Interviewing one of the people you admire most can be nerve-inducing. When said person’s previous occupation was to interview the likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Michael Fassbender and One Direction, your anxiety is only amplified. However, Jo Ellison is one of the kindest, warmest and most hilarious people who I’ve had the fortune to speak with.
Currently the Fashion Editor at the Financial Times, Jo is but the second individual to inhabit the role. The inaugural editor was Vanessa Friedman, who took over from Cathy Horyn and is now the Fashion Editor at the New York Times. Since taking to the FT but a year ago, Jo has surprised audiences with her historical and cultural viewpoint on fashion and has cultivated a trusted relationship with designers, buyers and those who care very little for fashion.
In two days, Jo Ellison is participating in a sold-out talk series at the Galway International Arts Festival and I’m incredibly honoured that she took time out of her holiday to speak with and inspire me.
How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?
As a person, I guess I’m quite loud and opinionated. I would like to think that I am quite a good laugh to be around and professionally, it would be pretty much the same but I’m quite controlling too. Let’s just say that I’m a control freak [laughs].
You began your career with the Irish Examiner and you’re returning to the west coast for the Galway International Arts Festival but what appeals to you about the Irish people and landscape?
I moved over to Cork to be with my boyfriend at the time, now my husband. I had just graduated and didn’t have a huge amount of career prospects in London. I found myself living in Cork in 1999 and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up going into the Irish Examiner for a subbing test, to see if I could do night shifts and from that, I got a job there. I think of Ireland as where I began my career and have always felt a genuine connection to the land because it was my first experience of working in a newspaper. Cork was such a friendly place and I know it sounds like a terrible cliché but I genuinely feel that Irish people are incredibly supportive and generous. There is none of the pettiness that I find amongst British people and particularly, in London. I find that there’s no bullshit in Ireland. I mean, there’s a lot of bullshit, you all bullshit a lot of the time [laughs] but you always find that there’s a certain straight-forwardness about people. I really love that!
What led you from a Masters in History to a career in journalism?
I think history is quite a good foundation for journalism. You are continuously working with first-hand evidence, scouring for factual information to support your theory or idea about something and you have to read around a subject to find the voices that contribute to creating the bigger picture. That’s exactly the same as what you are trying to achieve in journalism. You are continuously attempting to extrapolate information from someone or something and record it in a way that is true and interesting. The one element which history and journalism both have in common is that they are vehicles for story-telling.
Speaking of story-telling, when you were Features Editor at Vogue, you interviewed such a spectrum of people but was a there a unifying narrative linking each of these gargantuan personalities?
One of the things which I have noticed recently, which also has ties to the design world, is that many people who end up being incredibly successful in the field that they are in, all knew where they were going incredibly early on in their lives. Talking to designers who were sketching at the age of seven or eight and were wholly confident that it was what they were driven to do. Taylor Swift was writing songs from her very early childhood and was so passionate that she didn’t see any other career or future as an option. I think it’s that self-conviction that is the common thread between those people. Of course, you can find those who came upon their standing accidentally but I think behind any amount of great success is a phenomenal amount of hard work and drive. It’s pretty obvious, I guess, but it’s the one thing that I’m continuously reminded of whilst interviewing people.
It must be quite intimidating though, if you are only finding whatever makes you passionate in life quite a bit later on…
I think the important part of that is when you do decide on something, you must be incredibly tenacious about it. I didn’t find my feet in journalism until I was 25 but on that first day on the job, I knew it was something that I felt very passionate about. I knew I loved it. It felt as if everything had clicked into place and I realised that it was an environment I wanted to be and work in. It’s about confidence and not being dissuaded from the point which you are trying to get to. Of course, this means that you have to be quite annoying sometimes [laughs] and knock on doors more times than you want to.
Was that how the job at Vogue first came about [laughs]?
For Vogue, I wrote to the Editor approximately four times and she was a bit like, ‘Oh, for fuck sake.’ In my last email, I’m sure she was thinking, ‘Will this girl ever just piss off’. Thankfully, she interviewed me anyway and I got the job! There’s a fine line of making an irritation of yourself and being brave. You have to not be put off straight away.
Yes, my motto is to be politely resilient.
