Vanessa Friedman to join The New York Times

Tough act to follow

Overnight, in what is big news for the fashion world, Financial Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman was named the new fashion director and chief fashion critic of The New York Times.

It’s big news in fashion simply because The New York Times is regarded as not just one of the world’s most prominent and prestigious newspapers, its writers have well-deserved reputations as being amongst the world’s leading voices in fashion criticism.

Recent months have, however, witnessed an exodus of senior writers.

UPDATE: The latest to exit The New York Times' revolving door - Bruce Pask, the mens fashion director of The New York Times' T magazine, who is joining department store Bergdorf Goodman as fashion director

Earlier this month Suzy Menkes, for the past 25 years the style editor of The New York Times Company-owned International  New York Times – formerly The International Herald Tribune – announced she was upping stumps to head to Condé Nast International as a critic and reporter for all 19 international Vogue websites, including Australia. But not vogue.com per se in the US.

Menkes will also be involved in the organisation of an annual luxury conference for Condé Nast International, a natural extension of her role with the IHT’s long-standing, can’t-miss annual luxury conference.

Last month Cathy Horyn, the NYT’s head fashion critic for 15 years and the author of the On The Runway blog – which launched in September 2006 – announced she was leaving the NYT for personal reasons. Horyn will also continue work on a book through New York art publisher Rizzoli on the NYT’s fashion coverage from the 1850s to the present.

In November, after nine years with the NYT as a fashion critic, Eric Wilson also departed to take up the position of fashion news director of In Style magazine.

To be sure, people move on.

The New York Times is not, Frockwriter hears, noted for the generosity of its salaries. You work for The New York Times, it goes without saying, not for the money, but for the honour and prestige. That said, after a quarter century with the company, as noted by Menkes herself last year, cashing in her chips could potentially reap “a fabulous pay-out” for the fashion veteran.

Now, with more deep-pocketed magazines, it seems, potentially looking to increase the strength of their own editorial voices and brands, The Times’ loss may be Vogue and co’s gain.

That’s assuming that Menkes and Wilson will enjoy a similar freedom in their new posts as they did back at ‘The Grey Lady’.

Menkes recently told WWD:

“Jonathan [Newhouse, CNI chairman and ceo] and I have talked about that and, I mean after all, unless you say what you think, what’s the point of saying anything? I love my present job and I hope I will love my new job. That’s the secret, isn’t it? To enjoy what you do.”
The workload of Menkes in particular has always been daunting – reportedly 360,000 words per year, almost 7000 words per week averaged out, although the bulk of that would be during collections season.

Friedman certainly won’t be the only fashion staffer at the NYT. Alexandra Jacobs has been promoted to fashion critic and fashion features editor and new hires include Matthew Schneier and John Koblin.

Some may be concerned, however, that the reports of Friedman’s appointment “filling a gap” left by Menkes and Horyn, may infer the scope of the paper’s fashion coverage may be reduced in future. Or at least the scope of the critical fashion coverage. Because as everybody knows, fashion is the easiest round to fill with pretty pictures.

vanessa friedman - via newyorkmag.com

In Horyn's new Rizzoli book about the history of the NYT's fashion coverage, one assumes Nan Robertson’s 1992 memoir The Girls in The Balcony may feature in the bibliography.

In the book, Robertson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, chronicled her experiences working for the newspaper from the 1950s and notably the class action sex discrimination lawsuit which was brought by former female NYT employees in 1974. In what was not an uncommon experience for female journalists of the day, reported Robertson, the only place a woman could get a job on the newspaper in the 1950s was on the “women’s pages” – where the basic tenets of journalism, i.e. to report without fear or favour, were, she claimed, essentially thrown out the window.

Noted Robertson in an excerpt from the book:

"There was hell to pay [from the advertising director] every time an advertiser was not adequately represented in the 'news' columns of the woman's page. I had the good fortune to be assigned to some of the quality emporia such as Bergdorf Goodman, Bonwit Teller and Henri Bendel and it was easy to write about them. The woman's department was The Times's dirty little secret."
Friedman arrives at The New York Times at a moment that was described last month to investors by The New York Times Company president and ceo Mark Thompson as "a critical year in the story of advertising at the company". The company had just posted its 13th straight quarterly decline in advertising revenue. Print luxury advertising was singled out for specific mention, having dipped in the fourth quarter due to declines from international jewellery and fashion advertisers

Thompson is pinning his hopes in part on a native advertising unit that was launched in January and which he noted is part of an industry-wide trend and which in the specific case of the NYT, reported Thompson, is already driving increased advertising revenue. In other words, 'editorial'-look ads that are seamlessly integrated into editorial content -  a little too seamlessly for some, such as the US Federal Trade Commission (and now also Australia's ACCC), who are concerned about transparency issues.

As the outgoing fashion reporter for the Financial Times, the prominent, London-based business newspaper, Friedman nevertheless certainly brings some solid business reporting experience to the table at the NYT.

Prior to her 11 year FT stint, as in fact that paper's founding fashion editor, Friedman previously worked as the features and fashion director at InStyle UK, European editor for ELLE and as a former contributor to The Economist, The New Yorker, Vogue and Entertainment Weekly. More magazine experience, in other words, than either Menkes or Horyn, both of whom have spent the bulk of their careers reporting the fashion round for newspapers.

Friedman can also lay a claim, of sorts, to being a blogger. In addition to her FT print/online reporting duties, in 2011 she began writing a blog for FT.com called Material World. Some of the subjects covered include the rolling controversy over Hedi Slimane’s debut collections for the newly rebranded Saint Laurent. Friedman at one point compared the rebranding of Yves Saint Laurent to the ultimately disastrous move by Coca Cola to launch the 'New Coke' brand - and later noted how this had bothered a senior executive at Saint Laurent parent Kering, the world's third largest luxury conglomerate (after LVMH and Richemont).

At 46, Friedman is 11 years younger than Horyn and 24 years younger than Menkes.

The only reason we mention her age is because at 46, with a near 30 year career behind her, Friedman is not exactly what you would call a "new voice". And Frockwriter gets the impression that some may well be bitterly disappointed that the NYT did not dispense altogether with experience and instead hire someone much younger for the role.

There is definitely no shortage of younger fashion writers – some of them in fact very good and working their way up through the ranks on various international newspapers and magazines.

Nor, needless to say, is there any shortage of so-called “influencers” in the fashion sphere.

But the fashion world looks to newspapers such as The New York Times for intelligent fashion commentary, unbiased opinion, reporting experience, historical knowledge and strong voices – things that some fear may be at risk of becoming eclipsed by what is now the white noise of social media reportage, an arena that would appear to have become increasingly polluted by commercial relationships and no-brainer "coverage". A point that does not appear to have been lost on not only legacy media such as The New York Timesbut even some prominent bloggers.

We look forward to seeing how Friedman carries forward The New York Times fashion baton. And just how her own influence is measured.