In i-D’s Wise Up Issue, fashion critic extraordinaire Sarah Mower and her first-ever assistant Hannah Lambert speak to Anders Christian Madsen about gaining wisdom, keeping it, and passing it on. Commemorating the interview, i-D online profiles Sarah and Hannah in their own interviews featuring outtakes from their sessions and shoot for the issue.
Click images to enlarge.
The voice behind some of American Vogue.com’s most influential show reviews, Sarah Mower MBE is one of the most powerful fashion critics in the world. With positions covering several corners of the industry, not to mention continents –apart from being Contributing Editor at American Vogue, she’s a columnist at Japanese Vogue and the Ambassador for Emerging Talent at the British Fashion Council – Sarah possesses the kind of fashion wisdom that could only come with a life dedicated to the industry. Born in Bath, she studied English and History of Art in Leeds and has previously worked for publications including The Guardian, British Vogue, and American Harper’s Bazaar. A mother of three, Sarah lives in West London with her husband and her two English Toy Terriers.
Who was your ‘Sarah Mower’? A string of great women editors and journalists, beginning with Alison Rice, who edited Ms London magazine in the 80s who gave me my first editorial assistant job – with a weekly page of my own; Carol Sarler at Honey who ran a stable of fine young feminists, Brenda Polan who was at The Guardian and gave me the fashion editor’s job, in at the deep end with no experience, and, then Liz Tilberis at British Vogue. I’d always been very introverted with a genetically grumpy face when thinking, and I didn’t have any telephone manners – and I’m probably still terrible at it – but Liz showed me how to run a magazine and how teamwork works. How the whole system works. But nobody taught me to write. I’m really self-taught. But I’d been studying fashion since I was 9 and three-quarters, or maybe before. I have the drawings to prove it.
What’s the secret to good fashion writing? Hannah asked me how to write a review, and the first thing I told her was that you have to be able to address the general public. It’s no good reeling off obscure fashion references and name-dropping if you don’t explain their relevance. I hate pretentious fashion writing and can’t bear fashion clichés – I’d never entertain any young writer who used the terms ‘iconic’, ‘must-have’ or ‘it-bag’. As in design, you must have your own voice, and when it’s authentic, people will listen to you. I’m always most delighted when people who don’t care about fashion like my work. Men used to write to the The Guardian about how they’d never read a fashion story they liked until they’d read Sarah Mower. And I was quite young back then.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to be writers? You only get anywhere if you have to write – if you actually have to put something down on paper. If you’re driven. You have to be self-critical and write things over and over again, and redo it and redo it. It can take me three hours to write the first sentence.
Do you think young fashion writers are faced with barriers now that weren’t there when you were starting out? Well, I mean, there aren’t jobs in the old sense now. The whole industry has been through an industrial revolution. But no: what young people don’t know is that old people want to know what they are thinking. If you can articulate that, you’ll get far. But to be honest, I wonder how many are trying? Try this for a fact: in my entire career, no young writer has written to me to ask for advice. As against hundreds of designers.
Why do think London is so open to young talent in fashion? I think it’s a cultural phenomenon that’s happened in this city, somehow. When you look at France, they have a rigid school system that teaches competitiveness, whereas in England young people are now being taught teamwork. People like McQueen and Hussein and all that generation really didn’t want to be around anybody. They worked in isolation, which didn’t mean they were worse designers but there was no community. There is now, a great gang of friends who all work so hard and are setting the bar higher for themselves every season. I believe in strength in numbers.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever given somebody? Well, it would be with designers. “Go step by step.”
What’s the best part about working with London’s designers? I find it very rewarding. If I was just being a journalist and concentrating on writing, I might have been fed up and bored by now. I like having multiple roles – they’ve sort of grown organically. When you’ve been around as long as me, you tend to know all the people who are at the top. I’m good at putting people together, but it’s a privilege being able to know what designers are up to. I try to be discreet and trustworthy. When Ben [Kirchhoff) and Ed [Meadham] thanked me in minute writing in their show programme, they called me ‘Sarah Mother’. I was very touched.
Is being multidimensional the key to working in fashion today? My work now is far more multidimensional than when I first started out. Today you’re encouraged to create your world, and if you’re brilliant, you do. A lot of what I do is helping designers. And many journalists don’t go behind the curtain or to the designers’ studios. They don’t bother to find out what it means to have to manufacture and finance a collection. They don’t even go backstage.
You’ve talked about Hannah doing a magazine after she graduates. Would you have done that when you got out of university? I would have had that in me, but we didn’t have the access to being able to do layout. Today it’s possible. What really disappoints me about so many students now is that in my day you had to go to the library and really search for the information, but now anybody can find out anything on the internet, and yet the laziness of approach is so profound. Mostly, they don’t bother. But Hannah knows.
You and Hannah dress quite differently. She out-dresses me all the time. When I look back at what I used to buy when I was Hannah’s age, I did have a couple of Saint Laurent and Chanel jackets. The first designer piece I ever bought was a Gaultier jacket around 89 and I could barely afford it and I was so guilty about spending money. What Hannah’s taught me is that actually, if you buy the rare, special pieces, they accrue in value.
How would you describe your taste? If I’m looking at designers in general, I like anything which is intensely good of its kind, irrespective of whether I could wear it or not. For me, I know what I look best in: anything which is straight-up-and-down, meaning narrow tailoring, trousers, pencil skirts, long straight skirts and anything that is a near relation to a t-shirt or shirt. So really, it’s a question of continually curating that set of shapes, which I’ve somehow managed to do through Gaultier, YSL, Chanel, Comme des Garçons, Prada – and then, my gods Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela. There was a bleak time for me in the short tight dress time. Lately, thank god, there’s Celine, Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane, and Jonathan Saunders to keep me topped up. And I’m even wearing colour now – Mary Katrantzou! – something I never believed I’d do. Everything I had was black from 1985 to about 2006.
Text: Anders Christian Madsen
Photography: Damien Fry
Hair: Charlie Le Mindu using L’Oréal Professionnel
Makeup: Kim Kiefer using NARS Cosmetics
Photography assistant: Stella Consonni
Hair assistant: Shiori Takahashi
Sarah Mower wears suit, coat and blouse by Prada; bespoke shoes by Manolo Blahnik.
Hannah Lambert wears Meadham Kirchhoff.