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Today’s post is an interview with one of my favorite fashion journalists and writers – Teri Agins. Teri is one of the most respected reporters covering the fashion business, an author of several books about the industry, and a featured byline in top publications including The Wall Street Journal, where she currently a weekly column, “Ask Teri“. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Teri and pick her brains on everything from fast fashion, to how to best update your wardrobe. I hope you enjoy!
Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?
I’m Teri Agins, a veteran fashion journalist, and author. I write the Ask Teri column for The Wall Street Journal, and am also the author of Hijacking the Runway and The End of Fashion. I live in New York.
You’ve been at The Journal since 1984, and writing about fashion for the last 25 years. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the retail industry over this time?
The biggest change has been the shift in dress code, which occurred in the early 90’s. It was a seminal moment in the fashion industry, because suddenly the suit was no longer a symbol of corporate authority. Instead, you had cheaper, more casual clothes. People could get dressed and go to work in jeans, chinos, sneakers – and this forced the industry to find new ways for people to dress up and spend money on clothes. That’s when the industry introduced expensive handbags, expensive shoes, and premium denim. All of that was in response to the whole casual dress movement.
The shift towards casual dress put a wrench into the system which it hasn’t recovered from, because when clothes are casual, they don’t go out of style. You can’t tell last year’s items from this year’s things. And you can’t distinguish anymore between who is wealthy, and who isn’t. It’s the democratization of fashion, and a huge game changer. People spend less on clothes per capita now.
How do the wealthy distinguish themselves now, if not through clothes?
They do it through logos. “It” handbags, the red soles on Louboutin shoes, signifiers like those. Designer watches. These are now the new status symbol, instead of clothes. I remember back in the late 70s, when the whole designer jean trend started – it was all about what the logo was on the back pocket on your jeans were. I can’t even remember now what design on the back pocket of any pair of jeans these days. So many of today’s status jeans are little known underground labels.
What are some other major changes you’ve seen in the fashion industry over the years?
Another game changer has been the whole fast-fashion movement. Fast fashion has allowed anyone to participate in fashion who wants to. There’s no such thing as “trickle down” anymore. It used to be that ordinary people had to wait a season or two before runway trends were interpreted or watered down for them. Now that’s no longer the case….you have retailers like Zara, Forever 21, H&M, who not only interpret the runway trends faster than the designers do – as in, they can get it to market quicker – they also generate their own trends.
The fashions from these companies are so cheap and pretty well made, and they’re good enough for most people. So that’s been very hard for conventional designers. They used to be the dominant arbiters of style, who called the shots – well, that’s no longer happening – there are a host of different players, including celebrities, influential retailers, and bloggers, who influence what we wear.
One other big change has been the consolidation of retail. In the United States in particular, we’ve lost a lot of department stores. The dominance of department stores for us started in the 70’s – people moved into suburbs, and the suburbs had malls. And malls were where people shopped. Then, people started moving back into cities. Plus we had catalogs, TV shopping like HSN/QVC, and then of course the internet. And then that changed how people shop, and now they’re shopping online. These retail shifts amount to a huge seminal change.
Can you share a little bit about your own career over the years, and how it evolved? How did you get started writing about fashion?
I started writing about fashion in 1989, while I was a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and it was in response to the managing editor at the time. There were some huge fashion/apparel IPOs happening in the 80’s – the largest was Liz Claiborne, which made the Fortune 500 a few years after going public. It was huge, and as a result, it was clear that fashion was going to be an area of core coverage for the Journal. The managing editor decided it was time to cover fashion as an industry beat…and that’s when I started developing fashion stories for the Journal.
Even though I was writing about fashion, I always approached everything through the prism of business. We didn’t have to worry about fashion advertisements at the time, because they didn’t advertise in the Journal back then. I had the freedom to do a lot of hard-hitting investigative stories. As a result of that and my own enterprise, I was able to write a lot of provocative stories over the years.
Which stories and topics in particular stand out to you from that period?
The fashion arms race – the “War of the Handbags” in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. LVMH, Gucci Group (now PPR/Kering), Prada were making all major acquisitions at the time, and it was a very exciting period of covering all of these designers moving around, and what all those changes and acquisitions meant. Tom Ford, Bernard Arnault…these people made powerful news, and it made the fashion beat much more of a business focused one, instead of just style or trend.
