Interview Julia van IJken
“I started as a beach suburbs boy…” says Dan Thawley, the Australian-born journalist, features editor of SSAW and Arena Homme + and editor-in-chief of A Magazine, over a fresh watermelon & cucumber juice. After dropping out of his college degree, Thawley moved to London in 2009 in the midst of a (short-lived) modelling and blogging career. It’s here that he met the owners of RA, the former Antwerp and Paris-based shop, and was invited to be their in-house journalist. During that first meeting the managing editor of A Magazine, who just happened to be consulting on the same project, offered Thawley a position as online editor. A year later that same managing editor left – in the midst of making the Giambattista Valli issue – Thawley took over and five years on, he has just wrapped up the Delfina Delettrez issue and is working with the next curator. We spoke to the by now Paris-based and not-so-beach-boy journalist over breakfast at Dishoom.
“I STILL FIGHT TO BE WHERE I THINK I SHOULD BE AND SEE WHAT I WANT TO SEE.”
It seems like in the beginning a lot of your career happened through being in the right place at the right time. How much do you believe in luck and how much of it just comes down to working really hard?
I’m a firm believer in intuition and instinct, and following your passions and what you really care about. And that has put me in places where I’ve met the kind of people I wanted to meet and wanted to work with. I think it’s about a mix of confidence and truth, it’s not about pretending to be something you’re not. And I do work very hard; I don’t think that you can really advance yourself without doing that. I suppose luck is a part of it, but luck only goes so far. Maybe it’s serendipity, but I still fight to be where I think I should be and see what I want to see. And it’s just about curiosity.
In terms of education, you didn’t do a fashion degree and didn’t even finish your college degree. What is your opinion on doing a degree at all?
I believe that life is a constant learning journey and I push myself all the time to discover new things. I was very lucky to have brilliant English teachers at high school who I’m still in touch with today. And for me that was maybe more important than finishing any degree. Because finally my education has come about through practical application of everything that I learnt then. And I have to say that learning French is incredibly key to my development in the fashion world. I think that today being multilingual is incredibly important to being able to exist within different fashion communities. Just to be able to switch between Italian and French and English… Those things put other people at ease; they show that you are sympathetic.
Do you think doing a fashion degree is important as such?
It can be; it’s more about how you use it. I haven’t done a fashion degree but what I think is important is all the other cultural factors that feed into fashion. Having a good fashion background and knowledge of what’s come before you is incredibly important as well, but I think there is an over-expansion of the industry’s education programmes. I don’t believe in styling degrees, for example. Kids pay all this money thinking that they’re gonna get a job, when that’s not how becoming a stylist works.
You can’t teach someone how to style…
No, and I think that’s ridiculous, whereas obviously you can teach someone how to write. But you can’t teach them how to find their own voice. And it is important that they’re going to come out the other end as a professional who can deconstruct things from their own point of view. Because now that information is so readily available, I feel like real criticism and real knowledge of what people are looking at is going to become more and more important, because people are going to search in particular places to read real analyses. People will still look to those institutional publications for information rather than an Instagram account of a blogger.
I guess if you’re going to do this kind of degree, it needs to be a mix of understanding that it’s only a part of your fashion education, which will also have to include travel, writing your own things in your spare time, interning, maybe subediting or proofreading. Looking at other people’s work closely to understand what they’re doing well, what they’re not doing well and applying that to your own thing. I’m a constant consumer of fashion literature – I’m really interested to see how Tim Blanks and Vanessa Friedman and Cathy Horyn look at the collections. The way that they all approach the shows is so different. I’m reviewing a lot of shows for American Vogue now, and often my text has to be in before theirs. So I’m not referencing what they say, but I like to see the similarities and the differences afterwards, I think it’s really fun.
“I THINK THAT CONTENT, THAT MAGIC WORD WHICH NOW PROLIFERATES IN OUR ZEITGEIST, NEEDS TO BE RICHER AND MORE PERSONAL IN PRINT MAGAZINES, AND IT NEEDS TO SHOW A PERSPECTIVE AND A CROSSOVER WE’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE.”
