OLIVIER ZAHM — Amy, you’re a fashion icon, a muse, a fashion writer. Fashion is your world.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Well, I did begin with art. That was my background, inasmuch as I was trained to be an art historian, and I actually taught art history at Columbia University for two years, before I left for glossy-magazine journalism. Anyway, I was always interested in fashion, and there was no graduate school for anything like that in the US then — nothing in decorative arts and nothing in fashion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you left for magazines in the beginning of the ’90s?
AMY FINE COLLINS — It happened around ’89. I wrote a review of Geoffrey Beene’s retrospective at the National Academy of Design for an art magazine. It was his 25th anniversary of fashion design. And I ended up having a falling-out with my advisor at Columbia because I had a dissertation topic that involved fashion and Impressionism. He said, “This doesn’t belong in academia.” This same professor received a Légion d’Honneur, and I was vindicated, three decades later, when he invited me to the celebration. I got the satisfaction of saying, “Professor, do you remember what happened with my dis- sertation?” He said: “You know, you were right. I was wrong.” It was, like: “Thank you, sir. You could have spared me a lot of grief if you had realized that earlier.” But my life took a different turn because of his rejection of my idea. In the review about Geoffrey Beene, I wrote about the objects only, as you do when you’re an art critic. As soon as the article was published, I received flowers from Geoffrey Beene. The note said: “Who are you that you know me better than I know myself? Can we meet and have lunch?” So, we did. He said, “I want you writing more about fashion.” And I said, “I want to get out of academia.” So, he made that bridge for me. I became his muse and sort of his other half for about 14 years.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where does your spectacular sense of style come from?
AMY FINE COLLINS — It’s not an easy question to answer. My mother was planning on becoming a fashion designer. She went to Paris to study, and she came back and decided this was not the art form she wanted to pursue. Not dissimilar from the professor, she had the idea that fashion design was a lower form, an inferior applied art. She wanted to engage with the fine arts, with her painting, and most of all, with art history. So, you know what happens when anything is buried, especially in a family… Freud calls it “the return of the repressed.” She had her fashion drawings, old magazines, a 1950s Rochas invitation, paraphernalia like that, hidden in the attic, which of course I found and pored over. And she had a sense of style, an eye for proportion, line, technique. I remember every single thing she wore during my childhood.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For you, art and fashion are truly connected.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Totally. When I was younger, I never thought that I would go into fashion at all. I was a good artist as a young person, and I stopped because I knew I wouldn’t ever be as good as I wanted to be. Little did I know that you didn’t have to be able to draw and paint beautifully to become an artist. You could do anything and call yourself an artist, declare anything you made art! So, my eye was trained like an artist’s would be trained. And all of that got applied to fashion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very difficult to write about fashion, even more than writing about art.
AMY FINE COLLINS — It is because it’s so transient, and it requires a body in it to give it meaning. But the ability to put visual sensations into words — if you have any skill or adeptness, you learn to do that if you’re trained as an artist-historian who writes about art. You have to be able to describe things and explain why they work formally. One art-history professor I had, who in fact was a trans woman, used to say, “Think with your eyes.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — You incarnate the New York style. And I’m interested in exploring this with you because we know Downtown fashion, but Uptown is a different world.
AMY FINE COLLINS — It is. All that is changing, in a way, because everyone everywhere goes around town in their workout clothes — or their underwear, as I call it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Comfortable, easy clothes.
AMY FINE COLLINS — I don’t understand this concept of “comfortable.” I really don’t like it. I think comfort is a mental state. What I’m wearing now is Thom Browne, from a collection called “Anatomy,” and I’m comfortable in it because it is brilliantly made.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But the sporty, easy look is what American fashion is all about.
AMY FINE COLLINS — I mean, we did invent sportswear and jeans, with the understanding that the fabric, denim, originated in France. But today there’s a fear of looking elitist, typical of the Silicon Valley idea of how to dress.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this the new fashion norm in the US?
