Fashion writer David Livingstone takes the cattiness out of the catwalk and discovers the cultural significance in an industry obsessed by what's hot and what's not
It was a quiet, narrow, downtown side street with stacked houses and the most typical old brick church. The people in the neighbourhood stood on their porches watching, intrigued, as fashion journalists made their way down the road. Outside the church, a stylish crowd dressed exclusively in black and gradations of grey was growing. As young, pretty women offered automatic “Good mornings” and distributed warm croissants and pastries, the editors and writers chatted happily, exchanging compliments on this skirt and that shoe.
They discussed how wonderful it is to order an etched leather jacket from Paris and have it delivered to your door two days later. They squealed happily about finding the “most perfect pair of Prada loafers.” And they talked business about which clothes might go into future fashion spreads for their magazines. They were waiting for the Comrags fashion show to begin on that chilly October morning. They lounged on the army cots that were set up in an orderly row outside the entrance and they hovered in cliques on the sidewalk just a few feet away from strangers’ doorsteps. It is so like the fashion industry to hold events in the most bizarre places, and yet, no one seemed to notice that the location was strange. But then again, having attended fashion shows all over the world-in circus tents, in 18th-century French palaces, in Milanese warehouses and on closed-off highways outside of London-why would the journalists find anything weird about a fashion show held in a church in Toronto?
David Livingstone was there and he probably did give the venue a second thought. To say the least, Livingstone is a contemplative person who is an expert in the art of observation. As the fashion and beauty editor of Elm Street, he has to be. Livingstone is arguably the most respected Canadian fashion journalist working in print and yet he doesn’t quite fit into the scene. He relaxed on one of the cots surrounded by other fashion journalists who tried to entice him into conversation. The group was distinctly cool, with their dark designer sunglasses and their expensive Italian leather shoes. Livingstone was dressed nonchalantly in black jeans and a casual pinstriped pullover with navy blue Wallabees. The only thing that gave his job away was his black bag laden with slides and magazines. He sat there, chain smoking, half-listening to the lively conversations going on around him, offering a word or an opinion here and there, and observing his polished colleagues arrive and disappear into the shiny mass. “I think definitely in Canada he is The Best,” said Alexa Forsyth, fashion editor at Images, a beauty and fashion magazine . “Livingstone is among the wittiest and best informed in Canada,” said David Lasker, former editor of the Fashion & Design section of The Globe and Mail.
Most people who know Livingstone, and especially those who have worked with him, echo these sentiments. He goes beyond the bounds of fashion journalism stereotypes, like air kisses, compliments and pretense. He holds fashion to the same standards that any journalist would with a subject, be it politics, economics, or the environment. He provides refreshing, informative, and entertaining reportage of the fashion and style world with a unique capacity for a well-turned phrase that is rare in fashion writing. He draws parallels between the past and the present, the style and the designer who brings it to life, the couture houses and the street, and all the other shifts in culture, politics, and entertainment that have an effect on fashion. “Certainly, it’s all there for fashion journalism to deal with, look at, play with,” says Livingstone. “I just regard myself as a journalist. The job is to report things that you have experienced firsthand, whether it be a purse or a personality, and pass it on to a reader in a way that’s accurate and fair and amusing. And if the subject is fashion, well, that’s a fabulous subject.” He laughs then, correcting himself: “…it’s a great subject. ‘Fabulous’ just fell out of my mouth.”
Despite what many would consider a glamorous lifestyle-associating with famous designers and photographers, sitting in the front at fashion shows, travelling to chic centres of the world like Paris, Milan, London, and New York twice a year to cover the ready-to-wear collections-Livingstone is uncomplicated, since he doesn’t buy into the Absolutely Fabulous mentality. He doesn’t get caught up in the personal clothing fetishes that everyone else in the industry succumbs to either. “I’m not necessarily aspiring to own what I see. You can be glad that there are such beautiful things, and there are beautiful, beautiful things. But to feel envious and to look at it and feel that you have to own it in order to appreciate it, that’s not right.” He is quite similar to the way he describes the designer Miuccia Prada: “There is an interesting tone to her presence, for all her success, she is an individual. You can get from her something more human.” Stevie Cameron, his editor at Elm Street, describes him as “a graceful, tough, and funny man” who brightens any atmosphere with his infectious belly laugh. Kate Macdonald, who is the editor-in-chief of Images and who shares the same office space with the team at Elm Street, works closely with Livingstone since he is the editor-at-large on that masthead. “I think my favourite moments are when we’re in the office and we’re just brainstorming and collaborating on something and there’s just an energy and an exchange between the two of us. We have the ability to laugh at ourselves and to get excited about the small things.” But if you don’t know Livingstone, you might not see that side of him right away. He has this way of looking at you that makes you just a little uncomfortable, and he doesn’t seem to know it. Some say he’s intimidating-perhaps it’s his scrutinizing blue-eyed gaze-and that they were nervous upon first meeting him. He has a trained eye that can assess and judge the surface of things with just a few blinks, a skill he’s sharpened by sitting through almost two decades of fashion shows.
