Critical profile: Booth Moore - interview
Published in Address - journal for fashion criticism issue 2
Booth Moore is a stellar journalist and fashion commentator affiliated with the Los Angeles Times. She is one of the few to use the title fashion critic and she carries it proudly. In the pink glow cast over by the striking façade of the Beverly Hills hotel, she reflected on the state of criticism, her role as a critic and how it has evolved over the years.
Johannes Reponen: I wanted start off by asking about your background. Could you talk me through where and what you studied and what you have done up to the point you became the fashion critic for the Los Angeles Times?
Booth Moore: I grew up in New York City. I fell in love with writing in high school and I started writing for the school newspaper Limelight. It was unique because we really tackled serious topics, for example I wrote about Vaclav Havel’s visit to New York and about the displacement of the Kurds, the ethnic group in the Middle East, after visiting the Kurdish Heritage Foundation in Brooklyn and interviewing its director. It was really serious journalism at a younger age, which was cool. I have always had a parallel interest in fashion and in writing and when I was in high school I interned at a fashion magazine called YM, which is not around anymore. I was the assistant to the fashion editor and I really did not enjoy the experience. I got to do practically no writing. That turned me off from magazines but I still had a really strong interest in fashion. I went to college in Duke University in North Carolina where I studied History. After graduating, I lived in Washington DC where I worked in politics briefly and then I started in journalism working as a research assistant for a columnist at the Washington Post for a year. After that I moved to Vermont where my parents had a house. I started freelancing for the local weekly newspaper on a whim. I was writing about everything from kids’ soccer games, school board meetings to town hall meetings and then eventually covering the stage legislator in Vermont. I met my husband, who was the editor, whilst working at the paper. I had always wanted to move out to Los Angeles. I had idealized the lifestyle out here. The palm trees, the ocean, the convertible and all that. We moved here in 1996 and I had a connection at the Los Angeles Times through the columnist I worked for at the Washington Post, so I was interviewed for a very low level job. To start with I was doing listings and the entertainment section but I started freelancing immediately for the fashion section. I just eventually worked my way over to writing about fashion full time. As the years went on, I became more and more senior and was named fashion critic in 2004. It was the first time they’d had that position at the Los Angeles Times.
JR: How would you describe your role as the fashion critic for the Los Angeles Times?
BM: I have to say that the past ten years have been exciting at times, but also discouraging. When I was named the fashion critic, I think it really signaled a seriousness that the Los Angeles Times had about fashion coverage. But the whole publishing industry, and the Los Angeles Times in particular, has gone through a lot of turmoil in the past decade. Our paper has been in bankruptcy, and ownership has changed. As a consequence, I think the role has really diminished in importance and that has been disappointing to see. When I was named fashion critic, obviously it was giving me a platform to express my opinions about fashion. It was an acknowledgement that fashion is an art form and a form of popular culture on a par with film and music and art, which are all taken really seriously at the paper. Because of demands for more content and online, as well as layoffs, staffing and budget constraints, I have been asked to do a lot more. Subsequently that original mission has diminished in importance.
JR: So do you think that there is a difference between being a journalist and critic?
BM: Less and less. I have been at the Los Angeles Times long enough to remember when you really couldn’t express your opinion in writing unless you were a critic. For a journalist, it was very important, when you were writing stories, that you were balanced. If you were lucky enough to be a critic then you could express your opinion. Now, with pressures to tweet, blog and get it done faster, everyone is encouraged to express their opinions.
JR: I suppose that’s part of the culture that internet has created.
BM: Yes, completely. Internet has turned everyone into a fashion critic.
JR: And how do you view that?
BM: It’s hard. In some ways it’s exciting because it opens up the world of fashion to a lot more people. It should make fashion criticism more important. Fashion used to be the realm of very few. The runway shows were only seen by a small group of people and the clothes were worn by an even smaller group of people. So now that it has been opened up and really become a part of pop culture, it should mean that critics are all the more important or as important as film, music and art critics. But for some reason it seems to have become the opposite. The role of a fashion critic has really been marginalized, at least by large publications. I’m really good friends with Robin Givhan and we hang out together at all the shows. To see that her position was pretty much eliminated when she left the Washington Post is very sad. I think that if I left the Los Angeles Times, my position would probably be eliminated too.
JR: You talked a little bit about how, particularly with online, everyone can voice their opinions. I actually don’t think there is any shortage of opinions. But what do you think is the difference between opinion and criticism then?
BM: Opinion is something that is immediate and not as well considered perhaps. Criticism should put whatever you are looking at, whether fashion collection or runway, in greater context and that does take time, thought and space to write about. And that’s one of the other big differences between when I started this job and how things are now. I would file three to four long stories from Paris for the paper and I would be up until 4 am in the morning writing. Now I’m covering the collections in a few paragraphs that usually run online. The Los Angeles Times doesn’t really have an interest in publishing long stories about several collections woven together and putting in context. The way that I cover things has completely changed. And that’s unfortunate too I think.
