The Wall Street Journal's Christina Binkley on the Fashion League Podcast
Christina Binkley is an award-winning journalist who spent 23 years at The Wall Street Journal covering the business of fashion. She critiques fashion runways from New York to London, Milan and Paris and she's the author of the New York Times Bestseller Winner Takes All.
On this episode of the Fashion League podcast, Christina Binkley discusses Alessandro Michele's vision at Gucci and how she transitioned from her career as an economist to her career in journalism. This episode is also transcribed below. Enjoy!
Mikahila Bloomfield [00:00:00] Thanks so much for jumping on the Fashion League podcast today. I'm so glad to have you.
Christina Binkley [00:00:04] I'm happy to be here.
Mikahila Bloomfield [00:00:05] I just gave a brief introduction for the podcast listeners of your 23 year career as a style columnist and news editor at The Wall Street Journal which you just transitioned out of in January of this year and now you are working on two books and you just returned from Milan. So did I skip anything thing?
CB [00:00:25] I've also recently become a contributor to The New Yorker which is turning out to be a lot of fun. They're wonderful people to write for and it solves an issue I hadn't foreseen when I left the Journal which was that I'm a journalist who's accustomed to writing a lot and having ideas and getting something in the paper every week and I was suddenly faced with not having an outlet that was that immediate and that kind of freaked me out.
MB [00:00:54] Good that you found a solution. But let's start at the beginning. I see that you studied economics at Indiana University and then you went on to earn your master's in journalism at Columbia University. So how did you go from studying economics to pursuing a career in journalism?
CB [00:01:14] Well that's a very good question Mikahila. I have to say it's sort of a good example of my general philosophy in life which is you sort of trip from one adventure to the next. As an undergraduate I never even thought about journalism as an option for a career. So I went out and worked in finance for a few years and decided that I wanted to go back and dive even deeper into economics so I applied to and was accepted into the economics PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania. And when I was there I sort of simultaneously realized that I really didn't want to spend my life as an economist wonk and I became friends with a woman who was married to an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and just coincidentally ended up hanging around a lot of journalists and seeing what they were doing and realizing that that was very appealing to me as sort of like a conk on the head I knew that I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.
MB [00:02:17] Are you from the Philadelphia area? I see a lot of Philly connection here.
CB [00:02:23] Yeah, I am not originally. I was actually born in Prescott, Arizona but I grew up on the eastern seaboard from 7th grade through high school and lived just outside of Wilmington, Delaware which is close to Philadelphia. So there has long been a connection there for me.
MB [00:02:42] In your years covering fashion in the Big Four cities, New York, London, Milan Paris, how have you seen the cities differ and has it been the same sort of coverage or how have they changed roles over the years?
CB [00:02:58] You know, I think the basic roles of each of those cities has been pretty steady and you know it's one of the things in watching national cultures, it's interesting to see how the fashion weeks really do reflect the history and cultures of those four cities and the countries that they rest in. So you've got New York Fashion Week is the first Fashion Week to go. But we're actually the youngest country and we're a country known for Nike "Just Do It", get it done, and that's what New York Fashion Week is. It's a kind of crazy free for all. It's way too busy trying to do way more than it should. There are a lot of brands there that are fighting for space and attention. It's a much more wearable fashion week, the brands that tend to show in New York tend to be straight to the store, there's not a lot of avant garde fashion happening in New York which makes sense for this country as opposed to going to London that's where a lot of the craziest freshest ideas come from. It might be in part because London has Central St. Martin's which is an extraordinarily creative fashion school. And is behind some of the world's greatest fashion talents these days. But you know you're getting scrappy little brands in London that often have ideas that are much larger than the scale of the companies behind them. J. W. Anderson for instance, he's really changed the look of men's wear now several years ago. He was putting out men in female clothing suits with piping, dresses, skirts. It's already become a little bit normalized to our eyes but it was shocking five years ago.