Back inside Saint Matthias Church, the stylish crowd was perched on pews, eager to see how the Canadian designer duo for Comrags envisioned the new look for spring ’99. The interior of the church had been decorated with strings of lightbulbs that lined both sides of the catwalk, and yards of cream-coloured muslin strategically draped to lend some privacy to the models dressing backstage. The music playing overhead was soft and monotone, quite fitting for a church, but the clothes were not. There were simple linen, close-fitting sheaths, delicate slips, and romantic calf-length dresses with ruffles in neutral shades of black, grey, pale pink, and blue. The models smiled prettily as they walked, paused, and swiveled. Their faces were saved from layers of makeup but their hair-ouch!-was held together with thick pieces of packing tape at the nape of their necks. The journalists, stared, wide-eyed and alert, nodding their heads in approval. Livingstone, his jaw clenched in serious observation, looked the models up and down, and leaned over to Martha Weaver, Elm Street‘s art director. “A shade of deep purple,” he said, squinting as a model walked by in a three-quarter-sleeve jacket. He was enjoying himself. In fact, everyone was. They shifted in their seats in anticipation of the next model. She appeared from within the heavy folds of fabric in a gorgeous grey outfit-a minimal, tailored zip jacket and calf-length sheath dress-and everyone leaned in a little closer, scribbling frantically in their notebooks. And yet they all had short attention spans, for as soon as the model walked by them, they were on to a careful examination of the next girl. Finally, the pièce de résistance, a netted camisole with little white feathers all over it. An angel? Or a plucked chicken? Whatever the inspiration, it was beautiful. One editor said, “I’m going to call it ‘chic farm girl.'” Livingstone nodded his head approvingly, eyes aglow-he loved it, and what he says, goes. After all, he’s an expert on these kinds of things.
Livingstone smokes ceaselessly. He exhales like a lion caught in mid-yawn. He likes to lean back in his chair, arms twisted behind his head, and look pensively upwards as he formulates his next words. His facial expressions are theatrical: a wide grin, a mischievous squint, a roll of the eyes, or an expressionless face to signal that he’s bored with a topic. In between puffs and sips of black coffee, he tells me about himself and the rag trade. He hates airports, airplanes, plane food, plane tickets, reservations, and travelling. He doesn’t like celebrity journalism or fur coats. And he despises pretension, snobs, and money. “Money is a hideous, awful, root-of-all-evil thing. Life is overpriced, but you should never feel alienated from fashion on those grounds.” But Livingstone loves magazines like The New Yorker, The Face, Interview, Harper’s Bazaar,Vogue, Big and Purple as well as foreign-language magazines that tend to state things “less cutely.” He loves seeing confidence, talent, ingenuity, and honesty. Livingstone loves fashion; he likes watching it come and go in a jagged, hiccuping sort of way. “A style would look indecent 10 years before its time, would look smart in its time and thereafter go through phases of appearing dowdy, hideous, ridiculous, amusing, quaint, charming and romantic until 50 years after its time, when it would again seem beautiful,” he wrote for the Globe in 1996. Livingstone appreciates the avant-garde designers who push fashion to its very limits like Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Helmut Lang, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, and John Galliano.
This experienced journalist states that fashion is everywhere, it comprises much more than just the designer element. A ride on the subway can occasionally feel like work for Livingstone when he notices what people have on-the shoe, the cloth, the hair, the fingernails-his work gives him licence to stare. This isn’t a nasty old man talking, this is a journalist trained in the art of observation-a journalist whose job it is to report on what’s new in a way that is accurate, fair and interesting. This has proved difficult for many journalists who cover fashion. The result is flat, uninteresting, and lazy reporting. But this allegation is not specific to fashion journalism; other fields are guilty as well. The charge against fashion journalists is that they are simple tracers of the industry who rarely question the roots of design or the significance, in this case wearability, of the clothes. Journalists favour quotes from designers and other fashion journalists but rarely ask what people outside of the industry think. Just watch Fashion Television and see Jeanne Beker twirling around backstage at fashion shows sweetly and delicately approaching designers, models, and makeup artists for sound bites.
