Writing comes from knowledge and a natural sense of curiosity, says Hettie Judah, the writer and curator who made her name at ArtReview. Here, she talks balancing the worlds of art and fashion.
Interviewing another journalist often puts one on edge. After all, these are people so used to being on the other side of the questions that there’s an altogether heavier pressure to get them right. Hettie Judah isn’t too discerning and offers an anecdote that immediately lightens the tension. “I had this absolutely terrible incident last year where I got the opportunity to interview somebody who’s a great hero of mine: an artist called Shirin Neshat. I forgot to turn my phone on flight mode and I lost half of the interview. My heart just sank.”
It’s comforting to know that even the most successful writers can fall onto a moment of vacancy, but don’t let that colour your image of Judah. My first impression is that she’s sharp, articulate and incredibly curious; a result of which is that she’s extremely knowledgeable. With over two decades experience of writing about the art and fashion markets, Judah made a name for herself on the editorial team of ArtReview, where she wrote about both fashion and art – a first for the magazine. She’s not a “big breakfast person” so she orders a cappuccino and we get settled in.
“It’s quite difficult because I’m very much in between the two worlds. From the art world perspective, there is a certain degree of,” she pauses hesitantly. “Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a certain degree of snobbery towards the fashion industry. They come from different impulses, so the art world is very much about looking at things in the long term and building up a body of work over the course of a career, as opposed to changing things season after season.”
She considers both avenues of discourse essential to her working life and is keen to keep them a part of her output, although she considers herself neither an art nor fashion ‘insider’. She’s never reported on fashion shows, but is open to doing so, and has worked across a wide range of publications, writing about travel, photography, design and even cookery. Today, however, she contributes features to Business of Fashion, with whom she is working to develop jewellery coverage, as well as ArtReview, Financial Times and The Independent on Sunday, for which she writes about contemporary art.
It was while studying English Literature and Language at Glasgow University that she began to be involved with the art and articulating it into text. “I’ve always been a very wordy person,” she explains. “I was book-obsessed as a kid, so I guess I’m somebody who gets very excited by the written word. When I was at college I did a lot of performing, whether it was performance art or theatre or whatever. From that, I got into directing and from there I ended up directing an arts festival in Glasgow, which gave me a great insider knowledge and allowed me to write about it. So, in fact, the writing really came from having the knowledge as opposed to purely being desperate to write.”
Following her graduation, she moved to London and immediately started writing for The Times. “The mid-90s were just an extraordinary period for London,” she recalls. “There was this enormous boom in contemporary art and it became such a huge part of popular culture. Up till that point contemporary art wasn’t really embraced by the mainstream British media. A lot of British artists had upped and moved to Germany, for instance, to get some kind of critical acclaim. That whole thing was quite new and dynamic, and it was all very interesting to report on.”
Judah lived on Portobello Road in Notting Hill at the time and fondly remembers seeing Cool Britannia figures, such as members of Blur, going in and out of the pub opposite her window and stumbling down the road. “There were still vestiges of a slightly more accessible fashion industry going on,” she says. “Preen had a tiny little shop at the end of Portobello Green and you could just walk in and ask for a garment to be adjusted, and there would be a person sitting at the back with a sewing machine. That aspect of the fashion industry seems to have completely disappeared.”
Fashion, for her, came into the fold while growing up in London. Her father moved to the UK from Calcutta, India at the age of five and adopted a debonair sensibility as a way of becoming the ultimate English gentleman. “He had all of these beautifully tailored suits, and it was a ritual for him to polish his shoes every morning and have everything immaculately pressed.” Her father’s sister was also a big influence, having once worked at Vogue and favouring avant-garde designers such as Bodymap.
Judah spent her youth trawling the stalls of Kensington Market and devouring the pages of The Face, like any other culturally astute teenager of the time. “It was a huge influence and it made it seem like it was exciting times to be in,” she recalls. “It made me aware of the wider cultural landscape – it wasn’t just about fashion but about anything interesting at the time. I remember seeing that photo of Kate Moss in the feather headdress by Corinne Day and thinking that it was this compelling force. That whole Corinne Day and Juergen Teller photography aesthetic had this sense that fashion wasn’t meant to be precious – it was to be mixed up with market pieces and high street pieces. There wasn’t that dressed up thing. Maybe you did have a pair of Prada shoes but you wore it with a pair of old jeans and something vintage on top. Nowadays, with magazines like Grazia, there’s an idea that everybody should own high fashion. There wasn’t that before – it was pre-‘It’ bags.”
She relished that market-like atmosphere where one could have direct contact with a brand or a designer. “It’s such a huge industry now, and I think it’s a shame for young designers starting out that they would be seen as unserious if they started off by having a small stall in a market,” she says. “In fact, it’s incredibly beneficial to have close contact with people that are buying and wearing your clothes. I love market stalls. I sell my old clothes all the time. You get a completely different narrative – the way people see their bodies, their self-consciousness and the way they really wear something.”
Judah recalls the end of the turn of the millennium as the turning point for the fashion industry. “I was writing about Prada’s fashion shows the other day and looking at all of their shows, right from the first one in 1989, and they seem so informal and almost ramshackle in the early years and then, all of a sudden, something just switches and they become this ginormous, luxurious glitzy thing and everything was just ramped up to another gear and it became this idea of the monolithic luxury industry.”
