Dear Shaded Viewers,
It is interesting how fashion people born in the 90’s and after seem to be totally fascinated by the 80’s. Lately I’ve been watching a few youtubers like Fashionroadman, for one, or TikTok’s ideservecouture and the author/editor, Michael Gross keeps popping up in the videos taken backstage at Paris Fashion Week. I thought it would be fun for you if we had a chat.
I met Michael Gross back in the 80’s in New York when I was a designer, and he wrote the Notes on Fashion column for the Style page of the New York Times. In the mid 90’s my sister sent me a hardback copy of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women (1995). She had no idea I knew the author but felt sure I would enjoy the book and I did. He’s written many books since then which include House of Outrageous Fortune, 740 Park, Rogues’ Gallery, Unreal Estate, My Generation and Focus: The Sexy, Secret, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers. The first three mentioned were New York Times bestsellers and, for obvious reasons, he is considered “a premier chronicler of the rich,” in the words of Gay Talese. His specialty is deconstructing the most privileged lives and revealing the reality behind carefully constructed images. I hadn’t seen Michael for decades and was delighted to be sitting between him and his wife, Barbara Hodes, at the home of our mutual friend Lyssa Horn. They are one of those lovely couples that have been together since the ‘80s.
While writing this article I could not help but see if I could find a review of one of my shows in the New York Times by Michael so here it is:
Downtown’s Diane Pernet offered one of the week’s most sophisticated collections, matching in style, if not in scope, lines by the likes of Bill Blass and Carolina Herrera.
Fabric is Miss Pernet’s forte, evidenced by the show’s stunning openers, a series of crisply cut suits, dresses and separates in cotton ottoman. Evening looks in lacquered silk, in a bubbled fabric that resembled Persian lamb and in an Italian crinkled jersey revealed Miss Pernet’s polish and wit. And she showed the season’s best coat so far, a hooded white linen duster that looked as if it had stepped right out of a dream.
Accents included bandeau tops, short gloves, keyhole necklines, sharp collars on soft trumpet-sleeved or tent-shaped blouses, and deep V-backs and necklines on 40’s starlet dresses, which also came strapless or cut like slips or overalls. Clingy yet giving, Miss Pernet’s silhouette is as subtle as it is strong.
Nov. 4, 1986
That was nice to read, but this is not about me. Let’s talk about Michael Gross, how it all started and work our way up to his books.
DP: What was life like for you growing up? Your father was a journalist and an author, is that what inspired you to become a writer?
MG: When I was ten, my family went to Washington D.C. and my father showed me the cards for his books in the card catalog at the Library of Congress (They still had a card catalog then) and somehow that translated to a form of immortality to me. His privileges as a sports columnist for the New York Post demonstrated that writers got access to worlds most people only saw from the stands. A few years later, I created several issues of a fake underground newspaper to get press passes to the Woodstock Festival. But I wasn’t terribly sophisticated. When I got home after three days sitting in the middle of the throng, a neighbor who’d worked for the promotors told me what I had was an All-Access Pass. I could have seen the whole show from backstage, but I didn’t know any better!
DP: I imagine the first published piece by you was about music.
MG: No, it was about a Richard Nixon campaign appearance for my High School newspaper Circa 1968.
DP: What made you transition from music to fashion and from fashion into taking a deep dive into the lifestyles of the wealthy and uncovering the unsavory actions used to achieve their goals?
MG: The short answer is that rock stars dated models, and that led to fashion and when covering fashion, I got to sit next to rich folks and royals at fashion shows, so in a way, it was a natural progression. But also, spending too long on any beat is dangerous. You begin to identify with the players rather than your readers, and you can’t help but repeat yourself, which I never wanted to do. Also, in the ’70s, rock music wasn’t the vital, fascinating subject it had been (Disco took over, and hair bands and corporate music, too. Punk was fascinating but didn’t really captivate me). Meantime, fashion was becoming the same sort of cultural force music had been when I was a teenager, it was also an attractive fun world to cover, and like Rock, it was based in image creation and contrivance, which I’d discovered to be a fascinating subject while covering stories like the breakdown of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, the Rolling Stones’ smearing of Canada’s First Lady Margaret Trudeau after Keith Richards was arrested at the Canadian Border, and the drug-fueled feuds that wreaked havoc on the Allman Brothers Band. So, the segue to fashion and wealth wasn’t as abrupt as perhaps it seemed.
DP: Did you grow up in a privileged background? I guess I’m asking if you are seeing it from the inside or the outside.
MG: Middle class suburban but privileged insofar as my father’s job let him (and through him, me) into worlds that were difficult for others of our socio-economic situation to enter.
DP: Have you had any threats on your life due to exposing some of the under belly of the wealthy and powerful?
