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George Chinsee
Interview

Teri Agins

06.01.15

The story starts in Kansas City, Kansas, at a school newspaper where an aspiring fashion journalist had a column, complete with a boldfaced logo in all lower case letters. Fast forward to the 1970s when she held internships at the Kansas City Star and Boston Globe, followed by a stint writing for Fairchild Publications, now Fairchild Fashion Media. By 1984, Teri Agins was about to turn 30 and not in Kansas anymore. That year, she joined the Wall Street Journal, and five years later, then Managing Editor Normal Pearlstine assigned Teri to cover the fashion industry. There were no photos in the newspaper and no front row seats for this fledgling reporter. Despite it all, Teri was characteristically dogmatic and determined to do it her way – investigating fashion rather than critiquing the clothes. Her deep reporting on corporate intrigue and business conflicts at companies including Calvin Klein, Barneys New York and Yves Saint Laurent made WSJ headlines and earned her industry acclaim. In 1999, she published her first book The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Industry Forever, and it is still being used as a textbook in schools today. In 2004, she received the CFDA Eugenia Sheppard Award for Excellence in Fashion Journalism, an honor that tonight is being bestowed upon a transformative app called Instagram. What better day to talk to Teri Agins, the grande dame of reporting on the business of fashion? She still signs in all lower case, plays a mean game of tennis, and can rhapsodize on everything from celebrities hijacking the runway to her popular column Teri’s Tips to today’s social media landscape.

Interview

Did you always want to be a journalist?

Yes, since I was fourteen years old. I grew up in Kansas City and was on the newspaper staff in junior high school. My journalism teacher, Judy Rucker, said, “Teri, let’s have you do a fashion column,” and Teri’s Tips for Fashion Flair was born. My column even had a logo in boldfaced type, all lower case letters. It was inspired by Susan Hayward’s character in the film Backstreet, a fashion designer named Rae who signed her name in all lowercase letters. That is why I have always signed my name in lowercase letters.

From Teri’s Tips to the Wall Street Journal is an exciting career trajectory. How did it all happen?

In 1984, just about to turn 30, I returned to the United States after living in Brazil. I started working for the Wall Street Journal, covering the courthouse and airlines. In 1989, Managing Editor Norman Pearlstine assigned me to cover the fashion industry as a business beat. My work was different from most fashion reporters because I didn’t do fashion show reviews. I wasn’t a critic.

I took a twenty-month book leave in 1997 to write my first book The End of Fashion, How Marketing Changed the Fashion Business Forever. Published in 1999, it is still in print and used in marketing courses. I continued to cover the fashion beat at the WSJ until I retired in 2009. I still write the Ask Teri column in the journal as a freelancer.

What was the most challenging part of bringing fashion to the Wall Street Journal?

The WSJ did not run photos at the time and we had no track record covering fashion. So, I had to begin from scratch to get on people’s radar. I spent a lot of time cold-calling fashion publicists from public companies, as well as networking at fashion events if I had an invitation. In the beginning, I was always seated in the back at fashion shows. I clearly remember getting standing room for my first Calvin Klein show in 1989. My goal was to break the news and earn respect.

How did you differentiate your reporting?

I was always on the look out for corporate intrigues, business conflicts and irregularities that people didn’t know about. I wrote investigative stories such as: Calvin Klein Inc.’s financial struggles stemming from its junk bonds, the litigation surrounding Benetton’s practices with individuals who ran its U.S. retail stores, the illegal price-fixing of fees paid to fashion models, the Barneys New York bankruptcy, and Donna Karan International’s troubles as a public company. When Yves Saint Laurent appeared to be ailing in the early 1990’s, everybody was whispering about him but it was the Wall Street Journal (our Paris Bureau Chief and myself) that uncovered a really good business story.

The Ask Teri column is entertaining, informative, and very different from your signature investigative approach. How did it come about?