CB [00:05:00] In Milan which is it is really honestly one of my my favorite fashion weeks it's probably the most derided of fashion cities among editors because Milan is known for wonderful quality and beautiful clothing, but not necessarily the most exciting looks out there to put on magazine pages although that's changing a lot lately, and Gucci is a hot brand right now. They're probably the leading contender to change the clothes that we're wearing. But I love Milan. Well, that's because it's got great food and because the people who make clothes there tend to just really be in love with lifestyle and with beautiful fabric, and comfort in a very honest way. And then of course Paris always blows our socks off. We've got brands like Comme des Garçons which don't even adhere to body shapes when they're making clothes, but they're so intriguing and full of interesting stories. Fantastic ball gowns from designers like Giambattista Valli, so you know it's a smorgasbord of amazing fashion in Paris.
MB [00:06:18] You mentioned Gucci, and I recently read a quote from Alessandro Michele who is the creative director there. For this collection he did a tribute to history and the recycling of fashion throughout time and he said something like it's a little unsettling or a little wrong for us to each season have to try to tell a new story as designers. How do you feel about his statement?
CB [00:06:51] I feel we've read a lot of criticism of his designs being the same for the past couple seasons.
MB [00:06:59] Do you have any opinion for slowing down the fashion cycle?
CB [00:07:03] Yes, I do have very strong opinions and I completely disagree with that line of criticism. I think I really do try to come at my observation of the fashion world from a consumer's perspective and I don't think it helps anybody to have fashion brands just taking constant complete right turns and about faces every season to come out with something completely new. You end up with this feeling that everything in your closet is old and and can't be worn again which might seem right to brands that want to keep selling more clothes but ultimately makes people sick of fashions as opposed to if you look at what Michele has now been doing, he's got two full years in, it seems longer, it's amazing to think that he's only been doing this for two years. But if you take a look from his collection, the very first one that he put on the runway and at the beginning of 2016 and matched it with something that we saw on the runway two weeks ago in Milan. You wouldn't know that they were from different collections. That the colors would blend together. This idea of what I often call his "poetic poet in residence look" - it's a dreamy vintage quality that he has carried on through so that the clothes are instant classic and they're going to work in your wardrobe today, tomorrow, and three years from now. I think that's really important from a business standpoint as well as from an art standpoint.
MB [00:08:44] When you mentioned that New York is kind of a cluster of a bunch of designers trying to do a lot of things, and it's one of the larger cities as far as shows are concerned - I think they show like 200 designers and then I think Paris has the least, like something like 59. Do you think there's a correlation between people drawing out of New York City and deciding to go to other cities to show or completely forgoing Fashion Week altogether?
CB [00:09:14] I do. I think it's really hard. New York has been getting better about discouraging certain designers from showing and encouraging them to do presentations or sort of less formal things just in the last year or so. It's a response to that overwhelming deluge of shows that was happening where there were several hours during New York fashion week we'd have five shows at the same time and there's just no fashion team that can cover a week that has hours like that. So designers just weren't. I feel badly for some of them. They're mortgaging their homes to put on a fashion show that nobody can get to. I think that's one extreme the other extreme is Paris, as you say, which is the longest Fashion Week it used to be 10 days. Now they've shorten it to 9 days. Paris has the fewest designers per day. They carefully staked out so there's one designer per hour and never a conflict over where you need to be.
CB [00:10:24] Of course, there's also a lot of control involved. It's harder to break into Paris Fashion Week and some of the brands that we're seeing, the American brands that we're seeing, that are going over there to show are doing it on whats called "après calendrier" - after calendar. They're not really on the official calendar. They haven't got the license to show on the official calendar which is controlled by the French couture Federation. So they're squeezing in on the week but not in an official capacity.
MB [00:10:58] This season was very political. New York Fashion Week started out with a lot of slogan T-Shirts. We saw Naeem Khan, who had a Maya Angelou moment where he played Maya Angelou while the final runway look came out, then we had another Maya Angelou moment with Mara Hoffman. And Public School also had their take on Make America Great Again with those Make America New York hats. How do you feel about these political statements on the runway and how each city brought out their own political statements?