After spending a handful of years in the United States and Turkey, during which she had two sons, she moved to Belgium in 2005, where she lived in Brussels and contributed to The International Herald Tribune, before taking a job as editor-at-large and subsequently editor-in-chief of The Word, a Brussels-based magazine focussed on fashion, photography and culture. “Brussels has a lot of exciting photographers, artists, fashion designers, as well as cheap housing, cheap beer and pubs that stay open until 3AM,” she laughs. “It’s actually a really great place to live and particularly photographers moved there, because it became this hub point between Paris and London, but a lot smaller, and it had an enormous amount of art institutions because of European funding.”
“Antwerp’s a different kettle of fish because it’s a much smaller city and it does feel more like a provincial city,” she says. “One thing, from a fashion perspective, was that whenever I spoke to designers they said that it was a lot more calm than working in Paris. There’s a lot more space to think and to experiment – and it’s a mutually supportive atmosphere between the graduates and they help each other along, rather than competing for the same jobs.”
It was in Antwerp that Judah became intimate with the inner workings of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, courtesy of Walter van Beirendonck, one of the notorious ‘Antwerp Six’ and the current head of the fashion department. “It’s really tough,” she says of the fashion education there. “They take 40 people in the first year and only about six people graduate, so they kick people out every year. I’ve been privileged enough to sit in on ‘The Pass’, where they have this long table with Walter in the middle and 18 tutors, and the students come up and present the silhouettes they’ve been working on, and they really get interrogated. It is tough and a lot of people cry, although the industry is tough and there’s realism to it. If people can’t cut it, maybe they should consider a different pathway.”
She credits the school’s success with the traditional roots in dressmaking, despite the fact that the Antwerp Six – Walter van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, Dirk van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee – as well as the unofficial ‘seventh member of the Six’ Martin Margiela, found themselves rebelling against those traditional methods of teaching. “At the point when they were studying there, it was much more of a classically French fashion school,” she explains. “There was a big emphasis on drawing, pattern-cutting and tailoring, and it was more about working in the industry rather than a sense that they’d eventually be fashion designers running their own brands.”
“All of them were looking at these very dynamic designers hitting the runways in Paris. They were all going there, forging tickets and seeing these great shows by Jean-Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana,” she continues. “They took a risk in presenting their own vision, but if you look at their careers, they all spent time working for other people before doing their own thing. A lot of them worked for Bartsons, a Belgian raincoat manufacturer, after graduation, which is probably why Margiela has such an obsession with trench coats. There were a few years between graduation, coming over to London, and showing their designs at the trade show in 1986.”
It’s this kind of knowledge that sets Judah apart from a gaggle of fashion journalists eager to write about the latest so-and-so. She’s the first to admit that there has been a dearth of well-informed, well-researched, contextual, critical fashion writing for a while. “Maybe, in all seriousness, it’s because fashion is considered to exist within the female realm, rather than the male realm, and for that reason it’s been seen as less serious,” she theorises. “It’s still rare to get a serious piece into a mainstream fashion publication in this country. It was taken a lot more seriously in Belgium, and there were journalists who had been looking at the industry for over 30 years and had a really good perspective on it. The magazines were prepared to take quite hard-hitting serious pieces, whereas a lot of the fashion writing in this country has been driven by desire and turnover and trends. There’s a lot of ‘must have’, ‘want’ and ‘need’ language and it’s just quite fluffy, which is a bit of a shame.”
Before the onslaught of blockbuster fashion-related exhibitions, Judah curated an exhibition called ‘Delvaux: 180 Years of Luxury’ at MoMu in Antwerp, which followed Belgian brand Delvaux from the manufacture of travel goods for the local nobility in the 19th century through to the rise of the modern handbag in the 20th century, and to the company’s journey into the 21st century. “I was working within their archives and workshops for months on end,” she says. “An exhibition is like a book on many levels. You have to create a narrative and a structure and, as a journalist, I’m constantly curious about how things work. It was wonderful to spend a few months focusing on one thing. The only thing is that afterwards I came back to a point in the UK when all of the museums were slashing their budgets in half.”
Currently in talks with the Victoria & Albert as well as the Design Museum about developing some multi-platform projects, she is keen to get back into the curatorial saddle. One thing Judah objects to, however, is the acceleration of the fashion industry and the lack of elevated discourse within exhibitions. “The reason for Louis Vuitton to do an exhibition to accompany their show is just to grab a piece of attention and bring the focus back on themselves,” she says in a matter-of-fact manner. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot with the ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ show. I’ve just been reading My Dear BB…., a book of an enormous amount of letters between Kenneth Clark and Bernard Berenson, two of the 20th century’s most important art critics, and when you read about them going to exhibitions, they’ll spend three days there. With the McQueen show you’re funnelled through and to spend more than an hour and a half there is incredibly difficult. You’re being carried along in this huge tide and I found that incredibly sad. You’re forced to only have a certain level of engagement with what’s going on, so it remains relatively superficial.”
Our conversation is drawing to a close and I have just one last question for Judah. What advice would she give to a recent graduate eager to forge a career in the written arts? “I think it’s a really difficult market,” she sighs. “If I was starting out now I probably would have done a blog. You need to set yourself apart from the rest of the field. Dan Thawley, Alex Fury and Dean Mayo Davies really know their shit and their fashion knowledge exceeds people who have been working in their field for twice the amount of time. Also, having a wider cultural knowledge is really important and being able to express yourself in an individual fashion with a range of reference points. If you’re doing that, people will notice you.”
This article was originally commissioned and published by 1 Granary.