Because I was mainly doing deep-stories, I was only writing about a dozen stories a year. About 10 or 11 years ago, Paul Steiger, Managing Editor, wanted me in the paper more, so he suggested the weekly column. After I retired, they kept it going because Ask Teri is very popular. The questions are authentic and come from male and female readers from everywhere. I get as many as 50 emails a week. It’s fun helping real people – especially folks over 50 — figure out how to wear fashion!

What was your craziest question?

A guy working at the Pentagon sent an Ask Teri inquiry. He was tired of taking his belt off several times a day as he went between office buildings and wanted a belt that didn’t make the metal detectors go off. I found a belt company that made a belt with a plastic buckle – problem solved!

What do you think about the role of fashion critics today as compared to the 90s?

Fashion critics used to have big, powerful roles, translating and interpreting what was on the runway. That role is no longer necessary. Fashion is no longer a gated community.  Everyone has a front row seat. Ordinary consumers see the collections at the same time and are sophisticated enough to know what they like and don’t like.

What’s more, unless critics talk about what’s actually for sale in a designer’s showroom, their opinions only count for artistic awards. It’s not like movie critics who opine about the very same movie that everyone will see in the future. Fashion shows are now so much about entertainment and branding that they feature so many clothes that most often do not exist – they are either never manufactured or they are modified from what is shown on the runway. I think critics should write about what really exists.

Your second book, Hijacking the Runway, How Celebrities are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers was published last year. Please tell us about the title.

When I say they’ve hijacked it, I mean that celebrities hold the power. They are the arbiters of style influencing what people will buy and wear. Designers rely on celebrities as surrogates to keep them on the map. Experts estimate that 20% of photographers attend fashion shows to take pictures of the celebrities in the front row, not the clothes on the runway. Every fashion publicist wrangles celebrities to attend fashion shows. If there aren’t enough celebrities present, many journalists will not bother to attend and television surely won’t cover either. For example, at Michael Kors, before the show has even started, folks in the audience will declare, “this is a hot show” based on who’s sitting in the front row. Celebrities are becoming more important than the brand. Kendall Jenner is a perfect example.

How do you think the Internet has affected the fashion news cycle?

Fashion news reporting has become more competitive – and that’s a good thing in many ways. My issue is that the digital landscape has created so much capacity that needs to be filled with content all the time. I wish news outlets would spend more time doing hard-hitting investigative pieces, which take more time and resources. I’d prefer to read fewer, original, well-reported stories and analysis, and less coverage on bloggers-as- fashion personalities.

What are your thoughts on the soon-to-be-closed Style.com?

Well, I see it as the natural consolidation that occurs within media giants seeking to avoid cannibalization and redundancies. There will be casualties, just as there were during the dot.com boom-and-bust in the late 90’s. Journalism in general continues to consolidate and shake out as new digital formats come and go. As time goes on, the sites that are strong will survive.

What are your go-to websites?

The most valuable sites for me are the ones with breaking news and original analysis, including Business of Fashion, WWD, Daily Front Row, Fashionista, Refinery29, Racked, and The Fashionspot. As a fashion consumer looking for clothes and how to wear them, I like Net-A-Porter and Shopstyle. I also find good ideas regarding streetwear style from Pinterest and a number of blogs from around the world.

What is your opinion on fashion blogs?

I don’t read too many fashion blogs daily because they tend to be an echo chamber of the same photos, the Kardashians and red carpet moments. Most of the fashion brands have sites that are more like commercials and rarely provide real stimulation.

How do you think social media has played into changes in shopping?

The consumer is king and has more power than ever. Social media allows every woman to telegraph her feedback directly and immediately to the masses in customer reviews, on blogs, Twitters and on YouTube, all of which influence what people buy or decide not to buy. This viral feedback is more credible than advertising. We did not have that before.

You received the CFDA Eugenia Shepard Award for Excellence in Fashion Journalism in 2004. What is your opinion on Instagram receiving that same award tonight?

I think it’s a testament to the shift and how things are being done now. Social media is a huge factor in fashion. Today, anybody who follows fashion; follows Instagram. It tells you everything you need to know from street style to real life style. While Instagram seems a lot more frivolous, it still has impact. Instagram is immediate, democratic and a game changer.

   

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