And do you think it’s difficult as a fashion writer that when you’re commenting on fashion shows you’re kind of censored because of advertisers that the publication relies on?
That’s never happened to me literally. But there are definitely underlying expectations at certain publications that your voice should not be too negative and critical. And I have had my work edited subtly.
They made it less critical?
Absolutely. And then at the same time, in other publications which are more avant garde and trying to push boundaries a little bit more, I’ve been made to look more critical. I’ve had to fight for my true meaning in a text. So you can arrive at both ends of the scale. But what’s great is working with publications that have a great system of editing, because that is the best continuous learning: to send an article off and to c.c. six people, and to know that they are all going to fact-check, proofread and subedit. And check that it was organza that you saw on that pale blue dress, or that maybe it was chiffon. And they’re calling the PRs and they’re checking. It’s kind of amazing to know that you have that support network and to learn from it. But it’s also amazing when you finish an article and then nothing really changes, and you realise that you’ve understood what you’ve seen correctly. But it’s frustrating to know that some publications have lost that expectation of professional follow-through, because there are many that I could send an article to, and I could probably write lies, and it will be enjoyed because it’s well-written. And it will be printed when there could be all sorts of things wrong. It’s kind of embarrassing to see that information is sometimes mishandled.
But it’s difficult ’cause there’s so much information out there… Do you even think it’s relevant to publish a magazine monthly as a hard copy?
Depends on what it is and what you’re trying to give people.
What magazines do you think are still relevant as monthlies?
I think Wallpaper remains relevant as a monthly. I think that content, that magic word which now proliferates in our zeitgeist, needs to be richer and more personal in print magazines, and it needs to show a perspective and a crossover we’ve never seen before. The whole cycle has changed, and most magazines have caught up with a great web platform where they catch all the snippets. But I think that biannuals have stepped up their game.
So what are some of your favourite publications?
I’m lucky to work for most of my favourites. But as for the others … I think the relaunch of Holiday magazine is really exciting – that sort of really beautifully curated travel magazine. I’m also really happy with the new Arena Homme + that we’ve just brought out. I did a big piece and challenged myself by interviewing Dsquared, who are very far from my own aesthetic universe and interest, and had lunch with them in their beautiful restaurant and discovered their side of the story. And I’m really happy with the results of that. Also I wrote a think piece about Loewe menswear and the way that Jonathan’s pushing his kind of idiosyncratic eclectic wardrobe of a collection that’s not really a collection. The pieces in the looks don’t go together, it’s more about this whole movement of individuality that Anna Wintour has basically pronounced as the theme of the fall/winter collections, with Margiela and Dries and Celine. Many brands are doing these really eclectic collections with looks that just are really dispersed and very personalised and extremely styled. Less of the systematic way the collections often work: the long skirt, the blue skirt, the black skirt, the maxi version of it…
“DESIGNERS ARE GRASPING THEIR POWER POSITION OF BEING TASTE MAKERS AND FEEDING THAT TO US TO SELL PERHAPS BANAL FASHION SOMETIMES.”
What do you think of JW Anderson creating this world around his clothes very much based on styling and imagery? I even see that with people who have been graduating from CSM recently, who really focus on this world that they’re creating with images and the kind of references they have within that world. Do you think that has to do with how we consume a lot of fashion through images now?
Hugely. I remember when Phoebe Philo started doing Celine and she would put a very beautiful image book on the chairs at the show. It was a very similar to some of those early A Magazines: a matte cover and about 130 pages of her collected research. And it was a lot of 1970s images, sporty pictures, nudes – a really stunning document. Just with a list of credits down the back. That was more so before Instagram really kicked off, and that was a way for designers to situate their clothes in a wider lifestyle context. Kim Jones said to me last year in an interview “The problem with the internet is, you can find that Helmut Lang catwalk image or DUTCH magazine image if you look really hard, but you can’t see the page next to it. You can’t see the order of the magazine, or wherever it existed originally.” And that’s very true, because the internet just puts everything at our fingertips but none of it is connected, and there’s no lens. And designers are grasping their power position of being taste makers and feeding that to us to sell perhaps banal fashion sometimes, you know?
