Rachel Tashjian is the most essential American fashion writer observing and commenting today. Her perception, intelligence, agility, reference base, and sheer enthusiasm for clothing and shopping and where they fall within culture mean that once Cathy Horyn decides to officially retire I nominate Rachel to get the call as our pre-eminent representative in New York as well as London, Milan, and Paris during each of their twice-yearly fashion weeks. Cathy was of course the long-time fashion critic at the Times before taking her skills to New York magazine—and yes, I know there are other current esteemed critics—but the special thing here with Rachel is that she's doing what she does from her perch at GQ. And I think it's at GQ she should remain— it's much cooler and unexpected for the leading voice to come from there than the Times, New York, or Vogue. So, Condé Nast, you've got her under your umbrella, make sure you keep her—again, preferably at GQ as it burnishes your image greater than if she is at Vogue. My far-less-than-two-cents.
If you don't know Rachel's work or your interest in fashion coverage was seriously altered like so much else upon Covid's arrival last year, herewith a personal favorites listing of the titles of some of her pieces for GQ since right before quarantine changed everything. She always writes plenty about today's big guns in fashion, but I left those off for the most part as I don't feel they need added attention here. This will take you less than a minute to read but should give you a solid sense of the state of contemporary international fashion, bringing you right up to the present. I hope you pick up Rachel's breadth and unique framings and it all leads you to finding her on GQ's site, where she contributes frequently; on their popular podcast, Corporate Lunch, which she co-hosts; and on Opulent Tips, her Substack, where she somehow delivers even more goods.
Now then, this, and then finally, our interview:
The Most Sustainable Idea In Fashion Is Personal Style —February 2020
Why the Most Advanced Move In Menswear Is Dressing Like a Grandma —March
What Shopping Will Look Like in 2030 —March
How Three Brick-and-Mortar Retailers Are Surviving With Neither Brick Nor Mortar —March
In the Fight Against Coronavirus, the Hermès Scarf Becomes an Unlikely Weapon
We Are Living In the Age of Sweatpants and Never Going Back —April
What Luxury Brands Can Learn from Looting —June
The C.A.R.L.Y.—That's “Can’t Afford Real Life Yet”—Is the Consumer of the Future —June
The Plate—the Plate!—Has Become a Menswear Status Symbol —July
The Coolest, Most Expensive Clothes on the Planet Are Made From Other, Older Clothes —August
Drake Isn't the Only Man Who Loves Birkins —August
Fall’s Must-Have Shoe Looks a Lot Like a Rich Lady’s Necklace —September
For Grace Wales Bonner, the Tracksuit Is Sacred —September
Fashion Is Finally Catching Up to Marine Serre —September
The Best ’90s Designer You’ve Never Heard of Is Back —October
Rick Owens Takes On Fashion’s Last Taboo: Male Aggression —January 2021
Call Him Bro Brummell: Menswear’s Very Rich Moment Is Here —January
Who Owns Quilted Clothing? —February
Yes, the United States Needs a Fashion Czar —February
The Dawn of the Quaranzine —March
Forget Video: The Fashion Photograph Still Has Plenty To Say —March
The Rise of the Sober, Tasteful Menswear Skirt —March
Why No One Can Knock Off Telfar —March
The Designer Who Predicted the Apocalypse Is Thinking About What Comes Next —March
The Prince of Skinny Jeans Says Goodbye To All That —April
We're Going to Be Talking About This Gucci x Balenciaga Collection For Years —April
-Wes Del Val
WDV: Are you aware of a more impressive collection of books of anyone in fashion than Karl Lagerfeld’s jaw-dropping one famous from photographs? Whose have you stood in front of which moved you?
RT: Many years ago, before we were friends, I Airbnb’d Cat Marnell’s Tribeca loft. I was blown away by her book collection—it was all far-out, out of print stuff, lots of art books, everything John Fairchild ever wrote, and obscure memoirs by rich women about how to be beautiful. I had this totally incorrect notion that coffee table books were just vanity projects, which is probably the most idiotic thing I ever thought. I wrote down everything and read it all; Cat has one of the best minds in magazines.
