The Business of Lauren Sherman.
Our Q&A about Fashion, Influencers and NY vs LA.
This has been an insane year when it comes to upheaval in the business world. It really feels like we are at an inflection point with so many thinks. I’m intrigued by the winners and losers especially when it comes to the worlds of fashion and media. It’s a bad time for a lot of people, but the pandemic has been such a huge accelerant that I can’t remember a more captivating moment in business. With this in mind, I wanted to hear from Lauren Sherman from The Business of Fashion to find out what she sees on the front lines.
Lauren is one of the most important voices in fashion and someone whose opinion I really respect. There are certain writers who I want to read regardless of the subject matter or publication and Lauren is one of those people. If I see her byline, I’m in. I trust her point of view, her instincts, and most importantly her bullsh/t meter. I also know Lauren is going to tell it like it is and isn’t afraid to be critical when she thinks it’s warranted. With the way the media business now, it’s rare to see anyone critical of anyone or anything. It’s not a matter of positive vibes, it’s more about keeping the benefactors happy and it’s a slippery slope. That's what makes Lauren and BoF so refreshing and it’s what keeps me reading.
Our Q&A is below — I hope you like it.
Obviously, we are at a huge inflection point for the apparel business. What big changes do you see coming?
I hope that brands and retailers big and small use this time for a “reset.” They’ve had to reduce their output anyway because of cash flow problems due to people, you know, not shopping, so why not try to do things more efficiently and effectively when you get up and running again? The fashion business has run the same way for about 50 years and consumers don’t shop the way they did 50 years ago. Cheap clothes are cheaper than they ever have been. Expensive clothes are more expensive than ever to make. Clothes rarely produce a significant profit for brands: accessories and beauty products do. I’m not complaining about it; it’s just reality. The unit economics have changed and yet the industry still operates as if they haven’t. It’s crushing. If I were an investor, I’d be looking at startups that are figuring out ways to more efficiently produce clothes, whether that means a better operating system or on-demand manufacturing.
The other big issue is that there is just a lot of mediocre stuff being made. You need the smart marketing, the efficient operations and the forward-looking attitude, but if you don’t have a product that people want to buy, you will not make it. You can fake it for a while but not forever. The rise of direct retail as the favored business model supports this. The clever email works for a while, but then the product has to be good. If the “price-value equation” isn’t there, you will fail in the long term, and probably waste a lot of investor money along the way.
Do you think the importance of social media/influencers for brands is going to change going forward?
I think I look at the influencer economy a bit differently than most people do. As in, I don’t consider it to be particularly new. It has always existed. Before influencers, there were bloggers, before bloggers, there were editors and celebrities. That recommendation engine has just been fragmented by a gazillion. Everyone is an influencer. When I think about the front row at fashion week, if I was running a big luxury brand, I would prioritize influencers who reach the audience I want to reach and de-prioritize the traditional editors and buyers who no longer have the authority they once did. There are many editors and buyers who could be considered influencers as well. Penny Martin is one. I think Samira Nasr has that potential. Nordstrom’s Olivia Kim, certainly. But I think, for the most part, the most interesting people are doing other things.
Does having a subscriber audience that has opted-in as you do at BoF make it easier to decide what you want to write about and how you approach your stories? Also, does it take some of the pressure of trying to do things like building a personal brand on Twitter, etc?
Yes, it makes it easier — for me at least. Subscribers want original reporting, detail and they want to learn things they don’t know. It’s not commodity journalism, and I love that it can be very “inside baseball,” which for years I heard from editors was a bad thing. Now, my job is “inside baseball,” with a goal of describing and reporting on something so specific in a way that makes it feel universal. A story I wrote about inventory management — one of the biggest problems fashion has, if not the biggest — was one of the top performers a couple of weeks ago. That feels good! I see everything I do as service journalism. If the people who need to read it read it, then that’s enough for me. I treat this work as a job — not as a passion — and it’s satisfying to know that it’s helpful to people.