Plus, the fact that there were all these public companies – Polo Ralph Lauren (now called Ralph Lauren Corporation), Donna Karan was public at a time, meant that there were a lot of sexy stories. The sexy stories were the business stories. And that really compelled reporters to look at the fashion business a different way.
Who are some of your favorite designers?
From a professional perspective, my attitude with the designers has always been that I don’t have any favorites. Of course over the years you get to know different people, you get to be more friendly with some than others…that’s just part of being human, and having contact with people. But what I like to say is, my favorite designer is whoever I happen to be writing about at the time!
In terms of talent and who I like for my own wardrobe, one personal favorite is Byron Lars.
He came out around the 1990s, went to FIT, majored in pattern making. He’s been in and out of business, and has a business that caters mainly to independent boutiques. Anthropologie is a big client. Byron is incredibly creative – I get a great fit on his clothes. Lars does unusual cuts, peplum, horse hair, the works. I have this one jacket from him, that has uses ninety pattern pieces. He blows me away… he’s old school.
What do you mean by old school?
By old school I mean creative designers who are known for their originality and not hyped. The skilled designers who have studied fashion, construction, and who know how to sew and drape.
What are some designers and types of clothing which can be found in your own closet?
I prefer to wear dresses.. So I like Roberto Cavalli because I like the cut of his fitted sheath dresses. I like Tracy Reese, and used to wear a lot of Elie Tahari, because he made dresses. And Carmen Marc Valvo for cocktail party dresses. WIth Carmen, it’s all about fit— he has really good fit.
Can you explain what you mean about Carmen having “good fit”?
Okay, well Carmen Marc Valvo for example – he knows that a lot of American women are maybe a size 8 on top, and 2 on the bottom. Because some women are bustier, or they have surgery, etc. So as a result, a lot of his dresses are constructed across the bustline so that can be altered. He actually puts this into the design, so that way if things need to be adjusted, they can be done.
Also, you know the area in tops or dresses where the sleeve connects to the torso of the garment? Carmen cuts the fabric there in a way so it sticks out a little bit, so it camouflages that area. It’s a problem area for most women, regardless of age.
With the exception of Cavalli, it seems like a lot of your personal wardrobe favorites are from American designers.
Yes. One of the biggest surprises for a lot of American women is that they have a hard time with certain designers. People say that they wish they could wear many European designers. But the fact is, a lot of European designers don’t design for American women. We’re more athletic, generally. A lot of women say – I want to wear Valentino, Prada – but they can’t, not without substantial alterations. That’s why when you see designers like Tadashi Shoji, Carmen Marc Valvo – you can tell that they design to fit American women. Elie Tahari, and Nicole Miller, I’d put in the same category.
I didn’t realize that fit was such a big problem.
The fit issue is huge. People don’t understand that when something looks so good in a fashion show, that those clothes were designed to fit models. And come on…you’ll even see ill fitting clothes at actual fashion shows at times. Plus some of these brands, they just have a really challenging fit – too short waisted, sleeves are too tight.
Carmen Marc Valvo is doing a collection at Dress Barn this year. I hear that his dresses are selling briskly. It’s a combination of the styling and the fit – he knows how to fit a broad cross section of body types.
I didn’t know that Dress Barn was still around.
Dress Barn is huge, and continues to be a stellar player. Dress Barn’s niche is women who are more traditional, who wear a lot of dresses. Dress Barn’s parent company is the giant Ascena Retail Group, which just bought Ann Taylor.
That’s really interesting. I read a lot of fashion news, but I don’t think I’d read about that acquisition.
This is the problem with fashion reporting currently – if you cover business, you know this stuff. You know what brands and designers are doing well. Where the rubber meets the road is who is selling, and who isn’t. And these days, a lot of fashion journalism and reporting is grounded around fashion shows. Which it shouldn’t be. Fashion shows are publicity exercises for the industry, but they don’t reflect a lot. Half of the clothes on a runway are never manufactured. The shows are largely a marketing exercise. And I don’t like it when reporters say, I couldn’t get into that show, so I’m not writing about that brand.