Speaking of Tribeca lofts, I loved discovering photographs of Willi Smith’s apartment. He had a chaise longue covered in blankets with a small side table (you can see it here), and all his books were stacked on the floor in something of a jumble—not because he was messy but because he was clearly looking through his books all the time. I love the idea of a space in your home—on a pedestal, like Willi’s!—dedicated to reclining and reading, paging through big books of photographs and art. I can’t imagine a better way to get ideas.
I should add that some of the greatest designers are terrible readers. There is genius and then there is the genius required to glance at the world and channel the energy of the moment into clothes.
Ah John Fairchild. When are we getting the biography he deserves?? And I know you’re absolutely correct with your last point about designers and reading. Warhol once again admitted what so many didn’t feel they could: “I never read. I just look at pictures.”
Since you admitted thinking coffee table books were just vanity projects (though I can assure you more than a few definitely are) was probably the most idiotic thing you ever thought, what is next behind that, meaning in terms of books/magazines/reading what today can you not believe you once believed?
What a crazy question!!! I’ll tell you what: I used to make like, scrapbooks and zine-like journals when I was in high school—I have one that’s mostly pictures of politicians playing musical instruments, but I also had photographs from an Anthropologie catalogue, of a profoundly cheesy, pseudo-Parisian Brooklyn townhouse living room. I was critiquing the former, but not the latter. I titled that page, “MY DREAM LIFE.” I guess it’s pretty telling that I was suspicious of politicians but not of Anthropologie—though I wised up fast, as you’ll soon read.
What book would excite you most if you found out it was going to be made into a movie or series and who would you want to direct and star in it?
I guess my answer is The Beautiful Fall, but it would be so bad. I mean, you just can’t shrink people like Saint Laurent and Antonio Lopez into film. Maybe Olivier Assayas could do it, and Kristen Stewart could play Loulou de la Falaise and Ezra Miller could play Saint Laurent? And maybe Harry Styles would play Karl Lagerfeld. I would have loved to have seen Philip Seymour Hoffman play Lagerfeld; probably the only actor who could convincingly say, as he once told Irina Aleksander, “I hate ugly people. Very depressing.” I don’t really understand why people make movies about real events—that’s why Phantom Thread was so sublime!
Still, I wonder if the only way to make a fashion film is to make it sort of bad. I watched that Halston documentary, not the recent one but Ultrasuede—made by the guy on the reality TV show about the south—and it was strangely the most resonant fashion film I’ve seen in a long time, with Andre Leon Talley yelling at the guy because he’d never heard of John Fairchild, and Ralph Rucci screaming for water. All the contemporaneous pieces about how much people hated Altman’s Pret-a-Porter tell you more about the world of fashion than any fictional film ever could. We are a very prickly and vain bunch, you know, and we can’t resist saying an outsider got us all wrong, thus telling on ourselves.
Multiple salient points there. Who are contemporary writers definitely outside of fashion circles who if given the chance you’d immediately commission for long pieces on any aspect of the industry?
Well first, there are sooo many people writing about the semiotics of clothing and the crazy stuff designers are making and I just wish more people would write about shopping. We all shop! We all have to buy things. And it has probably never been less enjoyable or more puzzling than it is now. So it’s such a good way in. I find Sapna Maheshwari’s work so essential, and she is technically a business reporter. And that’s how Cintra Wilson got into fashion—she had never covered it before the Times asked her to write Critical Shopper. Which are the best columns, by the way: Alex Kucyznski’s review of Anthropologie was FORMATIVE for me. Go read it right now, for real. (But don’t forget to come back!)
