Image courtesy Christina Binkley
Interview

Christina Binkley

05.04.15

Christina Binkley is one of the world’s leading voices in the fashion industry. In a crowded fashion news space, Binkley’s ideas, point of view, and support matter. Having joined the Wall Street Journal in 1994, her former beat had her covering travel, hotels, and gambling. (Binkley is the author of the New York Times bestseller Winner Takes All.) Binkley’s weekly columns range in subject depending on the time of year: she reviews the runway collections around the world twice a year, reports on fashion’s finest behind-the-scenes, among other arts and entertainment headlines. Her eclectic journalism experience and willingness to be challenged uniquely qualify her to inform her readers about fashion and culture. She may or may not know – this is what also inspires her writing fans.

Interview

What is your background? Did you attend journalism school?

I have an undergraduate degree in economics, but a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From there, I joined the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. as a general assignment reporter. It was one of my favorite jobs in journalism – almost as fun as the one I have now – largely because I worked for an enthusiastic, highly motivated editor named Cliff Schechtman who loved nothing more than a great, well-reported story. It was a great training ground.

When did you join the WSJ and your current beat?

I joined the WSJ 20 years ago and worked as a reporter in several bureaus before they made me the paper’s first-ever fashion columnist in 2007. I spent 8 years covering gambling and hotels, for instance. I was part of the WSJ team that won a Pulitzer and other awards for coverage on 9/11 – I had a page 1A story on 9/12. And I wrote a book about gambling moguls Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian called “Winner Takes All.”

Did you always want to write about fashion and style?

It never occurred to me to write about fashion until an editor offered me the job. I had taken a year off from the WSJ to write that book, and when I returned, an editor asked me to test drive a Ferrari and write about it. I told him he should find a writer who knew something about sports cars because I drove a Subaru with two kids’ seats in the back. His reply: “That’s your lead.” I drove that Ferrari and led with my Subaru, and they thought the story was so funny that I should write about another subject I knew nothing about. Now here I am.

There’s a lot of noise in the digital space, specifically the fashion news arena, what continues to set the WSJ apart in terms of content and credibility?

We try very hard not to drink the Kool-Aid. I’m writing as much for the reader who has never heard of Nicolas Ghesquière as the one who has followed him since he started at Balenciaga. But I want to explain why Ghesquière, for example, is important because he’s at the top of the fashion food chain, determining the kinds of shoes that will be popular several years from now. We’re also not trying to be WWD, announcing every personnel change at fashion labels. Our coverage is about explaining what’s happening behind the scenes, how the fashion world works, how to navigate fashion, and of course, alerting our readers to significant trends.

How has social media impacted your job?

It enlivens my days, for one thing. I meet people, get ideas, share what I’m working on, and learn what’s happening. I’m most active during fashion show seasons, of course, when I’m using it as a reporting outlet. I love social media. I forced my kids to have Twitter and Instagram accounts years ago – not so they would share their lives on it but so that they would learn to manage it adroitly as part of their lives. It’s the future and I don’t understand people who are afraid of it. But then, people were once afraid of the telephone.

I saw you speak on the recent FGI panel – and Robin Givhan asked an interesting question about fashion shows vs presentations, and you said there’s a reason for both, but what makes a great fashion show or presentation? What makes you really take notice?

Storytelling is always key. Fashion shows are about theater and they need to transport the audience, make them fall in love with the moment. That builds a brand image, which is the name of the game. If a label is just communicating what its clothes look like, they’re better off with a presentation. It’s simpler and more straightforward. It takes about an hour to see a 12-minute fashion show by the time everyone arrives and waits for it to begin. People are busy – if your show isn’t worth an hour of everyone’s time, then don’t be presumptuous. And don’t waste the money if you’re a small or young label and can’t afford it. Most editors love seeing presentations – I know I do.

Is there something missing from the industry as it is now you would like resurrected? Or changed in some way?

