fashion critic Milou van Rossum

Milou van Rossum is one of the most prominent fashion voices in the Netherlands. She is currently the fashion editor at NRC Handelsblad, one of the Netherlands’ top newspapers. Address contributor Megan Wray Schertler spoke to Milou van Rossum in the calm before the storm of the autumn/winter 2015 fashion month.

Milou van Rossum

Megan Wray Schertler: I’ve only lived in the Netherlands for just under a year and I can’t help but feel like there is more of a space for fashion here in the Netherlands. The fact that there are more museums and exhibitions devoted to fashion…

Milou van Rossum: I think the Dutch love to see fashion in the museum. Fashion exhibitions in the museums are most of the time very successful. They pull in lots of people. I think we love to see it as a form of applied art.

Megan Wray Schertler: Which is great. In terms of the number of exhibitions and the amount of space dedicated to it.

Milou van Rossum: Well, a lot of designers based here have been funded by the government. Not from an economic fund but from artists funds and subsidies. So we have a tradition of seeing fashion as an art. For instance, Viktor and Rolf, have been funded a great deal. But I think it also presents certain kinds of problems. You might receive money to develop yourself to work on an artistic viewpoint, so it’s perfect for museums, but making an actual product that you want to buy and wear, that’s still a little bit of a problem here.

Megan Wray Schertler: Other than on various social media platforms, like your Twitter account and on Instagram, there isn’t much information about you online. Where did your career in fashion start? When did the fashion bug grab you? Was it as a child?

Milou van Rossum: Yes, as a very young child. I think when I was 2 or 3 years old I started drawing clothes. I’ve always been interested in fashion and designing clothes for dolls and making my own magazines and things like that. But it was more drawing, sewing and knitting than writing. And I’ve always been making my own clothes. But then I went to university and for two years I studied law, then I applied to art school. And I got in. But I started to doubt whether I wanted to dedicate my life to fashion. So I switched to mass communications and also a course, a very practical course, in shoe making, to also do something with my hands. But that was a little bit hard. Because it’s not like making a jacket, it’s much tougher, with very sharp knives and big machines.

Megan Wray Schertler: There’s quite a lot to comprehend in designing a shoe.

Milou van Rossum: Well it wasn’t really design orientated. It was more physically doing it. I did it for only a year because, otherwise, I would have lost a finger, for sure. Anyways, so I studied these things and then I became interested in journalism so at one point I started to write. From an early point, I started to write about fashion because I was naturally interested in it. And also I was involved in nightlife. I was a bar tender at Roxy, a famous club in Amsterdam. There were a lot of fashion shows happening in nightlife then. I don’t know if it is happening now but at that time it was very new and exciting. So you had fashion shows in clubs, young designers presenting themselves. I started writing about everything I was seeing. I did a lot of other things as well. I was more of a cultural writer, so I did literature, television, sex, everything. And then I went to the daily newspaper de Volkskrant in 1999. There was a fashion writer already there but she left. And from that moment on I’ve been doing fashion more or less full time.

Megan Wray Schertler: In the beginning, was it on a freelance basis that you were writing?

Milou van Rossum: I was a freelancer for about 1 and a half years. And then I got a job. But at that point fashion was just a small part of what I was doing. It was a news weekly and there wasn’t room for fashion stories every week. I remember I did this story on the famous series by Corinne Day of Kate Moss that was one of my earliest subjects. And then, of course, there were the Dutch designers in the 90s, like Alexander van Slobbe who had started showing in Paris. It was a very exciting time. It was really the first time the Dutch had their own vision in fashion. And it got picked up internationally, which was very exciting.

Megan Wray Schertler: It sounds as if it was almost a little scene.

Milou van Rossum: It was, yeah.

Megan Wray Schertler: And was it based around a group of people or a particular university? What was the thing holding the vision together?

Milou van Rossum: Even in those days most of the designers came from Arnhem. You had this small movement in the late 80’s that was called GILL, there’s an exhibition on it now, at that point I wasn’t a fashion writer yet but I was very involved because they were my friends, or friend of friends. It was quite spectacular and different and it was a very intellectual view on fashion.

Megan Wray Schertler: It sounds really similar to things that were going on in New York at the time where it was very much based in the clubs and it was about progression rather than commercial aims.