Just think of all the fashion labels that don’t do runway shows during fashion week such as Forever 21, Zara, Uniqlo – they’re huge, but they don’t do shows. One thing I enjoyed when I was reporting was that I wasn’t using fashion shows as my guideline for stories. I was following the money, trying to find the stories – who was making profits, and what all of that meant. And that’s one thing that I love about public companies. You can extrapolate a lot about the industry in general. A lot of the issues and problems which public companies are encountering – the private companies are grappling with the same ones.
On the topic of fast fashion….I recently saw a documentary, The True Cost, about the impact cheap clothing is having on workers and our planet. Do you see any signs of a more successful movement towards ethical/responsible purchasing in fast fashion?
I don’t think things will change too much. That movie was very powerful, but not much will change. People – Americans in general – have been conditioned to buy cheap clothes, which allows them to splurge on mobile phones and other trinkets. So it’s a race to the bottom regarding clothes – which surprisingly cost less on average, than they did decades ago.
Can you elaborate?
A lot of folks try to make the push for “ethical fashion” akin to the slow food movement. But what you have to think about is – what has actually compelled people to eat differently? It’s true that you see more people now at Chipotle instead of McDonald’s, and they don’t want fast food anymore, they want the fresher/healthier alternative. But fast fashion doesn’t make you physically ill. It doesn’t make you fat. It’s going to be very hard to get people to buy more expensive clothes.
There’s another analogy I can make, to the recent excellent series in the New York Times that came out about nail salons. Those articles were game changers. And suddenly people, including myself, were like….wow, we had no idea! And now we’ve changed, we’re all giving really big tips, and tips in cash. We didn’t know before…we just thought manicures were cheap because of competition….we didn’t think about it. But now we know better, and we’re thinking that if we’re getting our nails done, the people who are painting them need to get a living wage.
But the ethical fashion thing? People will speak with a forked tongue, and say they believe in it, but still buy the same cheap clothing. Anybody who wears an athletic shoe – if you saw the factories where they make these shoes and the gases and pollution that they emit to create those shoes, you’d never buy a pair again. But the fact is, you don’t see it. It’s not like with a nail salon, where the worker is right in front of you.
Which companies are doing the best out there right now, from a business perspective? Which brands are the most likely to be around in the next ten, twenty years?
The fast fashion brands are getting more and more market share. The Zaras, the Uniqlos, those companies are going to be around for awhile. They are very dominant, and where most people shop. You ask people where they got something these days, they’ll say Zara, Topshop, H&M etc. Those stores have a lot staying power.
What about designer brands?
In terms of designer brands, it’s hard to predict. Because most designer companies don’t sell clothes anymore, they sell accessories.
Chanel is going to be interesting. What’s going to happen with Karl Lagerfeld retires? He’s been so masterful in positioning Chanel. But they’re pretty tough, and Chanel actually does sell clothes in addition to accessories and cosmetics. So I do see Chanel as having a lot of traction.
A lot of the other designer brands – I don’t know as much, and it’s really a mixed bag. When you have aging founders like Giorgio Armani, you wonder what the succession plan is. Many of these companies can be very difficult to manage. They are not too big to fail.
I think Ralph Lauren will be around for quite awhile. They’ve done a really good job with managing that brand. But in general, I really hesitate to prognosticate on the topic. It’s a moving picture. I will say that in general, the companies which are going to do really well, are those that are going to really master online retail. We’ve all seen Net-A-Porter, and Neiman Marcus has a good online business too. We’re in a state of transition there.
The key thing to remember, is that brands come and go. Once they get to critical mass, then the big question becomes…How do they keep it going? Do they go public?
I’ve always loved reading your column, “Ask Teri” in the Wall Street Journal, and your practical recommendations. What’s a general piece of advice you could provide, for a woman that just wants to “dress better”?
For women, the easiest way to dress better is with a dress. I just think a dress is great..a classic one which isn’t too crazy, and that you don’t have to think about. You get shoes to go with your dress, and you feel very fresh and au courant. I love dresses. I rarely buy separates.
And also, my attitude is: a good dress, is the one that fits me perfectly. And I spend a fortune on alterations to tweak the fit.
Finally…please share something surprising about yourself!
I’ve been playing tennis for thirty years. I cook. I’m a really good cook. My specialty fruit pies. Apple, peach, blueberry, cherry. And I collect antique rolling pins, I have eighteen of them.