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes, the hoodie and being sloppy. That’s also something that came from Hollywood — from men in particular, that I’m so cool, rich, or powerful that I don’t have to get dressed to go to an office. It just comes down to laziness and a lack of discipline. And just not know- ing how to do it. I think people have lost the ability to make themselves elegant. There’s no place for that word anymore.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s also because we all have less time, no?
AMY FINE COLLINS — If you’re disciplined, you don’t need a lot of time. Yes, no one has time for a hundred fittings for a dress. But truly, you can zip on a dress and a pair of heels and just go.
OLIVIER ZAHM — New York fashion is also about taking risks, eccentricity — big glasses, jewelry, bold color, interesting shapes. This is very New York, don’t you think? More than Paris.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes, it is. If people are caring and thinking about clothes, there could be any kind of self-expression happening. There are many reasons why in the US, New York is the center of fashion. The business of fashion is centralized here. It always was, even though so many things are outsourced now. It’s also the only city in the US that has a street life. It’s the only pedestrian city in the country. So, the theater of the street, the runway of the street, is really important here. Looking and being seen and making a statement about what tribe you belong to or what period you admire or, now, what your gender expression is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your hair, your make-up.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. We’ve become more and more a visual culture. So much of communication has to happen through clothing and not words. Everybody has to do the same thing every day, at least anyone who does not live in a nudist colony. We all have to get dressed. So, everyone has to give some thought to what they are going to put on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s also a beautiful light in New York, an energy that pushes you onto the street, and you feel spectacular.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes, these fall days that used to be called Indian summer, which is probably politically incorrect now. But it drives people out of their apartments and into the streets. It’s like kicking over an anthill. You feel the sun and the warmth and the clearness of the sky, and then you’re in love with the city all over again.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is New York still alive?
AMY FINE COLLINS — To me, New York is still the center of the world! So many people left the city during the pandemic. There was this idea that New York is dead, finished, and it’s now a horrible, crime-infested cesspool. People try to justify the fact that they fled to Florida, or other states, to save on state income taxes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, New York is back?
AMY FINE COLLINS — The energy is back, and it’s back in a different form. That’s what’s so fascinating about New York. It has ups and downs, and the cycles can go very quickly. So fast. And so many buildings have been razed to make way for new buildings, which I don’t love necessarily, but it’s just the story of New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like a mushroom colony.
AMY FINE COLLINS — A fungus. It dies and gets reborn like Persephone.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And there are all these new designers who struggle like artists do.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. And things can happen for them. That dream is not impossible here. This is what we have here — it’s a very American thing, but also a New York thing. People come here to make their dreams come true. Elena Velez, who just won the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] award — she was going to cast me in her last show, but we didn’t end up doing it. That’s how I met her. I went down to her studio.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you interested in young designers?
AMY FINE COLLINS — Actually, some of these emerging designers are excited to discover me. I’m like a unicorn or a dinosaur or an exotic bird, maybe a relic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do you think young designers love your Park Avenue style?
AMY FINE COLLINS — There’s nostalgia for a certain period of fashion in New York, where you had all these larger-than-life figures. Like Diana Vreeland, obviously, and Geraldine Stutz, who put Henri Bendel on the map, and Dawn Mello, who sort of gave Bergdorf Goodman life, a heart. The perpetually enthusiastic Polly Mellen, who thankfully is still with us. There were these really grand women.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With a sense of eccentricity, too.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. Each one with an individual style. Eleanor Lam- bert, who was the great PR powerhouse, the one who founded the International Best-Dressed List and the CFDA and the Costume Institute and the Met Gala. She did everything. She started New York Fashion Week, too. And she launched Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, all the Americans. She died at a hundred in 2003. She had this fantastic desire to be around younger people and do that vampire thing of drink- ing up young blood to stay fresh. She made a point of cultivating me when I was young and starting out, and I adored her.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was she a mentor to you?
