Critical Fashion with Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Jezebel’s Culture Editor On All Things Style (And Some Things Miuccia Prada and Marilyn Manson)
- Interview: Haley Mlotek
- Photography: Tiffany Dawn Nicholson
- Hair and Makeup: Rachael Ghorbani for MAC Cosmetics
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd has been building a personal archive of fashion her whole life, even before she knew that’s what she was doing. The more she looked at musicians and the way their fans dressed, the more she realized they were inseparable: an artist’s look showed just as much about their past and their future, their intentions and inspirations, as their music did.
Since then, she’s become the kind of critic who writes with a clear eye and a steady hand, about how music and all forms of art rely on clothing, fashion, and style to communicate ideas. Until 2010, she was the executive editor of The FADER — where she was the editor behind Nicki Minaj’s first magazine cover —and before that had staff positions at VIBE, MTV, and The Portland Mercury. In her time as a freelance writer, she’s had bylines in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, Interview, The Cut, The Guardian, VIBE, Rookie, and XXL. In her current role as Culture Editor of Jezebel, she writes about her genuine love of fashion alongside the politics of an industry running at an increasingly frenetic pace.
On a recent weekday night I visited Julianne at her apartment in Brooklyn, where we sorted through her collection of favorite clothing: caftans mostly, because her preferred style of dress, she says, is “disaffected art gallerist circa 1998.” But there’s also, she points out, her “sweatpants in the club” phase, which she references when she wants to try out a late nineties raver aesthetic: same decade, different subculture. Lately, she says she’s been dressing the way she always wanted to — always thinking about the hows and whys of getting dressed.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
There’s so much intention that goes into crafting a stage persona, but sometimes the way people present themselves can reveal something unconscious, or perhaps unintentionally reflective. Is that what you’re looking for when you look at a musician’s style?
There was always such a visual element to the musicians that I had covered, but I realized I had a real love for it when I was able to analyze it deeper. A love of figuring out how music culture happens, how “culture-culture” happens. Specifically, how underground culture happens, and what it reflects about us at that moment. The organic evolution of style and fashion — like this moment that we’re having, with the proletarian on the runway — in particular.
I mean, I think there’s always an intent connected to the subconscious. One good example is Marilyn Manson. I’m sort of always obsessed with how he dresses. He is so specific in his persona, but it’s so much about his psyche—that nerd kid who was alienated, and this retort to his bullies by being as outrageous and aggressive as possible. I remember seeing him live and he was shirtless, wearing black leather pants, and he had drawn or outlined his ribs to make him look more gaunt. It was like, heroin chic contouring.
I think I saw an interview with him where he said that he regrets some of his aesthetics, specifically because of the way they were so misinterpreted after the shooting at Columbine. Which is so fascinating because those aesthetics were deeply intentional, but it was given a meaning or a value that existed outside of his intentions.
Right, yeah, because it was his reaction to bullying, and then it was that Satanic panic. And also, from Marilyn Manson…he’s cheesy. He’s like, legit, not the cool guy. He’s a corny ass guy! But I lived in Wyoming at the time, so I really understood the sort of aesthetics and what people were doing in Colorado. How people dressed, and how people defined their subcultures, which was less fuzzy than it is now because it was just: tribes, tribes, tribes. They took this aesthetic and integrated it into their own sense of alienation. I understand how he would regret it, but you don’t have control over how people interpret your message. Which, I guess, is the point of criticism. And why artists get mad at critics. Or “haters.”
I’m thinking of one specific thing I did for Spin in 2012 that was a cheeky look at the hottest trends in fashion at the time. One was “Tumblr chic” and it was very like, “Azealia Banks doing her mermaid/seapunk situation.” Taking this fantastical notion of who she was — with her pre-unicorn and pre-mermaid beauty thing — was also a way of delineating herself from a kind of cage, or just the expectations that come from women rappers. Missy Elliott did it too: being weird to avoid being pigeonholed. It’s also a way of navigating race.
“Marilyn Manson…he’s cheesy. He’s like, legit, not the cool guy. He’s a corny ass guy!”
There’s a kind of safety in extremes. It’s not about being the most natural or realistic, it’s about being the most yourself.
For sure. [Elliot] had stylists at the time, and this makes me think of Aaliyah, because they’re so connected. This was before celebrities, but especially before musicians, were really deep into the stylist game. And they had stylists who were from their communities, and knew their aesthetics, like futurism. I remember talking to Kidada Jones when The FADER did our Aaliyah icon issue, and talking about how Aaliyah thought of clothes in terms of a goth aesthetic as interpreted through futurism. There’s so much afro-futurism, but also like, expanding your idea of what you can be through a fucking shiny disco suit. The idea of flossing—that’s always been part of the visual vernacular for black entertainers; being as flashy as you can be. I think that’s spiritual, and really fucking real.
Recently I was looking at Alexander McQueen collections, or older Commes des Garçons runway shows, and wondering how I would have responded if I had seen them in the moment they were made…Do you find yourself holding on to your initial reactions, or does your thinking evolve?
Both. I gained a lot more appreciation for designers by learning more about their craft. I first became interested in fashion in 2004, when The New Yorker published Judith Thurman’s profile of Miuccia Prada, which is like…
One of the best.
One of the best! That was the first thing that made me think that my read on [fashion] was wrong. When I first came to writing about fashion, I was very instinctive and visual, very like, “what’s the larger thing that it’s trying to say?” And not everyone has a larger thing that they want to say, or if they do, maybe they’re not getting it across like they think they are. With Alexander McQueen, or with Commes des Garçons, I would have appreciated what they were doing. The perspective is different, but I also think that he’s been reified in a way that…that’s what happens to artists in death. Either that, or they’re women who disappear from the historical archives.
