Fashion Criticism Gets an Independent New Voice

By
Katharine Zarrella.
Katharine Zarrella.Photo: Marc Kroop

Here’s one major sign that Katharine Zarrella doesn’t fit the mold of the stereotypical chilly fashion editor — she’s up for letting her employees crash with her. As she gears up for Fashion Week and the launch of her site, Fashion Unfiltered, Zarrella mentions offhandedly that she’s extended an invite to her Brooklyn-dwelling staffers to stay over at her apartment in case the weather gets hairy during Fashion Week.

Zarrella, a veteran of Style.com and V magazine, exudes that same friendly den-mom attitude in person, sipping an out-of-season iced tea at the Mercer Hotel while wearing a statement hat that I can only describe as what Morticia Addams might throw on in a rainstorm. (It’s black, shiny, and slightly peaked.) But she’s deadly serious about her editorial mission, and insists that Fashion Unfiltered, which launches on Friday, will be fiercely independent — a rarity in media today, let alone fashion media. While she won’t disclose her investors, she says that she has “support,” albeit not the infrastructure of a Condé Nast, Hearst, or Time Inc.: “We’re still doing it on a shoestring budget for sure.”

The name isn’t a reference to Instagram — it came from a joke among her college friends about Zarrella’s disdain for self-censorship — but it does fit the premise of an unvarnished look at the collections. The writers — who include Zarrella herself, and a farm team of fellow Style.com alums, including Ashley Simpson, Brittany Adams, and Amber Kallor — will be encouraged to say what they think. “If you look at any other industry, whether it’s finance or the art world or politics, those journalists don’t feel the need to censor themselves and say something to please someone else,” she says. “There needs to be a system of checks and balances.” By her account, Fashion Unfiltered won’t do takedowns for the sake of doing takedowns, but won’t be pulling punches, either. The goal is “not to tear down a designer,” she says, but to break down why a collection didn’t work or explain why the reviewer found it to be culturally offensive.

All well and good — but how will advertisers feel about that? “I’ve been really honest with my advertisers, saying, our editorial section cannot be bought,” she says, “and we love you all and really appreciate that you’re supporting us, but you have to understand that journalistic integrity is first and foremost for us.” (Zarrella and her rep would not reveal details about which advertisers the site is launching with, except to say there are two of them. She did tell me that the site would feature mono-brand ad pages and will be steering clear of pop-up ads.)

Outside of Fashion Month, the site will traffic in features aimed somewhere between the industry and consumer audiences — filling the market gap between publications like WWD or the Business of Fashion and the glossier fashion titles. Contributors will be filing stories from Mumbai, Paris, China, and London, among other locales. “There’s a particular reader who’s not being addressed,” says Zarrella, “who wants to sit for five minutes and read about ‘Are Runway Shows Still Relevant?’ or about why a trend is happening and how it links back to something that happened 20 years ago. I think there’s a reader who doesn’t necessarily want to click through a slideshow of Kim Kardashian.”

Despite the numerous staff ties to Style.com, Zarrella says readers shouldn’t expect a sequel. “We’re not trying to be the new Style.com,” she says, pointing to the fact that the site will do shoots and will have a bigger emphasis on visuals than that publication did. Also,“we have a bigger focus on longer-form stories than I think Style.com did,” she says. “And it’s a younger voice, too. Our team is super-young and I’m really proud of that.” It’s not lost on Zarrella, who’s still under 30, that she is one of the mystical millennials so many publishers are spending copious time and money trying to understand. And she happens to think the lowest-common-denominator approach is the wrong one. Her advice for the Media Olds? “Don’t just give them some ADD-inducing slideshow. Give them something to read that’s still fun and entertaining but makes them think for a minute,” she says. “Even if it is about fashion.”