May 21, 2012 12:36PM

Oyster #99: Sally Singer

"We are all that shallow, and we are all that deep."

Conversing with Sally Singer is a journalist's dream — my dream. The level of respect I have for her is on par with the esteem I attribute Joan Didion, and her prose and editorship at The New York Times' T magazine have earned her a dedicated fanbase. One of the most compelling elements of her personality, aside from her talent, is how refreshing her stance is on most topics of conversations — be it reneging the myths of the fashion industry, home economics, or the joys of having a clan to call one's own.

Stevie Dance: Sally, when are you happiest?
Sally Singer: I am probably happiest when I'm with my children doing something really simple, like watching a movie together or something like that. Doing something very basic.

When do you remember first thinking you wanted to work at a magazine?
I know that when I was really young — like, you know, eleven, twelve… twelve probably — I wrote to Andy Warhol at Interview, because I thought I could be an intern, in a handwritten letter. I remember doing it because I was so obsessed with Interview and those kinds of magazines. I had no concept of how one actually did that and I knew no one that had actually worked on a magazine, so it was more of a fantastical relationship, I would say.

What gender roles do you think exist in publishing today?
I think publishing is an industry that has been very good to women and good for women, in both book publishing — where a significant number of the executives at book houses, or editors of real prominence, are women — and certainly in the aspect of the publishing world that I'm most familiar with, which is the fashion end of it. I know that at Vogue I always thought — both at British Vogue and American Vogue — that it was such a privilege to work in an office in which most people, most of the senior staff, had children and wanted to go home. They worked very hard but also had big, full, balanced lives, you know? That was both at British Vogue under Alex Shulman and American Vogue under Anna, and that's a rare thing. You read about people — women who work in offices — who have to hide that they're pumping milk in their offices when they've just had a baby; they have to hide their kid when they have a nanny crisis. They have to deal with it privately. You hear about such women in corporate law firms. I've never had that. In every office I've been in there's been an acceptance that your children come first and then you work really hard, and that those two things are possible in a life and, you know, that is a privilege. That is not the norm.

What do you think defines beauty today, for most women?
I think that, in a funny way, the definition of beauty as defined by the media is like this enormous balloon that's lifting off; that the weight of it is lifting from us because it's been sitting there so heavily for so long … I don't know what defines beauty for women, but I think that most women carry in their minds at least two definitions of beauty: There is a standard that they are willing to accept is there — probably younger, thinner, whatever, than they are — and that on the bad days they berate themselves with. Then there's another standard that they try to match for their own reasons, and I do think that those two don't even link up anymore, for most people.

And so what are they for you?
Oh God, beauty standards for me? To me there are just so many different standards. I definitely have standards. I live in a world and work in a world in which there are requirements, you know, as to who can make a picture, who can make a video, who can do this or who can do that, but it's always the exceptions who turn over the rules, so you never really know. It isn't just that beauty is internal. It isn't, because I think we have all sorts of visual triggers — they just might  not be the conventional triggers, you know? We are all that shallow, and we are all that deep.

What do you think are the most misconstrued notions about females in fashion?
I think that the most misconstrued notion about females who work in fashion is the myth of bitchiness. I don't think of it as a bitchy, catty industry. In the world I work, in the world of fashion, it's all out in the open. You know very well who's rocking the Céline, who looks good, and who doesn't, you know? It's clinical. Some people have the body for this and some people have the body for that. None of us are the models. It's fine. So, if you look at it that way, it puts aside all of that. You can set all of those stupid hierarchies to the side. It's just work … I think people think everyone's sitting around wondering about who wears what and who wears this. It's the opposite. Everyone is talking to each other about it.

They almost care less.
They care less because it's just work.

It becomes irrelevant.
Yeah. I think, in that sense, that's the biggest misconception. It's the biggest thing you have to get past: the bitchiness, the fact that people think that fashion people are bitchy and exclusive. They're not bitchy and exclusive. I think that a lot of women who work in fashion are conflicted because they don't want to be prescriptive in a negative way about beauty and style. They want to be prescriptive in a positive way … I think the hardest thing is balancing both the notion of complete sanity — that none of it really matters — and the parallel knowledge, which is that it's not that it matters, but [that] it's fun, interesting and gratifying… and why not?

And it makes you feel good.
And it makes you feel good! When I was at Vogue, I always said the purpose of fashion is that some little knowledge of fashion can make you smarter … because you can buy clothes with the confidence that you understand what works: what looks great on you, what it does and what it has to do. So, really, good fashion actually allows you to be smarter about the world. It allows you to not get trapped in the self-consciousness that drags you down and makes you sort of struggle with your clothes all day instead of struggling with your work. I think fashion people struggle with how to convey that and I think women generally struggle with that, because it's such a loaded thing for so many people … It's loaded from the time they're little and it's just hard to unload it for them.

What did your mother impress upon you while growing up?
My mother's two lines were that "money doesn't grow on trees" and "life isn't fair". Those were the two things she told me all the time growing up.

And you were like, "Thanks mum!"
I mean, my mother is anti-flourish. She doesn't, say, when cooking, make a dish and garnish it to make it look pretty. It's got to be rigorously made and there are techniques. You have to learn them, you have to master them, and you cook in a certain, thoughtful way. I'm very glad my mother impressed upon me how to cut on a straight grain versus cutting on a bias, and how to do a French seam and, like, the whole thing.

The French seam, man — that's a killer.
The French seam and the welt pocket, you know? Those are killers. But she really pushed the topstitching. You had to rip it out if you didn't do it straight. You had to start again.

She sounds strict.
She was strict because she really believed in home. She grew up in a time when Home Economics had a certain rigour to it — when you made a bed, you used hospital corners. I think it's really important. I actually think it's important because you can break all the rules when you're growing up, but when you don't have the rules…

How do you think your life has most notably changed since you became a mother?
I think it was really the end of self-indulgence. Obviously I may seem very self-indulgent to other people, but for myself, you really can't nurture a bad mood. You can't be depressed. You can't slump. You have to get out of bed. You can't really call in sick to your family. You really just can't. I mean, maybe some people have amazing husbands or amazing nannies … Fundamentally, every day, you have to be up and ready for it. That is a major wake-up call. It's literally the end of self-indulgence.

Do you miss self-indulgence?
Self-indulgence? Um, I have missed it at times, I would say … But without children, what would your life be, in a way? I knew that when my marriage ended. I really thought, "Oh, I don't get to collapse, because I had my children." Not only could I not collapse, I had to go to Vogue and the Times. I had to go. I had to go to work and I thought, "Actually, this is good. This keeps me going." Everyday, regardless of what I think of myself, I have to keep going. I think that's actually a healing thing. I think that's a good thing. 

Interview: Stevie Dance
Photography: Cass Bird
Make-up: REBECCA RESTREPO, Photographic Assistant: DIANE RUSSO, Retouching: 4C Imaging, Production: ART DEPARTMENT
Special thanks to Chuck at ColorOne for scanning.

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