As music lovers we read everything written by Jon Caramanica, pop music critic at The New York Times for the past seven years. He always seems to take our own blurry ideas and focus them to a point we wish we had made. We’ve come to terms with it. He’s the smarter us.
Caramanica has also been writing the bi-monthly Critical Shopper column for the Times for the past five years and we love that, too. It’s different from his music writing. He shops various stores, critically and anonymously, and writes about his experience later using multiple literary techniques. Sometimes he writes on his phone in the dressing room.
We caught up with Caramanica during New York Fashion Week: Men’s over french fries at Katz’s Deli to talk about the Critical Shopper colum.
We also squeezed out of him insights on menswear and style writers you should be reading now (bookmarks list: updated), the changing influence of music on men’s style–and the aliveness or deadness of offense in fashion.
The New York Times’ Critical Shopper is born
In a sense, I’ve always been that. Even before I knew that such a column existed. I’ve always been very effective in a store. And I’m very much my mother’s son when it comes to clothes. My mom is a world-class shopper. I definitely sat on the floor of Loehman’s in the in the Bronx in the 1980s while my mom and grandma shopped for dresses. Shopping was never an activity that seemed off-limits to me, if that makes sense.
Later, when I was getting into hip-hop, I mean, what better catalog than hip-hop? I started to understand that men could have distinctive style. But the places I shopped had nothing to do with me. The colors were wrong, the sizes were wrong. And I had to figure out: Where do I find this stuff? Where do I find a Carhartt jacket? Where do I find an oversize polo shirt? And so I started seeking things out. And developed an approach to clothes by the time I was 13 or 14.
I like the experience of trying stuff on. Often my girlfriend is the one in the store sitting on the couch, waiting for me to come out of the dressing room. Not the other way around.
My idea for the Critical Shopper column was to make it not so much a shopping column but extending it to exploring where we are in a cultural moment. My first test column was a risk: Dave’s New York. Dave’s is not fashion. It’s workwear. Camouflage thermals. Fishing gear. Woodsman gear. But it was cheap, and what was happening in the fashion world was an early Americana, outdoorsy moment. And I wanted to write about how you could buy a $500 sweater or go to Dave’s and buy a Woolrich sweater for $39.99, probably on which the fancy one was based. My angle was, if you’re woodsman chic, this is your father.
Developing as a writer
There can be a stagnation that comes when you approach a subject in similar formats for years. Having the shopping column, where I didn’t know what the rules were, encouraged me to do all kinds of different things. I write first-person stuff. I write weird, life-coach pamphlets. I did one store as a mock letter from a child to his mother about his dead grandfather. I’ve done all kinds of approaches that I probably couldn’t do in my day job. I think it’s made me a better writer. I have the most freedom to experiment there. It still feels strange. In a good way. It’s a gift.
Style and menswear writers to read
I don’t know that there has been…. If you think about someone whose job is a fashion critic, I don’t know that there has been a great fashion critic of this era yet. Like, Robin Givhan great. Cathy Horyn is great. To me, when I think of a full-service fashion writer, they’re almost always womenswear writers.
But you look at Tim Blanks, who’s super on top of things and deeply knowledgeable. That’s enviable. He bring so much energy to all the Fashion Weeks. I don’t even like going to Fashion Weeks. The ratio of labor to content at Fashion Weeks is really, really off. You spend way too many hours working and very little time at shows.
When I look at what Guy Trebay does, when he dials in and goes to Milan and locks in: yeah. Someone who embodies that much authority, even their casual work overflows with information.
As far as reporting goes, we’re lucky at the Times. Matthew Schneier knows the landscape super well, very well sourced, very comfortable in the space.
Obviously I’ll read Lawrence Schlossman on Four Pins, whatever him and Skylar Bergl and Jon Moy are writing. I’ll look at whatever Jake Woolf is writing. Jian DeLeon. Noah Johnson. Jacob Gallagher. You read all those guys and see what the landscape looks like.
Nascent institution of contemporary menswear writing
There’s more people who are writing about it, more people thinking about it and more people showing you references than ever before. Whether there are outlets that are encouraging of deep-dig fashion criticism, that’s a little up in the air. But I think we’re arriving at that. I think traditional fashion-minded outlets–whether it’s GQ, or Esquire or Wall Street Journal, places who cover fashion–are just beginning to catch up to the tumblr squall of 2011 or 2014.
