Of fashion’s prominent critics, The New York Times’ Guy Trebay perhaps wins the prize for biggest skeptic. In his decade of writing for the paper’s Styles sections, he has honed a razor-sharp pen and dry-to-the-point-of-cracking tone. Recently, Trebay seems to take pleasure in skewering his subject matter, whether opining on shows, cultural trends, celebrities (Lady Gaga’s “singular innovation on the sincerest form of flattery has been to barge right past imitation to outright larceny,” Trebay wrote in a story on the singer’s much-lauded style), or editors (a recent description of Anna Wintour: “the 60-year-old editor of Vogue, narrow legs entwined, signature bob framing her small vulpine face, by now a kind of landscape feature, a prop without which no show can begin”).
Far from a standard review, a typical Trebay column is full of backhanded compliments and jabs, but also wittily derived insights and conclusions. So, as the fashion pack settles into the Milan shows — and Trebay begins to pack his bags to join them in Paris — the 57-year-old writer talks to WWD about whether he really does hate fashion, his favorite designers and what he thinks the future holds.
This story first appeared in the February 26, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: What’s your take on the current state of fashion?
Guy Trebay: I actually feel pretty optimistic, to tell you the truth. It’s just that I don’t really look to New York necessarily for the excitement, and maybe I’m not alone in that. I think mainly what I’ve been writing about is the canard of fashion being about the new when it isn’t about the new — it’s really, really very conservative. And my own tastes are not that conservative, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see a lot that’s good. Outside of everything that we know about the economy, I don’t feel like it’s a bad moment. It’s difficult for people like Threeasfour, I can say, who are a little bit too outside the loop to be commercial.
WWD: Is Threeasfour more your taste?
G.T.: In that case, I can’t say it’s a matter of taste. The thing that really means most to me is design, per se, not styling. And they’re really about design and the body and all dimensions, and that really appeals to me. They’re theoretical but they do make obviously quite interesting clothes. Difficult, I guess, but no more difficult than a lot of what you see.
WWD: Does it frustrate you that a house like Threeasfour has been relatively commercially unsuccessful, and overlooked in favor of the Alexander Wangs of the world?
G.T.: I wouldn’t want to slag one in favor of the other. They occupy different niches. I am somewhat mystified that there has been so little commercial application for Threeasfour, but I think a lot of it has to do with the economy. I mean, Barneys had them and Colette has always been very loyal to them, so it’s not as if I see them as occupying one pole and Alexander Wang at another pole of the fashion business. You know, it’s a continuum. I just think the climate has been so difficult for everybody that there just isn’t that extra space for somewhat less commercial — it’s the Isabel Toledo syndrome, basically. Everybody agrees that it’s fantastic and it’s thoroughly about design, but commercially it never achieved its potential.
WWD: Are there any New York designers who you think are beating this syndrome?
G.T.: I guess the most obvious example — but they’re not New York designers — is Rodarte, though they don’t exactly fit the bill for that. For me, if there’s an overarching problem in the business it’s that too much is about styling. And, you know, good on the stylists. But the thing that I keep coming away from these cycles thinking about is how much talent is squandered. There’s just an awful lot of talent around and a lot of it’s backstage, with hair and makeup people.
WWD: You’ve said that attention spans have contracted, but at the same time, thanks to Twitter and live-streaming video and all that, I think the audience for fashion has expanded. How do you reconcile those two trends?
G.T.: The truth is, I don’t really know the use of Twitter and all of that yet. I don’t know how much it’s helping or not helping to get these images and ideas out there. I’m interested in social media, as everybody has to be, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily related [to the dispersal of information]. I think a really important thing that has come clearer and clearer to me is how much [fashion is] a really tribal business still. The information, at the most crucial levels, is transmitted through and within the group. And it’s interesting to watch how the whatever-you-want-to-call-them, the influencers, the decision-making people have to really base everything on much shorter intervals — the intervals of creative expression have constantly shrunk. You have 10 minutes of this and eight minutes of that, and hours and hours of running around and sitting and waiting, and then you have to digest an immense amount of everybody giving his best effort in 10 minutes. Or fewer than 10 minutes at this point.
WWD: Do you think that bloggers like Bryanboy and Tavi Gevinson are entering the “influencer” category?
G.T.: I’m certain they are and I’m certain that in 10 years the business will be quite different. I’m all for that kind of dispersal in a general sense but for the moment we’re not there. It sounds like a very Establishment view, but I think that the Establishment is composed, in general, of really skilled people. It isn’t like the people we see in the front rows at shows are there accidentally. And I don’t think that they are prepared to cede the power and I don’t think the power is going to be wrested away from them by Bryanboy, although he seems like a clever and devoted guy and is into the subject matter. But personally, I don’t think that fashion is really clothes. My first interest is not the commercial applications or whether Bryanboy gets excited by a handbag or something; it’s really the core design piece that’s most interesting to me.
WWD: I know you’re leaving to cover the shows in Paris in a few days. What are you looking forward to seeing?
G.T.: I’m always interested in what Rick Owens is going to do. He’s a big focus for me. Dries [Van Noten] is very interesting. I take note of Balenciaga, although I am not necessarily the president of the fan club. I’m interested to see also what Parisians are, themselves, doing. I love the theater of that city. I have a lot of interest in the way that the mood of the moment is channeled by fashion people — it’s what’s so great about fashion. The mood of a city, of an economic climate, is really taken up in these slightly mysterious ways. That’s one of the great things about these show cycles actually, that everybody’s nattering and gossiping and passing along information or misinformation and then something emerges out of that, which isn’t necessarily what you went into it thinking it would be.
WWD: So where or what do you think is fashion’s great hope moving forward?
G.T.: A few years back I did a story — was fashion still cool? — and this was right at the beginning of the serious influence of the Internet. It started to become clear that you really didn’t have to be in major cities to produce this stuff — you could kind of be anywhere. I was at the Whitney Biennial the other night and so many artists [included in the exhibition] are living in L.A., as are the Mulleavys [of Rodarte]. So, I’m interested in what’s going to come out of regional places. There’s great, great art production in Kansas City, so fashion cannot be far behind, or Salt Lake, which is a very big art town, unexpectedly. I think people will always have to come [to New York] to make themselves known and sold but, creatively, I don’t see that there’s any reason why you have to be here. At a guess, I would say that’s somewhat the future.