Steve Salter: Always A Fan, Never a Critic
Steve Salter is best known as the Fashion Features Editor of i-D, but it was his menswear blog, Style Salvage, that first put him on the fashion map. Part of the 2007 blogging wave, Salter segued into mainstream fashion media via a spate of digital roles. He started at Dazed as Digital Sales Executive, later moving to i-D as Online Editor. Before taking over the Fashion Features role from Anders Christian Madsen in 2017, he also acted as Social Media Editor and Digital Editor. Steve was the last person employed by i-D founders Terry and Tricia Jones before they sold to Vice in 2012.
Writing with one eye on fashion and the other on the world, Steve manages to make heavyweight topics like cultural appropriation as accessible and engaging as lighter notes on meme fashion and microbags. His degree in Law and Sociology might seem irrelevant now, but his love of words and debating remains. Plus, it was academic boredom that first pushed him towards journalism: his first published pieces were music reviews for local zines and independent publishers in his university town of Warwick.
What attracted you to i-D?
I grew up in a small seaside town – Margate – which is popular now, but when I was there, it was the arse-end of nowhere. Reading about London and the creative scene in magazines like i-D was my escape. I knew I had to be there. Even when I accepted the Law degree, it was all part of the plan of getting that bit closer to London. I moved as soon as I graduated, worked in a few marketing jobs but soon transitioned into fashion. Being offered a role at i-D was everything, it felt like home then and still feels like home today.
I love covering the established designers and big fashion houses today, but I can’t imagine a time when I’m not excited by the energy of emerging talents, it’s infectious.
Do you think it’s true that to be a fashion journalist in the UK, you have to live in London?
Location shouldn’t be a barrier today, so we’re trying to break that a little bit. Historically so much of British fashion has centred around London – as it has done with other capital cities around the world – but in this hyperconnected world, why should it? Everything is under a microscope in London but we all have to look beyond our immediate surroundings and discover the unknown because that’s where we find the best inspiration. It’s a case of us all having to look beyond our surroundings. Of course it helps when everyone is in one city because you meet people and it’s easy because everyone knows each other, It’s such a community and that’s beautiful, but if you’re coming from the outside then it’s hard to break through that. The internet has helped somewhat, but there’s still a way to go and that’s on the people who commission features.
How has the menswear scene changed since you first came to London?
When I started covering men’s fashion on the blog, it was really around the birth of London menswear as we know it know but it was still a tally-on to the women’s show in those early days. At that time, Fashion Week was around the grounds of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, and Fashion East had a house just opposite that. It was an old Georgian townhouse, and they gave designers a room each to do an installation. Those still rank as some of my favourite fashion events. It’s where I first encountered Gosha Rubchinskiy, Nasir Mazhar, Meadham Kirchhoff, and so many more. I was so fortunate that I was one of the few journalists covering it at the time. Well, I wasn’t really a journalist, I was a blogger. It felt like we were at the start of something and, looking back now, we were. I love covering the established designers and big fashion houses today, but I can’t imagine a time when I’m not excited by the energy of emerging talents, it’s infectious. i-D has always been about new ideas, new talent, and new energy so that’s why we’re a good fit.
Someone might say they want to do a feature on a designer, but if they just googled it, they would see that we’d just covered them. So what I want to know is, what’s the hook? Why are they the best person to write it and why do people need to read about it?
You just touched on it a little bit, but I’d like to talk more about your transition from ‘blogger’ to ‘journalist’ – what is the difference in your mind? And when did you start calling yourself a journalist?
I don’t know whether there is one to be honest. It’s just a title change. My Instagram bio says: a fan, not a critic. That’s something that Terry Jones actually said at i-D and it’s one of the reasons I feel so at home there. As a blogger, I only covered what I loved and as a journalist, I only cover what interests me because there’s enough negativity in this world already. If it’s not for me, I either ignore and move on, or if it’s there’s something there, then I commission it out. It’s about being honest, but it’s coming from that mentality of only really writing about stuff that you really like. That’s what I did with my blog and it’s what I try and stick to now.
It sounds so obvious but a piece always reads better if it’s written by someone who is knowledgeable about and excited by the subject. If that’s not me, then I’ll just commission it out.
It seems like we’re having a renaissance of the freelance writer, but so many of my friends that are freelancers joke about being terrible at pitching. Being able to pitch a feature is such a good skill. Someone might say they want to do a feature on a designer, but if they just googled it, they would see that we’d just covered them. So what I want to know is, what’s the hook? Why are they the best person to write it and why do people need to read about it?
How many features have you been drawn to because of a really good title or tweet only to discover that there’s not much else to it. It’s all smoke and mirrors and it can perform well in the short-term but people are beginning to wake up to just how problematic it can be in the long-term.
I think your career trajectory is really interesting. How has your early digital focus shaped the way you approach journalism?
