The Connective Thread: In Conversation With Fashion Editor Jo Ellison

Author of Vogue: The Gown and Financial Times Fashion Editor Jo Ellison reminds us to find beauty in life.

In 2008 she worked as a features editor at British Vogue before taking over Vanessa Friedman’s post at the Financial Times. Her witty columns have earned her a global audience of industry leaders and fashion lovers alike.

She took some time to chat with Singulart about the intersections of fashion and art.

What should people know about you?

I’m Jo Ellison, editor of How to Spend It, the Ft’s kind-of-weekly lifestyle supplement, and former fashion editor of the Financial Times, where I have worked since 2014. Prior to that, I worked at British Vogue as features director, The Independent newspaper, and before that, at the Irish Examiner, in Ireland. 

I studied history at university and had always been a features editor before accidentally falling into fashion journalism. It started at Vogue, where you couldn’t really avoid the osmosis of fashion seeping into everything the magazine touched and where I learned a lot about the mechanics of shoots, fashion, and fashion history. But nothing quite prepared me for my move to the FT, where I was thrust into the industry’s most intense dramas, doing the show reports and covering all the big business deals and creative comings and goings. In terms of fashion experience, I would say I’ve learned on the job.

Do you have a favorite memory of working as a Fashion Editor?

Getting the access, meeting interesting people, watching the shows, and getting a ringside seat to the maddest, most extravagant, and completely bonkers business on Earth. No one moment stands out, but the peculiar adrenalin of having to stick a recording device under Miuccia Prada’s nose backstage to get the quote in order to file the show report from the back of a car en route to the next show, wearing strangely inappropriate fashion clothes, is a unique kind of rush.

What do you say to fashion nay-sayers about the impact of clothing?

I say what everyone else says. Why, then, aren’t you naked? We wear clothes because we need them. And, by extension, they become semaphore for other things we want to say. We all express ourselves through what we wear – those who claim to care nothing about what they wear seem to express the most. Sherlock Holmes could unpick a person’s character within seconds of looking them up and down. And I think Conan Doyle’s logic stands. Clothes are the window… if not to the soul (unless you’re a priest) then at least to character, background, one’s sense of self-worth, ethnicity, politics, status, and personality. Not paying attention to the way someone dresses is, to me, a wasted opportunity to better understand them. 

Jo Ellison

How does art impact your work?

Visual art? Or just creativity in general? As an editor, I spend hours of every day looking at images, discussing images, commissioning images, and debating visual content. I wouldn’t suggest what I produce is art per se, but it is a rich and stimulating creative medium that I would like to think aspires to have some kind of artistic merit. And, obviously, within that sphere we have common cultural touchstones and reference points, so artworks and artists are a constant source of inspiration.

As someone with discerning taste, who is your favorite artist?

My god. I love so many… Picasso, Matisse, Caravaggio, Irving Penn, Hammershoi, John Stezaker, Gerhard Richter, Agnes Martin, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth… I went to see the Lynette Yiadom-Boakye exhibition at the Tate recently and I loved the tenderness in her portraits. And I love photography. Recently, I’ve become obsessed with the work of the late documentary photographer Tish Murtha (whose work gives me chills). And then I have friends, lesser-known artists such as joanna whittle and the New Mexico-based sculptor and artist Kevin canon, whose work is heaven.

How do you see the fashion industry evolving online? Is there anything that the art world should take note of?

Like all creative fields, I think it’s about blending the virtual and physical into a fully realized experience that can take you somewhere emotionally. It also needs to take your senses somewhere beyond the screen. I actually think some of the online retailers are doing a great job of creating a world that gets you moving towards the shopping basket, which of course is only one facet of the industry but is interesting nonetheless. The evolution of the digital marketplace has been fascinating.

Currently, I’m most interested in what’s going on in the secondary market – Depop, Vestiaire Co, etc. – I love how a new generation of consumers are absorbing, learning about, and adopting fashion for themselves. Presumably, the same themes that are influencing fashion – youth, nostalgia, rediscovery, memes, influencer-based purchasing, non-western, local – are percolating through the art world also. Despite the dreaded algorithms, the gen-Z interest feels more independent and organic. I like how it seems quite bottom-up, and not governed by a few all-powerful industry titans. But perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

In your opinion, is fashion art?

If you’re looking at something that is commodified and mass-manufactured for utility, and that wasn’t created as art then probably not. Designers are makers –  they need to shift product. And they work in retail. However, if you’re creating bespoke, one-of-a-kind pieces then why not call it art? I’ve seen shows that felt like art installations. I’ve seen dresses – made by dozens of artisans –  that were masterpieces of craftsmanship, skill, and pure visionary genius. Fashion can be artful. And, by the same token, mass commodified objects can themselves become works of art. Look at the cult of Nike. My daughter got a pair of semi-rare Air Max recently and now treats them like a Rembrandt. She thinks they’re art. Who the hell am I to argue?

You regularly tell your readers “How to spend it” – if they were to be on the market for artwork, what would you tell them?

I’ve got no sensible advice. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford it, buy it because you love it. Because it stirs something in your soul. Or elevates your mood. Or speaks to you. I could give less of a shit about the art market and its freaky populist obsessions. Be independent. Does the piece say something to you? Great. Buy it, hang it, live with it, love it.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford it, buy it because you love it. Because it stirs something in your soul.

Jo Ellison

What is your favorite moment in fashion history when it made an obvious cross-over into art?

So many Alexander McQueen shows – they shoot horses don’t they, the asylum show, spring 1999, were on another level when it came to delivering an artistic vision. And I didn’t even get to see them in real life. Neither did I get to see any Balenciaga shows under Nicolas Ghesquiere which is a source of lasting regret. I think for me, the greatest cross-over moments have been those moments in photography where the work of shooting models for a living has transcended the pages of that month’s magazine – transforming perceptions, changing opinions, and putting out a new creative point of view.

Everything Avedon shot, for example, Norman Parkinson’s epic travel stories, David Bailey’s “young idea goes west” shoot in the late sixties which took fashion onto the streets and gave it a realist edge that has never since been bettered. Or Peter Lindberg’s exquisite images of the supermodels in the early nineties, or Corinne Day’s first grungey pictures of Kate Moss. Also Steven Meisel’s pictures of Stella Tennant. They have become emblematic of an era – and a moment in time. And arguably as powerful, influential, and “valuable” as any contemporaneous artwork…. 

What’s one artwork that you think everyone should know about?

Lord knows! To each their own.

What is your dream project?

I don’t have a single dream project. But to work with anyone with a powerful vision and sense of personality is always a trip.

Jo Ellison

Do you have any tips for young creatives who are trying to get their start?

Work work work work work

Call call call call call

Don’t be put off if you don’t get your dream gig in the first instance.  

Give things a go – few people can afford to be too particular when starting out and even what seems to be the most pointless and irrelevant experience can ultimately be useful. 

Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward. Make your voice heard, but also listen. You can learn so much by paying attention.

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