“Bright, open-minded journalism reflects all the changes and shifts going on, not only in one area but in culture as a whole as well. It shouldn’t be this automatic tracking of things…. Fashion is news. I got into that through my newspaper writing. When something, anything, is new, let the reader know about it.”
But when it came to the shifts that went on in his own life, Livingstone didn’t seem comfortable talking about it. He leaned back in his chair in his cluttered office-with pictures of models tacked onto the wall, fashion magazines from all over the world scattered on the floor, dozens of books on fashion piled carelessly on a bulging bookshelf, and papers strewn across his desk-and summed up his past, in point form, in a matter of minutes. He was born on February 2, 1948, in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. His father worked at the local steel plant and his mother: “Oh, my mother was just ‘Mother.'” His family moved to Toronto in 1962 after his father was laid off. Livingstone went to the Royal York Collegiate Institute and then studied English literature at the University of Toronto. After graduating in 1970, Livingstone worked in the classifieds section of The Toronto Star before switching to TVOntario to edit its pamphlets and brochures. These publications, many of which Livingstone wrote himself, were eventually inserted into Globe. “That was when I first started writing. Ironically, I had no ambition or intention or goal of writing. I became interested in it partly because I was meeting so many journalists at that time.”
In 1977, Livingstone decided he enjoyed writing enough to quit TVOntario to freelance full time. He was writing on general topics-like a piece on beauty pageants, a profile of Ed Mirvish and a story on jazz singer Jody Drape-that appeared regularly in the Star’s The City magazine. Then on one chance evening when Livingstone was having dinner with a friend, he struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to him. That person was John Mackay, a stylist who worked for Toronto Life Fashion. Mackay passed Livingstone’s name to his editor, Jane Hess, who quickly assigned him his first fashion-related story: sunglasses. And like most good reporters would do, he began extensive research on his topic and wrote a survey article on all the pop culture associations with sunglasses like wraparounds, Andy Warhol, and Jackie O. As Livingstone recalls, “It’s fun doing hard work on easy subjects, and there are innumerable angles to come at it.”
In the early eighties, under John Mackay who by then was editor-in-chief of Toronto Life Fashion, Livingstone continued to write, even doing long profiles on fashion icons such as Oscar de la Renta, Geoffrey Beene, Est?e Lauder, Richard Avedon and the legendary Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, each time turning a better phrase. He wrote: “The threshold of Diana Vreeland’s office is a momentous border. You cross it with a sense of no turning back; you buzz with the same rattled abandon you might feel climbing into a midway ride or stepping aboard a rocket ship.”
But the article Livingstone is most proud of is a profile of Kennedy Fraser, which appeared in Toronto Life Fashion in the spring of 1980. Fraser, a fashion journalist for The New Yorker , was not only an excellent writer who made describing a piece of cloth into an art form, but she also made sense of the fashion world. She wrote about the industry objectively, not giving in to the shmooze and glossiness that are practically inescapable. It seems that she influenced Livingstone’s view of fashion right at the beginning, when he was most vulnerable and susceptible to its traps, for even good writers could falter when all they have to work with is the trivial and the frivolous. Fraser said, “I have no background in fashion, though I think that may be important. The fashion industry could use a few outsiders. Inside the industry, there’s a strange kind of silent conspiracy not to observe anything too critically.”
Thankfully, Livingstone was an outsider. At the same time that he was writing for Fashion, he also wrote forMaclean’s, covering the arts. “It was a great time covering pop music because there was a really strong intersection between music and fashion, as there is to greater and lesser degrees at any time.” His ability to make such connections gives his writing a legitimacy and a more intellectual tone than standard fashion journalism, which assumes the industry exists in a vacuum.
In 1983, Livingstone started to write exclusively for the Globe’s fashion section along with Joyce Carter, who covered that beat for 31 years. At the Globe, Livingstone wrote on everything from fashion and beauty to book and movie reviews and profiles of designers, models, photographers, and makeup artists. His tone was often praising of true talent and questioning when things became too outlandish. But the incestuous nature of the fashion industry often makes it hard to criticize what others are doing. The business requires friendly relationships and complimentary pats on the back since journalists and designers are always revolving around one another. Livingstone, despite these inevitable obstacles, has managed to retain a grounded sense of what’s beautiful and what’s outrageous as well as pointing out the changing trends and patterns in our culture as a whole, just like Fraser did. He showed how these changes manifested themselves in new styles: Madonna’s chameleon looks, roller-coaster hemlines, androgyny, label flaunting, grunge, heroin chic, fun fur. Livingstone essentially believes that fashion is newsworthy because it affects everyone, every morning of their lives. It has to do with the way we look, the way we feel, the way others judge us, and our individuality. Fashion, for what it’s worth, is an inextricable part of our culture. He wrote in the Globe in 1990: “?fashion now applies to ways of life. As if some mental space had been left vacant by the flight of more serious codes, the mode has moved in and assumed directorial power that surpasses tendencies or options and makes the wrong shoe seem like nothing next to the wrong attitude.” And these days the majority of people around the world are affected by the fashion system-even if they are unwilling to admit it.
