This is Not A Fashion Critic: An Interview with Guy Trebay

by Jay Ruttenberg

Illustration by Nathan Gelgud

Guy Trebay, of the New York Times, defines himself as a cultural critic and even when working the traditional fashion beat, allows his attention to wander into that broader realm. Although he operates without a column, Trebay’s articles are easy to spot. Like some debonair newsman of Hollywood lore, he reports from exotic corners of the globe. He is cynical without being closed-minded or small, and writes about glamour with neither aspirational veneration nor wanton bloodlust. His writing on style betrays a love for the fashion world, yet he does not hesitate to shiv those who have it coming. Most conspicuously, his every sentence is spun with a panache that seems perhaps too opulent for newsprint, even that of the Times. “The lush mane was ratted and back-combed into a frowsy beehive, the kind in which hoodlums of legend used to conceal their razor blades,” he wrote about Amy Winehouse shortly after her death. “Her basic eyeliner became an ornate volute, a swath of clown makeup, a cat mask.”

Prior to landing at the Times’ Sunday Styles section, in 2000, Trebay spent two decades at the Village Voice. Where his current post finds him traipsing between Miami art parties and Milan menswear shows, his Voice column—anthologized in the 1994 book In the Place To Be: Guy Trebay’s New York (Temple University Press)—sent the writer to more humble quarters, often up in the Bronx. If his change of landscape follows the New York zeitgeist, Trebay’s history also lends his fashion writing an unavoidable socioeconomic undertone. “Once it starts to be just about clothes,” he says, “I’m out.”

Trebay met Fashion Projects in a small conference room at the New York Times building, sandwiching the interview between reporting trips to Europe and Los Angeles.

Fashion Projects: You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a fashion critic, but a cultural critic.

Guy Trebay: That’s right. First of all, what is a fashion critic? What is that? I mean, it’s not a very developed critical discipline. It seems to me that for decades, it was a kind of business reporting. But somewhere along the line, in a very wholesome way, it evolved into getting some critical discipline. I guess it’s like movies. In the beginning, there were no movie critics. At a certain point in our period, fashion developed something of the valence, culturally, that movies had.

FP: When?

GT: I’d guess the ’80s, but I really don’t know. When I first started writing about this, it was in a much broader context. I was writing about the city for the Village Voice—I wasn’t writing about fashion, per say. But fashion shows would come to town like the circus, and it would change the atmosphere of the streets. You were aware that there was this population of people coming in from who knew where, and models like gazelles were leaping over sidewalks. And you were like, “Well, this is interesting.” But in those days, it was a small and very contained world. The knowledge wasn’t widely dispersed. That has changed so radically. I came to the Times in 2000 and by then, IMG had gotten into the business. IMG was a sports promotion company, as everybody knows. But Mark McCormack, the founder, looked at the landscape and said, “Where am I gonna find another thing that is as translatable across cultures and—without the necessity for language comprehension—can sell as an image language. That’s when they got heavily into fashion and started these fashion weeks. They bought into New York Fashion Week and it became this global plague of fashion weeks.

FP: Before that was it simply an industry event? GT: It was a trade week. For all that I’ve poked fun at the proliferation of fashion week—the Bulgarian Fashion Week and whatnot—it’s very useful. There’s a circuit that people routinely follow in this business: New York, London, Milan, and Paris. Over time, people have talked about how it can all be done online, but that absolutely isn’t the case. The longer I’ve been around it, the more I’ve become aware of the way that information is transmitted through the tribes or the pack. It’s quite beautiful, actually.

FP: Why do you think it couldn’t work online?

GT: The same with everything else that has to do with person-to-person contact. It’s over mediated. For all that it’s so global, it’s pretty hermetic. Particularly with fashion, a lot of the cues, being visual, are too subtle.

FP: Do you mean not being able to see the texture of garments in fashion week slideshows?