AMY FINE COLLINS — Definitely. She showed me what she knew. I loved getting to know all these really ancient, wise people. I’m a gerontophile.
OLIVIER ZAHM — These women had a sense of humor, too. There’s this serious approach to fashion as an art form, but they’re also funny.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Kooky.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fashion, for them, was not just a status symbol.
AMY FINE COLLINS — No, not at all. That really has nothing to do with it — it’s not about status or consumerism. We are talking about style, as opposed to fashion. Images of those women today are inspiring to everybody now. There aren’t a lot of those women left anymore.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When it comes to American fashion, I have a question about celebrity culture because, being at Vanity Fair, you also embraced the integration of fashion into media culture. But isn’t it a problem for fashion? So many celebrities have their own stylist.
AMY FINE COLLINS — There’s a lot of confusion around that, especially as the emergence of stylists is a relatively recent development in the history of fashion. I think it started in the ’90s. Eleanor Lambert at that time called them “the termites of fashion.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — I see the sense of humor.
AMY FINE COLLINS — You’re right. Oh, God, she had such a sense of humor about herself, especially when she was older. There are very few celebrities who you could say have innate style — or ones who work with a stylist but are so strong in their identity and their self-presentation that they dominate the clothes, the clothes don’t wear them. Someone like Janelle Monáe, I think, has fantastic, real style even though she’s always dressed by a stylist or by designers. But that’s why these people are celebrities, not stars. I mean, what are they famous for? There’s no Joan Crawford or Marilyn Monroe. Or Audrey Hepburn. People who had such a distinct look and self-presentation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And who inspired the designers, actually.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. And who inspired the creation of something new or that had barely existed before, that moved the needle of fashion. There was another one of these ladies, Aileen Mehle — she wasn’t really a fashion person, she was a very powerful society columnist — but she was funny and smart as hell. She died at 98, maybe five years ago. You have to be tough and maybe just a little bit mean to keep going that long. She wrote a column called “Suzy.” Did you ever meet her?
OLIVIER ZAHM — No, never.
AMY FINE COLLINS — She wasn’t chic, and she didn’t want to be. Her thing was more about being cute and sexy. She was a tiny blonde with big tits, and till the end, she had big lashes on, bouncy curls. When she was in her 90s watching all these new celebrities, she said, “If you turn them around backward, you wouldn’t know one from the other.” That’s something I think about. If someone has really individual, definite style, even from a distance and from the back, it shows clearly. Another Hollywood lady was Leonora Hornblow, the very elegant wife of an important movie producer. She had an apartment decorated by Billy Baldwin and was smart as a whip. She told me that if you can do a caricature of someone with just a few pen strokes, then that individual has distinctive style. How many movie stars, influencers, can you portray in just a few strokes? I’m sure you could do Audrey Hepburn or Jacqueline Kennedy that way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That would be my critique of the Met Gala, which has become a sort of competition for the most impressive look, supported by the brands. It’s not necessarily about style.
AMY FINE COLLINS — No, it’s not. It’s about getting the picture with the most likes, getting the most attention. And it’s not even about being a guest at a party. A lot of those people don’t even really at- tend the event. They arrive last, go up the steps, miss the dinner entirely, and certainly don’t look at the exhibition. Maybe they will show up at some after-party. The pictures the public sees from the steps are entirely distinct from what actually happens inside the museum, where photography is no longer allowed, now that dear, dear Bill Cunningham is gone. People are actually having fun, schmoozing, and happy to see each other. Outside is the public part, the part made for paparazzi and for social media.
OLIVIER ZAHM — These kind of fashion events are made for social media and to have an immediate impact.