Yeah. I definitely understand when people point out that we give someone in death a lot more reverence than we do in life; it’s easier, in death, to reify someone, like you said. At the same time, I’m also like, uh, yeah, if there’s one thing that can change the living, it’s death. Not even in a good or bad way, exactly, just a perceptible shift in the greater culture.
He was so ahead of his time. Maybe he’s easier to understand now because there’s perspective and because we’ve plunged even deeper into the hellscape he envisioned. My fear is that I won’t have the historical background to know that this means this, and then being like, “Oh god, I’m a freaking idiot because I thought this is actually really something.” I’m such an idiot for thinking that the Prada Spring/Summer 2018 collection referenced rude boy. But I really think it did! I don’t know!
Well, I don’t know if Prada was literally referencing rude boy, but if that’s the cultural reference you’re picking up on based on your reading, that’s valid! You’re not making a statement on her behalf.
Right. And my reading is way more about music history, or the connection between music and fashion history. I liked that collection! [Miuccia Prada’s] so good.
Fashion’s favorite communist.
I know, right?
Our only communist, maybe?
Maybe…our only feminist?
Oh my god, that’s so —
— I mean, let’s get real.
So what changed when you read that profile of Miuccia Prada in 2004? Did it change a preconception you had about the brand or her work?
No, it wasn’t the preconception of Prada, it was the entire preconception of the business and industry of fashion. Even the notion of a fashion designer being an artist. I thought about it primarily in terms of the capitalist constructs. I had also been living in Portland, Oregon, and had just moved to New York in 2004. Portland in the early 2000s was incredibly anti-capitalist. I had been living in a punk house, and before that I grew up in Wyoming, I moved to Springfield, Missouri, and then Worcester, Massachusetts before Portland. And Portland has rich people, but they’re not wearing Prada on the streets. A friend of mine gave me some secondhand Prada Mary Janes, and I was wearing them and learning simultaneously about her philosophical approach, and seeing her beautiful work, and I was like, why am I cutting myself off from this whole thing? It was such a binary way of thinking. So much of it had to do with upbringing. It took me a really long time to feel comfortable making large purchases. And I still don’t, because of weird class anxiety, and seeing my mom work a million jobs. I didn’t grow up without—I had everything I needed—but you just train yourself to think that certain things are outside your means.
How do you manage to renew your interest or your attention every time another fashion week comes around?
I try not to go to shows. Which is hard, and also counterintuitive. When you see a piece of clothing move, it’s totally different than a photo. I also have the advantage of not having to be at every single show. I write what I want. I also troll through Getty. A lot of really interesting shit doesn’t make it to the bigger websites, and I’m really interested in like, Turkish Fashion Week. Tokyo Fashion Week is the best, and so is London Fashion Week.
When you were growing up in Wyoming, were you drawn to fashion in other ways, maybe even not consciously? Were you thinking about the ways clothing can tell a story?
I was really into Madonna. I was definitely emulating her, but it didn’t feel to me, then, like it was a fashion choice. It was fully fashion. This is going to date me, but I have a photo of myself on the first day of fifth grade and I’m wearing light pink stirrup tights, silver ballet shoes, and a shiny, darker, iridescent pink miniskirt. And then a pink polo and a big Madonna bow. And I’m in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the 1980s. I looked insane. But I was like, yes, this is the coolest outfit.
Do you think it was easier to see it just as a package deal? Like, if I want to associate with this tribe or this culture, this is just what I dress like?
Kind of. I think I was also making very specific choices. I didn’t really have the access. I remember being obsessed with X-Girl when it came out, but where do you get X-Girl in Cheyenne, Wyoming?
My mom ran a flower shop with my tía for a long time, and then they closed it and she started selling custom jewelry, so they got a wholesaler’s license. We would go to this huge wholesaler’s place in Denver, and get supplies, and there would be little vendors that had things I didn’t recognize as fashion, but I just thought were cool. When I hit my teen years, I wanted to wear vintage — thrifting — and my mother didn’t like that. She grew up having to shop at Salvation Army, in a very poor family with a shit ton of brothers and sisters so she was like, “you can afford new clothes.” And I’m like, “No, I want to look like Courtney Love.” She was mostly cool about it. She’s not really into fashion, but we had subscriptions to everything. We were fully a magazine household. I obviously read Sassy, before that was Teen and Seventeen, Thrasher, whatever. ELLE, Mirabella, occasionally we would have a Vogue around.
Sassy was the first place I started noticing bylines. Because they made themselves part of the story, and they demystified the process. Like, here’s how we found Chloë Sevigny, she was on the street and she became our intern. Obviously it’s much deeper than that, but you could see that they were young women making a magazine and telling you how to do it. I started making zines because of them.
“I didn’t grow up without—I had everything I needed—but you just train yourself to think that certain things are outside your means.”
What about today? Who are the fashion writers that you really trust?
Robin Givhan, obviously, and Cathy Horyn. I really miss Cintra Wilson’s fashion criticism. Early Dis magazine fashion criticism was the best, particularly Solomon Chase. They spoofed the industry while also being the smartest people about it. That had a huge influence on me.
Who do you write about fashion for? Like, when you picture your reader, who is she?
She’s a dilettante who is really into Cirque du Soleil. [Laughs] No, I think it’s people who are interested in looking past the surface of it, and understanding that we’re all part of the ruse, and so why not have fun with it, and peel it back a little bit? I’m going to quote Ru Paul: “We’re all born naked, the rest is drag.” I love being able to write about Drag Race from a fashion perspective, because fashion needs more hot glue. That’s who I write for. People who are interested in tribes, and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Haley Mlotek is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, n+1, and The Ringer, among others.
- Interview: Haley Mlotek
- Photography: Tiffany Dawn Nicholson
- Hair and Makeup: Rachael Ghorbani for MAC Cosmetics