Someone should ask the great critic Madeleine Schwartz to re-read The Ladies’ Paradise and look at Felix Vallaton’s department store paintings and report on the state of shopping in Paris—now, or post-lockdown. Or get Malcolm Harris to write about the labor fetishization inherent in buying couture. Or ask Kim Kelly to write about fast fashion. Or just send Jo Livingstone to Dover Street Market because doesn’t that sound fun???
There you have it folks, they’re here for the taking...
What are formative magazine pieces for you which you’re sure you’ll never forget?
The thing about fashion writing is that it’s just unparalleled when an insider is holding the pen. It too often goes wrong, but when it’s good, it is, in the words of Cole Porter, an Old Dutch Master/Mrs. Astor/Pepsodent.
I like to see someone trying to solve a problem, and going door to door—doors both exclusive and unexpected—to figure it out. You know: Cathy Horyn pausing in her 2012 piece on the future of Barneys to weigh the ideas her sources have offered; or her 2007 story about dealmaking, where she’s going from lunch meeting to lunch meeting asking various power players about the state of designer appointments. I love how Ingrid Sischy became this vessel of interpretation for her subjects, whether they were close friends like Miuccia Prada or industry outcasts like John Galliano struggling with addiction amidst his fall from grace at Dior—I think that piece is one of the great stories on creativity, addiction, and forgiveness. I love when someone can point to someone and unpack their whole world with blazing insight and enthusiasm: Judith Thurman on Yves Saint Laurent as pseudo-Proust; or Hilton Als on Andre Leon Talley as “the only one”; or Rhonda Leiberman in Artforum on her tortured relationship with Chanel, or art buying as socially acceptable shopping; or Amy Spindler writing about Gianni Versace, in her obituary, remembrance (“by his couture collection on July 6, he was looking at the shoulder pad as Andy Warhol looked at a soup can, with a true Pop Art sensibility: taking the banal and glorifying it”--WOW!), and magazine piece that characterized him as Gatsby. I also think Dana Thomas’s Gods and Kings, her book about McQueen and Galliano, changed my life and the way I think about creativity. And Diana Vreeland’s Allure taught me how to look at photographs.
What a fantastic list. No excuses with those links provided dear readers.
Which books have covers you like so much you could frame them?
I hate book covers. Very depressing.
Fine, but uh-uh, you’re not getting off that easy. You’ve got opinions, don’t hold back now, especially on something like this for an interview like this!
I think the Gallimard house design is the most genius book cover design ever: crisp white with just the pertinent information. Obviously I don’t dislike images because I literally stare at stuff for a living; I just hate marketing. It is the great fear and enemy of my life! Gallimard books look almost prescriptive, like you’re reading your vegetables, and I think that’s really elegant.
But those aren’t really frameable. My favorite novelist after Edith Wharton is Evelyn Waugh and he has had some pretty spectacular covers—particularly the semi-German Expressionist-meets-Gerald Murphy cover of Vile Bodies. (The American first-edition cover sort of reminds me of the cover of the Byrds’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo; that’s neither here nor there, just something I thought everyone might enjoy.) And the first-edition of Brideshead is like, where the twain—of artistic covers and Gallimard simplicity—meet, spelling out the full title within a florid Romantic garland, like the intertitles in a silent movie. (I just rewatched Room With a View—my favorite film about hair in the Molly Young style—and it has similar titles! Although, of course, it is a talkie.)
Book covers are so bad now. I don’t mean to sound like an idiot, but I really don’t understand why everything looks the same? It is so easy to be creative! I would never pick up a book because its cover looked like the cover of another book I read. It’s the same with the Spotify algorithm; they simply don’t understand what I’m after at all.
If a definitive oral history about any scene from any era were to come out tomorrow, what would it be which would make you drop everything else (including streaming shows or movies!) to read it?
The past decade has been really bizarre. Someone get on that!
Speaking of, whose writing today makes you pause whatever you’re watching at night if you see on your phone that something by them was just posted online?