GT: No, I think those are great. But I’ve always been interested in the sociology. And that’s a little more opaque online, which is more garment-based. Also, there’s another thing that happens online, which is the super narrativization around sites like the Sartorialist. That’s a very editorialized site. It’s one guy’s idea of what some kinds of people look like or should look like. It’s very successfully put across. But at the same time, when I look at the Sartorialist, I’m much less struck by the clothes—or whatever people think they are putting across with the clothes—than by the strings. The degree to which people want to create narrative around you based on a picture of you and your clothes is very compelling to me. People are telling themselves stories about other people based on the way they tie a scarf. Which we probably do in real life, but it has a little more practical utility in real-time encounters than it does online. There’s a little whistling in the dark happening, where everybody’s telling themselves a story that doesn’t really have to do with the other. And fashion is about the other—you require social interaction for it to get off the ground. [Pauses] God, I hate those.

FP: Tape recorders?

GT: Yeah. I never use them. When I was a kid, I wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview

FP: Well, you must have used one there.

GT: No! Can you believe it? At first I did. This was like the dawn of time—the center of the earth cooled, and Andy started [the magazine]. And I was working there—I was, like, 19. Somehow, I had forgotten to finish high school. I did an interview with Christopher Isherwood. I tape recorded it and then my mom very helpfully typed it up, because I couldn’t type as fast as her. He had a very grating voice. When she transcribed the thing, it was almost like out of a John Waters movie, where the person throws a typewriter out the window and runs screaming from the house. I thought, Maybe I won’t use this tool anymore—it drives a very patient mother crazy.

FP: How old were you when you left high school?

GT: About 17. I mean, I just dropped out.

FP: You grew up in New York, right?

GT: My parents had an apartment here, but I basically grew up on Long Island. But by the time I left high school, most of my life was already here. In those days, I wanted to be a painter. So I came here and got an apprenticeship. I started painting and making videos. And I wrote plays. I’m not sure exactly why, but they were produced at WPA. In a world that no longer exists, you could kind of have that life.

FP: Did you get introduced to journalism through Interview?

GT: I backed into it through Interview. I went on to be their so-called Paris correspondent for a year. I was 19, maybe 20.

FP: Did you know Warhol?

GT: I knew Andy, but I can’t say I was an intimate of his.

FP: That must have been amazingly intimidating. GT: No.

FP: You were a teenager, hanging around the Warhol crowd. How was that not intimidating?

GT: It wasn’t an intimidating scene. I know that sounds weird. I think people have trouble understanding it because of the mythologizing of him, which is so extensive now. But the fact that Valerie Solanas could walk in there and shoot him speaks to how porous that world—and all the worlds in New York—were at the time. You could get in. In New York now, I don’t think it’s about how easy it is for you to get in. Anywhere.

FP: When did you start working at the Village Voice?

GT: Late ’70s, around the same time that Jim Wolcott went there.

FP: That must have been one of the newspaper’s real golden periods.

GT: I can say it was. It affiliates itself very naturally in my mind with the problems that I have with the general cultural relation to Occupy Wall Street. Of course people feel like it’s nothing and they have no goal: Nobody knows what a counterculture is [anymore].

FP: Your subjects at the Voice differed from your Times work. What was the thrust of your Voice column?

GT: I think I did the column for 20 years. I don’t know how you can characterize it. It was urban anthropology, maybe. The thing is, I was just going out and reporting on stuff that the mainstream media hadn’t gotten to. It sounds very self-aggrandizing to say this now. But I was talking to a friend the other day about having been in the Bronx project houses with [Africa] Bambaataa. And ABC No Rio, the Times Square Show, and also a lot of gay culture…there was a lot of emergent culture. There was a lot to write about. It would just be the normal part of what you would be reporting.

FP: In the Place To Be, your book collecting many of those columns, focuses a lot on the Bronx. Were you living there at the time? GT: No. Although when I worked for Andy, I did live in the Bronx. I’m kind of a Bronx nut. I just like the Bronx. I did some really early stuff about crack, which came after I was brought to meet the mother-in-law of Eric B., of Eric B. and Rakim. She lived in a certain housing project. She was a hard-working woman, and her life was being destroyed—as many people’s lives were—by crack all around her. I was really compelled by that, and went back and back and back.