CB [00:11:38] One of the things I'm really enjoying about this year politically and you know it's been horrible, we're all obsessed with it, but it's changed people's willingness to discuss politics and inclusion and all of the issues of diversity that are important in our lives. And I think that fashion is an excellent place to be having that conversation and absolutely on the runways. I mean to be honest with you the fashion industry is credited with being very creative and outspoken, is actually extremely traditional and generally not outspoken at all about these things and has been very slow, for instance, to find diversity on the runways. We saw more of it this season than we have before. But there have been many seasons where you hardly saw a model of color and you certainly didn't see models of any different shapes or ages. So the one traditional look of models for many years has been tall skinny and white and young.
CB [00:12:48] So as we see more of these statements breaking out on the runway it's good for people to express themselves. This is a great way for more consumers to become connected to a brand and to feel that something of their concerns are being addressed by that brand then that can only be a good thing as far as I'm concerned. So it's kind of funny in a way that it seems so radical that a white t-shirt with a slogan on it could seem so outlandishly outspoken. And if we saw it walking down the street we wouldn't think it was that crazy.
MB [00:13:30] In my last podcast episode I did not feel the t-shirt slogans were that creative - I felt it was a little media whore-ish. My opinion is still developing on this. I've seen other cities do their take. I saw that your New Yorker piece, where you had the Prabal Gurung t-shirt as the headline image got a lot of attention on LinkedIn and someone didn't completely understand what the purpose of you posting is that you're a journalist and you were covering a show. It's just hard to separate people's opinions as designers and fashion creatives from their personal beliefs. And then we critique how they express those ideas.
MB [00:14:17] You make an interesting point there, Mikahila. You say that it wasn't really creative. You talk about a white T-shirt and black block letters. That either you or I could go down to the corner store and have one of those done in five minutes. So you know it isn't.
CB [00:14:40] You know, actually of all that I saw this season and I have to say that the show that took a political stand. But I found very effecting and effective was in Milan at the Missoni show. Of course, Missoni is a brand that's known for its knitwear. And they picked up on the pink pussy hats from the Women's March. And so when we walked into the show on each guest seat was a knit Missoni, in the famous Missoni knit, that famous zigzagging, it was a pussy hat and they were in shades of pink, multitudes of shades, but nothing garish. They had perfected that pattern that was made from the original ones that went up on Etsy with a couple of darts that actually made the hats better. So, good Italian workmanship. And then at the end of the fashion show they had the models come for final walk each of the models were wearing one of the hats and Angela Missoni, the creative director and the daughter of the company's founders, went out with a microphone and made a brief speech about the need for fashion to stand strong for diversity and for freedom of expression.
CB [00:16:00] And she invited everybody onto the runway for a very brief rally, but it felt genuine in that they had taken this concept the pussy hat which really melded well with their knitwear and what they do. It's a woman run company, a very passionate active woman at it all. It all felt very organic and ripe for that brand. Of course, this was a message that I was receptive to, as well.
MB [00:16:27] I wanted to go back to your books, if we could talk a little bit about what you're working on now.
CB [00:16:34] I can talk about one of them. The other I can't. So, to be continued.
CB [00:16:40] The idea of this book actually is something that I've been wrestling with for quite a few years because I think there are many books about fashion in the marketplace but none of them really tackle fashion as an industry and a business. And that's what I intend to do. The concept of this book is to look at a collection being made in the course of the season and really understand how it is conceived of, conceptually, what's the idea behind it, how it's translated into something, a product that's actually manufactured in a factory. How it's marketed. Who are the people? And how does this happen? That these items, whether they're accessories or clothing, are sort of implanted in people's minds to the point that they want, that they desire them. An important concept to me is to explain how something that can look so strange on a runway can can become a product that we want and doesn't seem so strange when we own it ourselves. That's the magical marketing of of high fashion.
MB [00:18:01] You're already a New York T2imes Best Seller from earlier in your career when you were covering gambling, hotels and travel for The Journal. How did you transition from covering gambling and travel to covering fashion and now pursuing writing [another] a book?
