ between Britain and America? 

Working for an American organisation, I’ve learnt to be more independent. British media tends to be funnier and darker; it’s got more character. There are big exceptions, but you can read the news pages of The Guardian or The Telegraph – whatever your poison is – and you know immediately where the reporter falls along social and political lines. That had to be filleted out of me. Lots of people will disagree with this, but the reporting at The New York Times is meant to be completely unbiased. What you read is not what I think, it’s what I’ve found and reported and can factually back up. That’s so important in the Fake News era.

“Fashion should be considered a hard news subject and a valuable prism for looking at race or climate change, technology or gender, or any of the newslines that dominate headlines every day.”

How does that benchmark of unbiased reporting shape your work? 

It can be quite frustrating. I have opinions and things I feel strongly about, but we’re not allowed to go on political marches or show our political allegiances on social media. That’s really important to our editors. It’s important that nobody sees my reporting as biased. 

I don’t try to divide people, but I pick divisive topics. I did a piece on the use of prison labour in fashion, for example. That’s a big question and people feel strongly on both sides. I hope I laid out the pros and cons without my personal opinion becoming evident, but the social media around that was considerable. There’s no dialogue under pieces like that – it’s just people shouting. The only way I’ve ever responded to it is by sending links to other stories I’ve written. 

As a journalist, you are personally on the line a lot. Is it difficult, in an age where call-out culture reigns and people get cancelled every day, to bite your tongue?

Things get very personal, but the only time I take it to heart is when I think there’s a kernel of truth in the criticism. Then I’ll beat myself up about it. I do the best reporting I can, but nobody is perfect and people hold The New York Times to extremely high standards. The main insult I get is, ‘She’s a fashion journalist, what does she know anyway?’ I don’t engage with that kind of comment. 

Very few people on social media actually do read the work, and that’s not unique to me. I sometimes consider the social media reaction with more contentious stories. How do you evaluate what an important story is? Especially with fashion, there are some easy stories we could write that would get millions of hits, but we don’t write them. There are also meaningful stories that we know matter, which won’t get a lot of hits. Does that mean we shouldn’t write them? I don’t think so.

“There are definite merits to formal journalism training, but nothing prepares you for the newsroom except learning on the job.”

What can magazines and newspapers do to empower their writers when they don’t have the financial freedom of The New York Times?

It’s a broken system and a lot of writers feel shackled by the current process. The power structure is very heavily weighted towards brands and a lot produce their own content. We’re hiring for a position at the moment and the job specification says: ‘We generally cannot consider people who have worked in the fashion industry itself. Applications from people who work as brand consultants or in any form of advertising, including “influence,” or who have any kind of ties to the industry, will be discarded.’ There was a real backlash to that on social media; young people were really angry. They felt it was unfair to be dismissed for doing native advertising or show notes for a brand, when that’s often the work that pays. It’s hard for people to produce independent reporting and only a small number of jobs allow people to do that. 

Even if writers aren’t directly on a brand’s payroll, they are being flown out to shows and put up in hotels. 

Exactly, that’s the status quo. Most media brands do pay-to-play. Fashion, which is so often based on relationships, can make people feel particularly vulnerable because of that. I’m sympathetic to people who would like to bring a different viewpoint into the space, but don’t have the security or stability to. 

Do you ever wish you had a formal journalism education? 

About 50% of my peers did a Masters at City or wherever and 50% dived straight in. I don’t often feel less equipped. There is something to be said for taking a different route. Work on the news review desk or the housing desk. I appreciate they are rare, but try and get a newspaper training. When I was on the companies desk, I’d been hired because I had business experience but I’d never written quarterly results before. I was fudging around for two weeks before a kindly editor explained everything to me. If she hadn’t done that, who knows how long it would have taken me to figure it out? There are definite merits to formal journalism training, but nothing prepares you for the newsroom except learning on the job. 

Work experience is so important and that’s why I support projects like Press Pad. The idea is that young people who live outside London and couldn’t afford to do internships otherwise are connected with established journalists who have a spare room. Work experience is your chance to figure out whether this job is for you. Are you a breaking news journalist or a features journalist? Do you want to sit on a comment section or an opinion section and help shape other people’s views? Increasingly, in a modern newsroom, there are social media people, producers, homepage editors… Experience is the only way to get a sense of what you do and don’t want to do.

What role has mentorship played in your career? Can you share any significant people or moments?

It would be remiss of me not to state the influence of having Vanessa Friedman as a mentor. As my editor, she’s really allowed me to develop independently, through my own stories and my own ideas. She’s never been anything but supportive and I am so grateful for that. I had an early mentor in Bob Tyrer at The Sunday Times who was a very behind-the-scenes foreign editor, but was really thoughtful in helping me decide I wanted to be a journalist in the first place. And Richard Gray, who taught me to have fun with copy. At the Financial Times, I should mention Alec Russell, who was the News Editor while I was there. He taught me that I could write about anything. There are lots of unsung heroes in newsrooms. Behind every reporter are the most amazing producers and researchers and sub-editors. The staff editors here make my stories so much better.

