Words Aravin Sandran
CONVERSATIONS WITH A CRITIC: CHARLIE PORTER
Charlie Porter is British fashion’s wizard of words; his incisive critiques for the Financial Times and his personal website dissects everything from why businessmen are wearing bracelets to a study into the clothing choices of the next 100 men on Tinder. This year, Charlie is one of the 69 most influential and creative men featured in Fantastic Man’s inaugural tome that will be released at the end of October.
Frank, perceptive and singular – Charlie’s seamless style of prose and child-like curiosity has afforded him great access to the firmament of fashion that most fashion writers would kill for. Charlie’s first published work was a 70-word news story about “someone winning a prize for something” in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph when he was 15 or 16. Since then, his astute words have been printed in a slew of reputable publications – The Guardian, British GQ, Fantastic Man and Financial Times are three of his better-known gigs.
Charlie is also part of an elite ‘club’ of critics (including esteemed contemporaries Cathy Horyn and Colin McDowell) that have been banned from fashion shows in the past, a gesture that is often in retaliation to genuine criticism. In 2003, when he was the deputy fashion editor of The Guardian, Charlie was briefly banned from the Balenciaga show after describing the clothes as “so small they might just fit an anorexic Cabbage Patch Kid”. He wrote this in his defence and Balenciaga eventually reconciled.
Charlie doesn’t only enjoy writing about fashion and clothing; his outfits are on fleek as well. He regularly documents and shares his recent purchases with over 5,000 followers on Instagram. “Packing for NY mens is pretty Gosha/Palace/Thames heavy” – the caption of an Instagrammed photograph of his suitcase for the first New York Fashion Week: Men’s in July this year.
Books, art and music – Charlie’s interests extend beyond fashion. His stacked bookshelf has been featured on It’s Nice That; he has been part of panel discussions at the ICA; he has also played DJ sets at Dalston Superstore and is currently part of the team behind Chapter 10, the underground gay dance party.
Fresh from the rustic Tuscan woodlands of Villa Lena, Charlie talks about buying Fiorucci as a free-spirited teenager, the decline of tailoring in a post-Zuckerberg world as well as the invaluable lessons he’s learnt along the way.
“I THINK ALL FASHION JOURNALISTS IN LONDON, NEW YORK, PARIS OR MILAN SHOULD BE FORCED TO SPEND A MONTH SOMEWHERE LIKE MEXICO CITY OR MUMBAI. IT’S SO EASY TO BELIEVE IN THIS THING CALLED “GLOBAL FASHION”, BUT ANYONE WHO’S SPENT ANY TIME IN MAJOR GLOBAL CITIES CAN TELL YOU THAT EACH PLACE HAS ITS OWN IDENTITY, ITS OWN RHYTHM, AND ITS OWN RELATIONSHIP WITH CLOTHING.”
Do you come from a creative family?
My parents are both artists. They met at the Slade School of Fine Art, and still create work to this day. I’ve got three sisters, and none of us have become artists ourselves, but their influence is broad and in pretty much everything I do.
Were you a creative kid growing up?
I’m sure I probably was, because there’d always be art stuff around, and we were always painting or drawing. But I was never particularly good at art – I think I got a C at GCSE. No wait, I remember now – I used to make stuff for my room, almost like sets. I had a sheet I’d splattered with paint, which I hung from a pole, and then I used to melt black plastic bags by putting them in front of a lamp and hanging that up in some way.
Did you dress yourself?
I think I did, just like I think my sisters did – we were never told what to wear. My mum used to knit us sweaters that I loved, but I remember my main look when I was a kid was a red padded gilet. I also had a T-shirt that said “WOTCHA MATE” on it that I loved.
Describe your first fashion moment.
My first serious fashion moment was buying a drawstring nylon backpack at Fiorucci. I have no idea what the year was; I have no memory of the day itself; all I remember is the curved glass entrance, which had two walkways either side, and the place being both joyous and feeling like home. I guess I must have been 14 or 15. I’d also gone to BOY on Kings Road during the same trip to buy badges.
Robert Frank’s evocative black-and-white photographs of gentlemen in top hats and long coats are in stark contrast to today’s preferred garment of choice for most men: the quintessential blue jeans.