Milou van Rossum: A good example was Marlies Dekkers, the underwear designer who at that time was very edgy and did shows in clubs.

Megan Wray Schertler: You were at the de Volkskrant for a long time and have only come to work at the NRC Handelsblad newspaper in the past couple of years…

Milou van Rossum: I’ve been here for 4 years. I was at de Volkskrant for almost 12 years.

Megan Wray Schertler: Something I find really fascinating in that particular chunk of fashion history is how everything has turned on its head, not just once but a couple of times. With various technological advancements changing production and also, obviously, digital culture changing how publishers approach print media. How did the culture change at de Volkskrant over your time with the paper?

Milou van Rossum: During my time at de Volkskrant, everything was still very focused on print, although I had a blog. Here at NRC Handelsblad, it’s a big topic. Everything I write is available online and we use Twitter a lot. I had to stop blogging temporarily, because we are working on a new payment model for our site, but I will start blogging again soon. For me, I think it’s a good to connect directly with readers. And you can use more photos and focus on details. It’s a lot of extra work, but I love it.

Megan Wray Schertler: How do you work, do you have a team?

Milou van Rossum: I have always worked with freelance fashion writers, but it’s never been a complete fashion team, like at The New York Times. Fashion is still a niche topic for Dutch newspapers. Only two newspapers and one weekly have a staff writer. Most of the fashion press here in Holland work freelance. Which of course says something about the status of fashion in Holland.

Megan Wray Schertler: In a way, does being a team of one allow you more flexibility?

Milou van Rossum: You have to make choices, because you can’t cover everything on your own. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. What I also like about it is that it allows me to do different things: reviews, interviews, obituaries, styling, producing fashion shoots; we also have two fashion magazines every year.   Within the newspaper, my competition is really only other disciplines of art. We have a lifestyle supplement and there, fashion is one of the main topics. But for covering things like fashion exhibitions I have to go to the art section. Normally, when you work at a newspaper you are stuck to your own pages: sport is in the sport sections, art in the art section. But fashion goes everywhere. It seeps into the art section, it’s the economy, it can be sport, it can be everywhere. So if there’s an important play, fashion has to compete with that. I write about the shows, the important exhibitions, but apart from that I can basically do whatever I want. I have a lot of freedom. Sometimes it’s quite lonely. Well, lonely is a big word, but to be the only fashion editor is quite tough. Because having a serious conversation about fashion isn’t easy. But on the other hand, there is always a reality check. You can do a lot of highbrow things but sometimes you have to prove to people that fashion is relevant.

Megan Wray Schertler: I think that’s something that keeps your work really fresh.

Milou van Rossum: Yes, I try to do a combination of very highbrow fashion and fashion as an art form. Sometimes it’s nice to do something that is very practical, like addressing the pantyhose problem. That’s the most basic level of fashion and people really like that. It’s always about looking for a balance. You have some designer brands that everybody loves. I think in Holland it’s Paul Smith and Dries Van Noten. They both have a strong following here, they sell well. But most people buy mid-level or low-level fashion and that kind of fashion is often an imitation of designer wear. Personally, I would never do something like, ‘this costs so much at Dries Van Noten but you can find it for this amount at…’. It’s a principle. If people want to buy an imitation they can look for it themselves. I don’t want to promote it. So it’s sometimes hard to connect and write about the brands that people actually wear here because there is so much copying. Also, most low- and mid-market brands are not design driven but marketing driven. If you write about them then it becomes a marketing story, which I don’t often find interesting.

Megan Wray Schertler: You are also a guest lecturer at the prestigious Dutch fashion school ArtEZ and you juried the Elle Style awards. So there seems to be an interest in development and mentorship as well.

Milou van Rossum: I love that. Especially if you’re writing about shows then you’re always having to be a critic. If you’re in a jury then you can just say whose best and then give them some money, which is lovely. It’s a nice way to encourage people and discover them.

Megan Wray Schertler: Who have been some of your favourite discoveries?

