Conversation with Vanessa Friedman


Fashion director and chief fashion critic at the New York Times chats to AmCham’s Tara Joseph about the clothes we wear and what they say about us

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, you’ll know you have just 30 seconds upon meeting someone new before they form a judgement about you. Sound unfair? Maybe. Is there anything you can do to influence the outcome? Absolutely.

Impeccably dressed in statement earrings and a black blazer/classic white t-shirt combo, fashion director and chief fashion critic at the New York Times Vanessa Friedman joins AmCham’s Women of Influence conference to propose the contentious idea that our clothes do, in fact, matter.

On fashion as a tool

The media often comes under fire for remarking on the fashion choices of female professionals, politicians and actresses, while their male counterparts don’t receive the same scrutiny. Though this sexism is fast becoming unacceptable in the West, Friedman thinks women should use fashion as a “tool” for communication.

We live in an increasingly visual world – appearance is the one thing almost everyone sees before words are said. Clothes are the signals you give to people before they form an impression about you. Many assume this is negative, they don’t want to be judged by their cover. But this is inevitable, so why not embrace it, Friedman says.

“You are the one who is missing a trick if you miss the opportunity to take the one thing that can be used to communicate something about yourself,” she says.

“We can communicate serious ideas -- such as our identity and politics, through a prism of something that is fun,” she says.

Melania Trump, for example, uses her clothes as armor. Whenever you see her in photos she is cinched, buttoned up, protected with wardrobe. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” she says.

Women are lucky, we have many more options than men and we should make use of the fact. “Clothes should make your lives better – clothes say here is a way to be you, next.”

On balancing femininity with power

Friedman says it is important to shed stereotypes. There is no single definition of what it means to look powerful.

Women assume they have to wear suits like men in order to look and be powerful. Michelle Obama was the first First Lady to wear a floral dress, and no one accused her of looking like a 1950s housewife. Power comes from the inside, from the way you express yourself. Your clothing either expresses that or it doesn’t, she says.

Modern fashion includes freedom from worry about the “appropriateness” of your clothing choices. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg does not dress in t-shirts and jeans like the men who surround her, says Friedman.

Women also have a responsibility to admit their different priorities. This means not just telling others when you are going to a business meeting but also when you are going to your kid’s school play. Society needs to be more open and accepting of the different priorities women have – not just work but family.

On personal style and choice

Friedman declines to comment on the women whose style inspires her for she simply cannot choose a few. But she does admire women who are comfortable using fashion to communicate something, again citing Michelle Obama as a woman who was “willing to use fashion, and talked about it.”

As women seize influence and become liberated from tight skirts and stilettos, what should a billionaire woman wear, asks someone from the audience. Whatever she wants, is Friedman’s answer.

Friedman herself prefers to dress up for work as it gives her a “psychological cue to feel ready for the day.”

On fast fashion and sustainability

The fast fashion industry started with the best intentions, which was to give everyone access to clothes at a reasonable price point. Now that intention has evolved to “everyone should have access to the latest styles,” says Friedman.

This use-once-and-throw-away mentality of fast fashion can be shifted. Consumers have the power to make more conscious choices about what they buy. Building a sustainable wardrobe is somewhat of an oxymoron as fashion is all about change, but it is possible to have a sustainable wardrobe by investing in classic, quality clothes that will last for years to come. Brands will eventually be forced to make less as the costs from unsold inventory pile up, she says.


WOI Award Winners


Master of The Arts

Andrea D. Fessler

Executive Director, Premiere Performances Hong Kong



Leading Woman on Boards

Angelina A. Kwan

Chief Operating Officer, BitMEX



Champion for the Advancement of Women

Clifford A. Hart, Jr.

Chair, Board of Advisors, HLS Asia



Best Company for Women

Accepted by Maria Hui on behalf of Microsoft Hong Kong Limited


Professional of the Year

S.K. Witcher

Journalist and Immediate Past Chair, Editorial Committee, Society of Publishers in Asia


Entrepreneur of the Year

Elaine Tsung

Founder & CEO, Garage Society


Lifetime Achievement

Dora Yang (2nd from left) collected the award on behalf of her daughter

Marjorie Yang, Chairman, Esquel Group




Non-profit Leader of the Year

Sally Begbie

Executive Director, Crossroads Foundation


Young Achiever of the Year

Jen Loong

Managing Director, Greater China, HYPE Asia