As for building a personal brand, I still feel a need to do that. I’ve worked at BoF for some time now, but was a freelancer for a while before that and had a few other jobs, and I’ve tried very hard to make sure I had an identity separate from where I work. I also have really enjoyed Twitter for the past 12 years and use it as a personal diary — no surprise, I do not think very hard before I post! — although 2020 has tested that appreciation.
You have a lot of deadlines — do you ever struggle to write? What's your process and how do you breakthrough?
So, no, I rarely struggle to write. There are a few reasons. One is, as I mentioned above, I treat writing as my job, not my art. If I don’t file, I will get fired. This is how I think about it. I am also not precious. I know I’m not the best writer but I do think I have pretty clear insights and thoughts and have felt that way forever. Even when I was in my early 20s I was able to write with authority.
If I do get blocked, it’s usually because I’ve over-reported or under-reported. (At this point, I rarely underreport because I know the topic so well.) In that case, I will do an outline of the story flow. It helps a lot. I will just write graphs to fill in each bullet and then weave it together. I also promise myself that if the lede is bad, I can rewrite it, and it’s better to just “clear my throat” and write the shitty lede.
A lot of this comes from learning to write quickly: I was a blogger at Fashionista in the early 2010s and wrote runway reviews — sometimes five or six a day — for Style.com for a couple of years. When I was freelancing, I had so many ideas and just wanted to write as much as possible; I would file three stories a day sometimes. It was insane! I don’t do that anymore.
I'm curious what you think about the LA vs NY argument now that you are living in California.
I think the argument is hilarious! People, Joan Didion wrote it. It was perfect. We do not need your take.
But I’ll give you mine anyway! My husband and I have been thinking about moving here for about five years. We were in New York for 15 and it was starting to drag on me; the reason I loved it, that constant stimulation, was draining. I was fortunate enough to work in Paris for four months last year for BoF, and that was magical for us. We thought seriously about staying in Paris, but I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want to spend so much time making new friends — so many people we know and love live out here. I’m energized by the space, the promise of the West, all that stuff. This past week has been difficult with the fires, but in the same way, we didn’t flee from New York at the height of the pandemic there, we’re just taking it day by day. I don’t know how it will feel once there’s a vaccine, and how much I’ll go back to New York. Maybe six months or a year from now we’ll be there again. But for some reason, I don’t think so. New York may still be the best city in the world, but it’s no longer the center of everything. Last year, when we were in Paris, I realized something: In Paris, people are discouraged, in New York, people are ambitious, in Los Angeles, people are optimistic. It’s nice to witness that, even though their optimism can sometimes be hilariously delusional.
I recently signed up for your newsletter. Do you think newsletters are a trend or part of a bigger movement similar to what blogs went through 10 years ago?
Thank you! I promise I will send it out again soon. I started it probably seven years or so ago to promote the stories I was writing as a freelancer and it became an outlet for random thoughts. I do believe newsletters are part of a bigger movement, one that my colleague MC Nanda recently wrote about for BoF. Magazines, etc, are not going to exist in their current form. They will continue to fail as long as they are advertiser supported. If you are an individual and you can make a few hundred grand — or even a few thousand! — a year self-publishing, why not do that if you can’t find an outlet that pays you enough? I’m not sure how long this format will last as the dominant format, but I’m all for it. And I think there are enough niches to support many, many people doing it.
I'm interested in some of the silver linings for you in 2020. Anything you see as a positive either personally or professionally?
There have been a lot. Work-wise, it’s been nice to be able to report on the pandemic in a way that actually feels like it might help people get through some tough business stuff. I have a purpose, which makes it much harder to fret.
The other big thing was that it made me prioritize my personal life and goals outside of work. My therapist says that her patients with anxiety (including me!) were actually doing well at the beginning of this because “the bad thing” happened. And it’s true. I was pretty calm. But once it was clear this was going to be a years-long battle, it made me realize that I was indeed overextending myself — getting up at 6 am and coming home at 10 pm, traveling constantly, etc. I feel so much better.
This move to LA, while a long time coming, probably would have never happened because I would have been too worried about whether leaving New York would somehow make me less effective as a reporter, which is simply not true. This pause on “normal life” made me accept that emotionally, not just intellectually.