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Harriet Mays Powell is fashion director at New York Magazine and a former editor at Tatler. Her work has also appeared in Glamour and Elle magazines.

Harriet Mays Powell on enjoying fashion and the increasing accessibility of high-end design.

Question: What is fashion’s role in society and how has it changed?

Mays Powell: I think fashion has reached a kind of critical mass, literally, the mass. Good taste is no longer a privilege. Like in home design, you can get fantastic looking things for your home and for you to wear, and you don’t have to pay a premium for that. So I think that that’s great. That great design, great fashion, is it all price points now. So I think it’s reached all levels of society so there’s a kind of egalitarian idea that fashion is no longer for the privileged few, which resonates in my democratic ear with a nice ring to it.

I think that fashion is big business. Let’s not kid ourselves, when you open up fashion magazines and see the amount of advertising and the amount of money that’s put in there. Women buy clothes and continue to buy clothes. And men are getting very involved. Much more on the men side of fashion is growing at a large rate as well. The cosmetics business, all of that, a part of beauty, which is an extension of fashion in a way and how you look and how you are.

Health, in the way we exercise. All of that has to do with our perceptions of who we are, a slight cult of youthfulness and wanting to stay young. I think that has made fashion become an even larger and more important role. ‘Cause if we dress like old ladies, we’re going to feel and look like old ladies. So keeping young, keeping fit, and looking beautiful, looking young, staying young, keeping current with what’s going on and the trends, those are all a part of a kind of cultural shift and change were, you know, 40 is the new 50, 50 is the new 60, whatever.

Everyone’s living a lot longer, living a lot healthier, and everyone’s allowed to, I think, tap into dressing in a way that they never wear before. And the options are huge so you don’t just have to have a Chanel suit, you can do it in anyway you want to. So, I think, fashion has become fun. It’s become accessible. And it means that good taste, everyone can have it.


Question: How do designers feel about the increasing accessibility of fashion?

Mays Powell: I think some of them are probably a little arrogant and snotty about it, would love to see it on a 5 foot 11, skinny, beautiful model. But I can’t help but think of Karl Lagerfeld who’s so smart in… and his, again, reinvention of what Coco Chanel did in liberating women from corsetry and giving them a lose shape jacket and sweaters and all sorts of things that we take for granted now that women never wore before she came along to kind of liberate us from the corset of the 19th century. I admire Karl Lagerfeld’s ability to continually reinvent that wheel.

And I think one of his great successes is that he accepts the modern, if it’s going to be a Jersey girl with a really expensive hat and bag, fantastic. You know, if it’s a Russian [IB] wife who’s got gazillion rubles and she can spend it on a slightly gaudy taste, why not. If it’s the women of oil barons that can now dictate and pay for a couture, [IB]. I think to say no to that is folly, you can’t change the future. I think, his philosophies always been and to his great credit, embrace what’s new. Find out what’s interesting about it.

Take from that, learn from that. Keep your ears open. Watch what’s going on. And don’t be too arrogant or complacent about it. I think designers have to keep their ear. You know, everyone gets tired and complacent in things that… what they do, you know, they lose step with what’s going on. And, I think, he would be someone that one could channel to really appreciate, no matter who’s wearing it. Listen, they’re a customer, they’re buying it. You know, you’re making clothes. You’re not reinventing the cure for life, you’re making clothing. So whoever can wear it, does wear it… gosh, how lucky and fortunate are you that someone wants to buy what you’ve designed or made.


Recorded on: September 16, 2008