Dana Thomas is, arguably, the most important voice in fashion in the 21st century. The American-born, Paris-based journalist has written a series of profoundly revealing books about the industry, including Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, and Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes. Her first two books were adapted into the 2022 Netflix series Kingdom of Dreams. Meeting at the Berlinale 2023 she talks to her friend (and Civilian editor-at-large) Karen Krizanovich about her transatlantic life and work. Portrait of Dana by Michael Roberts
Karen Krizanovich: At The International Festival du Cannes 2022 you gave a talk at the American Pavilion on fashion and sustainability, which was riveting. You were super clear and engaging on a subject that few can speak about so well. You know so many designers, DJs, photographers, you’re kind of a one-woman cultural salon.
Dana Thomas: I was European cultural correspondent for Newsweek for years. So, I got to interview a lot of people in different areas. My job was to tell Newsweek‘s home office in New York what they needed to know about, but also to be the filter for what’s up and coming.
KK: What was your first gig?
DT: An intern in the Washington bureau of Time magazine, back in 1986. I just wrote to them cold and talked them into having me. Before that – before college and journalism – I was a model from the time I was 14. I wasn’t scouted. My father took me into the agency and said, “My daughter is going to be a model.”
KK: How did you feel about that?
DT: That’s exactly what I’m writing right now. I don’t want to say more and jinx it. I’d always thought of the modelling thing as a means to an end. I was a model in Philadelphia, New York, and Paris. I worked in Milan and Germany, mostly in Hamburg where most of the catalogue shoots were.
That was really good money back then. I used that money to pay for college. I wanted to be a political reporter. My heroes were Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O’Rourke, Tom Wicker and James Reston of The New York Times. I was just completely obsessed with wanting to be a political reporter. I wanted to be the one of ‘The Boys on the Bus’, but the girl on the bus.
I joined The Washington Post when I was still a college student at American University, as a copy aide, and was assigned to cover parties for the Style section. Fundraisers, galas, White House state dinners. I got really thin because I was working all the time. I was covering two or three parties a week in Washington – where business was done. I’d have to run back to the newsroom at late at night in my cocktail dress and shoes, which I kept in the closet. It was always the same dress. There are so many pictures of me interviewing people where I’m wearing the same dress. The First Lady’s press officer, Anna Perez, said about me: “She’s just so thin. When she turns sideways, you don’t see her.”
KK: Tell me all about Paris.
DT: I just loved my life in Washington, at the paper. But then, in 1991, I met this fabulous French man who asked me to marry him. So, I moved to Paris and became a foreign correspondent, eventually joining Newsweek. The only reason I stopped working for Newsweek was because the magazine got sold, and then it got sold again, and then the Bureau was closed. That was the end of that era. Now I write for British Vogue and the New York Times, mostly about climate and sustainability, and give speeches, and have my podcast, The Green Dream. But my life in Paris is an everyday life. A friend of mine visited recently and she said that the way I live in Paris like is as if it’s a normal city. It’s just a city that’s really beautiful.
KK: What’s the essence of Parisian style in your opinion?
DT: I learned the importance of buying good, beautiful shoes. I learned the importance of making sure your feet are gorgeous at all times. I learned the importance of beautiful lingerie. You care about it. You have a whole beautiful thing going on, with beautiful feet, the beautiful lingerie that nobody sees, except if you want them to. So basically, I learned about having a very beautiful inner secret self.
KK: I moved to London to become a European and obviously to me that hasn’t happened.
DT: Oh, it’s funny. Maybe it’s because I arrived at 18 and I’ve been here more than half my life now. I was talking to the film director Luca Guadagnino recently about this. He asked me to write a documentary for him about Salvatore Ferragamo, called Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams. I was completely bowled over. I said yes, of course. Anyway, he commented, “Dana, darling, you’re never moving back to America. You’re too European.” But you know, I still drive a 1964 Mustang.
KK: I love that. We have this argument at home about the environment and keeping older cars.
DT: Mine is in the south of France. It’s a convertible, so we just drive it in the summer. It’s very fun, you know? It’s in Prairie Bronze, which was one of the original six colours. V8 engine. Manual transmission.
KK: No power steering. Oh, my God.
DT: That’s how I stay in shape in the summer, driving my car.
KK: Other style favourites?
DT: Oh, a Stella McCartney organic cotton white button-down shirt. Or the Alabama Chanin white vintage T-Shirt. Organic cotton, as you can feel. It’s like getting into a Ferrari, a Rolls-Royce of cotton. It lasts longer, it stands up and it looks better. It washes better. The shirts are indestructible. Levi’s 501s, button–front flies. And I have damn good loafers. They’re Hermès, with Kelly bag buckles. This is my look. And a black blazer for dressier moments.
