Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Even though she didn't go to college

I found this photo of Anna Wintour at the 2009 Columbia University Commencement on the blog of Natalie So, a former schoolmate who is now doing wonderful and brilliant things at Harvard University. If you didn't know, Anna Wintour's daughter, Bee Shaffer, is a member of the Columbia class of 2009.

On a related note, Anna Wintour was the speaker for the 2003 Fashion Institute of Technology Commencement -- and her speech is a witty and insightful read:
Thank you President Brown, Trustees, Faculty, Honored Guests and Students. I am so honored to have been asked to speak to you this morning.

I didn't go to fashion school. I didn't go to college. When I was your age, and living in London, the fashion business was nothing as professional as it is today. I started off as the most junior of junior editors at Harper's & Queen. This was at a time when fashion magazines were widely regarded by one's mothers as finishing schools for girls of a certain background and a certain name. One had fun there, but one merely dabbled in the business in anticipation of marriage and, all being well, a large house somewhere in the English countryside. Fashion shoots were an amateurish affair: I remember once being sent to India for a weeklong assignment with nothing more than 20 pounds (in those days, less than 50 dollars). When I asked my editor, How am I supposed to pay for everything? He said, "Oh, just find a maharajah with a palace." And I think I did.

It was possible for magazines to function in this way because interest in fashion was limited to a very small section of society. People with money and time on their hands wore fashion; everyone else wore clothes. At that time, fashion wasn't streetwear, and it wasn't workwear; it was something you might encounter at a party or on special occasion. When I went to Rome for the couture shows -- back then, couture was shown both in Paris and Rome -- the shows were black-tie affairs, held in the evening in Palazzos. There were no celebrities and no paparazzi. J. Lo might be wearing Sixties Valentino couture to the Oscars now, but she would not have been allowed anywhere near the show where that dress first appeared. It was a narrow, self-regarding cocoon. If a designer was famous, it was only in a small, elitist way. Nowadays, someone like Calvin is a world-famous artist whose name operates as a huge cultural force. The same could not be said for Charles James, a world-class designer who was extremely influential to fashion but labored in obscurity a few blocks from here at the Chelsea Hotel. It seems hard to believe, but there used to be an embargo placed on all sketches and photographs of the couture dresses. This was to stop knock-off merchants from illegally reproducing the designs. Nowadays, as you know, you can simply log on to Style.com and see the shows in their entirety on the very same day.

So you are heading out into a different industry than the one I entered. When Vogue takes Pam Levy and Gela Taylor, the designers behind Juicy Couture, to the Paris couture, they see that Brittany Murphy is wearing Juicy mixed with Dior in the front row, and John Galliano, backstage, tells them that he goes to work every day in their tobacco velour trackpants. So the fashion world is more inclusive than ever, and more in demand than ever. You will not have failed to notice that since you've been in school, celebrities--actresses, singers, TV anchorwomen--have all turned into fashion experts. This is not just about fearing red carpet scrutiny. It's about these women realizing that they can look chic without compromising their professional seriousness or their mainstream appeal. A certain generation of actresses, for example--I'm thinking Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, Diane Keaton, even Julia Roberts--became stars of great standing without ever venturing much past Armani; and even then, only on Oscar nights. To have asked them about the clothes hanging in their closets would have been inappropriate. (At that time, we had the supermodels to show us how to wear Versace.) The more recent crop of movie stars -- Nicole, Halle, Salma, Renee, --are completely different. Although they're every bit as serious about their careers, they are also serious about their wardrobes. And the two, as you might have suspected, are not unrelated. The truth is that stars use fashion as a commodity: carry a Vuitton Murakami bag to a premiere and you're going to be photographed. Of course, the funny thing is that models, who actually look better than anyone in clothes, these days wander around off-camera in Rogan jeans and Ugg boots.

All of this, by the way, is fantastic for fashion. The fact that actresses love clothes as never before means that more women than ever before will be inspired to take an interest in fashion, and maybe even to wear it. Just consider what Sarah Jessica Parker and Sex and the City have done for the fortunes of Manolo Blahnik and Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli! Fashion is now a democratic business. After the recent Costume Institute Ball at the Metropolitan Museum, a few old society types grumbled to the press that the wrong sort of people were now allowed to buy tickets to the premier fundraising event on the New York calendar. I couldn't have been happier to hear about this. I believe that the vitality of the industry (and society at large, for that matter) depends on a constant flow of new faces and new ideas and new stars.

