tim blanks' guide to making it as a fashion journalist
Blanks gives us the inside line on life as a fashion editor, reporter and presenter.
In an industry that has its fair share of airheads, snakes and bores, it's a pleasure to see someone as smart, likeable and playfully bitchy as Tim Blanks making it so big. The fashion critic has benefitted from impeccable timing throughout his career, moving with the zeitgeist as he's skipped from print magazines to TV to the web. As the lead catwalk reviewer of Style.com ("the best job I've ever had in my life"), he established a voice whose syncopation, digestibility and range of references has been imitated - but not matched - by other writers. The short-sleeved shirt, loud print-loving New Zealander is now at Business of Fashion, where he's focusing less on short reviews and more on long-form opinion pieces about the state of the industry.
So Blanks is perfectly placed to be leading an online program on writing for Mastered, a website running a range of courses headed up by a variety of industry dons including Virgil Abloh, Sam McKnight, Val Garland and Nick Knight. Blanks can hardly teach his students what got him where he is - precociously bopping off to Auckland University at 15, spending time "soaked in amphetamines and dressed up like Ziggy Stardust", living with Jerry Hall in LA, and working on the colours and clothes of legendary 80s cartoon Inspector Gadget, all before he entered fashion and writing proper - but he will be bringing his experience, contacts and good nature to bear. "I don't feel that this course is about teaching," he explains over a glass of crisp white. "I feel this course is about communicating and, in a funny way, about reassurance." Life for a writer is tough and doesn't come with the money jobs that top photographers and stylists use to financially support themselves. So that reassurance from Tim Blanks is a simple, but valuable thing for a freelance journalist.
The course, which opens in spring (applications are open now), will include assignments with the likes of Interview, V Magazine and Another, but will be fairly organic, although "not in a brown rice, no-knickers way" - more about Tim responding to his pupils' needs. "Everybody who's on the course is already doing this. It's not a classroom-y situation. It's more of a round table-y thing where I'm going to learn as much as them."
When and how did you start your career in fashion?
I was editing the fashion offshoot of Toronto Live. Then it went national in the late 80s. When I started writing there wasn't really a fashion industry per se. There wasn't ready to wear or anything like that. We proposed Fashion File to the CBC, a Canadian TV channel, when they launched a 24-hour news service.
What were you doing prior to that?
I did the colours and art directed the different clothing for Inspector Gadget! Before that, I did various strange things like working for Brian Ferry in Los Angeles. I drifted around quite a lot actually.
What was your big break?
Fashion File was so right time, right place it was ridiculous. It was entirely accidental, I was working for the fashion magazine and then CBC were looking for programming to fill 24 hours, so they wanted cheap programming, and we provided the cheap fashion filler. So Fashion File was five minute segments that we showed every single day, that would be repeated all day, and then would be compiled at the end of the week into a half hour show, and then they sold the half hour internationally. It quickly became the CBC's most successful international show.
How have you ended up working across all these different media?
Completely accidentally, it's just so crazy. I could speak endlessly about being in the right place right time. It was from the magazine to the cable TV to the digital world to the ultra digital world, but what I would say about it, as a sort of inspiration to people that might want to join a course, is that ultimately it was all about being able to write. It wasn't because I could use a computer or anything. It was just because I wrote in the most old-fashioned way. I just put words together, told a story and somehow I think that's what this world - for all its technological window dressing - wants. People have wanted stories since they crawled out of the primal slime and it's not changing. The old-fashioned and the new-fangled can live together quite comfortably.
You couldn't really access fashion back then.
Well this was 89-92 and we coincided with the supermodel phenomenon, so the show was sold everywhere around the world. It was the fashion education for people in all sorts of different countries and CBC hated that because they were very much into serious literary programming, or the sex life of the vole, or skiing with Gandhi or whatever!
What was the transition from magazine to video like?
I was headhunted by Anita Roddick at the Body Shop, so I came back to England in 1990, just after we'd started doing Fashion File. I left the magazine in Toronto, but I kept on doing Fashion File, and I was working for the Body Shop. So for the first 10 years, my life was half Fashion File, half Body Shop, which was really good because there was the worthy works and then there was the fashion stuff and they went together strangely well. With video, initially it was quite hard to stand up in front of people when there's 1000 people waiting for a show to start and you're standing there and there weren't people doing it, so people were curious. I just had so much fun doing that and I never drew lines between "I won't do this, I will do that." In the same way when I first started freelance writing I'd write for the Virgin train magazine. I had no pride. When I was asking young journalism students, "What do you want to do?" and they were like, "I want to write for Vanity Fair." Oh well, actually that's not really what happens. "Oh but my mother knows the editor'." OK right, of course you're going to write for Vanity Fair then.
What would you say has been the best thing about working in fashion for you?
The people. I'm a very curious person and it's an endlessly curious business. From 15-year-old models fresh off the camel train from Uzbekistan to Karl Lagerfeld: you don't get that range anywhere else. And because of fashion, I've got to see things that people just don't get to see. When I was in Rome for the Chanel show a few weeks ago, we had a tour of secret Rome and we went to see all these places that people never get into. Federico Marchetti had a dinner in Leonardo's library where they brought his diaries out that people never see. The books he had actually written in! I wouldn't see that otherwise.
What is the worst thing about working in fashion?
There's not enough time. It's not even the number of shows, it's just the chaos and the disorganisation. It's like some perverse demon has timed them so you have just enough time between each show or presentation to sort of start writing down some notes, but not enough time to finish. At this time of year night falls early, so you can't work in the car. It's just dark and weird and I can't read my notes in my notebook. I find that everything, regardless of how hard you try, gets pushed to the end of the day and you end up starting work at 9 o'clock at night and you work until 3am and you have to start again really early. There's always been a time problem, but it's a lot worse now.
What's the biggest change you've witnessed in the industry?
Speed. I used to have a grace period from seeing something and writing about it, and this doesn't exist anymore. Now everything is in the moment for everybody, which is also fabulous - I suppose you can feel the world ending all around you. The world is ending - we know that - but we're just rushing into it at top speed, like we love the rollercoaster ride to oblivion.
Have you found new ways to digest everything?
Booze! That's the old way.
What three rules do you live by?
They would have been so different 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago. It was always like, "If you sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, what's the order you put them in?" And it's changed. You have to be patient. It sounds so trite, but every moment is a blessing, because the alternative to life is just ghastly. So, patience, appreciation of the moment, and lots and lots of time to yourself.
Have you always been good at solitude?
I'm very good at that. Restaurants are my hobby, so I'll take myself off to an insanely expensive restaurant and have a wonderful night all on my own.
So if someone sees Tim Blanks dining out by himself, they shouldn't feel sorry for you?
No, it's a choice. If someone sees me by myself I might have moved away from the people I was with!
If you weren't working in fashion, what would you be doing?
Something incredibly lazy! No, I'd probably be doing something similar, but- I'd be doing something with words. I wouldn't be doing it very often or diligently, but something with words.
Finish the sentence, fashion makes...
Me very, very happy.
Writing: Mastered is a talent program for professional writers, led by Tim Blanks. Applications are open now and places are strictly limited. The program is set to start in late Spring. Apply here.