One thing no one talks about is that there are so many fashion websites right now. We hear so much about sports sites, which are cool and all, but we’ve got Fashionista, and The Cut, WWD, NYT, BoF, Vogue, The Goods….T Magazine, Dazed, i-D, System, 032c, SSENSE, HighSnob’s magazine is a treat….and what we are doing at GQ is so awesome, both online and in the book. (It’s such a thrill to work somewhere where you believe in the work. It’s exciting!) All these places with incredible writers at all different places in their careers. I keep a fainting couch in my living room for whenever I think about how sad I am that Ingrid Sischy and Amy Spindler are gone, but I feel so lucky to have so many peers and elders writing about the subject I’m most passionate about.
Outside of fashion, I love David Rimanelli’s writing. I love Sam McKinniss’s writing (and his art, here’s the proof—WDV); if he typed up the back of a cereal box I’d inhale it. I really love Doreen St. Felix’s writing. Doreen just knocks my socks off. Jeez. She crafts her pieces. A.S. Hamrah is the same way; so is Jasmine Sanders, and so is Richard Brody. And Alex Vadukul. (What a dinner party!) I love Michael H. Miller’s writing, and Molly Fisher’s. Both of them really write like adults, you know what I mean?Just clear and sophisticated.
I’m a choppy, quick writer. I report, I ask around, I observe, I go to stores and call up designers and stylists and stuff, and then I churn it out. And I like that. But of course, it makes me wildly wowed by people who are masters of the opposite.
What year would you say you bought the most books and magazines and what did you buy?
Probably this year. I really got on a roll of keeping a big stack of stuff next to bed and not being super discriminating about it. Now I finish everything—including garbage. Sometimes I’ll buy a bunch of unauthorized biographies and read them all. (I can tell you “everything” about Mick Jagger and Tom Cruise’s high school girlfriends.) Maybe a few years ago I really wanted to read what everyone else was reading—I did the circuit, you know, of Eve Babitz to Elizabeth Hardwick to Caroline Blackwood. Now I couldn’t be less interested in that. Gianni Versace put out incredible books, for example. The latest I hunted down were Men Without Ties (exactly what it sounds like) and The Art of Being You (art that inspired him, with no text!). He was meticulous about being ridiculous. I re-bought all of the John Ruskin and William Morris I read in college, because I, too, hate the modern world and am interested in the possibilities of beauty through socialism. And I love wallpaper!
I started buying a lot of old magazines this year—a lot of old Vogues from the 90s and early 2000s. Kate Betts is soooo cooool; she had this idea, back in 1994, to send a reporter to Chanel and Supreme. She used to do the front trend pages, and they were truly reported. I’m on the record as hating trend reporting because I think it’s meaningless but hers actually told you what was going on.
Let’s talk quality garbage reading. What is in that category for you which you feel you could gladly revisit someday?
I keep a list in my bedside table drawer of what I’ve read since last March and there are like 80-ish books on there, so some of them have been less challenging than others. I had the time of my life re-reading The Devil Wears Prada. So much cooler than the film—the Anne Hathaway character smokes!!! I adore the Gossip Girl books—I used to go to Barnes & Noble in high school and sit on the floor reading them, before the Janet Malcolm piece! Of course none of these things are garbage. My eyes roll out of my head at our cultural compulsion to insist that all lowbrow is in fact highbrow which merely reduces everything to middlebrow. But it’s very clear that Cecily Von Zeigesar was reading Edith Wharton and that informed her books. Maybe the word is not “garbage” but commercial, in the broadest sense of the term.
One thing I return to again and again are books by women writing about how to be them. Amanda Brooks wrote two that are standouts, as is Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All and the diet book Susan Orleans wrote under a pseudonym in 1999. It’s called The Skinny. Also good are the socialite cookbooks, like Nan Kempner’s RSVP, which features Lynn Wyatt’s Tex-Mex fajita recipe and Ross Bleckner’s panna cotta; and Betsy Bloomingdale’s Entertaining With, which features long treatises on table manners and the menu from Swifty Lazar’s last Oscar party.