FP: In the introduction to your book, you write about how the unhinged New York of that period differed from the buttoned-up town of your youth. It’s funny reading that now, when so much nostalgia is essentially the opposite—today’s New York being sedate compared to the wild city of the ’70s and ’80s. GT: There’s a definite arch. I’m not a fan of nostalgia at all. But I don’t  think my memory is falsifying to say it was a very yeasty period. Maybe not to everybody’s taste, and there were plenty of problems. But as I said, there was a porosity, culturally, that has been replaced by a kind of cultural paucity. You could move in and out of worlds.

FP: But weren’t you able to do that easier because you were a reporter?

GT: No, no, no. I always looked preppy, and people used to say to me, “Oh, you go [to the Bronx]—it’s so scary.” But as long as I was respectful to people, I was treated respectfully. In my experience, the city had a greater degree of openness. There was a mixture of uptown/downtown that’s gone out for real estate reasons—as usual. We all know that there’s a general trend to cultural conservatism. At the same time, everybody essentially got remarginilized.

FP: When did you join the Times? GT: In 2000. I came to the Styles section. I kind of morphed into doing more fashion as I came here. It was at a moment when fashion was really emerging as a cultural force.

FP: Was it strange to go from writing about the Bronx’s crack problem to fashion shows?GT: In a way—except not if you’re inside my head. I’ve always had these interests. I was talking about this with Judith Thurman. We were pissing and moaning, as people do who have an interest in these degraded subject matters and culturally disfavored subjects. She was talking about a certain correspondent for the New Yorker who writes about child soldiers in wherever. She was saying that that kind of thing—if you have the skills, the stomach for the work, and can stand all the risk—is like taking gold out of streams with your hand. It’s all there. There is something slightly perverse and masochistic about applying yourself to [fashion] and having to rehabilitate things that are considered culturally beneath regard. That’s been the most challenging part of this for me. Because it isn’t taken seriously, and never has been taken seriously. I hope to live to see the day when it is. Which can be done without sacrificing what’s beautiful and delightful about the ephemeral and frivolous part of it. Those are not opposing ideas.

FP: Do you think the disparagement comes from the tradition of fashion being in the women’s section of the paper?

GT: Of course. It’s women’s work. It’s feminine, it’s not worthy of masculine attention and regard. [When I started here], people said, “You’re throwing your career in the toilet to write about fashion.” Not that it’s such a big career.

FP: Oh, please. But do you think they would say that now?

GT: They may well.

FP: But you did say you noticed a cultural change in the last few years.

GT: The culture changed. I think people are interested in [fashion]. I was a contract writer at the New Yorker for quite a long time, paralleling the Voice thing, and I wrote for lots and lots of magazines. You never saw anyone in those mainstreamy magazines writing about fashion. I mean, Kennedy Fraser and then Holly Brubach did [at the New Yorker], but it was pretty much about the collections or the occasional profile. They didn’t have a style issue at the New Yorker. It wasn’t what we serious people—that is, people with testicles—do.

FP: Do you think that fashion writing needs a Pauline Kael? GT: I don’t know what fashion writing needs, frankly. It’s not one of my main concerns. I think writing just needs better writers, period. I could hope for the liveliness of Pauline Kael—kind of crack-brained opinion-slinging. Remembering back to the Voice, and that whole auteur/anti-auteur world, it was so micro, but so essential to groups of New Yorkers. That conversation is long gone. I haven’t encountered tons of people dissecting fashion writing. It’s pretty much been hijacked by the visuals, as it probably ought to be.

FP: In many ways, is fashion writing most similar to sports writing?

GT: That’s probably the closest analogy, yes. It’s specialist. I read the sports section very, very avidly. It’s one of the few places left where you find human interest. It’s very narrative, not to say novelistic, to follow sports teams and sports in play. Fashion is a bit like that, because the personnel set is not that changeable. It’s one of the weirdest and most contradictory things about fashion. It’s based on novelty, but in many ways very little is new. It’s such a stable population. All the editors have been the same forever. All the designers have been more or less the same forever. The only thing that changed was when Anna Wintour saw that nobody was developing a farm team, and got in gear. Because everybody was aging out and there was nobody to replace them. Because she’s a great HR person, she literally made it her business to make another generation to cultivate and anoint.

