PARIS, France — “Reading. I grew up reading books,” says fashion editor Virginie Mouzat on what drove her to become a writer. “It actually saved my life, it really did,” she adds. “Let’s say, it helped during existential moments that turned out to be quite difficult.”
Mouzat had a tumultuous childhood. She left home at 18 with no money and worked a series of low-level jobs, including as a waitress and shop floor assistant, before getting her first job in fashion — as a model. The long-limbed Mouzat worked for elite houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Lanvin, and met industry figures like Mario Testino and Karl Lagerfeld. “It was pretty amusing,” she smiles. But in 1992, she faced another difficult moment: her twin sister was hit by a car and permanently disabled. It was a terrible shock, as well as a kind of wake-up call. “Either I was sinking into life with her, or I was going forward, no matter the price. I needed to be better and that’s what I decided to do,” she recalls.
Mouzat is a writer — not just a fashion writer. She has written two noteworthy novels, Une Femme Sans Qualités (2009) and La Vie Adulte (2010), but “people in fashion don’t read my books, because people in fashion don’t read… Instead of becoming some sort of outcast because of the novels, I tried to turn them into tool for more freedom and richness,” she explains. “I tried to give my job more width.”
“Read articles on fashion before writing about fashion. You’re not a good journalist nor a good writer if you don’t read.”
Her prose is thin and incisive. And she doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind, even if that means hurting the feelings of important industry figures. In what became her most famous show review for French daily newspaper Le Figaro, where she spent nearly two decades, Mouzat slowly ripped apart Tom Ford’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection. “Thus began the slowly unfolding nightmare,” she wrote. “From the first model to appear, one was struck by what looked like an out-of-style Gucci collection from more than ten years ago. The fussy complications of the cuts… the messy hairstyle of a girl after happy hour and the overdone makeup.” At the end of the show, Ford failed to rouse his audience to a standing ovation, a moment Mouzat seized upon, writing: “But still nobody stood. Then, Tom Ford retreated towards Anna Wintour on whom he inflicted a hug. So this Texas playboy, whose praises reporters sang in the Gucci years, has become the man for whom nobody stands. If not the man one actively flees.” (For the record, Ford has always maintained that he wasn’t trying to get people to stand).
It was ruthless and irreverent — and extremely entertaining. So much so that Jezebel posted an English version of the review online, immediately setting the Internet on fire.
“Before the Internet came to fashion, my show reviews were very literal,” says Mouzat. “I was writing — not very well, in retrospect — about the fabrics, the shapes, et cetera. Then, it all changed. Specialised websites appeared, pictures were published instantly. I couldn’t compete against that.” She started to think about a new way to cover fashion that did not duplicate, but rather complemented the proliferation of fashion imagery. “On the Internet, we see textile, colours, clothes, but rarely what’s around that,” she recalls. “So, I decided I was going to almost stop talking about the clothes themselves and focus on the environment. It became my signature.” Influenced by Marguerite Duras, Pascal Quignard, Milan Kundera and Philip Roth, she developed what she calls a “to-the-bone style.”
“I worked on losing adjectives to make my text more nervous, incisive, a shorter breath. Rhythm became important, sound as well. I wanted to go towards more simplicity. It’s actually more difficult than always adding stuff,” she explains. “Maybe it had something to do with my job at a daily newspaper. I needed to be quick. Quickness demands concision and concision demands an economy of words.”
Mouzat began working at Le Figaro in 1995. The previous year, she had met French journalist and author Franz-Olivier Giesbert, who, at the time, was director of the newspaper. He asked her to practice her writing by sending him test articles that weren’t published. “The idea was to test my determination,” she says. After submitting these test pieces for a year, one of her articles was published. A short while later, she was hired.
Mouzat started out covering beauty. “I had to work with what [the paper’s fashion writer] didn’t cover, with the remains, and find something worthy. It was a real exercise; to find story ideas, to make them interesting, to think outside the box. It taught me a lot.” Later, she began writing features on fashion, as well as show reviews, and eventually took charge of the newspaper’s fashion supplements, rising to become Le Figaro’s deputy editor.
At the paper, the fashion pages appeared every Tuesday, so almost every week Mouzat would pen a feature. During the main four fashion weeks, she reviewed the most important shows. But asked if there was really a readership for fashion reviews, she doesn’t hesitate before answering: “I’m not sure. There is a readership in the industry, but the stakes have shifted. There is this completely hypocritical thing that gives importance to fashion reviews published in newspapers, even though it’s a completely obsolete model. It ends up being the proof of the interest you grant to advertisers; there is no more critical dimension, no more designers will be dismissed or acclaimed because of one review,” she says bluntly. “But you can’t demonise advertisers, they are not enemies. People have to remember that ad pages allow [media companies] to buy paper and space, and pay salaries. And it profits everyone, even someone writing about politics, who, because we just sold an ad page, can write 1500 words instead of 800.”
In September 2012, Virginie Mouzat left Le Figaro, after almost 20 years, to join the launch of the French Vanity Fair in the title of “editor-in-chief of fashion, lifestyle and opinions.” But even before that, Mouzat has been rumored to be on the lookout for change. In December 2010, when Condé Nast announced that Carine Roitfeld was stepping down from her post as editor-in-chief of French Vogue, Mouzat was one of the top contenders for the job, which eventually went to Emmanuelle Alt. Mouzat admits regretting not getting the job, but said that, in retrospect, she wasn’t ready for the role.
Indeed, two years later, she received an invitation to lead the launch of the French edition of Harper’s Bazaar as editor-in-chief. “It was at the same time as the Vanity Fair offer. I declined the one from Harper’s and took the gig at Vanity Fair, even though it was a lower job, but I felt like I had to learn how to do a monthly magazine first.”
At Vanity Fair, Mouzat, whose focus had previously been on the written word, was tasked with directing the creation of imagery. “I love it! It satisfies my need for visual — I was unhappy at Le Figaro to do it so rarely. It can just be about being funny, young, exciting, refreshing, sexy. Very primary notions. We choose this dress for its colour, this sweater for its texture. It washes the brain; it makes me feel good.”
Describing the Michael Douglas shoot she did for the September issue, she says: “First, I explained to the magazine what kind of tone I wanted to give to this man, that I wanted to French-ify him, based on the French gentleman fantasy. I wanted him to be chic and casual at the same time, meaning no ties, no suits, but this sort of Hermès [scarf], his sleeves rolled up, as if he was a stroller in Paris. Then, I did a moodboard with archive photographs and I shared that with the team, with Michael Douglas’ agent, with Patrick Demarchelier, the photographer. And, when everyone agreed, I called the brands to get the looks. Then we shot it.”
Mouzat has always said she aims to give fashion “intellectual vision,” which she defines as “creating content that goes beyond just talking about textile and trends — trying to make fashion intelligent, like a symptom, an expression of oneself, of the time. Fashion is a way of thinking; dressing is a way of thinking.”
Asked how she managed to build up the sense of respect that surrounds her, Mouzat says, “I’m not afraid. If you do this job, you have to be all-in. No middle ground. You need balls. Never compromise. It’s how you gain respect. You can’t do this job to be liked, you do it to be respected.”
As for those aiming to become young fashion writers, she advises: “Read articles on fashion before writing about fashion. You’re not a good journalist nor a good writer if you don’t read.”