Think of the shows you thought were the strongest from the last two seasons. Which books would be fabulous accessories to carry while wearing what you saw and liked?
Jonathan Anderson is on some kind of explosive artistic journey that has brought me tremendous joy and intellectual bounty this year, and almost every collection has come with reading material. He made a Joe Brainard book for the men’s show in January, and I have sat down and leafed through it several times.
I remember...sorry, that was too easy, but it was right there. And yes, Jonathan is phenomenal.
What books should publishers ask you to write introductions for right away? Doesn’t matter if they’re in or out-of-print.
One of my favorite writers is Florence King—someone we might, in contemporary parlance, call “a right-wing nut job” but who called herself “a conservative lesbian feminist.” She wrote wildly mean columns for The National Review and was one of the first people to write sardonically about WASP culture—like, pre-Preppy Handbook! I think her books WASP, Where Is Thy Sting? and Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady are missing pieces in our conversations about ’70s feminism, conservatism, and poverty.
Ooh, great answer!
Who has written most compellingly about the past decade of the parts of fashion which interest you?
I love great talkers. When Ingrid Sischy interviewed Miuccia Prada on Charlie Rose? That was heaven! Mrs. Prada is one of the all-time talkers. She really wants to know what you think and why. When I interviewed her a few years ago, she kept pushing back on me—“Do you really think so?” Her curiosity makes you feel really alive. I so badly wish Ingrid and Amy Spindler were still here. They both had the best points of view: Ingrid was so enthusiastic, but never full of it, never trying to sell you something. When you read Amy’s pieces, you get the sense she was really on the side of designers and disliked business, or was suspicious of power. One of her obituaries said she loved catching a fashion executive in a lie—now the whole idea is to keep the lie afloat!
I have people I text with daily and Zoom a few times a month to just talk about fashion, just theorize, just share stuff, gossip. I text and DM people all the time and say, “What are you hearing about [x]? What did you think of this show?” The thing you have to understand about fashion shows is that everything happens off the runway—in the cars or walks between shows, backstage, before the show when you sit down and you start talking to someone next to you, a model bums a cigarette. Sitting in the second row and realizing the CEO is sitting in front of you. You’re either going to tap him on the shoulder and introduce yourself, or eavesdrop. A lot of the last year has been spent trying to replicate that.
I think Robin Givhan just gets it. I don’t really get how she does it because it’s so accessible and lands with a THUD but she’s never laboring over the page. Robin and Cathy Horyn both have this attitude I love, which is: “why isn’t this better?” I’ve read interviews where Cathy has said it’s the midwesterner in her, and I know Robin is from Michigan…. Maybe that’s it! (I sure hope it is, because I lived in Ohio for several years!)
I really like Aria Hughes, who writes for Complex, and Steff Yotka, who’s an editor at Vogue. They’re young, both around my age, so the past decade is what we grew up with, or matured with. And you have to look at that without feeling like everything you’re seeing is the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, because you didn’t really live through the stuff that came before. And you have to know what’s special and what’s good.
So much good stuff here Rachel, especially all you said about what the last year has been like for you and fashion and the business of writing about it.
When are we getting the biography Ingrid deserves?? I was happy with her collected essays a few years ago, but we need a bio! I want a big one about Miuccia as well, she has to be one of fashion’s most dynamic thinkers, but it’s too soon as, fingers crossed, she still has plenty more magic in her. As for Amy, there can’t be anyone finer than you to write about her, so…
The 90s were so cool! It’s fascinating that Mrs. Prada and Tom Ford were hitting their prime right at the same time: the mind and the body. Real Cartesian dualism, and Amy wrote about it all!!!
I’ve always wished book publishers would add the editor’s name to the copyright page like they routinely do the designer’s. Is there anything you’d like to see publishers start adding?
More authors should write dedications like Eve Babitz!
You abound with suggestions for people to launch off from. Thanks Rachel!