MG: I’ve had threats of lawsuits. I’ve had my career damaged by powerful fashion brands such as the time one caused a job offer to be rescinded by threatening to pull advertising from a magazine, and after Rogues’ Gallery, I was asked if I wasn’t afraid to cross the street, but that’s the downside. The upside is getting to do interviews like this one.
DP: Can you give me some examples of the most intense situations you’ve encountered while researching and writing any of your many books?
MG: The most dramatic moments have several times made it into my books. One was the series of conversations with Ralph Lauren that caused him to change his mind about cooperating with me after he asked me to write his biography. That became the opening chapter of Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren. Similarly, my interactions with the executives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art became the raw material for both the opening chapter of Rogues’ Gallery, and later, an update first published in the paperback edition. That book made me persona non grata among a certain stratum of New York’s gratin. It was uncomfortable, but a decade later, I’m still standing and still doing my job. And those stories are in the Library of Congress!
What happened at the Met was in so many ways unintentional, I was coming off 740 Park and people were saying what are you going to do next? I think I told you I hate repeating myself, so I did not want to do another building. But publishers prefer your books to seem familiar and understandable, so I thought to myself, I don’t want to be the apartment building guy but what if I was the great institutions of American wealth guy? I made a list of them: churches, private clubs, the New York Public Library and number seven on the list was the Metropolitan Museum. I go to have a coffee with my editor, and I bring him my list and we are working our way down the list, and he gets to seven and he says that’s it, I’m writing a contract. As soon as the deal gets made, I call the head of publicity at the Met who is a 250,000$ corporate executive whom I know because I’ve been at the New York Times, I’ve been around these people all the time. He also happens to be an author who repeats himself, he is an Abraham Lincoln specialist, and he asks, “If we don’t cooperate, will you go away?”
(I just ordered the book which I suggest you do too so you can read both the prologue and the postscript and hear more about exactly how the negotiations went.)
In short Philippe de Montebello, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1977 to 2008 was not cooperating and retired just as the book was finished. Tom Hoving, the Director of the Met from 1967-1977, had left the Met on very bad terms and was cooperating. There was a funny incident when Michael went to the retirement exhibition for Philippe de Montebello, he was still somehow on their mailing list, and was followed around by P.R. staffers everywhere he went for at least 20 minutes, that is until Tom Hoving arrived, and they considered him a greater threat. Keep in mind the book had not come out yet. Let’s just say that the Met did everything in their power to get Random House to pulp the book. Some publicity interviews were cancelled but then a reporter found out and a story came out on how the book was being censored. And to this day the book is not available at the Met or many museum bookstores all around the country, banned, the author thinks, because it explains how the sausage is made.
DP: When you were researching for the fashion books: Models, the Ugly Business of Beautiful Women and Focus: The Secret, Sexy Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers, how open were people to you?
MG: Very in the first instance. Less so in the second. Model was my first serious non-fiction book, and the Modeling Industry had never been seriously covered, so people were eager to claim their place in the story. A few male agents later regretted that, but even they were still boastful about their behavior, at least until #METOO came along. For FOCUS, I was able to use a lot of material I’d gathered but then not used in MODEL, as well as reporting from a decade covering fashion. Luckily, I’m a packrat and kept everything. Some photographers–notably Terry Richardson, and after one brief conversation, Steven Meisel – declined to speak to me, but I was able to write about them anyway. Most of the folks I thought were important understood my aim and helped out.
DP: When you were interested in reporting on fashion, back in the days of the New York Times, what did you find most challenging? Entertaining? How do you see fashion in today’s world as opposed to back in the 80’s?
MG: Knowing nothing whatsoever about fashion was the most challenging thing. I was constantly depending on more experienced people to explain things to me. My wife still makes fun of me for not knowing what a dolman sleeve is. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t as interested in the dress as I was in who made it, who sold it, who wore it, and where it went. The entire milieu then was entertaining, and I knew enough to take full advantage of my backstage pass. That’s the difference between then and now. Back then, it was a little cottage industry on the verge of exploding, but it still embraced outsiders and oddness in a way it doesn’t anymore. I saw it becoming a corporatized branch of the infotainment industry, saw the rise of multi-brand giants, and thanks in part to Ralph Lauren, realized that the market for coverage of fashion that didn’t bend to the needs of the magazine ad sales was shrinking. I think I got out just in time, even if that meant I missed some awesome fashion shows.
DP: What was it like back then when you first started out as a fashion reporter? I was laughing when I saw you interviewed backstage and were talking about the word “interesting” and how that in fact is such an insult. It was about being new and going backstage at a Martine Sitbon show and how you were advised to find one interesting thing about a collection even if it is just a shoe. Basically, I’d love to hear a few of your super entertaining and gossipy stories.