Fashion is a global industry today where the same clothes are sold all over the world and consumers have unprecedented access. However, at times, the conversations in and around fashion seem to exist within a bubble of industry insiders. How does fashion on the runway affect culture at large?
I think all fashion journalists in London, New York, Paris or Milan should be forced to spend a month somewhere like Mexico City or Mumbai. It’s so easy to believe in this thing called “global fashion”, but anyone who’s spent any time in major global cities can tell you that each place has its own identity, its own rhythm, and its own relationship with clothing. It’s also true of our own cities, but maybe just less easy to see. “Fashion” and “The Fashion Industry” are two very separate entities, and as a writer it’s important to be aware of the distinction between the two.
You became a fashion journalist in 2000 when you joined The Guardian as deputy fashion editor. What were you doing before and how did you decide on this career move?
I started writing about fashion relatively late in my career. In the last year of my degree I’d been doing work experience at Vogue in January and February 1995, and had been given spare tickets to shows like McQueen – I saw The Hunger, I think the only one McQueen staged in the official BFC tents. After I graduated, I got a place on the MA at Saint Martins to study fashion journalism, but couldn’t afford it (and back then I think we’re talking something like a thousand pounds). So no fashion journalism for me.
I started working for papers instead, and found myself writing about arts. This carried on for a couple of jobs, at The Times and Esquire, where I was arts editor. It was never something that particularly satisfied me, because if I’m honest I don’t really care what anyone else likes. I think to write about arts you need some sort of evangelical zeal to convert people to your cause. I couldn’t give a damn – as long as you’re genuinely passionate about the things you like, then it’s all good.
It felt like I’d steered too far away from fashion, but then friends of mine had started working at The Face, and I wrote a couple of fashion pieces for them under a pseudonym. The Guardian was looking for someone with a non-fashion background to be deputy fashion editor, and so I sent in some ideas and my cuttings, and made the leap.
“AS A JOURNALIST, I ONLY EVER WRITE STORIES WHERE I’D BE ALLOWED TO SAY THAT THE BEST THING SOMEONE COULD DO WOULD BE TO BUY NOTHING.”
During an It’s Nice That Nicer Tuesdays talk, you labelled yourself as “kind of a fashion journalist”. You said: “fashion journalism is kind of embarrassing as well in some circles. In some newspapers, fashion journalists are the ones right at the back of the room. They are the ones who get to do the silly stuff and they are not taken seriously. But the thing is within fashion journalism, I found ways of writing that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. I found satisfaction from fashion journalism more than any other field.” What ways of writing were you referring to and what is it about fashion journalism that you find satisfying?
If you realise it, you can be very nimble with fashion writing. There’s obviously the shallow stuff that can be fun to do, but then there are all these other sides. There’s the psychological relationship with our clothing, and what it means for us to put on those garments on that day. There’s the sociological impact of clothing, and what our dress says about a society at large (such as the shift away from the office). There’s the environmental impact of fashion, which is profound and depressing, and should always be in the back of your mind when you are writing piece that may be encouraging consumers to buy more stuff. Then there’s the business side, which is often bleak and murky, and which in the end is all about individuals, greed, and the way people relate with each other.
I find that I can flirt between these in my writing, so that a serious piece can suddenly be made daft for some relief, or a daft piece given some necessary gravity. There might be other subjects that you can do this with too, but for me, fashion is a veil that lets me write about so many other things while never going off subject.
Charlie gives a 10-minute introduction to his world of fashion journalism during one of It’s Nice That’s Nicer Tuesday talks.
The Guardian, British GQ, Fantastic Man and the Financial Times – these are some of the distinguished and diverse titles that you have worked for. What has each publication and the people behind them taught you about the craft and business of fashion journalism?
I grew up at The Guardian. I’d already worked at The Express, The Times and Esquire, but The Guardian is where I was really pushed for the first time. Most of the stuff I learned was pretty unglamorous – the real nuts and bolts of how to write and edit. The fashion desk at the time was right by the sub-editors for the Weekend magazine, and I’ve always liked learning from them how they take a story and make it ready to publish. The deputy editor of Weekend at the time, Helen Oldfield, was the most amazing forensic copy editor – she could cut 400 words from a piece and you’d have no idea how she’d done it.