I would like the industry to be more in touch with how real people live and want to dress. For instance, the average woman in the US wears a size 14-16 and has a lot of curves. More companies should be like ModCloth and incorporate those women in their collections. No, you can’t sell the same silhouettes to a size 2 and a size 18 – you have to design for the curvy body. But it can be done, and there’s gold in them hills for brands that figure that out. It’s starting – there are new ones every day doing it.

How has the industry changed most significantly since you have been reviewing it?

One big change is the bifurcation of the market by wealth. Luxury brands are catering to extreme wealth where price is no object, and they’re less focused on aspirational shoppers who really can’t afford those products and aren’t likely to become loyal clients. Meanwhile, there are new brands cropping up to cater to those aspirational shoppers with great, lower-priced products. Take Clare Vivier and Mansur Gavriel – two handbag lines that cater to women who want a great bag for significantly less than $1,000.

Another huge change is the emergence of online-only brands that are cutting out the middleman and selling products for much lower prices. That’s going to be a sea change over the next few years. It’s a tricky time to be a department store.

Many, like us, were shocked at the news last week that Style.com is discontinuing as we know it and will re-emerge as an e-commerce shopping destination – what are your thoughts on this?

The benefits to the Vogue franchise of shuttering Style.com are obvious, and it’s a smart move for Condé Nast to go into e-commerce, putting their own imprint on what Net-a-Porter and Farfetch are already doing well. But I’m skeptical that it’s ultimately a good move for Condé to kill Style.com, or try to turn such a strong brand into something entirely different. Style.com was the premier fashion-collections information site in the world (they were beating everyone at that game, including Vogue), and it’s an unusual move to kill a healthy, market-leading brand. 

Losing Style.com‘s strong voice and depth of historical knowledge is disappointing and I do hope that Nicole Phelps, Tim Blank and others will have a chance to thrive similarly at VogueRunway.com.  

What do you read on a daily basis?

Ok, here goes: The WSJ (duh), NYT, Muckrack (which leads me to a series of blogs and links), Twitter (leading to more random links), WWD. Then as they roll in, The New Yorker, New York, Wired, The Economist, Dwell, all the fashion magazines. I also read Modern Farmer – or will when they bring it back soon. I just had lunch with the editor of Self and realized I need to be reading that again, too.

In your opinion, who has great style?

I’m most fascinated with teenaged and 20-something guys. They’re more willing to experiment than their fathers and grandfathers, and they’re super attentive to details such as contrasting thread in a white shirt, or contrasting fabric on the underside of a collar. I love to see the risk-taking paired with that attention to detail.

Do you enjoy being based in LA?

When they offered me this job, I was living here and they wanted me to move to New York or Paris. I’m still here, so there’s your answer. And that was before it was cool to live in LA like it is now. These days, it seems like half of New York is looking for a pied-à-terre here in LA.

I have spent a lot of time cultivating LA-based designers to feature (Jesse Kamm, Shaina Mote, The Palatines, Jennie Kwon) – How in touch are you with the local design industry?

Not as in touch as I probably should be. In fact, I see designers like Rosetta Getty, Juan Carlos Obando, and the Rodarte sisters more in NY or Paris than here in LA. It’s a global world, particularly in fashion

I have to ask – who are your favorite designers to wear?

I try not to dress-n-tell, but I’ll share one secret: My first fashion stop when I get to Paris is Monoprix. It’s like a French Target, but the clothes are better made and they often have real fashion. When I’m wearing Monoprix, fashion designers often ask me about what I’m wearing.

Do you have any major fashion moments to share?

You mean like the time I arrived late at the Martin Grant show in Paris and had to cross the runway in between models? #Embarrassing.

I prefer the small fashion moments. Like, I showed Stefano Gabbana how to use Twitter before he had an account. I don’t know if he remembers that, but we were in his old office in Milan (leopard sofa throw and patchwork quilt as a carpet) and he asked me how that thing called Twitter worked, so I showed him on my iPhone. The next thing I knew, he had a gazillion followers and was tweeting pictures of his dogs and vacations.