Yes, definitely! You have to be tenacious. Whether that’s about gaining an interview with someone who you really want to talk to or if you’re a designer and you’re trying to do something new – you have to just keep going. There’s a lot of doors in your face, particularly now in the current climate, but you have to go for it!
Speaking of going for it, when you were offered the Fashion Editor position at the Financial Times, what did you want to bring to the role?
I have always looked at fashion as an intrinsic and a broader part of the way we live. Working at the Features Desk at Vogue, the lens which I looked at fashion through was refracted through areas of culture, economics and the world we live in. Whether it was a woman who was a lawyer and looked to fashion as a tool for empowerment or an actress who viewed clothes as a way to identify with their character, it made me think about fashion and clothes as a way of life. Thus, what I wanted to bring to the pages of the Financial Times was that style is not just something which is happening on the catwalk, completely removed from our daily lives, but we all get up in the morning and we each cloth ourselves in a sort of armour for the day. I wanted to think about and write about style content from as broad a point of view as possible.
When you began at the Financial Times was there any friction due to their need to focus fashion solely within a business lens?
I was incredibly aware of what Vanessa (Friedman) had done there and it was quite overwhelming. I don’t come from a background whereby you view life through a business lens and that has been a definite learning curve. However, the more you look at fashion as a business and realise what is at stake and how much these companies are worth, you can’t help but become quite fascinated by the economics. I find it really interesting and it gives the domain a certain authority when you can quote that it is a $3.9billion industry. It’s worthy of large-scale interest.
It gives a rationale for it to be considered by the masses.
Exactly. This isn’t just silly frippery, it is a major industry that contributes enormously to the UK and European markets. It’s an asset that is intrinsic to many of our native industries. I think it’s a space that warrants proper attention.
One of most frustrating elements of having an interest in fashion is that others dismiss it in a way that they wouldn’t if my past-time was sport, music or theatre. How can we re-focus the conversation within a public arena?
It is quite easy to become over-excited about fashion and to rely on the hyperbole and amazement. There is a certain language of fashion that can be quite off-putting to other people. They think it’s a bit daft and it can be perceived to be a slightly frivolous subject by which the language which people discuss it. I think we need to elevate the conversation and remind people that it’s not just about a pair of stilettos but it’s about self-awareness, self-image and self-preservation. It is about creating roles for ourselves, especially amongst men. However, I think people are coming around to it more and more. I remember starting at Vogue and moving from newspaper, my previous colleagues thought that we wouldn’t have much in common anymore because I was writing about, in their words, ‘frocks’. That’s not my focus. For me, it’s more about sourcing an unknown or interesting perspective and being able to re-shape how we talk about clothes. That’s what will make it more accessible.
Earlier we discuss the idea that everyone has some connection to clothes and one of my favourite publications in recent history has been ‘Women in Clothes’. In particular, the quote ‘clothes are a conduit for sharing stories’ really stood out for me. What’s your favourite garment that has a story or an anecdote attached to it?
I interviewed the authors of ‘Women in Clothes’ and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I wonder what I would say if they asked me to contribute to the book and tell a story about the clothes in my wardrobe’. I didn’t have an answer then but there’s all sorts of things; the first handbag that you buy after your first job. I think that’s a big psychological purchase for someone because it’s a statement to say that you are a working person and you own a bag that reflects your status as this working person and you’ve bought it with your own pay cheque. I have a SportsMax bag which I bought when I was around 22 but I remember feeling that it was an important buy. The best stories for me, would probably be attached to a pair of jeans, though. I have a pair that are almost ten years old – they are more patched now than original jean but I love them being part of my life still. They have gone through so many holidays, my marriage, my pregnancy and I still wear them and hope to do so, forever and ever. In a way, they’re more special to me than an über coat or whatever it is that you buy that might cost a fortune but weirdly, you feel slightly less sentimental about. Not saying that I wouldn’t buy or take the über coat if it was offered to me [laughs]…
Of course! In terms of personifying garments, what made you choose the gown for your book, ‘Vogue: The Gowns’.