What do you think of what Hedi Slimane is doing at Saint Laurent, for instance?
It’s very honest from his point of view. I think it’s a complete continuation of what he was doing before: he just kept taking photos and looking for the kids that he loves to be surrounded by. It’s such a polemic topic, Saint Laurent. It depends on from what point of view you want to understand it, ’cause he is saving the Kering group with £7,000 dresses because people are buying them. And they’re not buying Balenciaga or the other brands in that stable. So he’s doing something right. I think that he’s speaking to different generations at the same time with what he’s doing; it’s a very post-modern situation. And not one that true fashion analysers and lovers will buy into very often, I think. But it’s proof that clothes are clothes and people want covetable sexy clothes that link them to a time and an attitude. And that’s what he’s doing for people who otherwise weren’t vintage shopping, who otherwise weren’t young and beautiful. You know, he’s giving that to a customer on a silver platter and it’s working.
Is it hard to run A Magazine, work as a freelance writer and a features editor for other publications?
Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but it also goes in waves. A Magazine is only twice a year. So there are down times and very busy times. But A as a project is a long term thing, so there are always things going on in the background for the next issue. I obviously rely on a great network of collaborators to do each issue – some people come back, but we sort of start from scratch each time. So it’s a lot of management to follow all the various shoots and projects we’ve got going.
“IT’S A VERY ORGANIC AND POLITICAL PROCESS TO CHOOSE AND WORK WITH DESIGNERS, BECAUSE NO ONE HAS THE TIME WHEN YOU WANT THEM TO.”
How does that work when you start working on the magazine with the designers?
As I always say, it’s a very organic and political process to choose and work with designers, because no one has the time when you want them to. It’s about choosing the right moment in their career as well; it makes sense to celebrate something new or an anniversary, or something that will be remembered. And we’ve been lucky in capturing people at interesting times in their career. We did Riccardo Tisci when he started at Givenchy, Proenza quite early on, also Haider of course… Yohji was already an icon when we did his 10 years ago. And the way that content was done back then couldn’t even be done now. Him sitting in the same room with Alaïa, with the conversation led by Hans Ulrich Obrist. People’s schedules and lives have changed quite drastically in the last ten years I think.
How do you think that’s changed?
Well I just feel like those people would not be in the same room together for an interview these days.
Well, those kind of exclusives are harder to come by… Actually no, it’s a double-edged sword: at the same time, a lot of people are more ready to say yes these days. People want publicity. I have to say that a lot of people are up for it at the moment. But basically we like to have designers from different countries, from different kinds of aesthetics that don’t clash too much with designers we’ve already worked with. People with unique points of view, and people whose universe stretches much further than clothes. I’m looking for someone who lives and breathes something very individual and is as curious as we are about the world, and uses that to make fashion. And I’ve been surprised by people.
Like Giambattista Valli, who essentially designs socialite frocks. But he’s designing them with Piero Manzoni cotton wool 1970s arte povera paintings in his mind, and Ming porcelain, and images of Tina Chow and Paloma Picasso doing their lipstick together – his reference pool is kind of astounding. And when in the middle of making the magazine he decided to put a picture of River Phoenix with a little bird on his nose on the cover — one of the most beautiful and intimate covers we’ve ever done — that shocked me in a really good way. It just felt like he was a master of contrasts, that he would decide to put a man on the cover of his magazine. I was just really impressed, and that’s someone I’ve continued to follow and to maintain a friendship with because of that intense collaboration on the project. Stephen Jones as well, he gave so much of himself to the magazine. Our next collaborator works with Stephen quite often, and I went to a meeting in New York with him recently, and he said “Well Stephen told me it’s a lot of work”. And I said “Well, that’s because he put his heart and soul into it, not everybody does…”
But you can see the difference can’t you?