FP: Why do you think fashion is so stable? GT: It’s a very conservative business. And it is a business. [In the past], the city could support somebody who didn’t get into the business with a business plan and a backer. You can no longer do that—that’s out. You better arrive with a business plan and maybe an MBA and, whatever your design skills are, hope that Anna Wintour will take you up.

FP: Do you think that fashion from New York designers has suffered?

GT: I don’t know. I think there are a lot of people who do what they’re meant to do here. It’s a commercial center. It’s hard for me to pronounce on this, because I don’t know if my lack of interest in what’s going on in New York—across the board, culturally—is my problem or New York’s problem.

FP: Do you still cover the shows in Europe?

GT: Yeah, though not as much as before. I’m mainly writing about menswear. I’ve [always been] more interested in menswear. When I started, I felt like there were more ideas in play in menswear. Masculinity was much more up for grabs. There was a lot of gender play, when I started.

FP: You mean when you started at the Times? GT: Yeah. When I got involved with this as a full-time thing, there was a lot of change. It was a bracketed period. I didn’t realize it at the time. Starting around 2000, the multinationals saw what was happening. They realized that this was really gonna blow up—that this fashion thing that had been niche and not fully exploited could be globalized. And they invested heavily. Three of these multinationals—LVMH, PPR, and the Richemont Group—got heavily into reviving old marks and houses, then buying and creating stars, [in order] to put this thing across globally. We were all beneficiaries of that. That’s how Alexander McQueen happened. That post-mortem show at the Met, which had these staggering 600,000 visitor numbers, was a tombstone for an era in this business. Galliano being discredited, McQueen being dead, Tom Ford having morphed into whatever he has morphed into…. These were all showmen who were heavily funded by multinationals. Now, the multinationals have gotten what they were after, and there isn’t so much need for [showmen]. You don’t need the showpieces anymore—the marks themselves do the work. We’re in a new era. All the showmanship, which is very costly to sustain, can be reduced. They’ll have fashion shows, but you don’t have to pay $25 million salaries.

FP: Was the money there in the end?

GT: For the multinationals? Without any doubt.

Jay Ruttenberg is editor of the comedy journal The Lowbrow Reader and its book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader(Drag City, 2012). His work has appeared in The New York Times, Details, Spin, and Flaunt.

“Women’s Work”: An Interview with Judith Thurman

by Francesca Granata

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

It is an humbling experience to write about Judith Thurman—her beautiful and succinctly crafted sentences haunting one’s imaginary. I vividly remember reading “The Wolf at the Door,” her profile of Vanessa Beecroft linking the Italian performance artist’s work to her bulimia, which she published in 2003 and discussing it animatedly with art friends and colleagues. However, it was her profile of Rei Kawakubo and the unique lyricism she employed to cover a subject so elusive such as fashion, that imprinted her name in my consciousness. Thurman started writing about fashion for the New Yorker, relatively late in her career, as an extension of her interest in femininity and women’s subjects—or what she calls “women’s work.” Previously, she wrote primarily about literature and the arts for the New Yorker and other publications, in addition to two biographies: Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (a recipient of the National Book Award) and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. The latter book, on a controversial literary figure and sexual libertine—which Philip Roth described as an “essential biography by a stylish writer of great sympathetic understanding and intellectual authority”—clearly foreshadows Thurman’s interest in fashion and its relation to gender and sexuality. Similarly to other critics interviewed, she sees fashion’s and fashion criticism’s relation to femininity as the reason behind its dismissal as a serious pursuit—a reception that her beautifully crafted and rigorously researched articles stand to rectify.

On a pleasant summer day, I sat in her well-tended garden in Manhattan to discuss her thoughts on fashion criticism and her own fore` into it for the New Yorker. Many of her articles on fashion and other “women’s work” can be found in Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, published by Picador.