CB [00:18:24] Remember what I said about stumbling through one adventure after another? Stumble is probably really the correct word there.
CB [00:18:37] I will say this to anybody who's thinking about pursuing a career, and how you go, there are people who plan their careers in advance very carefully I'm sure. I'm not one of them. I just kind of say yes to interesting things when they come along. I had gone and taken a year off to write the book 'Winner Takes All'. It was about the gambling industry which I had been covering for The Journal. When I came back, I started figuring out I didn't want to go back and cover the gambling industry anymore - figuring out what I wanted to write about. Then I was living, as I do now, in Los Angeles, an editor in New York sent me an email and said that Ferrari was shipping a new car that was supposed be somewhat easier to drive. It was going to be fresh off the boat from Italy into the port here in Los Angeles and they need somebody to drive it and write a column about it. I sort of squinted my eyes and thought 'What on earth was he thinking?'. I don't know anything about Ferrari's or cars and I said I drive a Subaru with two car seats in the back! Go find a writer who could do justice to your sports car. He wrote me back and said that's your lead, you have to write this piece. So I did and it was well received. I think it was quite funny. People laughed a lot about it, I think Ferrari lovers were angry that I didn't write a lot about the souped up transmission, but it was a really funny piece about driving a Ferrari on Mulholland Drive. That planted a seed in another editor's mind. They were looking for a fashion columnist at the time and they thought 'Oh, well she can write that way about a Ferrari then we should have her covering fashion. So I started covering fashion. I knew absolutely nothing about fashion at the time.
MB [00:20:28] You tried economics, you worked for a bank, then you covered gambling. If you weren't doing this profession, if you weren't a journalist what else would you do?
CB [00:20:41] Oh my gosh! What a question. I don't know. I know I said earlier that I had this moment like I'd been conked over the head of realizing I wanted to be a journalist. I have gotten interested in one form or another of journalism. I have enjoyed doing newspaper journalism. I've enjoyed writing for magazines. I really like long form. I even like doing video and radio and all all kinds of ways of storytelling, but I can't imagine doing something other than telling stories for a living which is really what I feel like I do.
CB [00:21:20] I don't have the imagination to write fiction. I could never tell not true stories. I only know how to follow the threads and assemble the puzzle pieces in a way that I hope will be entertaining to people, of things that have already happened. In my fantasy, I guess maybe someday I will go off and live on a farm and raise chickens and geese on a farm.
MB [00:21:48] Do you have experience working on farms?
CB [00:21:55] I've milked some cow once as a child. No I don't. .
CB [00:21:59] I probably would be one of these people who did end up writing a book about how my farm failed because of what I was doing. But I do have this wish. I like to garden and I grow plants. Actually, my husband and kids and I here in L.A. have chickens that we keep. We live in the Hollywood Hills and we're not even the only people in our neighborhood to have chickens. So it's not that unique but that we enjoy it. I like going down and collecting the eggs and chatting with the hens.
MB [00:22:30] You talk to your hens - does that produce better eggs?
CB [00:22:33] I have no idea. But I enjoy them. They're quirky little ladies. I'm sure that large farms with lots of them, they don't get to know the individuals the way we do. We know our hands individually and they have names and they come when called. It's like having a small herd of dogs.
MB [00:22:52] Do you have any closing words of advice for anyone pursuing a career in journalism or writing in general?
CB [00:23:00] I would say that you've got to look for the stories that you're passionate about and keep them as simple as possible. The hardest thing for me often in writing, or telling stories, is getting too complicated and trying to get too much in. So try finding that true thread that tells a really incredible story. It's the basis of journalism, no matter what the subject. Whether it's fashion or otherwise and no matter what the format, whether it's video or the written word.
MB [00:23:31] Well, I have one more question. What's your favorite word?
CB [00:23:37] Supercalifragilistic...
MB [00:23:45] Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
CB [00:23:47] It's been delightful.
MB [00:23:52] And do you want to plug anything like your social media handles or anything? Where can we find you?