Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Teri Agins

A few weeks ago in the cozy hamlet of Riverdale New York, fashion reporters, Jayne Chase and Jennifer Goodkind met with Teri Agins, Special Projects Writer for
The Wall Street Journal. Under summery blue skies, the co-hosts of the radio show, "A Fashionable Life," sipped on lattes and talked to Teri about fashion, its future and fall 2007 trends.

JC: Terry, tell us since the Wall Street Journal is a leader and a force in the business world, how does fashion reporting fit into the picture?

Teri Agins: The stereotype of the journal is that we only cover business and stock tables and stock market but we've always, and I've been there for 23 years, covered the industry, always covered any kind of story, we look at people and their money, we look at everything through the prism of business.

And with the fashion industry we look at the industry, we've got public companies, the publicly traded companies, but we also have great personalities and this is the kind of story we look at: We’re looking at people and their money and how they make it, how they spend it, how they relate to it and that makes for great drama and story telling.

And so for people who say, well what's the journal doing writing about fashion industries, it's a billion dollar global business and it deserves the same exacting coverage that any other industry deserves.

JC: Okay, do you prefer direct reporting or interviewing one on one?

TA: What do you mean?

JC: Well, do you like straight reporting where you're just collecting information and research and doing interviews on the telephone or do you prefer one on one where you're sitting in someone's office and doing a “face to face.”

Helena Christensen, Leif Sigersen, and Teri Agins
TA: Okay, I would say that good journalism is always gathered and researched and when I decide I'm doing a story, we're reading a script, we're looking at financial documents, we're looking at litigation, we're getting all this stuff to see everything in context and that's the background that you need and the fodder that you need to actually do analysis, so that is a big part of it. And then the other part of it are interviews, of course.

Often, even when I do a profile, I would go to interview the subject at the end of the story but you can do a very good profile of somebody without ever talking to them. But when you have drama, that is the stuff you need because that's how it plays in life. So I like doing a combination of interviews, but no matter what kind of story it is you want to do a lot of research. Nowadays I keep telling reporters there really is no excuse because you have Google. I think back on the days when I first started in journalism, we had to get SEC documents, you had to go down to the office with a bunch of quarters and feed the machine to get the documents, but now all this stuff is available online.

JG: Thankfully!

TA: There's really no excuse for not doing the research. The research to me is key. You want to be able to put something in context. I think one of the problems with a lot of stories is the context, they just write them in a vacuum and you can't get that perspective.

JG: But once you've done all the research, you prefer to sort of be on the phone or you prefer to be one on one?

TA: It depends on who it is because somebody who I've interviewed in the past, I can talk to on the phone. If it's someone who I've never talked to, I think it's nice to have a little face time, and it also depends on if it's something light, often easier to do it on the phone. If it's something a little serious, I want to get body language, all that kind of stuff, it helps out. 

JC: Okay. Lets make sure our backup tape recorder is working too.

TA: You always need a backup!

JG: All right, are we good? Okay, Teri, European designers have set the fashion stage for trends and the Americans counterparts have sort of followed up. Now the role seemed to have been reversed, do you agree with that? Do you think that the American designers have eclipsed European designers in terms of the ability to set trends?

TA: Yeah, the thing is that it happened a long time ago. I mean it actually started happening in the ‘60s when miniskirts came out of London and once that happened, people starting shopping at boutiques and it was kind of the beginning of taking out elitism in fashion. I think that at this point fashion is such a global business, saying American and European is not really accurate.

Mark Jacobs is at the helm of Vuitton and the father of couture, modern couture era, Christian Dior, is run by John Galiano, who's a Brit ... I don’t think it is a case of one eclipsing the other but I do think though that American designers and brands certainly know Americans much better than (European designers). They know the way their bodies are shaped, the clothes tend to fit better, don't you think?

Constance White and Teri Agins
JC: Definitely, but the globalization of fashion certainly makes us stand up and take notice of all designers no matter where they originate.

JG: What is the role of private equity investments in the fashion world with the trend that’s happening now… using Valentino and Gucci as examples. How do you feel about that and what is your interpretation of what's happening in the business world?

