It was a damning portrayal of fashion publishing straight out of The Devil Wears Prada: in a tell-all interview with Vestoj, an academic journal about fashion, former British Vogue fashion director Lucinda Chambers recounted being unceremoniously dismissed from the fashion bible where she’d worked for 36 years by its new editor, Edward Enninful.
These remarks also made the interview immediately controversial. It disappeared from Vestoj’s website almost as soon as it went up on Tuesday, only to be re-posted later with an explanation that it was taken down due to its “sensitive nature” but was being republished “in its entirety.”
As of Thursday morning, however, Vestoj had redacted parts of the interview at the request of lawyers for and Condé Nast Limited and Enninful.
The original version is still being passed around on social media (it is both a benefit and a drawback of our digital age that nothing can be fully excised from the internet these days).
Condé Nast and Enninful threatening legal action against a small, independent fashion publication for running an interview that trash-talked them is certainly ironic. When Chambers spoke truth to power (or at least her truth) in a tell-all that cast fashion glossies, their editors, and the big business of fashion in a negative light, the powerful fought back with legal threats that scored them a small victory.
Ultimately, though, that small victory proved Chambers’ point: not just that there’s “too much smoke and mirrors in the industry” (her reason for speaking candidly about being “fired,” which people in fashion media tend not to do lest it prevent them from being hired elsewhere) or that the cutthroat world of fashion “can chew you up and spit you out,” but that the biggest, most powerful players control everything to an extent that hampers authenticity.
One of her main points in the interview is how advertisers can negatively impact the creative process.
Chambers admits that some of her shoots were “crappy,” like one cover featuring Alexa Chung in a “stupid Michael Kors T-shirt... He’s a big advertiser so I knew why I had to do it. I knew it was cheesy when I was doing it, and I did it anyway.”
Anxiety and the way the fashion industry copes with failure are themes she revisits again and again. “You’re not allowed to fail in fashion—especially in this age of social media, when everything is about leading a successful, amazing life,” she says. “Nobody today is allowed to fail, instead the prospect causes anxiety and terror. But why can’t we celebrate failure? After all, it helps us grow and develop. I’m not ashamed of what happened to me.”
She also highlights how much emphasis the industry places on looks, sometimes at the expense of talent, while recalling how her editor once hired a stylist because she was beautiful and fashionable.
“She was a terrible stylist. Just terrible,” Chambers said of the hire. “But in fashion you can go far if you look fantastic and confident—no one wants to be the one to say ‘… but they’re crap.’ Honestly... you can go quite far just with that. Fashion is full of anxious people. No one wants to be the one missing out.”
Certainly, there are two sides to Chambers’ story about being fired by Enninful, and we’ve yet to hear Enninful’s version beyond a statement from Vogue publisher Condé Nast that “it’s usual for an incoming editor to make changes to the team” and “any changes made are done with the full knowledge of senior management.”
This contradicts Chambers’ now-redacted claims that “the management and the editor I’ve worked with for twenty-five years had no idea” she was being fired. “Nor did HR. Even the chairman told me he didn’t know it was going to happen. No one knew, except the man who did it.”
But what was the objection to Chambers’ claim that “it took them three minutes” to tell her she was out?
In an email Friday morning, Condé Nast said that the portions of Chambers’ interview that they requested to be removed from Venoj’s website were "factually inaccurate." They declined to say if they have plans to pursue legal action against Chambers. Chambers could not be reached for comment.
The fact that Chambers’ interview went viral speaks to the rarity of a renowned fashion insider biting the hand that fed her.
That she did so in an interview with Vestoj, a publication with a significantly smaller readership than most mainstream fashion media outlets, and still managed to attract a huge audience—and pushback from her former employer—suggests that both her candor and her sentiments resonated powerfully.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, Vestoj’s publisher and editor in chief who conducted the interview with Chambers, noted that the sensational reaction to the interview reflects how difficult it is to challenge or criticize the fashion industry status quo.
“We see this in how bland show reviews often are, how magazines kowtow to advertisers and how most write-ups are barely disguised puff pieces, primarily intended to maintain the existing power dynamic,” Cronberg said in an email to The Daily Beast.
Cronberg founded Vestoj in 2009 after studying fine art, getting a master’s in the history of design at the Royal College of Art, and later working as editor of Acne Paper.
“I was frustrated at the dire state of fashion publishing frankly,” she said of her decision to create Vestoj, which doesn’t contain advertising and is financially supported by the London College of Fashion, where Cronberg is also a senior research fellow.
“Sometimes I think fashion coverage seems to rely on the assumption that readers are fools who can’t read between the lines or think for themselves. Most readers intuit how manipulative fashion magazines can be, and of how little creative freedom most editors have,” Cronberg said.
“Also, there’s an implied hierarchy of the arts, where the fine arts are on top and fashion somewhere down the bottom, that I object to,” she continued. “It leads to a sort of inferiority complex often discernible in fashion professionals.
“Oftentimes, fashion magazines are made more ‘intellectual’ by featuring coverage of creatives from other disciplines (film! art! architecture! philosophy!), and I’d like Vestoj to be an alternative to all that. It’s an intelligent platform that encourages critical thinking in fashion, and that uses fashion as a mirror to better understand culture at large.”
Cronberg confirmed that she initially took down the interview with Chambers because she was “pressurized,” and that she ultimately amended the interview because lawyers representing Condé Nast and Enninful requested she do so.
“I decided to acquiesce because I just don’t have the financial means to fight that kind of David and Goliath fight,” she said, adding, “I hope that Lucinda’s interview, but also the subsequent fall-out, is an opportunity to examine why it is so hard to be critical in fashion and look at who gains from the industry’s rigid and static power structure—but also at how the fashion system mimics a wider social environment where elites dominate the media and dissidents are typically marginalized.”
Does Cronberg think the transactional nature of the industry that Chambers detailed in her interview—and that Vestoj strives to challenge—will ever change?
“I don’t know if it really is a matter of big brands pressurizing fashion glossies. Maybe it feels like that for the individual editor, but in the grand scheme of things maybe it’s more a case of power being preserved by those who currently have it.
“After all, both glossies and fashion corporations want to fuel the continued consumption of stuff we don’t need. I don’t mean to say that fashion (or consumption in general) is ‘bad’—obviously there are plenty of ways in which fashion can be affirming or empowering.”
For Cronberg, “there is a lot at stake at keeping the status quo as is. That’s why some of the things that Lucinda said appear so sensational: Shock! Horror! Fashion editor does not subscribe to everything her (former) employer represents!
“But really, is it that hard to understand that there is the individual, and then the organization she represents? And that the paradox of working for Vogue (and loving it) while not leading a ‘Vogue-y kind of life’ isn’t actually so much of a paradox, and more about just being human?”
Rupturing the façade, as Cronberg put it, comes with a price, “and I suspect Lucinda is feeling that very keenly at the moment,” Cronberg said. “Whatever part of this system you go into, you have to be aware of your choices and the sacrifices that they entail.
“Working outside of the mainstream means you have the freedom to say what you like but, again, at the expense of a certain status and the privileges that come with playing ball. At the same time, if you work too far out on the margins, your voice risks not being heard by those who can actually change the status quo. You can end up preaching to the already converted, which can be limiting.”
And so, Cronberg is now facing a set of transactional and critical challenges herself.
“I want Vestoj to be a platform for a type of thinking about fashion that is probing and analytical and critical when necessary. At the same time I don’t want to completely alienate the people working in the business. The difficulty of maintaining this balance is something I’m feeling very keenly right now.”