‘The Gowns’ was the first in a series of commissions by Vogue with upcoming releases denoting jewellery and the hat. The concept already existed and when talking to the publication houses, I admitted to them that I quite fancied undertaking the gowns as for me, it was an opportunity to look at the whole Vogue archive and engage with the photographers that have previously shot for Vogue and really look at it from a social-historical perspective. Also, the fact that it is a great big picture book and not a thesis really appealed to me too [laughs]. It was fun!
What did you want the talking point of the book to be?
For most people, especially women, the gown is a great big expression of fantasy by merely looking at a picture, you can imagine a wholly different realm at its most fully expressed. The gown has a certain magic about it – especially in Vogue where it has been created with the most dramatic, exciting landscapes, photographers, stylists, hair and make-up. It is the crucible of imagination and creation that is difficult to find anywhere else.
Especially when up until the 60s, for many photographers, this was the only way that they could make a living and Vogue was and are privy to these exceptionally artistic talents that in any other domain, such as sculpture or painting, they would be heralded as artists but because they were depicted as commercial photographers, there wasn’t the same artistic value placed upon them. But when you look back at these images, it’s impossible to describe the images as anything other than beautiful pieces of art. Thankfully, this dimension of work is increasingly attracting that worth and attention.
Yes, particularly if look at something like ‘Savage Beauty‘ at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Yes! Or the Mario Testino show at the National Portrait Gallery. People have an appetite whereby they love seeing beautiful things in similarly beautiful situations and landscapes. It’s not because they love the designer or that they have a brilliant fashion history knowledge, they just respond to something really beautiful.
Where has that appetite grown out of?
I think it’s always been there. As a kid, you read ‘Cinderella’ and there are three pages dedicated to her transformation of cinders to ball gown. Being transfixed by that fairy-tale moment is almost intrinsic to our cultural DNA. It’s ingrained in us and is such a huge trope in our cultural lives. It’s an image that we all recognise – it’s really accessible.
If you were to look back at your career, thus far – what have been the most invigorating and challenging moments?
What I love about journalism is that every day when you travel in to work, you’re working on or looking at a new story. You’re never re-producing the same thing – you’re learning from that and continuously swapping, changing and you’re full of research about another subject. You’re sort of this generalist in that you have an opportunity to deeply engage with something for quite a short amount of time and then you move on to do something else. I think it’s that incredibly variety that I find both a challenge and brilliantly invigorating. You are always learning which is really rare and a genuine privilege!
In the crafting of those stories, how do you position yourself?
I think it’s about making a story accessible to people who perhaps wouldn’t have known about it or even thought that they wanted to know about it. I try to give people a richer understanding of something which they probably already know a little bit about but hadn’t realised various underlying or linked elements also existed. I see myself as a story-teller and for me, the most flattering thing is when someone who has absolutely no interest in fashion says, ‘I love the piece that you wrote about such and such’, I think that’s great and genuinely feel that I’ve achieved something.
Is that what you would define as professional success?
I think so! Telling a great story and engaging new readers is most definitely an achievement and a definition of success.
Is it getting more difficult to tell that story with the acceleration of the internet?
The internet is the most useful tool in the world – I can’t imagine being a journalist without Google. Life must have been horrific [laughs]. I’m not talking about my work personally but with the internet, there is access to such an enormous amount of information and very few organisations and individuals can convert that resource into brilliant and engaging stories. You still need people who can edit, write and determine what the narrative is and I think it’s harder in that the levels of rigour need to be better – it has to be worth someone clicking on your piece of writing. I can’t imagine there not being an internet, or a facility to share your insights with the world or a way in which we can all be part of a huge conversation.
I’m undertaking a PhD at the moment and cannot even begin to comprehend how people conducted such intense research without the internet or computers. It baffles me!
Exactly [laughs]. My final question, what remains on your professional / personal bucket list for the next decade?
Oh God. I really enjoyed writing the book and I’ve always thought that I’d like to do a great biography or a non-fiction novel about a subject unrelated to fashion. I really enjoy having a bit more time, space and energy to give to one subject. Apart from that, I want to just keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve only been at the FT for a year and for me, it still feels quite early days. So, yes, I’d like to stay in my job and hopefully, keep everyone happy too [laughs].
Interview originally published July 23, 2015