Weeks have gone by and I can’t stop thinking about (okay, it’s become a full blown crush) Sally Singer, Vogue’s Features and Fashion News Director who appeared at the Commonwealth Club’s recent Inforum event.
As someone working at promoting San Francisco’s ever-fragile fashion community the forum’s title, “Why Fashion Still Maters,” seemed particularly in vogue. As I looked around at the fifty fashion-starved San Franciscan women listening with rapt attention, we were likely wondering what could the answer be? Like a congregation before its altar, I think we hoped this rare offering, a bona fide NY senior Vogue editor in San Francisco, could sustain our faith in fashion in a town where a catwalk show is generally overshadowed by events celebrating the achievements of technology, stem cell research or the environmental movement.
Weighing in on our fashion fascination, Singer rose to the challenge of both reigniting my commitment to the industry and defending Vogue’s relevance in a time where most Americans are worried about losing their jobs, their homes and perhaps even their way of life. After all, Vogue is a magazine that’s featured Balmain’s eleven thousand dollar exaggerated shoulder jacket every month since the spring/summer ‘09 collections.
Singer’s zigzag work history is a welcome departure from the more superficial stereotypes of the fashion industry. After dropping out of Berkeley she went to beauty school while living in the Tenderloin district. She headed east and graduated from Yale becoming an avant-garde, punk music-loving bohemian who now lives in the Chelsea Hotel, (yes, where Sid killed Nancy) and appreciates her “exacting” editor, Anna Wintour, for the rigorous work environment she creates.
Singer’s thoughtful, non-conformist persona reiterates fashion’s role as an art form, social and cultural barometer and a transformative power of reinvention often forgotten in these days of Lucky Magazine's shopping lists of must-haves and so-called stylish celebrities advertising head-to-toe outfits conceived by stylists.
Singer graciously described her outfit to former Wired magazine Editor-in-Chief Katrina Heron who questioned whether the average woman could afford or get access to the punk-platformed, cuffed, buckled and tassled booties (named “the Sally” for her), which effortlessly anchored her silk A –line Thakoon dress.
As someone with a fairly average clothing budget, I regularly roll my eyes at the elitism of some of the stories featuring Vogue’s pet socialites—grown-up women photographed lying lasciviously in their closets amongst a sea of shoes (puh-lease!) All my righteous indignation, feminist ideals (and, I’ll admit outright pea-greenish envy) fall away, however, at Singer’s insightful framing of the magazine as visual inspiration for the everyday woman. Creativity and imagination are a refuge in good times and in bad and Singer intimates taking Vogue’s visual cues to a place of creative enjoyment and to literally play around with how we present ourselves. Singer said “I’ve never understood why fashion is considered such an imposition on people’s lives, it should be considered a pleasurable thing to do.”
Singer spoke of her childhood passion for home sewing and how vital the craft was to her understanding of fabric, cut and proportions that guide the carefully honed silhouettes gracing her fashion news section. “Instead of trying to dress like everyone else, because to be honest my parents weren’t going to spend the money, I decided to make what I wanted to make depending on what I saw in the pages of Vogue and then I would start to alter it.”
Singer’s early attraction to the glossy fantasy of Vogue manifested during her time as a teenager living in Orange County during the 1970’s. “I so didn’t fit in,” she remembers. “I saw fashion magazines as a way of interacting with the world where I should be, because I really shouldn’t have been there.” Singer offered that most of her peers in the fashion world tended to recount similar feelings. “A lot of the top people in fashion… are people that were out of sync with the world, it is not the case that the beautiful people, the in-crowd, work in fashion. They don’t have any sense of what fashion can do for you. Fashion and personal style is not about excluding people, it’s about taking people who feel like they’re on the outside and giving them tools by which to project another self.”
She suggests fashion provides the opportunity to project another image, one that’s truer to ourselves. Speaking of the fashion designers she has come to know, the industry has “allowed them a fabulosity that the world was denying them. Fashion is about allowing you to be someone you can think you can create.”
Heron attempted to contradict, saying that Vogue was indeed elitist, “being intimidating and excluding to a lot of people.” Singer countered, “I sort of think it’s about how you read magazines and what you read them for. I never grew up reading Vogue because I was going to buy the things in Vogue, or anyone I knew would buy anything in Vogue. I grew up knowing that the ideas, the propositions about what you could look like, were interesting and were something I could play with.” Her comment, to me, echoed Vivienne Westwood’s statement "You have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes" and again her recent admonition "In these hard times, dress up, Do it yourself" in the notes to her Gold Label Spring/Summer 09 show.
Singer agrees we do the same. Take a visual cue from the magazine and pull something from our closets or an inexpensive mass retailer and put something together “that would get that vibe” and using our creativity, work out how “I could be that girl,“ pictured in the fashion spread.
Addressing the eco-conscious crowd in the room, Singer acknowledged that while the “fast fashion” trend has made fashion more democratized, she believes ultimately it just creates more stuff. The current economy’s silver lining, if there is such a thing, is that more and more we’re beginning to relate to resources in a different way and certainly the fashion industry desperately needs greening. Singer hopes people will figure out for themselves where value lies, and that they buy things that are right for them and the right for the world.
She surprised many in the room by cautioning against wasting money building our wardrobe with the classic basics, such as the perfect trench. Instead she recommended spending money on the one piece of quality design that we will love and will be meaningful for years to come. This concept of design having intrinsic “heirloom” quality echoes throughout all of today’s good product design briefs influenced by William McDonough’s inspiring book, “Cradle to Cradle.”
Ultimately, Singer provided us with the answer I was looking for as we sat down at the Commonwealth club. Great fashion isn’t about a kind of unattainable luxury or an exclusive endeavor for the rich and beautiful. Everyone needs great design to help us imagine a different and, hopefully, more flourishing future.
Lastly, I’m reminded of something I recently read about mid—masthead fashion editors who have been cut from runway shows due to economic downsizing. They needn’t worry about being cut from Lanvin, whose designer Alber Elbaz said “Now, everybody said, “Lets do a small show… Intimate, I believe in, but a small show—all the writers, the assistants lose the dream. This is the time to invite the people who dream.”
And on those words, I’ll get back to figuring out how to recreate those Balmain shoulder puffs in a long-abandoned jacket of mine!