JR: You also have a blog titled All the Rage for The Los Angeles Times. Is that part of you expanding your voice and perhaps finding alternative ways to discuss things that would not fit into the print newspaper?
BM: Obviously the blog is an opportunity to write anything at any time. The blog is an open forum, which is a positive thing. On the other hand, it’s a beast that needs to be fed constantly. Often I wish I would have longer time to spend with a topic, to consider it, to talk to other people and to do interviews but the pressure is really just to produce more and more and more. Unfortunately sometimes it feels like the pressure is to produce more quantity than quality so whereas I can bring up a thought, sometimes I don’t feel like I have the time to explore it in the way that I maybe did when I had more space to fill in the paper.
J: And is your Twitter affiliated to the paper or is it personal?
B: It’s part of the paper. I signed up for it personally but now I’m a verified Los Angeles Times journalist on Twitter. It’s expected that I’ll tweet from wherever I am. That’s another thing I think that has changed fashion criticism because you are expected to give a reaction immediately to something rather than being able to sit back and take time, look up something in history or think about the political implications. That immediacy is expected in fashion but not really from other disciplines. Our food critic is not expected to go to a restaurant and immediately tweet a reaction. They are allowed the time to revisit a restaurant several times and figure out whether or not they like it and what they want to say.
JR: I was looking at The Los Angeles Times masthead and there was a section for critics, which is where I would expect to find you in terms of what you do, but instead you are in the ‘Image’ section. Is that just an organizational thing or do you think that that’s because fashion is perhaps viewed in a different way?
BM: Sure, I think it’s because fashion is viewed in a different way. I think that fashion still suffers from being thought of as women’s work, honestly, and that definitely affects how seriously it is considered.
JR: I often remind people that in the UK, for example, the fashion industry contributes £20.9 billion to the UK GDP and directly employs around 816,000 people. It’s a huge business that needs to be taken seriously.
BM: Yeah, I have had male editors who have said “Don’t tell my wife, I read your story, but thought it was really great”. Completely sexist. I have to say that most of the people who are serious about writing about fashion are really well educated and intelligent so I don’t know where the perception comes from, but I don’t think it’s the reality.
JR: Yes, definitely. You have talked a little bit about your position as a critic. I have to admit that I have been speaking to PR people and designers here in LA to see how they perceive you. Overwhelmingly, everyone I spoke to said that you are well respected, you are very supportive of the industry. All around, it’s been very positive. But simultaneously there is a weight to the term critic. How do you feel people perceive it?
BM: It’s interesting because I think there is a feeling in fashion that everyone who writes about it should be supportive of it, and that’s not a critic’s role necessarily. There used to be room to write negative reviews but now it’s more likely that I would write about something because of the increased demands of my time and decreased space I have to write in. I think that’s a shame because, for designers, negative reviews can be helpful. I was interviewing a local LA designer Jenni Kayne recently about being in business for ten years. I remember the review I wrote of her first collection. It was really harsh, I mean harsh, verging on being mean. I asked her about the review: I almost felt like I needed to bring it up because we’ve never discussed it. She said, it was harsh but that she felt that she needed it at the time and that she has grown up a lot since. She acknowledged that she was in a phase where she kind of needed a kick in the pants. But I don’t feel I have the space and the time to do that kind of thing anymore. I mean obviously there are certain brands that you can’t ignore writing about whether it’s Chanel or Dior. But if a smaller brand or younger designer produces a bad collection, it’s more likely that I just wouldn’t write about it because there is so much other stuff to do than giving feedback that might be valuable to a designer who is coming up.
JR: I have been thinking about negative and positive reviews a lot lately and I’m trying to understand how to balance these. But I have also been thinking what it might mean to a designer, particularly for younger fashion brands when a negative review can be very harmful. What do you think is the responsibility of a critic?
BM: It’s my responsibility to be honest. I think that most designers are interested in hearing what you have to say if you have a context of seeing fashion for 15 years and have been thinking about it all day long. It gives you a place of experience and knowledge and I think that most designers respect that. Negative reviews don’t have to be completely soul sucking. As a critic, you have to consider the platform you are on and you shouldn’t necessarily just be willing to destroy someone with your words. Feedback can be constructive criticism without being completely destroying on a personal level. There are certainly some reviews written by other critics that I read that I think that perhaps could have been a little less harshly put.
JR: I suppose the problem also is that criticism as a word itself means ‘to be negative’.