Fashion Projects: I was wondering how you came to your current post writing about fashion at the New Yorker?

JT: It was sort of happenstance. I followed fashion, but not professionally. I had worked at The New Yorker before I left to write the biography of Colette. David Remnick, who had just taken up the editorship of the magazine in 1999 said, “Why don’t you come back and work for us? I know you can write about books and art, but what else can you do? Is there something else you really want to do?” To which I replied “Actually I would love to write about fashion. I think I would always be an outsider; I am not going to write about it as an insider, like my great friend Holly Brubach a wonderful fashion critic who covered the collections. I said I don’t want to do that and you don’t want me to do it.”  He said, “You are right.” So that’s how I started.

FP: So you started writing about fashion, somewhat recently, in the last decade or so. What drew you to the subject?

JT: I see it as an important element of culture and itself a culture. That really interests me. It is a form of expression, a kind of language dealing with identities. And the aesthetic of it also drew me to it. I love clothes and couture and its history is very interesting to me. For instance, I have always gone to museums and studied the clothing in the paintings. However, I don’t particularly like the fashion world and I try not to write about the business side of it.

FP: So you see yourself more as a cultural critic writing about fashion as opposed to a more traditional fashion critic covering the collections?

JT: Yes, although I have written about the collections. I used to go once a year to do one collection, whether it was menswear or couture or Paris or New York. I kind of stopped doing that. They were very hard pieces to write, since I wasn’t actually critiquing the clothes, I was trying to find some sort of zeitgeist that was coming out of the collections. Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn’t.

FP: It can be oddly tedious to read about the collections, simply because there are so many. In the introduction to your most recent book, Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, you wrote that what the various essays had in common, including the ones about fashion, was that they were about “women’s work.” You write a lot about fashion and gender. I was curious how you see the relation between fashion and femininity, considering that, for women of your generation, fashion was thought of as somewhat anti-feminist?

JT: That’s exaggerated. In the 1970s when I was young and starting my career, there was a kind of hard-core feminist view that fashion was frivolous. I never shared it, because I think the impulse to decorate your body and adorn yourself goes back in time: men do it; birds do it! I always thought it was legitimate and interesting. Having lived in Europe for a long time, I also think of this resistance towards fashion as an American rather puritanical thing that has to do with the Eros of fashion and the relation between fashion and sex. I think that those relations are interesting and legitimate, just as they are in writing.

FP: So did you ever find any resistance to the fact that you were writing about fashion?

JT: Yes there is resistance. Not really at the New Yorker. In a certain sense, it is a magazine that is often criticized for not having enough women’s voices. There is a tendency that I disapprove of and resent, not just atthe New Yorker, that still thinks of fashion criticism and fashion writing as a woman’s page activity. Part of that is the fashion world—this bubble-headed non-sensical thing. But of course, it is very serious, when you think of the kind of resources, the oxygen that it takes in the culture, [fashion] is actually a really important pursuit and certainly as important as some of the idiotic political discourse. I am not saying all of it, but with something like Weinergate, are you following the story as a serious pursuit? More serious or less serious that a brilliant designer, like McQueen who is challenging a set of conventions? No. But there is a kind of feeling that fashion is a soft subject that is a woman’s subject, that is a frivolous subject, that is a lesser subject. I disagree with that.

FP: Historically, it did develop in the woman’s section of newspaper.

JT: I was thrilled, for example, to discover that Mallarmé had written about fashion and so had Roland Barthes. That really interested me, and your project interests me because serious writings about fashion should probably be taken seriously by more serious people. There are some wonderful writers. I really like Valerie Steele—she writes really well about fashion.

FP: Maybe it’s because of my age and the fact that everybody thinks their cultural moment is specific, but do you feel that in the last ten years, the interest in the United States surrounding fashion has increased?

