Eugene Rabkin's Venerable Journalism
Eugene Rabkin epitomises the uncompromising honesty of a venerable journalist. As modern media reflects social and political climates, Rabkin writes for those willing to read about, and most importantly discuss, the triumphs and flaws of modern fashion. Rabkin, who is frequently divisive but always sincere, is enamoured of "the last greats" of fashion criticism and has since become one himself. Wearing a NINE INCH NAILS SHIRT, Rabkin greets us over Zoom with a backdrop of bird cages and bats. In our discussion, Rabkin elaborates on his introduction to fashion, his disdain for DIET PRADA and DEMNA, and his views on whether fashion is art.
Annabel Blue: Can you tell us how you got into fashion, from the beginning?
Eugene Rabkin: As a teenager, I started paying attention to how I was dressing. Then I started paying attention to how my favourite musicians were dressing. I started noticing more parallels between how they were dressed and the music they put out. Trent Reznor was a big influence on me. But how I started working in fashion – it was a complete accident. I was on this forum called Fashion Spot that I joined because I was working in an office job on Wall Street and I was bored out of my mind. I was also finishing college. I lived in an immigrant neighbourhood where the sun never shined and nothing ever happened. It was a cultural wasteland. The internet was this incredible boom for me. After a while, I started to become unhappy about the way things were going on Fashion Spot. I was telling a co-worker of mine about it and he blurted out, “Well, why don’t you make your own if you don’t like what’s going on over there?” And I thought, “Oh, there’s an idea.” And that’s how I started StyleZeitgeist.
AB: And how did your interest in designers evolve from there?
ER: Well, I accidentally discovered this store called Barneys and my world fell completely apart. That was where I discovered the Belgians and the Japanese. Back then, I didn’t know who Ann Demeulemeester or Raf Simons were. But I did know that in order to make clothes like that, they had to listen to certain kinds of music and know about certain kinds of art. So this began a dialogue with people I never met through their clothes. Fifteen years later, I started meeting those people and they told me that was their exact intention.
Sarah Buckley: Yeah, I mean, clothes present their creator’s values.
ER: When they talk about music or fashion, people don’t really talk about values. If you watch a Nine Inch Nails video or listen to a song – yes, it’s edgy, but it isn’t just some edgy look or lyrics. It’s a person who is in pain, disappointed by the world because the world is not what we were sold when we were kids. For me, wearing Ann Demeulemeester was that kind of statement: “I understand where you’re coming from.”
SB: So then you found yourself gravitating more to Maison Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Raf Simons and Rick Owens?
ER: My first love was Ann Demeulemeester, followed by Raf Simons. Then of course Helmut Lang. Margiela wasn’t really in my mind, because he just wanted to make clothes for women. Then it was Comme Des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, and then I found Undercover and Number Nine. Once Rick Owens started in 2003 or so, for menswear, that was sort of like the last great designer, I would say.
SB: Obviously Rick’s gone with the times, and Raf too. How do you feel about their collections now? Are you still sentimental about them?
ER: I mean, I adore Rick, and Rick has been one designer who, whatever direction he goes in, puts his own ‘Rick Owens-ness’ on the clothes. And it’s almost always great. Even if it goes in a direction that doesn’t suit my personal style in terms of silhouette or volume. Rick is the last true modernist, one of the last greats. I’ve actually been loving the whole ‘glam-rock’ thing.
SB: You didn’t touch on Raf, but I can presume it’s because he’s almost out of the conversation now when it comes to integrity. It’s all a bit contrived, I guess. The brand is just a money-grab now.
ER: Yeah, it feels very contrived. There is no conviction behind it.
AB: And you ended up interviewing Ann Demeulemeester, didn’t you?
ER: Yeah, I was in Antwerp and I met with Ann and we really hit it off. I was so excited. From there it sort of snowballed, because when the Ann Demeulemeester article came out, she was so happy. “They never understood the work the way you did,” Ann said to me. Ann’s PR also happened to be Undercover and Number Nine’s PR. So one thing led to another.