BM: As a critic you have to be really careful to keep yourself and your own ego out of it. You should not be making headlines yourself for what you have written. But then again, that’s where the world is changing too because of the whole idea of personal branding. It has put an emphasis on what you say becoming a personal statement, in and of it itself, to further a personal brand.
JR: You anticipated exactly what I was going to ask next. You talked about the expectations to produce text really fast, be constantly saying something and promote the newspaper. Opinions seem to be much more important now and newspapers are sold by using personalities. How do you view this?
BM: Yes, well I think that all media is really driven by that. If you look at Project Runway, for example, and all of those judges are expected to critique those fashions in a way that is short and funny and entertaining. It’s not enough that you are writing criticism now, it also has to be entertaining.
JR: How do you balance that?
BM: I’m not out to win the popularity contest. I’m not going to be Derek Blasberg. I’m not going to be best friends with everyone, that’s not really my nature anyway. But as far as how to make my work compelling, I would hope that I write with authority and experience and that this comes through the words. This is what gets me excited. When I do get behind something, having been able to state authoritatively that this is great or this is someone to watch, that’s what excites me. And I hope that it comes through the writing and that it interests readers. Certainly there are things you can do with words and descriptions to make your writing appealing and compelling. Relating what you are seeing to what is happening in the world also makes it understandable. One of the greatest compliments I have ever gotten is that my mother-in-law, who lives in Vermont and works at the most charming general country store, who is completely not a fashion person, likes to read what I write. It’s a world she doesn’t know but she can relate to it because of the way I write about it in terms of art, pop culture, politics or the economy. All I can do is to write about fashion in that context and hopefully it’s compelling to readers. I don’t want to make myself into a star and sometimes I think that that could be the death of me.
JR: So when you are writing, do you have a reader in mind or do you write for a specific type of audience?
BM: Not really, although I certainly keep in mind that my audience is based in Los Angeles, so things like discussing the red carpet is perfectly fine to do because that’s something that my audience, more so than the rest of the world perhaps, is attuned to. Even something like the climate of Los Angeles and if collections are starting to become seasonless, that is perhaps of interest to people in Los Angeles. I also try to keep in mind the fact that a lot of people might be coming to my stories without an intimate knowledge of the fashion industry, so they are not going to necessarily know what the New Look is.
JR: Are there any other critics that you think are doing their job particularly well and if so why?
BM: When I was starting out, I read a lot of other critics. I try not to do it anymore just because I want to have my own thing to say. But certainly Suzy Menkes is kind of an icon, just for her stamina and her role in the industry and also she is very fair. I think people really respect the things she has to say. I mean, she goes to it all, she sees it all, she takes it all in and she writes about everything she sees even if it’s a handbag collection. There is that real feeling that she cares and I think that she also has respect for the industry and the people working in it.
JR: Do you have any kind of advice for someone wanting to develop their voice or wanting to be a fashion critic perhaps?
BM: Well, I have just been sitting here bemoaning about online criticism, but blogs are one way to do this. When we first launched the image section, I hired this woman based on her blog. She came up to me and introduced herself at an airport and she gave me her card and I looked at her blog and it was great. She was really smart about the way that she talked about fashion. I think that there are things that you can do online and with blogs that isn’t just ‘this is what I’m wearing today’ but are serious considerations of topics to do with fashion. I know another woman who wrote a great blog and she talked about fashion in the context of art. There are all kinds of things but it’s harder and harder to get noticed. But I would just say, start writing.
JR: One final question, but this is perhaps a big one. How do you describe fashion criticism? And is it even relevant now?
BM: Fashion criticism is the opportunity to discuss fashion in a greater social context and I think it’s more relevant than ever. When fashion criticism was all about whether the hemline was going up or down, maybe that was a bit frivolous. I really do believe that fashion has become part of pop culture now. Runway shows are multibillion-dollar spectacles that have as many production values as some openings on Broadway. Many of the shows can be seen at the same time around the world. They involve clothing, self-image, culture, music, and set pieces and reflect society’s view of beauty. There seems to be more room than ever to discuss these things in a greater cultural context. My fear when I came in here was that ‘oh my god he is going to ask me how I review a collection’. For a while, I almost had a little formula that I would try to use, whether it was silhouette, fit, fabric and color and all that, but fashion is more than a sum of those parts. It is an emotional feeling, but also as you said fashion is a multi billion-dollar industry and it should not get short shrift anywhere and unfortunately it does. People should be interested in the behind the scenes inner working of this world, which is all about, how we present ourselves. But it is a double edged sword, as fashion has become so popular, it is this kind thing that everyone wants to participate in but it has become harder and harder to take seriously because it is loud, fast moving and everywhere. I really would hope that there continues to be room for fashion criticism and it doesn’t get marginalized into grunting an opinion in a 140 characters or less.