I would say that it’s been shaped by digital and my various roles across the business have helped hone a unique perspective but it’s always been powered by real-life interactions. Throughout my time at i-D, I’ve always gone where I felt I was most useful to the business. When I joined, there were two editors – Sean [Baker] and Sarah [Raphael] but i-D was a very simple Tumblr site back then. Terry and Tricia brought me on to help relaunch it but then they sold it to Vice. In those early days, we would only post articles on social media occasionally, the digital strategy was in its infancy. Once we joined Vice, we needed to grow our audience, and social media was the way to do that so that’s what I moved into and it was exciting because I, along with our former Editor-in-Chief Holly Shackleton, was shaping the tone and voice that enticed new readers to the site.
However, after a couple of years focussed on digital growth, I had a bit of a mental breakdown, just because of the relentlessness of it all. It’s easy to get too obsessed with the numbers side, because you’re tracking it in real-time and it’s addictive. During my time as Social Media Editor and then Digital Editor, we saw figure growth with the help of Vice and we truly became a global voice.
Aside from the obvious points – more daily content, a more immediate interaction with readers etc. – how do you think social media has changed fashion journalism? Has it changed the way people write?
Definitely. I feel guilty for it because when I watch shows now, there are times in which I think about it in terms of: what’s going to be the headline and what’s going to be the sell? You’re kind of writing the piece as you look at it because that’s the reality of fashion’s pace today. It extends beyond fashion week coverage too. Social media has essentially homogenised how content is presented and there’s been little opportunity to escape clickbait culture but we’re all increasingly moving away from that world. How many features have you been drawn to because of a really good title or tweet only to discover that there’s not much else to it. It’s all smoke and mirrors and it can perform well in the short-term but people are beginning to wake up to just how problematic it can be in the long-term.
Whether designers are being political in their work intentionally or not, there is always an element of that, because we can’t separate ourselves from our environment. It goes back to what i-D is, it’s about identity.
That leads nicely into my next question, actually. How relevant do you think good quality fashion writing is to online audiences?
There’s been so much dumbing-down across the media landscape, just to reach a wider audience but I always think it’s our role to educate. Going back to your earlier question about personal milestones, I loved it when tutors at LCF or CSM told me that the blog was on their reading list. I want everyone that arrives on i-D to take away something new and ideally, involve them in a conversation. It’s about immersive storytelling across platforms because our work extends beyond published features alone. It’s about making the most of our access too, we as fashion journalists have to take audiences on a journey inside our fashion world. Beyond being presented what’s shown on the catwalk, our audiences, are interested in discovering the human stories behind fashion week. By this, I mean the designers, the models, the behind-the-scenes creatives, the assistants and everyone beyond too. They want to hear about the fascinating, the underrepresented, the challenging, the amazing, the funny, and the weird. We should inform, critique, challenge and entertain, involving our audience in each.
Have you noticed any shifts since the beginning of your career in what you want to write about and what people want to read about?
I guess putting fashion through a wider cultural lens. When events happen like the Met Gala, that doesn’t really interest me all that much personally – what celebrities wear to events – but that is something readers always like to see and know about. I just try and think, why would you come to i-D specifically for that story? I think that’s also what’s happened with the digital explosion: publications have lost their tone of voice and their perspective a little bit because everyone is covering very similar topics and talents. And it filters down to print as well – who magazines have on their covers, how things are angled, the language used in headlines – everyone looks at what everyone else is doing. That’s the biggest shift I’ve seen, but I hope that’s going to change. Especially now publications like Vogue are considering paywalls. They will no doubt need to hone in on who their reader is and what they want or it won’t work.
What, in your view, is the i-D tone of voice? What is the filter that you put on a story to make it i-D?
I guess it’s that fans not critics mantra. Informed informality. We’ve always joked it’s like the slightly older sibling, maybe, who is either encouraging their younger sibling into a new scene – you might like this, you might like that – and giving them the encouragement and platform-sharing to feel like they can be a part of it too. i-D shouldn’t be exclusionary, it should be celebratory.
You mentioned putting fashion through a wider cultural lens – I think that’s something i-D do really well. It’s never been shy about discussing gender, sexuality, race, politics…
One thing that does annoy me actually is how fashion journalism in the wider sphere isn’t seen as real journalism. Someone said that fashion journalism is closer to fashion than it is to journalism, and I think that’s true, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t evolve and become something more than that. We’re seeing the likes of Vanessa Friedman at the New York Times and Matthew Schneier at New York Magazine who are doing some really interesting pieces and exposés. I don’t think i-D will necessarily do that, but we can push for positive change.
Yeah, I think what i-D does well is intellectual fashion coverage without intellectualising it.
Exactly. Whether designers are being political in their work intentionally or not, there is always an element of that, because we can’t separate ourselves from our environment. It goes back to what i-D is, it’s about identity.
I think the biggest thing I’ve had to navigate is being a writer and dealing with any kind of depressive or anxious episodes. Fashion isn’t really an industry that’s great for it, because things can happen at any time and it demands a lot.
How do you integrate politics in a meaningful way without losing engagement or alienating people who don’t want fashion to be overtly political, and also without it coming across as tokenistic? Especially with digital pieces, where the headline has to be so succinct and the piece itself is more snappy.