I sent that article to Rick’s PR and said, “Look, I wrote that. And now I want to interview Rick.” So they agreed and then it just snowballed again. In 2010, I was having dinner with a friend and we were talking about how magazines are no longer what they used to be. He was like, “You should just start a magazine.” And I thought, “Oh, there’s an idea.” So I did [laughs]. There is no driver quite like passion.
SB: How much later did you start the podcast?
ER: [Laughs] The idea came from my assistant, Patrick. He was like, “You should start a podcast.” And I was like, “No, no.” But then my wife overheard
a conversation I was having with Rick when I was doing another article and she said, “It was so interesting. And so much was lost by the time it went to print ... that was really a podcast.” And that was the final push.
AB: You’ve had some really interesting people on it lately, like Cintra Wilson.
ER: Yeah, Cintra is amazing. You should get her to write for you. I begged her to write for StyleZeitgeist. After she left The New York Times I was like, “Come write for me.” She was like, “You can’t afford me.” [Laughs]. But she ended up writing for us anyway.
AB: What do you think of the statement ‘Fashion is not art’? I heard you say that in one of the podcasts and I’d love to hear more on it.
ER: Actually, one of my first articles was about this. I go back and forth, but most of the time I don’t think fashion is art. I think fashion is design because the constraints and the medium are different from art. The utilitarian aspect also, for me, makes it design. But then again, when I went to The MET for the Alexander McQueen exhibition, I came out of it thinking, “I can’t say that what I just saw is not art.” Because it was that impactful. It had more of an impact on me than probably eighty percent of art exhibitions I’ve seen in my life, in terms of creativity. When you see it, you understand what a genius McQueen was, and how much pain he wove into his clothes.
AB: Like even McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1995 collection – that evoked so much social response. I mean, it’s interesting that you say it felt like it almost was art.
ER: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s also very telling that Rei Kawakubo comes as close to an artist as any fashion designer, and most people would share that opinion. But she makes the point of saying, “I’m not an artist, I’m a designer.” So if Rei says it, who am I to argue? AB: I was actually reading your ‘Age of Political Correctness’ article, and I wanted to talk a little bit about watchdogs in the fashion industry.
ER: It’s the cancer in the system. When these self-righteous, self-appointed watchdogs police every movement of fashion designers and limit the scope of their work it limits
the scope of their creativity. A lot of fashion done in the 1990s and even in the last decade probably could not exist today because of these watchdogs. Fashion, just like any creative discipline, has to provoke. If you want to satisfy everyone, you’re going to satisfy no one.
AB: To bring it back to McQueen – it’s like his 1995 collection Highland Rape. Imagine that happening now.
ER: Well, yeah, it couldn’t. I mean he got blowback from people who misunderstood and feminists who misunderstood him, but all he had to say back then was, “Well, you misunderstood. That’s not what I meant to say.”
AB: These days you can’t stand up for yourself in the same way.
ER: Yeah, which is the craziest thing. You have to be dragged through the mud. You have to issue public apologies. And it’s a shoot-first-ask-questions-later culture. I write in my article, “All you need to do is go ask them: What did you mean by that?” And if the answer is not to your satisfaction, then you can say something. But as a result, what we are getting in this climate are mediocrities. Like, Pyer Moss in New York who is now being revered for speaking out on behalf of Black culture. But I’m like, “Well, that’s all great. But your clothes are shit.” I’m all for fighting racism, but he is now being sort of revered as this great talent, which he is anything but.
SB: Well, yeah, this is the problem with it. Meritocracy is a bit blurry in the eyes of
ER: Yeah, but it’s not the masses. It’s not the people. It’s the power structure. It’s the media, the people in museums, in the cultural institutions. They’re the ones who are championing these people, and then these mediocrities are the ones getting to the top. Meanwhile, I’ve been called a white supremacist because I wrote something critical about Virgil Abloh. Like, why? If anything, I’m taking on a power structure because he works for the most powerful brand in the world. You can see these mediocrities rising to the top because of the cultural climate. There’s genuflection before these cancel culture warriors and it’s kind of flabbergasting to me. Luckily, I’m in a position where I don’t give a fuck at all.