TA: I’ll say this, investors do not like fashion companies and the reason why is because of the high risk factors. They don't have predictable earnings and most fashion companies don't make money, obviously. It's like making an investment in a Broadway play ... it's a crap shoot and somebody can have a great season one year and then they can really fall flat the next.

When we had all these fashion IPOs, and this is actually what I talk about in my book, The End of Fashion, in the mid ‘90s about 40 companies went public and that included Gucci and Polo Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan and others and with a few exceptions (Donna Karan), most of them were a flop. So I think that the funny thing is that you would think that after that experience that investors would be sour on fashion companies, but there's a lot of private equity money out there and investors are really interested in fashion companies because they are a brand and I think that makes them very easy to sell, it makes them very easy for people to relate to. It is just like during the era and the fashion IPOs in the mid ‘90s, we're seeing that same thing.

JC: Who are your favorite designers to wear? You are a working woman so you need comfort and practicality.

TA: I’m going to be careful here because I don't want to endorse anybody.

JG: Okay, how about we say “look” instead of fashion designer, what is your favorite look because that’s a little more generic than fashion designer?

Ray Smith and Teri Agins
TA: When you get to a certain place in life, you kind of know what looks good on you, you know what you like so I will buy anything in the marketplace that fits with that look. And that look basically is boat necks, three quarter lengths sleeves, a lot of chic dresses, high waisted skirts, straight skirts. I don't like a lot of frills, nothing with prints. I get a lot of my knit tops through the Victoria's Secret catalog. The reason why I like the tops of Victoria's Secrets is they have a junior fit because I like it (tops) tight that you don't have to tuck in. The other thing is I spend a whole lot of money on alterations. I believe in alterations on something really cheap ... you can take it to another level. A lot of times I’ll spend $50, $60 often on something that costs $29.00. Fit trumps workmanship, trumps fabric ... trumps everything!

JG: What are your “go to” shoes, that's what we want to know?

TA: I love high heels, but I'm always changing out of them. I will not walk more than two blocks in high heels because I had what I call a “Manolo Meltdown”! Once when I was at an awards ceremony and I had worn high heels the whole day and when I sat down, my feet started swelling! I took my shoes off, could not get them back on. I was at Lincoln Center and I remember, my feet were throbbing, I walked out barefoot in the streets! I was walking with no shoes. And people were saying lady, “where are your shoes?” I didn't care, I thought my feet were broken.

JG: Everybody has a bad shoe story.

TA: You know when you say 'I’ll never drink again'; 'I’ll never wear high heels again.' That did it for me! So, I was always conscious about changing shoes and now I am religious, so I always have an extra pair of shoes with me. And my favorite go to flats are my Ferragamos and another Ferragamo make called Audrey (named after Audrey Hepburn ), with a little tiny strap ... and they come in black patent. They always look nice and dressy.

JG: It’s a classic.

Melissa Gellman and Teri Agins
TA: My problem with a lot of the ballerina slippers is that they offer no support because they actually hurt your feet. You've got to hold them on.

JG: I can't wear them. They make my arch freak! I get a muscle cramp from wearing them all day long, so I can't wear them at all.

TA: I have the Tory Burch Reva shoe, those fit well but I mean, I can't walk 10 miles in those.

JG: You know the shoe thing is interesting because as one gets older and suffers the ill effects of wearing heels for a long period of time, you realize flip flops are the way to go. They are pretty fabulous!

TA: Well, anyway, I like those Ferragamos, they look neat and I always like them in black patent.

JG: And today she's wearing flip-flops!

TA: Havanians, they are the best!

JC: Okay, so lets move on to the next question. What is the future of fashion reporting?

TA: I have been thinking about this ... I was thinking back to 1980, remember Elsa Klench? She was the big thing on CNN. That was the last gasp of when the kind of runway rules. Those shows were pretty simplistic, she got on there and talked about skirts, you know, these interviews were pretty standard, very referential too, she was very respectful. This was before all the TV coverage and now you've got H&M, Target and all those other guys who've entered the mix and I think that runway news is going to be less a focal point of fashion reporting. I mean it already is.

