Celebrating art over merchandise


BY JAMIE KHOO

FASHION glossies fill out the newsstands these days, beckoning to passer-bys with their beautiful, polished covers and their promises of new desire between hundreds of pages of equally shiny prints.  

As valuable pieces of artwork in themselves – 80-year-old copies of publications like Vogue sit preciously between thick leather-bound covers in London’s renowned British Library – fashion magazines speak to us about a side of fashion that is not just about consumerism and money, but about its relevance as art and social commentary.  

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) editor Natasha Kraal is quick to point out the historical and cultural significance of fashion. “People who think that fashion is superficial don’t know that it goes back thousands of years. So much of what you see on catwalks now, for example, is taken from fashion in the 50s, 20s, even the 16th century,” she says. 

Kraal, who is schooled in fashion theory, insists that having an academic background in fashion will help in understanding and giving new dimensions to fashion. “There’s the artistic, cultural, historical, social and political side to fashion. It really is a reflection and also a paradox of the times that we live in.”  

KRAAL: 'Writing about fashion isn't just about the surface, but about going deep into what the fashion symbols come from, what the message is, where the inspiration comes from.'

While she agrees that there are a lot of new magazines starting up, and new influences such as fashion TV, she also points out that fashion journalism is not as easy as it seems. It is not just about picking out the five latest trends or taking fashions out of the catwalk, but rather “going deep into the fashions themselves.” 

Fashion journalism is not simply about understanding fashion but also the trends in various other sectors of society and culture. Kraal points out that even something like music – the hip-hop and rock genres, for example – has started to influence fashion as well.  

“When you write about fashion, it’s not just about the surface, what it looks like, whether it’s pretty or not. It’s about finding out where the symbols come from, what the message is, where the inspiration comes from. We are looking at it from a multi-pronged, global perspective. 

“Prada, for example, is most misunderstood, I think. Many think it’s a high status symbol, but with Miuccia Prada there’s always a little commentary there. You can see, for example, that her recent tie-dye designs are based on Rothko paintings, with large blocks of reds and blues.” 

Kraal disagrees that fashion is all about money and business, and in a recent editorial for the magazine has trumped the “celebration of art over merchandise”.  

“I think that if you stay focused, and keep the origins and roots of fashion, it will all fall into place. People don’t buy things now just because they are affordable or wearable but because they’re special. It’s up to you to present it and dish up the dream!” notes Kraal.  

And like fashion itself, the fashion magazine maintains its own identity and direction, while trying to avoid falling into the trap of consumerism.  

“Yes, it is a huge responsibility to have – a magazine like this can end up encouraging consumerism, especially among young people,” admits Kraal, pointing out that fashion magazines have to also work very closely with their advertising and commercial clients. “However, if you stay with fashion as a creative pursuit, your advertisers and clients would appreciate that more.” 

In aligning the magazine with a distinct identity, fashion writers push forward specific ideas and concepts rather than the consumer item itself, acting as a mediator between fashion and the consuming public.  

“Obviously people are looking at adding more substance which they could just push within their own ads. Our job is to give the consumer side of things more substance and soul. We are giving the message that it’s not just an object, but an object of desire,” says Kraal. 

 

What training or experience did you have before joining Harper’s Bazaar 

I did a Diploma in Fashion Merchandising and worked for a while, but felt after four months that I was learning very little; I felt a needed a lot more training and knowledge in the field.  

I wanted to specialise in journalism and I love fashion so I went on to do a degree, also in fashion merchandising. I still felt that wasn’t enough, so I did an MA in Fashion Journalism.  

I’ve worked with several magazines, such as Her World, was the fashion editor for “Vox” in The Sun. I worked with publishing company Phaidon, in London, while doing my MA, and was one of the writers for The Fashion Book (a fully illustrated encyclopaedia of fashion). I was also in retail with Christian Dior for a while.  

However, there aren’t really any set qualification requirements. People often start at entry-level jobs, as editorial assistants or writers, and work their way up.  

What are your job responsibilities as a fashion editor 

I have to come up with the line-up for every month’s issue: that means everything that will go in – every page, article, caption, side-box. I have to decide and set the mood for each month, especially during the fashion months. I then have to commission stories, and help the writers with their articles. And I still write for the magazine, too. I also have to meet with clients, and people who want to work with us on supplements; and go abroad to update myself on what is happening and absorb the spirit of the times. 

What are the challenging and fun parts of the job 

Working ahead of time and fashion. Everything moves so fast now – two months is like dog years in fashion! If you photograph a bag and feature it, for example, it may already be sold out by the time the issue is published. There isn’t that continuity, or that “one look” like you had in earlier years, such as in the 50s or 70s, but it is also exciting and interesting – you’re not having to just describe the same pair of black pants.  

What kind of a person do you have to be as a fashion journalist 

Most important, a thirst and a drive to find out what’s new. At the end of the day, you are still a journalist – those who are drawn to fashion journalism are people who love the “newness” of it all and who love the constant search for the spirit and mood of the times.  

 

What should every aspiring fashion journalist know 

You will understand fashion better if you’ve studied it. You can learn on the go, but it will take a longer time as you’ll be learning only as you come into contact with what’s there in the moment. Fashion journalism is not as immediate as it seems; it’s not just about the visuals and being able to go straight into the writing. I have to stress that research and really investing in the career is important.

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