Milou van Rossum: I think Liselore Frowijn who won the Fans Molenaar Jury not last year but the year before that, she’s a great example. But you can also provide support in articles. It’s really nice to support people in that way. I have a feeling that if I write negatively it doesn’t have much effect. But if am really enthusiastic about someone, it can help. Especially if you work at a newspaper and don’t only write about advertisers. Nowadays, I wait a little longer to write about someone. Sometimes when someone just emerges and is very promising, you’ll write this big article, but there is no business behind them. Or they do one or two great collections and then that’s it. There’s a lot of hype in the Netherlands, especially with Amsterdam Fashion Week. There are lots of fashion shows but there’s no follow up. So it’s just a show. And the show is not the presentation of a buyable collection, there’s just a sample collection. It breaks your heart sometimes. Because all the energy, all the money, everything is in the show. And then after the show there’s nothing. A few photos in a magazine but that’s it. The link to the market is still very underdeveloped here in the Netherlands.

Megan Wray Schertler: Do you think the fashion show is the best platform for emerging designers? Sometimes I wonder about that.

Milou van Rossum: I think it’s still the best way to see fashion. If I haven’t seen a show, if I’ve just seen the video or only photos, I find it very hard to decide if a collection was actually any good. You can see what kind of dress there are, or you can see a trend maybe. But I think there is a big difference between the photos and the actual clothes. And seeing the clothes on models, moving, always makes more impact than a static presentation. But I think young designers should focus on their collections first, and maybe try to dress someone with a big Instagram-following, a much cheaper and easier way to promote a brand. And maybe even more effective. Nowadays, it seems to be all about Instagram. Even the nature of fashion shows is rapidly changing due to Instagram. The photos of a show are more important than the actual clothes. Prints and details are getting bigger and louder, and every fashion house seems to be staging these Instagram moments in their shows. Chanel is very good at that, with the supermarket and art gallery-decors. That makes more interesting pictures than just a model in a dress. And even if you actually buy the piece and wear it, how important is your actual physical being compared to your presence on social media? I think it’s quite scary, in a way. Where is the joy of wearing a really good piece, having something that lasts?

Megan Wray Schertler: What have been some of your favourite shows?

Milou van Rossum: Ever? Oh wow. I remember, I think it was early or mid 90’s, there was a couture shows by Christian Lacroix, it was one of the first couture shows I had ever seen. And it’s not that his style, his style is very Baroque, it’s not my personal taste, but it was so beautiful. Especially, I remember the combination of the colours, for example the colour of a glove compared to a hat. It was just amazing. But there have been so many. The shows of Margiela when he was still involved with the brand, the shows of Alexander McQueen, Dries Van Noten. The Atomic Bomb-show from Viktor & Rolf, in 1998. I think that was a breakthrough moment where you could really see, wow, this is going to be something. I must say, in the last couple of seasons, I am more impressed with men’s shows than women’s. I think they are more interesting. There’s more happening. Everything has been done for women, basically. And womenswear tends to be more and more commercial. But for men, there are still some boundaries to be crossed. Oh! I remember another one which I loved, there was this neon Jil Sander show, it was Raf Simons with Patrick Van Ommeslaeghe. Classic couture shapes in fluorescent polyester. That was fantastic! Sometimes you feel that something is going to be so influential. I liked it way better than what Raf Simons has done at Dior. I’ve been thinking about Dior, if you talk about fashion criticism, this is a very interesting example. If you talk to most people, what Raf Simons does at Dior doesn´t seem that much liked. Most people think it´s a bit stiff and forced, not sensual. Too intellectual, maybe, too distant. But seems to be a taboo to write that. To me, that really proves the power of the big houses.

Megan Wray Schertler: Would you say that fashion critics today, perhaps more than ever, have the responsibility to balance that power? As more seasons and fashion cities are added to the calendar, it seems as though word counts only continue to shrink. What are you hoping to achieve in a show review?

Milou van Rossum: Writing about the fashion weeks, for me, is the most difficult thing to do. There’s the question of what do you describe because it’s a one off thing? If you review a film or a book then you are describing something that people can also see for themselves. But this is a very exclusive thing. It’s like a piece of theatre, but only for this select audience to watch. To really pull people in this piece of theatre, you need at least 400 words for one show. I don’t have that much space. For a review, 550 words is a maximum in the newspaper, and I have to write about several shows in one review. I really have to chose carefully what I describe in a review, weigh every word, look for common ground between shows. Another thing: describing clothes. You can pick two or three key pieces to describe in an article but after the fifth people stop reading. Almost nothing takes me as much time and concentration as show reviews. I’ve been doing it for many years now, but it doesn’t get any easier.