I’m a member of Arts Emergency, which is a network that believes the old boys network shouldn’t control everything. They connect you with kids who need mentoring. I’ve been mentoring a 17-year-old from East London. I thought I would get someone who wants to be a journalist, but my mentee wants to be a fashion designer. Initially, I thought I had nothing to offer her, but now it’s incredible. I’ve realised that a lot of mentoring is not telling people exactly how to do X or Y, it’s about helping them shape a sense of self as a professional and as a person. I find mentoring extremely valuable and I think most people who engage in it would agree it’s a two-way street.

When I started, I would email journalists asking for a coffee and advice. When you do that, ask something specific, like how to pitch or how to write a lead. That’s really helpful for me, because then I can really engage with a solution and feel like you’re going to come away with something useful. 

“I have opinions and things I feel strongly about, but we’re not allowed to go on political marches or show our political allegiances on social media. It’s important that nobody sees my reporting as biased.”

You’re the only member of The New York Times fashion team based in London. How does that affect your work?

I’m a foreign correspondent in my own city, so sometimes I feel like an island. There are ways of getting in touch with the others in New York – phone calls, Skype, Slack – but it’s not the same as speaking in person. Vanessa and I have semi-regular calls about what would work and what wouldn’t. Most things work, it’s more about when to use them.

Most reporters who don’t cover politics have concerns about the next 12 months. So much of the oxygen in the news cycle is going to be sucked up by the impeachment process and the US presidential race next year. As a reporter who doesn’t cover politics, how do you get your story noticed and promoted? Are people exhausted by news? Do they want distraction or heavier stuff? Is it better for us to run stuff during fashion week or is it better for us to tackle issues outside that period? We think quite strategically about where and when to run things.

Fashion week is an odd time, because a lot of the people who would read your stories are too busy running between shows and meeting their own deadlines.

Exactly. We have two very specific fashion audiences at The New York Times: a very engaged, informed, industry audience, and five million paying subscribers who don’t know about fashion at all. They don’t know who Riccardo Tisci is or that there’s a woman at the helm of Dior. They pass these brands at the airport or in the mall or they see them advertised. The challenge for us is finding stories that appeal to those people too. Fashion has an elitism problem. I cover the luxury business a lot, but fashion is many things to many people. I try not to write exclusively about the top of the pyramid. 

As well as luxury, you cover sustainability a lot. Do you feel a responsibility to cover the climate crisis in a certain way?

We have covered the relationship between fashion and the climate crisis for years and I feel a responsibility to continue that. Maybe it’s because I’m tired and the nights are getting darker, but sometimes I feel quite pessimistic about the way things are going. 

I’m interested in trends because I’m interested to see where a business is going and how they reflect society or a designer’s point of view. But the trend whirl is going to become increasingly problematic for people, knowing how the system works to power that. At the same time, humans have been adorning themselves to present a specific identity since the dawn of time, so that’s not going to change. For every school-skipping protestor like Greta Thunberg, there is a young kid who is on every social media platform, buying from Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing. That often comes back to privilege and it’s a real minefield. You also need to look at emerging markets. There are major markets outside the West that are very conscious about climate change – I’ve been looking at China, obviously – where the power of the consumer is already dictating how fashion works. There are going to be hoards of young, ambitious, style-conscious, middle class people saying: ‘Hang on a minute. You just spent 60 years dressing up as whatever you wanted and engaging fully in a trend-based culture. Why can’t we?’

“We generally cannot consider people who have worked in the fashion industry itself. Applications from people who work as brand consultants or in any form of advertising, including “influence,” or who have any kind of ties to the industry, will be discarded.”

What you do really well is fashion with a social conscience, but you also take fashion seriously as a business. What led you to that way of thinking about fashion commentary? 

New York has a tendency to think it’s the centre of the world. London is a more global and outward-looking place, even if it doesn’t feel like it. That was part of the reason I moved back, and it made my last year at the FT very formative. It forced me to adopt a more international scope. 

Fashion as a business was historically overlooked, but that’s changing dramatically. When I started Luxury 360 with Vanessa, it was niche and business-to-business. The Business of Fashion was just a small blog and that has totally transformed now. Suddenly fashion fans, who historically just absorbed what the old guard media told them, can experience more of a dialogue. Fans are so much more informed. They want to know where their clothes are made, what young designers are thinking and what super-rich opinion leaders in China are buying. As they are more engaged and ask more questions, I’m pushed to do more as a fashion journalist.