At GQ, I learned everything about the real workings of the industry. Because there was the advertising relationship, the industry had no fear of revealing all its workings to me. It was amazing to see how much is kept back from you when you are a newspaper journalist. The knowledge I got there has proven invaluable.
It was a real honour for me to work at Fantastic Man. I went the reverse route to most, starting on mainstream publications and going independent. The editors Gert Jonkers and Jop Van Bennekom taught me the absolute importance of specifics, and of not needing to take a prescribed path. I remember thinking in so many meetings there that no one else in the world would be having this conversation right now. They also taught me that work shouldn’t patronise, and that the reader is our contemporary.
The Financial Times is a dream. I’d been obsessed with the paper for a couple of years before they asked me write for them, because it gives me news and stories I didn’t know. It’s a privilege to write for them, and they let me cover young radical fashion with the same intensity as that of the conglomerates. We’ve never talked about it, but I always think it’s the same as with Internet start-ups: the paper has a genuine interest in what’s next. It also has no interest in celebrity whatsoever, which means that fashion writing can just be about fashion itself.
“DON’T GET CAUGHT UP ON THE CURRENT FORMAT OF JOURNALISM. EVERYTHING WILL PROBABLY CHANGE ALL OVER AGAIN. WHAT MATTERS IS YOUR WRITING, AND THE WAY YOU PROCESS THOUGHT.”
Art features prominently on your website. What role does art play in your life?
My father was an art teacher, and when I was a kid I’d always come on his trips even though I wasn’t at his school. Seeing art shows has always been part of my life, and it becomes more important to me as the years go on. My work with fashion is very focused around the shows, and I try to avoid all the promotional stuff that goes on in-between – press days, junkets, parties, whatever. I’ve found writing about art on my own site to be a very satisfying escape from what the fashion industry wants to show me between the shows, and in which I have no interest. I also find it refreshing to engage with artists and their more free-flowing creative cycles, away from the two collections or more a year that designers have to churn out.
You once wrote an article for the Financial Times on how “designers often cite art as inspiration for their collections”. In the hierarchy of the art world, where does fashion fit in and why is it so rare to hear an artist citing fashion as inspiration for their work?
The opposite is true, though I think artists are more cautious about being seen to be overly influenced, maybe so they don’t become co-opted. Clothing is crucial to the work of artists, like the padded jackets that Prem Sahib uses in his work, or the clothing that Lynette Yiadom-Boakye uses as clues to identity in her portraits. Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois had amazing creative relationships with Helmut Lang, and I think someone like Carsten Holler gets as much from his relationship with Prada as they do from him.
Your sizable bookshelf has been featured on It’s Nice That. How has reading shaped the way you write?
It has shaped the way I write in the most obvious and transparent way, and still does. I’m currently reading Words Without Music, the memoir of Philip Glass. The way he talks about his commitment to creativity, and the freedom he gets from it, is a total inspiration.
You once wrote an article for the FT on how books are a source of inspiration for designers. With print media struggling in a digital-first age, have rare timeworn books become valued collectibles and what does this mean for new independent publishers?
Yes, but what really matters is a designer’s own creativity. Someone can buy all the old books in the world and get short-term inspiration from them, but what matters is their own talent, and the seriousness with which they commit themselves to their work.
“CELEBRITY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH EITHER MY WORK, OR THE WAY I BUY CLOTHING.”
You have spoken about the significance of Instagram within the fashion community, citing Kim Kardashian’s account as more valuable to a brand than 100 words written by a critic in a luxury magazine. You have currently over 5000 followers on Instagram. What is your approach to the platform?
I love Instagram because it adds another layer of thought. I don’t have any strategy or plan with it; I just post what I find interesting. It’s semi-professional – I never post pictures of my friends or family, and don’t really engage in conversations online (I’m not fond of Twitter). I suppose what I like about it is the tone – it forces an informality into the message, but what you are saying is still sincere. I also love the speed of it – I wish I posted more on my site, but it takes so long to upload and format. With Instagram, I can say what I want in a couple of seconds.