JT: I think it has. The pop culture interest in fashion has definitely increased. For every single award ceremony, there is a red carpet. They are giving away the Fire Department Award and there is a red carpet. With that, the exposure that fashion and designers are receiving has increased. The celebrity fashion thing, which is a goldmine for the fashion world, is heightened. I don’t think that the general public’s awareness of designers and clothes has improved. But what’s happened underneath is that there are very few rules anymore, people dress in a very anarchically interesting way. Fashion has been democratized. What happened in fashion is sort of what happened to sex. I have a 22-year-old son. Gender lines are much more relaxed, so menswear is becoming more interesting. Men, regardless of their sexuality, are becoming more interested in fashion. If you look back at the fashion magazines of the 1950s, it is a middle class suburban women’s world. That’s who the audience was. It’s no longer that.

FP: So you see an historical change in the way fashion is covered. At the same time, you are one of the few people who really has the space within journalism to write long pieces and long reviews of exhibitions about fashion. I wondered if you had time to think of the idea of fashion in the museum: I was interested, for instance, in your review of the McQueen exhibition, which was very positive vis-à-vis, for instance, Holland Cotter’s review in the Times. Obviously, you have a more specific knowledge about fashion, whereas Cotter is more of a straight art critic.

JT: Well, I pick the museum shows that I review. I don’t have to cover all of them, which means there is a much higher percentage of favorable reviews. This show was one of the best exhibitions they have ever done, alongside “Extreme Beauty.” Generally, I tend to think museums should put the clothes in their social historical context and the wall text should be really intelligent. It’s in the museum, it has to be worthy of the museum and you want to know about the life of the artist, the context. All of that is important. If they are done that way, I think it’s great.

FP: Yes, and fashion exhibitions are increasing in numbers and gaining so much attention.

JT: Also, the last decade has seen a greater exposure of performance art, and I think that’s also related to runway shows. McQueen could be understood as a performance artist who used clothes the way someone like Marina Abramovic uses her body. That was so interesting, the work was so strong. And many people said you can’t wear any of it, but that wasn’t his goal, for the runway at least. He had to sell clothes and he did. I can’t afford to buy McQueen in the store, but if I find it in resale stores, whatever I find I pretty much buy. It’s completely wearable stuff, it’s not just the runway stuff. He was a great tailor. He had mastered the skills as well as being a conceptual performance artist, which is a very rare combination.

FP: In your book, you talked about fashion as a form of image-making, as in the case of Jackie O, but you also write about fashion designers such as Kawakubo, who are obviously very experimental. I was curious how you decide on a subject to cover?

JT: You have to feel like it’s worth your while. Whether it is a fashion or an artist or a writer there has to be a compelling mystery in the work, that you would want to understand. In the case of Rei, it was the mystery of her making something so beautiful, so elusive and of where her ideas come from. There is always some question that I want to answer. Sometimes I don’t know the question I want to ask. I just sense it’s there.

FP: Can you talk about your process?

JT: Profiles are rather different than critic pieces. First, you do your background reading of whatever is published about that subject and than you meet them. You build a rapport, you establish a relationship and then you sort it out. You go through your notes, you listen to the tape and ask, “What is this about? What is the story there?” And that’s hard, you just don’t know. Writing is very hard for me. I actually hate it!

FP: A lot of writers say that.

JT: Well, Thomas Mann put it best. He said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than for other people.”

FP: The way you craft your sentences is quite unique. What I really liked about your pieces is that there is a lyricism to them: You create meaning through the way you use language.

JT: That’s the hard part: creating meaning through language. Good writing is always about that. That’s the criteria and you have to get there. It’s very obvious when you haven’t. So you keep banging your head against the wall until something comes up.

FP: And there is certainly more explanatory writing that does not do that, but it’s just not as interesting to read.

JT: It delivers information, and good writing has to deliver more than information. It has to deliver surprise, beauty and a sense of shape.

FP: You mention liking Extreme Beauty. A number of your pieces deal with the way fashion shapes the body in ways that eschews conventional creation of beauty. Why do you think that is?