KK: Cars and all, if you love anything, you keep fixing it. But have you ever tried to force yourself into a different look?
DT: No, no, no. I remember years ago when I was talking to my Newsweek Paris bureau chief Chris Dickey about this, he said that according to former American Vogue editor Grace Mirabella – you know, the editor before Anna Wintour – there were basically two different looks. There were women who were Chanel, and women who were Yves Saint Laurent, meaning very feminine or very masculine. So, at one point there was Armani or Christian Lacroix – either minimalist or maximalist. You either wear Chanel, or you don’t. It’s rare that you crossover. And it’s true. My look is very Yves Saint Laurent. I don’t have a single piece of Chanel.
KK: What is your favourite place to eat in Paris?
DT: I would say the Café Flore, in a heartbeat. And upstairs, always upstairs. But it’s changed recently and the food’s not as good. I love the Voltaire. Drinks at the Hemingway Bar, which I have been going to since forever.
KK: And just what’s the difference between style and fashion?
DT: Oh, what does Coco say? Fashion comes and goes, and style remains. You have your personal style and you have to figure it out. Once you figure it out, it’s about confidence and having confidence in your choices. You can see women who don’t know themselves and they dress ridiculously.
KK: I wanted to ask you about fashion at film festivals. We meet in Cannes and Venice, and we’re at the Berlinale right now. Is there any type of fashion that goes to film festivals?
DT: Oh, my god, yeah. Mermaid gowns. I can’t bear the whole mermaid gown thing. Every time a woman wears those gowns on the red carpet, she’s telling the world: “I just spent a lifetime and a fortune looking after my body with trainers and dieticians. Don’t I look fabulous for it?” They’re showing off their wealth by wearing these body-hugging dresses. And… so what?
KK: Do we all have to choose between our body and our face as we age? I feel like I’m falling into the ‘contouring’ trap now.
DT: No, you just have to own it, you know? I exercise because it makes me feel better. Keep the endorphins going. Clean out the liver.
KK: So now you are using all of this experience and knowledge to write books about fashion and the environment.
DT: Chris Dickey, my bureau chief at Newsweek, encouraged me to write books. He gave me the freedom and the time off to finish manuscripts, and my job was still there when I got back. He was a really important mentor. And I miss him. Immensely. He passed away quite unexpectedly two, almost three years ago. I miss him. Every single day.
KK: In your new podcast, The Green Dream, you have great interviews. Really entertaining and informative. In one, you featured an archive interview with André Leon Talley.
DT: I loved André. He was hilarious. The fashion world can be like a clutch of people who move from city to city. They hang out with each other, they have dinner together, they go on vacation together, they go to the fashion shows together, they live like the entire world revolves around fashion when it doesn’t. He was part of that. But it’s hilarious, and he was wonderful.
KK: I’m missing something. I feel like I’m circling something I really want to get to.
DT: The pivot to sustainability. That was because that’s what needs to be covered in the fashion industry now. Now that globalisation has had an impact on so many different things, on creativity, the artist, the war between art and commerce – which was the theme of my second book, Gods and Kings. Or the first book Deluxe, about how these companies sacrifice their integrity for the sake of profits, turning them into global, soulless brands. The third book Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes is about what’s left – the last piece of that. If you sacrificed your integrity and creativity, what’s left but humanity and the planet? In this age of climate change, the fashion industry needs to be scrutinised. It has been kind of lawless, no regulation. We’re seeing the impact of that. A lot of companies are dodging and greenwashing.
KK: There’s a lot of virtue signalling and hashtags.
DT: You know, this needs to be called out. Journalism through investigative reporting finds stuff that isn’t kosher—what the spin is—reports it, and says, “You know this isn’t really kosher.” But nobody was doing that in the fashion business in the 1990s, not one person. So I decided to. I could stop tomorrow and write about something else, as I have so many times before. But I just use the tools I learned at the Washington Post of never believing what everyone says and really digging to find what’s the truth.
KK: Are there others following in your in your wake?
DT: There was a story in The Guardian where a reporter found a factory in Eastern Europe that was, apparently, producing Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton insisted that they made everything in France except for factories or a factory in America, and a couple of places in Italy. Well, she went and checked it out. So how did I miss the story? I got scooped – scooped on what I do! The thing is this: and then she wrote to me and said that it was her thesis paper for Saint Martins. Her teacher helped her turn into an article and that she did it because she was so inspired by me. C