AB + SB: [Laughs] ER: As a designer driven by commercial constraints, you will always have that in the back of your mind. “Will people buy? Or will they boycott me?” Because we operate within the constructs of capitalism. And people have learned or assumed that they can influence people or entities by simply not buying their stuff, and that’s what drives it. All these political movements are being coopted by corporate activism, that’s what I detest the most. Like Nike’s political statements are all shrewdly calculated moves to attract customers. They know that the rednecks in Idaho are not their customers. So they can afford to support the trends.
SB: Yeah, that’s true. It’s the norm for these companies to take a political stance now.
ER: It’s insane. All these kids are operating in cultural and political spheres with a consumer mentality, because that’s what they sucked in with their mother’s milk. Like the maxim ‘the customer is always right.’ They behave as if they are customers in all these political and cultural realms.
SB: I know this is sort of a cliché question, but what do you think of Diet Prada specifically as a ‘watchdog’?
ER: Oh, yeah, I’ve written about them. I mean, they’re the ‘cancel culture camp’. They really are the worst. Their targets are very selected. But here’s the thing, people who now have the megaphone in their hand didn’t traditionally have it, so they’re power drunk.
SB: What’s your stance on Demna?
ER: I think Demna is a designer, but I don’t think he’s a very talented designer. He took all the best ideas from Margiela. And then after that it was a nosedive, really. Balenciaga is just pumping out merchandise. There will be interesting things on the runway, I won’t deny that, but they never make it to the store. You go to the store and there’s nothing without a logo. What I dislike most about Demna is the cynicism, all these laudatory articles about the ‘fashion revolution will be brought by Vetements’. In Vogue, of all places.
SB: I think I do agree with you to a certain extent. I feel Demna definitely reflects how poor the creativity is in fashion at the moment. But I wouldn’t go so far as to discredit Demna as a designer. I think there is something interesting about what he’s doing at Balenciaga, because it is different. I’m always looking back to Margiela or Helmut Lang or Rei in the ’90s, and I’m enamoured by them, which is what I’m missing in the current context. I want that relatability. I feel like, whether people like it or not, Demna is using what he has at his disposal and giving us that, which is why I like him. And I also like that people don’t like him. But I do understand what you’re saying.
ER: I have a special dislike of Vetements and Balenciaga because I really hate the way they have taken the style of the poor and dished it out at exorbitant prices for the rich. That rubs me the wrong way more than anything else. I don’t buy any of this ‘we’re championing the working class’ bullshit. Like, you’re not even in the same universe. You might as well be
on another planet from these people. That is cynicism and that is dishonesty. No poor person is going to go buy acid-wash jeans for $800 that look like you can buy them for $10 at Walmart.
SB: But then you’d have to also consider the entirety of the fashion industry being insidiously louche and decadent. Repurposing or recontextualising things in fashion isn’t a new theme.
ER: Yeah, and there is something decadent in it, but in the wrong way. Like Rick is decadent, but in the right way. It’s really perverted, what Demna’s doing. For someone like me who came from poverty and was always aspirational – for me, it is a big no no. Because now you’re fucking with reality.
SB + AB: [Laughs]
AB: Well, to end on a positive note, maybe you could tell us what your favourite moment in fashion is? Or was ...
ER: Wow. It’s hard to have one. I would probably say it was the 2018 double show with Undercover and Takahiro Miyashita for the Soloist at Pitti Uomo in Florence. That show was incredibly impactful on me. And the reason I choose it is because of how rare that was. I mean people were crying at that show. I talked to some really seasoned professionals after that, and they were so smitten. It really was a fashion moment. So maybe if I had to pick one … Of course, tomorrow I’ll come up with something else.
SB: You’ll email us and be like, “Can I change my answer?”
ER: [Laughs] The fact that that can exist today. That really gives me hope. [EXEUNT]
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