JT: I used to joke that I was the New Yorker’ssex correspondent. It’s very much about sexuality, sex and identity, revelation and concealment, persona and authenticity. Fashion deals with them consciously and unconsciously. Pretty much everyone gets dressed in the morning and most people make some sort of choice. Clothing is your interface with the world. It’s a very Japanese idea, the Japanese notion that the color that you wear is very expressive. By wearing black, for example, you are veiling yourself. You are cutting yourself off from contact with others or expressiveness. It’s these strange laws that are implicit and tribal identifications that are made.

FP: Japanese fashion is so interesting. They are so geared toward fashion compared with other cultures.

JT: It’s the strangest combination of utter convention and utter non-conformity. You have a window of time when you are young to live wild and then you settle down. In a way, it seems logical that a culture so conformist would produce both art and fashion that was so experimental.

FP: There has been a lot of talk about ethical fashion and about sustainability and fashion, yet at the same time fashion has been thought of as immoral and unethical. It’s related to an idea of femininity and masquerade and thus somehow corrupting. I was wondering if you thought about that and are interested in ethical fashion?

JT: If you think about clothing’s beginning, it was about killing animals and skinning them and then wearing their skins—literally the borrowing of the skins of something else. So to me, ethical fashion would be how it’s produced rather than what it is itself. Are the people who are making it, getting a decent wage? Is the silk or the cotton being produced in an ethical manner? And yes, there is a certain kind of obscenity about the $6,000 handbag, but obscenity is not the same as immorality. And yes, there is an immorality in making people want things. Marie Antoinette was criticized because she created these desires in French women for outlandish expensive things, and they spent their dowry on them which seemed immoral.

FP: Fashion often gets a bad reputation, because traditionally femininity and fashion have always been associated with a lack of morality.

JT: The cliché is that the rich woman, with not enough to do, is a social parasite spending money that she hasn’t earned on clothing to attract the men to keep her in style. That’s the cliché in a nutshell.

FP: I was curious whether you ever thought of writing a book on fashion, on a particular designer perhaps? Your books in the past have been about literary figures.

JT: I just wrote a catalogue essay for a book on Diana Vreeland and, after 8,000 words, I was happy to be done with it. Fashion is a world I like to parachute in and parachute out. I don’t want to live there for years and years.

FP: You write online as well as in the magazine. Do you like the immediacy of the web?

JT: It’s relaxing or fun, in a way, to bang something out and not worry too much about the style. It’s like writing an e-mail. It’s freeing and spontaneous. It’s not the same as writing an article for the magazine. It’s not comparable in any way. It’s just another activity. I like reading fashion blogs. They’re fun.

FP: I am assuming that developing a story in the magazine takes a lot of time.

JT: Yes. Sometimes with museum exhibitions, I have to turn it around really fast, [even] one day. For a profile, you have a long time. A blog is more like getting riffs. At the same time, it’s like reading aggregated news rather than reading the New York Times.

FP: Are you afraid that the art of writing might get lost?

JT: Yes. Attention spans are shrinking as fast as the ice cap.

FP: I am not sure. I teach college students and some of them are really interested in long-form journalism. Everybody says that people don’t read, but these kids are reading more.

JT: My partner is a publisher and he is 72 and is very, very pessimistic. He was 22 when he went into the business and he has seen publishing in the span of 50 years and is kind of in despair about the future of the book. I am agnostic—it doesn’t look good but one does not know. And I think there is a challenge to do something shorter, more intense. What do you teach?

FP: I teach at Parsons, a visual culture course on contemporary fashion and performance, from the 1980s to the present day. We spend a lot of time on Rei Kawakubo, Leigh Bowery, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and Walter van Birendonck, but also on more recent practioners like Bernhard Willhelm. I would like to integrate the idea of Lady Gaga and how she is bringing this experimental work to the mainstream.

JT: Yes, I was going to bring her up in relation to the explosion of fashion as popular culture, but there are people from the 1980s who are completely forgotten: people like Romeo Gigli or [Claude] Montana. Ultimately, I think fashion’s popularity has to do with this obsession with the ephemeral. Performance art is ephemeral. So is fashion.

Published in Fashion Projects #4. Order here.