Interview with Eric Wilson

A few weeks ago, DUCFS Vice President Creative, Agnes Shu, spoke to Tatler Hong Kong's editor-in-chief, Eric Wilson. Having started his journalism career in news reporting at the New York Times, Wilson went on to specialise in fashion journalism. In this interview, he discusses his vast experience in these different sides of the journalism industry, touching upon topics such as superficiality and changes to inclusivity in the industry.


So. Where do we even begin?
My interest in journalism started when I was very young. My grandfather published a very small newspaper in West Virginia, in the U.S., where I grew up. I saw him working long hours at the printing press, something which no longer exists. I didn’t get the first job I went for – in fact I had to keep harassing them for a year before I even got my foot in the door. I was working under Ingrid Sischy, one of the legendary style editors in art – with leading fashion designers: Karl Lagerfeld, Calvin Klein. Not doing glamorous jobs. I was schlepping garment bags across New York City! But it was wonderful, it was a great synergy. 

The dream job was with the New York Times, so I started writing as if I were there to get their attention. I ended up working there for 9 years, a wonderful period. I was eventually recruited to work for the fashion department at InStyle for another 6 years. And now I’m here, as you know, in Hong Kong, working for Tatler! That’s the abridged version of my life.

That’s so interesting – I do think a lot of people do enter this industry thinking they will become a huge name, but that’s not all to it.
Exactly - there are lots of big stories in every industry. I’ve covered some incredible moments in fashion history. I was the lead reporter on the suicide of Alexander McQueen, the retirement of Calvin Klein, … that whole 90s period of acquisitions, of luxury brands being bought by European conglomerates. There was plenty of crime – plenty more of police arrests than I would have ever dealt with in politics! As it turns out, all my passions collided in this beat.

You list many moments I could not even imagine witnessing in real time, let alone covering it. What moment has impacted you the most so far, both personally and as a journalist?
The murder of Gianni Versace. I had been at WomensWearDaily for maybe six months at this point. One morning in our editorial meeting – it was like a scene out of a movie – someone calls an editor out of the room. And five seconds later, knock knock knock. And another editor goes out. And I’m the fourth person out of the room. And they’re like, get on a plane, go to Miami right now. Versace’s dead. Within four hours, I was at Miami Beach. That gave me the confidence and equity in terms of building my brand as a fashion reporter with a bit more substance than superficiality.

How would you describe the balance between superficiality and substance?
You cannot have one without the other. I think a lot of people enter this field attracted to the surface as opposed to the substance. They are not necessarily going to be successful. If you apply a little bit of critical thinking to any subject, you’ll suddenly realise that there is far more to any story than what meets the eye. That is the case with fashion – if you don’t think about what you’re writing about, then that’s just a caption. That’s not journalism. The people who succeed in this business are the ones who always think about why things are.

The industry now is so different to when you first began. What’s been the biggest change?
I think the biggest thing is the democratisation of content. Anybody can be a front row fashion journalist today. Whereas in the 90s, it was one career path for each profession. Today, the control is much more in the hands of the individual rather than the industry – which is great to see. Which is a great opportunity for people who can identify cultural trend stories related to style but actually illustrate a greater issue at hand, such as the use of styling cues in politics to convey messages – these are the people who make a name for themselves. 

That’s so cool - I never would have thought of that. I had an idea of what you’d answer … perhaps something related to social media. I suppose that’s still content.
To me, that’s still content. Just a different platform. People get hung up over digital versus print, but it’s the same. The thing that is most important is that now we have more access to different points of view. Which has led to two things. One, diversity on the runway. Two, diversity behind the scenes, including racial diversity. People who weren’t given these voices before with the previous media infrastructure are now driving the conversation. This change would not have happened without social media.

Very true. It’s also something I don’t think a lot of people realise is a result of social media. The growing diversity behind the scenes, especially, means that there is even a greater depth to which certain topics can be covered. So how much has the conversation actually changed within the industry? 
There are more examples of responsible and inclusive attitudes among established professionals in the field. But it still is an industry that has a lot wrong with it, and there is still a lot of – embarrassingly so – wrong conversations happening within the profession. Not just people who have been around for a long time, but even young people who come in and idolise these established journalists to such a degree that they parrot their behaviour and writing style so much so that they don’t realise that it may be exclusionary. Or it could be seen as antiquated, that’s the right word. And that is going to take a long time to change. 

The domino effect of elitist behaviour is insightful – and profoundly honest, which I’m thankful to you for. Not coming from a diversity perspective, but exclusionism in general … Do you think that this is needed for the fashion industry? Part of the reason high-end fashion has its value is because it is so elitist.
Good question. Scarcity does create desire. That was the old mind, but look at what people are going crazy for today – Rihanna’s collection, Kim Kardashian’s collection. These are low-cost, accessible items that do not follow the traditional luxury fashion model. You can tell that luxury fashion houses are reacting by creating all of these confused, mash-up collections. Louis Vuitton with Supreme, for example. Prada doing fish wrap in China – that wouldn’t have even happened in 2008. Before that, everything was about controlling a brand – creating things more cheaply so that they can make a profit. These beautiful family brands were becoming measured on their profits. And that’s how it came crashing down to what we see today; a crash that has been long overdue.

Exactly. So, will this move away from exclusionism within fashion finally take us back to what fashion was meant to be? The only way now, after all, to be exclusionary is to have clothes that are one of a kind, unique – and that’s the case with made-to-order or sustainable fashion. People are being forced to return back to the craft.
Sounds great, but is probably idealistic. It might be the case for now, but I can guarantee you after people have seen Balenciaga cover couture this season there will be twenty other designers who will be doing the same … until couture gets overrun all over again. I don’t know what the outcome of this will be. But I do agree with you - the ultimate luxury today is something that is sustainable, that has value not simply in terms of aesthetic but substance. But how can that work for everyone, in a world where the demand for luxury is higher than ever?

There’s always so much, too much, to know. What advice would you give someone trying to break into the industry?
Take some time every so often and figure out what you stand for in terms of principle. What you believe is right. How decisions are made, what stories you stand for. Is your principle that you’re the best make-up tutorialist on the planet, or that you want to expose injustice on the runway? There will always be pressure to adapt what you’re doing to suit a publication. And in some cases you will have to, if you start working for a different brand you will have to adapt your voice to their style. But what you don’t have to do is compromise your ethics and values based on what somebody else says. You need to believe in what you are doing and why you are doing it in order to have any credibility.

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