Which brings us back to the FIT graduating class of 2003. As I've suggested, you are part of a society that values design and style more than ever--and I'm not simply referring to new clothes. At Vogue, these days, we don't just cover the collections; we cover style in its many and ever-multiplying incarnations, from the man who designed your Nokia cellphone to the people responsible for those cool new Altoids. We ask questions about what it means to look great for women of different body types and of different ages. And we recognize that the fashion and beauty industries can empower women. In Afghanistan, for example, we're working with an organization called PARSA that trains beauticians. In addition to learning how to style hair and do manicures, women in the program, many of whom lost their husbands in the wars that ravaged the country for decades, will be learning how to run businesses and support their families.

Now I'm not suggesting that you board the next plane to Kabul or Baghdad, armed with a box of lipstick and ideas about how henna can change your life. The point I'm trying to make is that the revolution in consciousness about style that has taken place in the last few years--and which many of you will quite naturally take for granted--is very good news for you. It means that, although there may not be a hiring frenzy out there at this moment, there have, historically speaking, never been more opportunities for those who are determined and creative. If you do not succeed in landing the plum fashion design job that you've long dreamed of, with resourcefulness and self-belief and above all flexibility, you will succeed in the end.

Let me give you some examples. At Style.com, our fashion director is Candy Pratts Price, who some of you may know from her fabulous cameo in Unzipped. After attending FIT, Candy was hired as an assistant at a portrait studio, then worked as a model at Bergdorf Goodman, then became a display director doing windows at Charles Jourdan, then took over windows for Bloomingdales with a team of 105 under her. She's been a set designer for movies, gave Patricia Field her start as a wardrobe stylist, worked as the fashion director for Harper's Bazaar, and then I hired her to head up accessories at Vogue. She left Vogue to become a designer for Ralph Lauren, and now she's with us again at Style.com. Candy's career illustrates that that if you've got style, you can apply it in all sorts of ways. Candy's vision has never wavered; all that has changed is how she directs it.

Rebecca Moses--FIT class of '77--is another case in point. She started as a coats designer for Pierre Cardin; left to start her own brand, a life-style oriented cashmere line, which turned out to be a rollercoaster of commercial highs and lows; then fell in love, got married and moved to Italy, where she designed Genny, a label that was, by her own admission, completely different from her own aesthetic. Now she's the creative director of Pineider, a wonderful old and revered Italian stationery house, where she's very happy making wonderful wicker furniture and incredibly chic desk accessories. Moses told me, quote, "You can never be too broad in your search for challenges. Whether you do clothes or shoes or silverware, it’s all about channeling your creativity.”

By contrast, Michael Kors-another FIT star-always wanted to be a fashion designer and nothing else. When I was at New York magazine in the early Eighties, he would arrive fresh from the subway with garment bags of his designs. He struggled and struggled and struggled - and then he made it. Again, his style never changed; it just took a while for the rest of us to understand his idea of luxury.

Michael, by the way, was instrumental in launching the career of Lazaro Hernandez, one half of the brilliant new label Proenza Schouler. Lazaro was an intern for Michael, and his partner in Proenza, Jack McCollough, was an intern for Marc Jacobs. These young men are part of the next wave of New York fashion, and what I find so smart about them is their focus and their modesty. They don't stage expensive shows or try to do everything, all at once, on a newcomer's budget. Instead, they concentrate their energies on designing wonderful pieces that are becoming instantly recognizable as Proenza Schouler. This is the way to start: with clarity and purpose and flair.

When I was thinking about what to say to you, I decided to tap the brain of the number 1 FIT graduate I knew. I said to him, What should I say to these students that might actually be of use to them? He said, The most important thing is to have a vision.. It doesn't matter what you're doing, just so long as you have a point of view that's entirely your own. Calvin, I couldn't agree more. Congratulations, class of 2003.
The devil knows her Prada.

Miss Couturable
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