We are, in a way, the latest tribe of people who have re-discovered luxury in modernity. First, it was the Europeans, then the Americans, the Russians and now the Asians, particularly the Chinese. Is the concept of luxury now being defined by Asian consumers?
I don't think you can say “Luxury means X” because it means different things to different people. I would say that for people who have just started to consume luxury, they tend not to think this is about some great pleasure for themselves, rather, they'd think, “I have managed to get a luxury bag with a logo (or whatever it is)”, and that's that.
So it's purely material, not conceptual?
It's not about the money, it's about the person who buys it and how he feels about it. I mean, why should we criticise such people, if it gives them tremendous pleasure to have a bag with a lot of logos on it?
Does fashion have a way to explain such consumer behaviour then?
It has always struck me that the rise of the logo happened right about after the last of the tribal clothes faded away. After all, people for a very long time have been wearing clothes that delineate their tribes, whether they may be from the farthest coast of Indonesia or the highlands of Scotland with their kilts. These, in the past, have been identifying them as belonging to particular parts of a society.
The rise of the logo certainly comes from people seeking an identity and it doesn't surprise me that the Chinese, who've had their identity snatched away from them — unless you count the Mao suits — should be the first to buy brands because it helps them recreate an identity.
What a refreshing perspective on this logo-obsession phenomenon.
Oh well, or I could well be completely wrong about this.
In 1966, you were hired as a junior fashion reporter for The Times of London and only in 1988 did you become the fashion critic at International Herald Tribune. That's an ascent that's taken 22 years. Things don't happen the same way now, does it?
No, everything was much slower then. You might say the same to Giorgio Armani and say pretty much the same thing: What took you so long, 18 years really, to put your name above the door?
But the point is, fashion writers now want to be fashion editors tomorrow and bloggers think they can become publishers in the next hour. Can authority be assumed despite not having earned enough experience through the years to internalise information and learn the ropes through stages and processes?
Sometimes it's fresher to hear comments from someone who has never seen a fashion show before or is seeing something for the very first time, rather than someone who has seen it many times and who may sound a bit jaded about it. It's not necessary that just because you've spent a long time looking at things that it makes you a better or worse person.
Oscar de la Renta once said you don't base your reviews on what you like. Many critics cannot divorce themselves from what their own biases. How are you able to keep that healthy detachment?
I was kind of trained that way. I've got this mantra I say to my assistants: It's not good because you like it, you like it because it's good. You wouldn't ask the same question of an art critic, ie how could you write something positive about it if you wouldn't even hang it on your own wall. Not that fashion is art, but it's sort of the same thing.
In an old story in The New Yorker, your interviewer John Seabrook likened you to a proud mother to a lot of designers, one who wants you to succeed and takes it personally when you don't. Has fashion always been so personal for you?
I remember that article because that was when Kate Moss called me a mad aunty. She's right there: I'd rather be a crazy aunty than a kind mother. No, I would be obviously disappointed when somebody whom I think is a really strong designer puts out a weak collection — anybody would be really. But I don't take fashion that personally. It's not the basis of my life, much as I love fashion, I have my own family and friends who've got nothing to do with the business.
Speaking of family, you have three sons. Are they into fashion?
It's interesting. All three sons were brought up identically and yet they dress in different ways — it just shows how fashion is something you can't really implant: You either have it or you don't. My eldest son Gideon, who's in business, always looks very smartly dressed. My second son Joshua works at Google and I would say, if I was trying to be kind, that he dresses in an American style (I'm not against American fashion, I'm just trying to put this politely — like any Google employee, they just seem to throw their clothes on). My youngest son Samson is always very very...not label-conscious...but he always naturally puts the right thing with the right thing.
Are they amused that your entire career is about looking at clothes?
I don't know. I've never asked them that question — I mean, well, they've had to put up with it for so long!
People read your reviews with a different mindset, that they are actually viewed as very intelligent writing, which doesn't happen so often now in fashion journalism.
You always want to feel if there is some kind of social movement behind it. I guess what you are trying to say is that I try to put fashion in a context, so they know where it stands in the world and what it means.
As one of the most seminal voices in fashion, what are the other voices you respect in fashion criticism?
Sarah Mower (American and British Vogue), Francesco Scozzani (Vogue Italia), Jefferson Hack (AnOther Magazine) and Tim Blanks (Style.com).
Oft-times, people regard you as a fashion intellectual. Would you have it any other way?
I'm just trying to write something intelligent, not intellectualising fashion. Fashion is fashion and in the end, we're really talking about clothes here. I don't think we should give it any more meaning than it has. But still, when you see what rituals have been attached to clothes and jewellery, you'll realise that there is a certain depth there.