JG: What do you think is going to be the focus point?

TA: The thing is people want to read about what and where they can buy things, and you will notice, that's the reason why InStyle and Lucky magazine have done so well ... even Star magazine because people want to look at these magazines almost kind of like catalogues. You used to have to flip to the back to see where to buy it, now it's the 800 number, the website, the prices.

JG: Even the tabs you can mark your own page.

Teri Agins and Andre Leon Talley
TA: Yeah, exactly. So now whole point is that I think the more consumers are seeing this as a kind of a spectator sport because in the past you couldn't participate, this stuff was expensive and you could just look and wish.

JG: It was all about the inspirational.

TA: Yea, that's right and you think, oh maybe in two years from now it'll come to Nebraska and I could buy it. Now everything is accessible to everybody and readers want smart stories about clothes. I don't know if you saw the story recently about designers competing with celebrities and I wrote a similar story like that a couple of years ago when Jessica Simpson came on the scene. Designers are having a hard time branding themselves when they've got A. established brands that are already out there and B. all these celebrity brands. So I think readers want to read the reviews, look at the pictures, and they want to know how much this stuff costs and where they can buy it.

JC: They want it translated into their world. It's like that website where you see Mischa Barton walking down the street and they tell you where you can find the shirt, the pants, etc.

TA: So, I think that it is going to be more about that and I think occasionally you'll have some kind of rock star type like a Tom Ford or somebody who will captivate people in a really significant way, but for the most part I think that the whole thing is kind of over. But, I'm not saying those brands are over because obviously we have a brand like Louis Vuitton, if they continue to advertise and put out the right products, they'll continue to captivate consumers the same way.

I think the way we cover the shows with people giving their opinion on a lot of the clothes don't exist, I mean you're not going to see them for six months, what's the point. Consumers just get confused. So I think there's a wrench in the whole fashion system because consumers, especially women, are a lot more confident about what they want to wear.

JC: As a reporter you know you’re focusing on the rest of the country. You're not just New York Centric.

Teri Agins and Patrick O'Connell
TA: No, for sure, but even New York has changed.

JG: You've seen this trend as cross-section of markets all over the place?

TA: That’s what my book, The End of Fashion, is about. I’m talking about the end of fashion as we know it ... it has turned into a marketing exercise. Look, there is still a group of fashionistas who follow everything that's going on in the fashion world, but for the most part I think a lot of the reporting, and I've watched it, I've watched it since I've covered this industry, looks at everything through the prism of business and the stories are more interesting. People are more interested in reading about that instead of just reading about a hemline. So, I think that's where publications are heading.

JC: What role has the Internet played in fashion reporting for the Wall Street Journal?

TA: Okay, one thing I was saying before was that we as reporters benefit from all the blogs, Wikipedia, and Google. Those sites have helped us out tremendously because a big part of our readership accesses And I think we have something between 700,000 and 900,000 paying readers.

JG: Do you know what the relationship is between that and the actual hardcopy paper?

TA: The hard copy paid paper circulation is about 2.1 million. We have a lot of readers that read the paper on the web and in hard copy too so we do a lot of podcasts that will run with some of the stories. I did a story last year with Diane von Furstenberg and then went to her studio and we did a little mini podcast that ran with the story. So, we haven't gotten heavy duty into the blogs yet, but we're still trying to figure out how that works for us. We are doing some blogging, but it’s just another way to reach readers. I mean, there are those who like the old fashion turn pages read but I know some of these younger people, that's the way they get their news.

JG: Okay, so our final question, I want to get this in just before we run out of tape. What designer has just come on the scene that you have high hopes for?

TA: I'm not rooting for anybody. I really don't care.

JC: You want to stay neutral.

TA: Yes, I do but I would say generically anybody who is serving the customers, giving them what they want, I think it's those people. IT, Target, Barney's or whoever.

JC: Are you writing another book?

TA: Maybe. I’d love to. But last time I took a 20-month leave, and that's way too long. Everybody keeps asking me when I'm going to update my book or write another one ... and I probably will at some point. 

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