All those guys are now either running bigger sites, like Lawrence is at Four Pins and Jake’s at GQ, Jacob’s at the Wall Street Journal. You’re just starting to see all that information that’s in those kids’ heads trickle into those publications. I don’t know if it’s that no one’s making room for them yet. I think it’s more, Who were those kids ten years ago? They didn’t exist. There was not a generation of young talent like there is now. And now all the people we’re talking about will hold quote-unquote respectable jobs at quote-unquote respectable places, and the level of discourse will be much higher. This is not a peak interest in menswear. I think it’s the new normal.
The idea that we need expensive clothes for women, and then we’re just going to throw things at men? That’s dead. This younger generation in positions of power and authority will raise a generation on their ideals. Yeah. The whole game’s different.
The New York Times’ thought process on starting the Men’s Style section
Here’s my best guess. OK, there used to only be Sunday Styles. And all style-related articles were there. That was your fashion coverage, your trend pieces, your Modern Loves, all the stuff was in Sunday. At a certain point we’re covering enough fashion and have enough dedicated people–this was many years ago, obviously–to justify a standalone Thursday Styles section. So what does that reflect? The Times doubling down on style coverage means there’s journalistic value in that area. We have industry reporting in that section, we have criticism in that section. It’s not dissimilar to how we cover the film industry. Obviously at that point there’s a belief in fashion having that much value. What happened in the last five years is more men care about fashion. Average spending is going up. Men care about watches. Men care about belts. Thousand-dollar sneakers. In a weird way, there’s too much content for Thursday. Friday Men’s Styles is only once a month, but it’s a way to put all that stuff in a package. These decisions aren’t taken lightly, if they thought there wasn’t an audience, they wouldn’t do it. And we have the people to do it. So why have them fighting for space in Thursday when you can give them Friday? That’s what I gotta assume the thinking was.
Music and menswear, from rock to now
For men, music has always been a safe space for flamboyance. If you were the type of guy who was excited about ways of dressing, and looked around to try and find that, most likely the people you noticed were performing artists. Everyone who took risks as a musician with self-presentation, like holy sh*t that person can dress–I think that person nine times out of ten for men is a musician. Not for women, for men. Although it’s not always strictly speaking the performers. You look at Raf Simons, and it’s raves. So it’s not the performers, but the kids. The kids making their own clothes, platform sneakers. It’s not the DJ. Or maybe it was the DJ, but it’s the kids. The scene.
In my mind, dominant style moved from rock, into disco, into new wave, into–then you see fragmentation. Grunge, rave. Styles bubbling to the top. If you think rock stars fell asleep on the job in the style department in the ‘90s, I’m not going to disagree with you. I think rock stars fell asleep on the job of making music, too. So maybe it’s not shocking they fell asleep across the board. I mean, I think there’s a distinctive ‘80s style. You see a little of it in a Perry Ellis, in the ‘90s. But what was it, really? Cool suits? European fabrics? Boatneck sweater? White pants? But in the ‘90s, Cobain had us at thrift stores and rappers had us shopping at hardware stores.
That’s where the sui generis stuff comes from. Where indie rock and rave and grunge has its own rules. Hip-hop has its own rules. And they’re all forming them in their independent vacuums. Only now do you see all that stuff coming together. You’ll see cool kids mix styles. Back then you didn’t mix styles. You were just one or the other.
I was fighting wars in the ‘90s. I was on my team, and I didn’t want to be on anyone else’s team. And now there are no teams.
Offensiveness is dead
I was an early sagger. There weren’t a lot of people sagging when I was sagging. I’m 39. I graduated high school in ‘93. It started to become a threat in schools and controversial in the mid-’90s. It’s tough to say if there will be a style threat like that again. Because at that point, we didn’t have these cycles of reused and repurposed and reimagined. Huge pants, JNCO pants, those were scary to adults in the ‘90s. Right now we can go to VFiles and I can find JNCO equivalent pants. And virtually everything that someone found tasteful and tasteless from the ‘90s will be there, in some form, from some designer. Tasteful and tasteless. Both notable. Sometimes both at the same time. You didn’t have these cycles of reference back in the day. And now you have those cycles of reference. So it’s hard to be as offensive as before. Because everything’s been cycled through. If you name some outlier trend, outlier movement that was offensive to so many people, I can probably find you a designer who’s incorporated it into a recent collection. So there goes that. There goes offense.
Not knowing if anyone reads your stuff
Literally. It’s the trash emoji. Every writer I know it’s the same. You hit send, or hit publish, and then you just don’t know. Reading is such a private act. I read all kinds of stuff where the person would never know I read it, or someone at my IP read it. Especially being a slightly older writer, I’m used to writing stuff for magazines and it comes out a month later and who knows where it goes. The Internet is more tactile, obviously, and the feedback is instant. But I’m at peace with the fact that I can’t write for the imaginary reader. I have to write for myself, is what it boils down to.