The big business of women’s fashion magazines is built on this assumption. Countless titles, from all over the world, compete on the newsstands, each offering the winning formula: lots of glossy photography, heavy stylized layout, thin writing, several serious features, and a glorified view of the woman. These days that translates into 5 foot 9, 120 pounds, and $5,000 worth of clothes on at one time. This formula has given the fashion industry a bad reputation in journalism. Good writers who can bring a real intelligence to fashion reporting like David Livingstone, Kennedy Fraser, and Joyce Carter are hard to come by and many of the people on the mastheads come from retail or fashion merchandising backgrounds and have no writing experience or education. The result is glossier, hipper, and more out-there somewhere. But Livingstone insists, “I think the consumer, the person on the receiving end of fashion imagery, has got to wake up. Don’t argue with it, be it. Take from it what you want, don’t resent it, put that energy into feeling better about yourself. The kick in fashion is to think of the great potential for human beings and the options for feeling good and looking good and changing.”
Livingstone would not only admit that he has been affected by fashion, but that he lives and breathes fashion. He took the experience and the skills he gained from covering the style beat at the Globe to Elm Street, where he is now the resident style advisor, friend, confidante, funny man, mentor, and fashion and beauty editor. This new position showcases his writing style with longer features about the fashion industry and its players.
“Sometimes David’s writing can take on an esoteric quality,” says Kate Macdonald. “It is very intelligent writing; it is sophisticated and I think it takes a special appreciation to really absorb all that he has to say. I think that he is definitely one of the most gifted fashion journalists in North America. He has such a thorough understanding of the designers, the industry, their perspectives, their inspirations and it’s not just idle commentary, it’s real analytical reflection.” But for those who don’t know very much about fashion, Livingstone’s representation of it may seem confusing. There is a built-in assumption in his writing that his audience cares and has an interest in the movements within the higher echelons of fashion. He does not provide service journalism in the traditional sense, nor does he think anyone needs pure service writing. He never patronizes his readers by telling them what to wear or how to wear it. Rather, he defines service journalism as something that should amuse and inform people. “The service that a writer provides is giving someone something worthwhile to read on any given subject, fashion, or physics.”
Elm Street‘s circulation of more than 700,000 means that Livingstone’s fashion message is far-reaching. Farther than even Flare and Toronto Life Fashion, the other competing women’s fashion books. Elm Street is touted as the “intelligent woman’s magazine” whose mission it is to inform women on a range of issues, from politics and crime, scandals and gossip, recipes and gardens, fashion and beauty, to profiles of interesting Canadians. In two short years, Elm Street has won several National Magazine Awards, including a gold medal for fashion, and has captured the attention of the journalism industry. And so has Livingstone, who modestly swears he doesn’t have any great accomplishments.
Livingstone respects the fashion industry and its players for their creativity and devotion to making beautiful things and putting on a great show. But in the same breath, he contradicts himself by restoring people with full creative freedom to do and wear what they please. Fashion is not just Karl Lagerfeld and his fan, it’s not just anorexic and bulimic models, and it’s not just snobbery and money. It has a lot to do with what’s going on at street level. “The best thing that fashion can do is open up people’s minds and provide options and send out the message that please do what you want to do. Please. In the name of Jesus. Put on your back what you want to go on your back.”
Back in his office, Livingstone found a gift bag from the Shiseido cosmetics company that was full of new skin-care products meant to make you look, smell, and feel good. He ripped the bag open quickly, reading the labels on the bottles and asking me, “What’s a mattifying talc?… Ooookay…. So then what’s a Basic Solution? Great. And here’s a cleanser…. Nice.” He tore the top off the talcum powder bottle, pulled the neck on his shirt away and dumped it all over himself. “Now this is fashion journalism at work,” he said laughing.
by Natasha Royt
Natasha Royt was a Visuals Editor for the Spring 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.