You can see the difference…
And even with budget and everything, how does that work?
What we do is we sit down with the designer, we work out what kind of affiliations they have within the industry, what people would be interested in supporting a magazine that’s about them, and we approach those people. And we do have a small stable of luxury advertisers, mostly LVMH, Dior and Vuitton and people like that, who have the freedom to advertise in avant garde magazines like ours. The designers don’t pay to do A Magazine – they just pay with their time and their energy. And that’s already a huge commitment from them. It’s a process that takes close to a year to do, from the first talks to processing an editorial map, reaching out to collaborators and then beginning to produce content, to putting it all together and printing. They have the freedom to choose pretty much anything. There are very few limitations, but we do maintain that it has to stay a magazine, not a book.
“YOU HAVE TO BE COMPLETELY OBSESSED WITH SOMETHING AND LOVE WHAT YOU DO, AND STILL BE LOOKING EVEN THOUGH MAYBE YOU’VE FOUND PART OF IT.”
Do the ideas mostly come from the designers or do you work on ideas together too?
It depends on how giving the designer is and how much they want to listen to me and our art director Madeleine [Wermenbol], who also plays a large role in the process towards the end, when she’s actually laying out the content.
How does it work with this tiny team who all live in different countries?
Well, I often take the designer to Antwerp for the last few days and we sit and finish it together with Madeleine. I mean, distance today is relative – we’ve got contributors sending us things from New Zealand and Canada and Sweden… It doesn’t really matter.
How do you wrap it up, do you literally sit around the table those last few days with the designer and the art director?
We have many PDFs that go backwards and forwards. We do have a maquette that appears at various stages, and we work with the printer on it as well. We have to choose various finishes for the pages, we also have to block out where the various papers go… All those things affect the composition of the magazine in the end. There are lots of technical things but then I guess that’s inevitable for most magazines. But the designer has the final say on everything and can change things at the last minute sometimes. Usually our letters are the last things to go in of course. It’s nice to be able to introduce the magazine each time with my voice and to say why we chose that specific person, because it’s not always obvious. Some designers are so present in certain worlds and not so present in others. Iris van Herpen is quite celebrated in the design world but she’s not a household name in any way. And Delfina, who comes from an aristocratic family and presents in fantastic art galleries in Paris, but who also dresses Beyoncé: her work exists on very different levels. Stephen Jones as well: not many people wear hats today, but he’s someone who is, as his book was called, the accent of fashion. He has followed John Galliano and 20 other seminal designers through their whole careers. It’s good to be able to show those people to the world and maybe especially the unexpected designer, someone who has something to say who hasn’t done millions of interviews and shown their entire world… I think it’s exciting to show people that still have some mystery to them.
What’s your favourite interview you’ve ever done?
Hmmm… I mean Olafur Eliasson was incredible. It wasn’t his working studio, which is in Berlin and where he has about 90 people working for him. It was actually a more intimate space which is very close to his home. It is the former atelier of a Danish Renaissance painter, so it was a neo-nordic house with some of Olafur’s pieces inside, which was an amazing juxtaposition. We spoke for over an hour and I probably asked only six questions in the entire time. And he spoke so eloquently and he brought every topic back to my question. That was wonderful. Otherwise, I’m really lucky to have interviewed a lot of great designers and other personalities. And they’re all so different and all a little crazy in their own right – and that’s what makes them good. ’Cause I think you have to be in this industry. You have to be completely obsessed with something and love what you do, and still be looking even though maybe you’ve found part of it. Those are the people that are really inspiring and exciting. When you think about the frustration in each of Rei Kawakubo’s shows… That’s the be-all and end-all, isn’t it?
A special thank you to Dishoom