AMY FINE COLLINS — My feeling is that, as much as we might use it, Instagram and social media have destroyed the world. It’s the instrument of the devil. Everyone’s addicted. It doesn’t allow for any subtlety, complexity, or nuance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The Met Gala and the fashion world have become mostly a marketing competition for the biggest social media audience.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Brand competition. Yes. And you see the celebrities switching around brands, too, ones who are paid to be an ambassador, seeming so happy to take off the clothes from brands that they’re supposed to be supporting. The genuine muse-designer relationship is now quite rare. There’s no conviction, no sense of autobiography to their clothes. It’s too easy to start getting all negative about fashion today, but it needs to be critiqued.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m not trying to destroy the Met Gala. I’m just saying that it should be something different to really make fashion stand out, especially given that it’s supporting an incredible museum for fashion.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. It hurts me a bit when people say how horrible the Met Gala party is and how awful people dress because I care so much about that institution. The curators are my friends, and the museum and the park are the biggest treasures of this city. It’s the only department that has to support itself. The Costume Institute was always the embarrassing stepsister of the museum. And now, finally, it’s getting more serious attention. But the biggest driver of traffic into the museum is the costume exhibitions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a very important New York institution.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. It started getting more publicity and became less of an insider event around the turn of the century, just like fashion shows did. Fashion shows were like trade shows, like dental conventions. The people who worked in the industry went, and you never saw a celebrity in the show unless they were a client. You saw stars who were clients, but nobody was putting the attention on them. I guess the entertainment industry and the fashion industry have just merged. And who started that?
OLIVIER ZAHM — America!
AMY FINE COLLINS — You think it’s America? Not the Italians?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe, by transforming top models into superstars.
AMY FINE COLLINS — First, celebrities bought their clothes, then the celebrities borrowed the clothes, and from there, it went to the celebrities being paid to wear their clothes. When I first learned about that, it was like, “Wow, this is going in reverse.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a connection between the Italians designers and Hollywood in the ’80s. Gianni Versace, for example. They made it into a system.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Very much so. Gianni also loved rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe the Italians designers started it, but the Americans never really had a full understanding of fashion as something that wasn’t just an industry and a business. That’s a big difference.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the past, fashion wasn’t such a global business.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Well, in America, I think it was always more of a business-business. Of course, in Paris, someone like Dior or Pierre Cardin understood business. But America’s more a business culture than France is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe we are at the end of this system, when you see what happened to Kanye West. Maybe brands are starting to realize it can be also dangerous to instrumentalize the celebrity system.
AMY FINE COLLINS — One thing we know about fashion is that it always changes. I don’t think it’s going to die out as a kind of global form of entertainment and business, though.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We’re seeing a diversification and decentralization of fashion. Like the young designer Elena Velez from Milwaukee. It’s no longer just about New York, Milan, Paris, and London.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes, it can happen anywhere now. And in a global world, the idea of things being local is interesting. There are so many different ways you can dress now. If you’re talking about fashion, there’s not one way you need to look now. One color, one length, one designer. That doesn’t exist anymore.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And in this multiplicity of possibilities, how do you approach the Best-Dressed List?
AMY FINE COLLINS — The Best-Dressed List was started by Eleanor Lambert in 1940. And when she died, she bequeathed it to me and three of my colleagues, all at Vanity Fair. She didn’t leave it to the magazine — she left it specifically to us. And we can take it anywhere we like.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You can take it to Purple if you want.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Be careful what you ask for. That would be brilliant, actually.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a great concept, the Best-Dressed List. I have always looked at it. It’s really fun and interesting.
AMY FINE COLLINS — It is! People love lists. I don’t know why, but we always have had the Ten Most-Wanted Criminals. They used to post their pictures in post offices when they were looking for the murderer, the bank robber, the FBI’s or the NY Police’s Ten Most-Wanted. And then Andy Warhol did a gay parody of that called 13 Most Wanted. And he had these sexy-looking hoodlums and their mug shots. But the Best-Dressed List is complex, and it’s not just about choice — it’s about voting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the story behind the Best-Dressed List?