You have also said: “It’s actually journalism. I find posting on Instagram a form of reportage. I love writing those twenty words and formulating those twenty words to explain what I’m doing. It doesn’t have to be a long piece to be fashion journalism.” Whether in self-interest or a professional capacity, how can writers/journalists capitalise on this visual platform?
“Capitalise” is the wrong word, because then it’s like you’re trying to exploit something, rather than just seeing where it goes. When I was starting out, I had to do research on microfiche. The Internet was not part of my life. The point is, don’t get caught up on the current format of journalism. Everything will probably change all over again. What matters is your writing, and the way you process thought.
You published a fascinating article on your website called “WHAT MEN WEAR: a scientific study into the clothing choices of the next 100 men on Tinder”. You concluded: “Most men on Tinder present themselves in a T-shirt. Barely anyone shows themselves in a tie. In the blur of subjective decisions, normality is actually a nice thing for the eye to see.” What is the relationship between sexuality, sexual attraction and clothing?
I love getting older, and seeing how things are different for a younger generation. When I was a teenager, fashion was about idealism for gay men, because there was no equality and AIDS was doing its hideous damage. If you look at the work of Buffalo, it’s all about an ideal world where men are buff, sculpted and can express themselves freely. As times have changed, that need for idealism has lessened. But of course we still all use clothing for attraction, or to send out a message to those around us. It’s one of the primary functions of what we wear.
“EVEN IF IN THE PRESENT THE MEANING OF CLOTHING MAY NOT BE APPARENT, IT BECOMES VERY CLEAR ONCE TIME HAS PASSED.”
You have written about the effect of Aids on the fashion industry: “I’m 41, and from the first generation of gay men who didn’t have to face the death of friends as a monthly reality. Personally, I wonder if the city ever recovered from the 1980s, when AIDS claimed the lives of name designers (including Perry Ellis and Willie Smith) and many other creative men in the fashion industry.” How has the Aids crisis in the 1980s impacted the industry today and why hasn’t its impact been discussed?
The conspiracy of silence around AIDS continues to this day. Perry Ellis and Willie Smith have pretty much been forgotten already. But it’s all the unknown creatives who died who should be remembered. Think about a young designer you admire in London. Then take away his support system: his assistant, his best friends who inspires him every day; the guy who does the hair at his shows; the buyer who gives him his first break; the customer who buys the clothes. Even if the designer himself survives, his world is decimated. Now multiply that by a whole industry, at every level, and you get an idea of the effect it has. I totally believe that there was no real menswear movement in London in the 90s/early 2000s because of the effect of AIDS. Everything that has happened since Lulu Kennedy and Topman introduced MAN in 2005 has been about allowing to happen what should always have been there.
Music is a big part of your life as well. What role does music play in your life?
I’ve always listened to it, always obsessed over it. I started playing records at a really pivotal point for me, when I was realising I wanted to move on from GQ and take a more independent route. Princess Julia asked me if I wanted to play records at the George and Dragon, and that led me to meeting Dan Beaumont, who I started Macho City with at the Joiners Arms. We now run Chapter 10 with our friend Morgan Clement, and I love to be involved in creating a community, allowing a party to happen, doing something uncompromising, having fun.
A lot has been said about the pace and corporatization of the fashion industry. In your opinion, what is fashion’s number 1 problem at the moment and do you have a solution for it?
Fashion’s biggest problem is the assumption that fashion = consumerism. It isn’tdoesn’t. Fashion is about the way that we as a society use clothing to express ourselves or our situation. Retail plays its part, but it is not everything. As a journalist, you are not there to encourage people to buy more stuff. As a journalist, I only ever write stories where I’d be allowed to say that the best thing someone could do would be to buy nothing.
Do you have any unrealized projects?
If you could turn back the clock, what advice would you give to Charlie Porter in his early twenties?
Don’t be scared, don’t be shy, be bold, believe in yourself.
For more of Charlie’s words, visit charlieporter.net.
Chapter 10’s next date is on 17th October at Corsica Studios. Get your tickets at chapter-ten.com.