It can never feel forced. It’s really difficult because, with social media, someone might come to an online piece with no prior understanding of what i-D is and they might have never read another article on there. I think that’s the difficulty of commissioning out opinion pieces too, because it’s obviously the opinion of the writer, but it’s also the opinion of the publication. It’s a balancing act. Within the piece, you have to make sure you’re linking to a number of other pieces that are part of that wider argument. It doesn’t all have to agree, but it needs to give a wider perspective of the issue.
You must spend the majority of your time thinking, talking or writing about fashion. What do you think are the most pressing conversations to have in fashion right now?
Sustainability. We have to make fashion a cleaner industry. So many designers are beginning to think about it now and fashion is getting better at responding to criticisms, like Extinction Rebellion’s, but there’s so much work that needs to be done. It’s a wider conversation that the industry needs to have in terms of the post-production too and how we cover stuff. We send people all over the world to see the shows, to cover launches, to profile talent. Is it all necessary?
Yeah. We often talk about fashion’s impact on the environment, but one thing that gets glossed over is the fact that journalists and models fly a lot.
Exactly. I hope the industry realises that and changes accordingly, especially since far-flung destinations – like Marrakech for the Dior cruise show and Prada showing men’s in Shanghai – seem to be becoming the norm. People who don’t really get fashion always ask me, ‘so how long is the show?’ or ‘what are you actually doing there?’ You know, I was in Marrakech for two or three days, but the show itself was about 20 minutes long. Of course, it’s a wider experience that builds the narrative but it’s such an expense of resources and there are many ways to tell stories.
My advice to any young journalist is just to really think about what you’re posting and why you’re posting. I’ve always seen social media as an extension of what you’re writing and how you’re presenting yourself to the world but just do what’s right for you.
I guess the other side of keeping fashion clean is, how do you maintain journalistic integrity when you’re being given so much free stuff by brands? And maybe that feeds into the ‘fan not a critic’ thing as well – a sort of criticism by exclusion?
It’s really tricky. My point of view is that it’s okay to go on the press trips if it’s transparent. The gifts thing is a whole other thing. I often get emails asking for my shoe size or something and it’s like, what are you sending me? It feels weird. I’ve got a very particular style and, this sounds ungrateful, but I don’t want random things sent to me and I’ve been sent some really weird things.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve been sent?
Just really colourful things and crazy hype hybrids of things that just aren’t me. I end up giving them to people in the office who can appreciate them.
It all feeds into the discussion about sustainability and how much unnecessary stuff we produce and consume. It’s not just the press and influencers being sent gifts, it’s the acceleration of the fashion calendar and the high turnover of designers too. If we’re talking about sustainability more broadly or holistically, how do you think we can make fashion more emotionally sustainable for the people within it?
It’s difficult, because so many designers in recent seasons have pushed back on the sheer volume of fashion. That’s probably one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced in the industry – it’s gone from two seasons to four seasons to everything else in between, collaborations and stuff. I look at people like Virgil [Abloh], Kim [Jones] to an extent as well, and I think, how are you doing it? Obviously they’re part of a bigger team, but they do so much. Some people seem to thrive on it, but it doesn’t seem sustainable to me and an increasing number of designers are finding a way forward that works for them. I don’t personally thrive on the relentless pace. I need time to breathe and comprehend a little bit. Hopefully there’ll be a slight pushback on that, I think there has to be.
Yeah, especially when mental health has become such a big topic within fashion, and you’ve obviously had your own struggles with that.
Yeah, completely. I think the biggest thing I’ve had to navigate is being a writer and dealing with any kind of depressive or anxious episodes. Fashion isn’t really an industry that’s great for it, because things can happen at any time and it demands a lot. I always liken mental health to the weather really, and I’m aware of certain triggers and things now, but it could happen whenever. I’ve missed deadlines because of mental health struggles, but it’s something that i-D has been great at understanding and I think the wider industry is waking up to it now too. The more we talk about these issues, the better it is.
Social media and mental health seem to be closely linked. Especially this idea that, as a writer, you have to have an online persona – a ‘personal brand’ if we’re being that synthetic about it. How would you advise young journalists dealing with that?
I used to be a lot more active across social media during my blogging days but I’ve moved away from the infinite scroll because it can easily become too much. My advice to any young journalist is just to really think about what you’re posting and why you’re posting. I’ve always seen social media as an extension of what you’re writing and how you’re presenting yourself to the world but just do what’s right for you.
One final thing. I found an old copy of i-D where you said that your advice to your 16-year-old self would be: don’t do what you think you should do, do what you want to do. Would you stand by that advice now?
Totally. That goes back to the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was 16 – or 18 or 21 for that matter – and I might still not know exactly now. It’s always transient, it’s always changing. It sounds really cliche, but do what you want to do, not what your parents want you to do or what other people expect of you. It’s your life. I’m realising as I get older that we put so much focus on what our first feature in print is going to be or something, but it doesn’t matter. Things are forgotten pretty quickly.