AMY FINE COLLINS — The pre-history of the International Best-Dressed List is to be found in Paris. In the 1930s, there was something called the Paris Dressmakers’ Poll, which would run every year. This mysterious Paris Dressmakers’ Poll was picked up yearly by the Associated Press. And then, in 1939, it stopped. Eleanor Lambert had been watching this list for years, and she clipped out and saved those newspaper stories. Then Europe was at war — America hadn’t entered the war yet, around 1940. The garment industry was starting to panic, thinking: “We’re not going to be able to sell dresses. First, we don’t know what to make because we don’t have news from Paris anymore. And it’s so gloomy — people are not going to want to get dressed up.” So, this consortium of manufacturers and labor unions founded this organization called the Dress Institute to try to keep the fashion industry alive. And they hired Eleanor Lambert because she basically invented the profession of fashion publicist. They said to her, “Eleanor, you have to come up with some ideas to stimulate this industry.” And one of the ideas she came up with was the International Best-Dressed List. And she said, “Well this thing coming from Paris is finished, so I’m going to take up the baton and do it from here.” And that’s the origin of the story.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, it’s not Vanity Fair because everyone thought…
AMY FINE COLLINS — There’s a lot of confusion about that. Just wait until it’s called the Purple International Best-Dressed List. I’m serious. It didn’t come to Vanity Fair until 2004. Because when Eleanor was 99, she wrote a letter that said she wanted this list to carry on without her. She wanted to entrust it to people whom she trusted, respected, and admired. Then in 2004, it was the first time Vanity Fair published the list. So, it’s interesting how things get branded. It almost instantly became the Vanity Fair International Best-Dressed List. But, in fact, the list was published in Vanity Fair only from 2004 to 2017.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it makes sense with Vanity Fair. It was a good partnership.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. It was a great partnership, especially because it was during that period when celebrity culture and fashion culture started merging.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did Vogue try to copy it, in a way?
AMY FINE COLLINS — Everybody tried to copy it, even back in the earlier days. But ours is the only original, authentic list of this type. You know what Coco Chanel said: “Those who copy me are right.” You come up with an idea, and you’re going to have lots of imitators.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And how do you select the list?
AMY FINE COLLINS — Well, this is the way the system works. The International Best-Dressed List began by Eleanor Lambert sending out ballots to people in the fashion industry, retailers and editors, designers and milliners. The votes would come back, she’d tabulate the votes, and those were the results. This thing became bigger and bigger and a more powerful instrument as years passed, which astonished her. People died to be on this list. They tried to bribe her; women would disappear when the list was announced if they weren’t on it. And Women’s Wear Daily — John Fairchild, when he was there, could be so nasty, in a playful but sadistic way. He would make fun of the women who weren’t on the list… So, it became a kind of Almanach de Gotha. If you were on The Best-Dressed List, you had arrived. Full stop. It was that powerful. And in those days, it was much more the social people because they were the celebrities at that time. There were a few film stars, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. But mostly you had the social swans —Jacqueline de Ribes, Mona Bismarck, the Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marella Agnelli, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They were the icons.
AMY FINE COLLINS — Yes. It wasn’t the movie stars. Rosalind Russell was, I think, the first movie star that came on. And there were some opera singers and other higher forms of entertainment represented.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like Maria Callas?
AMY FINE COLLINS — I don’t know why, but Maria Callas was never on the list. I’ve thought about doing a reject list, like a post-humous list of people who were never on the list but whom I wish had been. You never know why they were not admitted. The way people are seen in the context of their time is often different from the way we perceive them today. Who knows, it could have been out of loyalty to the Kennedys. You don’t know what the behind-the-scenes politics might have been. When the list became more and more powerful and the voting group became bigger to include all kinds of people — like the owners of the chic restaurants, hairdressers, and all the previous winners — there were 2,000 to 3,000 voters. Eleanor then decided to make a committee. It was at first secret. It’s also the only list that sends out ballots and polls to people. It’s not just decided by editors. But the committee is powerful, for sure. So, bear that in mind. You will find that you suddenly have a lot of new friends circling around you, “auditioning” for a spot on the list. And you will make a few new enemies.
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