Tim Blanks on his remarkable career in fashion

By Tim Blanks

From wishful wannabe in Kohimarama to one of the most influential fashion journalists in the world, Style.com’s Tim Blanks reflects on a 25-year career that, he says, was a case of right place, right time.

New Zealand born fashion journalist Tim Blanks.
New Zealand born fashion journalist Tim Blanks.

If it's hard not to think of Charles Darwin when the word 'evolution' is bandied around, it's even harder when I'm asked to reflect on my own professional evolution.

For the past quarter century, I've been reporting on fashion around the world. Where the unlikely figure of Darwin enters that particular picture is that this thing that has taken up almost half my life came about in a random way.

In the late 1980s, I was living in Toronto, freelancing for as many publications as possible, when I was gripped by a bourgeois need for the stability of a regular paypacket.

It so happened that the first magazine to offer me a full-time job - as features editor - was a fashion magazine. Soon after, the editor-in-chief moved on and I inherited his position. Soon after that, I proposed a show about fashion for the Canadian Broadcasting Company's newly launched 24-hour cable news channel. And soon after that, the supermodel phenomenon exploded, and Fashion File unwittingly became a global gateway to a whole new universe.

And that was that. No grand design, just the right time, the right place. Even Darwin himself might have appreciated how the single happy accident of a job offer underpinned the curious process of natural selection that propelled me into a world I'd never have imagined would be mine.

Not that fashion wasn't always around in some way while I was growing up in Kohimarama. I was obsessed with movies and music and the magazines that covered them. Life magazine was an especially vital resource, and its photo essays - whether they were about Warhol or Woodstock or outre trends such as topless bathing suits or maxi-coats - inevitably exposed a malleable young mind to awe-inspiring, aspirational illustrations of personal style.

I single out Woodstock because, when the documentary about the festival opened at the Plaza on Queen St, I stood in the lobby, fat, spotty and slack-jawed, as a posse of the most elaborately, gorgeously dressed hippies swept by. The poignant sense of wishful wannabe that overwhelmed me that night occasionally recurs as some kind of paradigm for the power that fashion wields.

A year later, it was the Velvet Underground in their leather jackets and shades who'd ensnared me, a year after that, David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, whose various guises provided the consummate style guide for a generation of boys learning to dress up.

Then glam begat punk begat everything else that I followed from city to city. Sydney to London to L.A. to New York to Toronto, and, eventually, back to London, where I've lived since 1990. Since my university days, I have always written, at first about music, but eventually about anything anyone asked me to. Golf holidays in Orlando? No problem.

Early 20th-century American Gothic literature? Piece of cake. A society wedding in Sao Paulo? Well, given that my partner on that particular piece for The New York Times was one of the most highly regarded war photographers in the world, I felt like I was in the best possible company.

I said "yes" to everything, no matter the subject or the stipend. And every time I'm asked to speak to fashion or journalism students, that's how I beg off the request. I know they're going to ask how to get a gig with Vogue or Vanity Fair. They don't want to hear that they'd be better off pitching an idea to the magazine Virgin passes out on its trains.

I would, of course, counsel them that you just don't know who'll be in the captive audience idly reading you on their stop 'n' start train journey through the English countryside because, to return to happy accidents, that was kind of how I made my way to a fashion magazine in Toronto, and thence onwards to the green pastures of cable television and the even greener digital universe of Style.com. (And yes, there have been many way-stations at the various global iterations of Vogue, the French edition being, from my experience at least, the most difficult one to strangle money out of.)

Though I'm coming on reflective here, I'm not naturally inclined that way. I think that's how 25 years passed so fast. I was recently and rather overwhelmingly honoured by the Council of Fashion Designers of America with its Media Award.

The award ceremony itself is like Oscar night for the fashion industry, and now I completely understand all the cliches that attach themselves to such events - the trophy weighed a tonne, my mind went blank and I forgot to thank key people. Besides, I was convinced my voice was being drowned out by the mic picking up my pounding heart.

Then, one more cliche. Even though it wasn't strictly an award for length of service, that's what I found myself being congratulated on. And so I joined the ranks of award show honorees who nervously make light of the words 'lifetime achievement', who feel that merely to say them out loud makes it sound like the party is now officially over.

Except I'm here to say it ain't so. I have never classed myself as a 'fashion person' - in the way, at least, that 'fashion people' are usually depicted for the entertainment of the general population - but I have evolved into a tireless proselytiser for fashion. It's such a broad umbrella that I've been able to hang any number of baubles from its spokes over the years: everything from the breathtakingly beautiful and the profoundly disturbing, to the most arcane psychology and the most revelatory spiritual experience (with Alexander McQueen, they all came at once).

I have sat through thousands upon thousands of shows, and for every one where I've wished the fires of hell would swallow me up, there have been dozens that enlighten, even if it is with the merest thread. I'm too lazy to tell my own stories but I've derived infinite pleasure from recording the tales that others tell with their clothes - and the way they tell them, with their choice of music, models, hair, makeup, set design . . . And that party is never over.

I find it fascinating that Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani, both designers in their 80s, are producing some of the best work of their decades-long careers, just as a wave of 20- and early-30-somethings from London is rocking the fashion status quo on its pins.

True, the worlds of cinema, music and the written word have always thrived on the same kind of cross-generational tension, but they've also been elevated by a critical canon that has only recently begun to develop with fashion, which seems younger by comparison, less grounded, more volatile, more subject to the whims and follies of the digital age. Whether that makes it more modern is something that could be argued.

It's safer to say that fashion is an effective mirror of the society that it services. All forms of human life are there, which means that, at various times, I've had to be an anthropologist, a psychologist, an archaeologist, a musicologist . . . and, above everything else, always a fan. Which, if you like, is a neat little bow in which to tie up a life. It takes us back to a boy in his bedroom in Kohimarama listening to music, looking at pictures that promised him a life far beyond the horizon of the Hauraki Gulf.

So maybe what happened next wasn't such an accident after all.

- VIVA

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