MG: When I first started out, I came out of nowhere, the people that had been in that job for years and years had two reactions: one was to embrace me and the other was to hate me. I remember the first season at the shows. I was no one from nowhere and I sit in the front row. There were these middle-aged women that had spent their entire careers in the third row and I could literally feel them staring daggers into my back.
Carrie Donovan was the fashion editor of the Sunday Times Magazine and before I started at the daily newspaper, she immediately parachuted in and gave me an assignment and tried to co-opt me. The chief fashion critic Bernadine Morris came to realize that she would not be able to control me, and her reaction was sheer fury. She is in Milan, and they send me in a day early to write about new designers in Paris and when Bernadine arrives, she sees I have a full page in the Times, and she flies into a rage like I had somehow usurped her and that I was out of my place. She reduced me to tears; she was that vicious. Someone in the Paris Bureau just said she is an old bitch and is threatened by you, you should take this as a compliment, don’t worry about it. Carrie was different, she attempted to undermine me in all kinds of ways.
Another thing was that I would tell them about young designers and sort of put them on the spot like if you are not going to write about this, I will… I did that with Bernadine with Galliano. But Carrie and I were sitting together at the Martine Sitbon show and the previous season I had thought that Martine was one of the best shows in Paris and this show was so dour and uninspiring and I was worrying out loud at that point whether to go backstage afterwards and Carrie was saying “Oh darling just go backstage and pick one item and tell her that was divine.” I get backstage and Martine is looking at me with this expectant face and I was completely on the spot, and I lost my cool and I told her that the show was interesting. And her face fell, and I knew that I had committed a grievous error. It was the last time I went backstage when I had nothing good to say.
Those kinds of scenes were never the same but there were all sorts of weird encounters. The one that I should share with you was during the season when WWD did a hit job on Azzedine Alaïa, they hated him because he refused to play by the rules. I think it was 1987, WWD did an article that his clothes didn’t sell, and nobody cared, he was over. I had known Azzedine through my wife because one of her best friends was his first assistant through the early 80’s. So, I had met Azzedine before I’d even written about fashion. I always had a soft spot for Azzedine. So, there was a show that followed the publication of that WWD article and I go backstage and I’m the New York Times after all, so I said, “Do you have a comment on the WWD article?” Azzedine didn’t speak English and my French was completely incompetent at that point and Azzedine starts screaming in French and there was someone back stage from the Chambre Syndicale, Denise Dubois, and Azzedine is motor mouthing at me in French and almost spitting and people are supposed to be congratulating the designer not putting him on the spot and I’m looking at Denise Dubois and begging her to please translate and I think she gave me one out of ten sentences but it was enough to write a story. Here was an irresistible story and the Times ran it prominently. But what I remember was simultaneously feeling helpless and triumphant, like ‘Oh my God do I have a story and I’m missing ¾’s of it.’ It was years before I was forgiven by John Fairchild [the publisher and editor in chief of Women’s Wear Daily from 1960-1996] and Patrick McCarthy [the former Chairman and Editorial Director of Fairchild Fashion Group]. Actually, I don’t know if I was ever forgiven by Mr. Fairchild, but a mutual friend forged a peace between me and Patrick
DP: I did watch Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream inspired by your book 740 Park, did you work with Alex Gibney on that and if yes, what was your input? Have you been approached to turn any of your other books into films, documentary or fiction?
MG: Alex bought the rights and I gave him a long interview, which you’ve seen! Several of my other books have been optioned for movies and TV, but nothing has panned out so far. MODEL is currently in development as a limited TV series by Sony Pictures Television with Neil Meron producing.
DP: Have you written any screenplays, does that interest you at all?
MG: Thirty years ago, I co-wrote one screenplay, but then my journalism career took off and I never looked back. I’d never say no, but neither have I tried to write a screenplay. Make me an offer!
DP: Out of all the characters you have researched for your books, can you give maybe 5 examples of the most intriguing ones for the better or for the worse? I love your gossipy stories.
MG: Oh golly, that’s hard. In MODEL, I loved Dorian Leigh and her sister Suzy Parker, who baked cookies for me, Wilhelmina, who was already dead, but whose story was as sad as it was fascinating, Lauren Hutton, who was beyond funny, and Bitten Knudsen, who was as naughty as could be. I took Bitten to the premiere of Robert Altman’s Pret-A-Porter! In 740 PARK, I most loved the story of one apartment that sat above the one owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Its original owner was the lawyer for William Randolph Hearst. Clarence Shearn’s wife Dorothea was a total whack job, who drove Rockefeller crazy over the course of many years. In modern times in the building, Saul Steinberg, hands down. A fascinating rise and fall story. In ROGUES GALLERY I was obsessed with the story of Jane Englehard, mother of Annette De La Renta. I think of it as Casablanca as told by Edith Wharton. It’s the last 100 pages of that book and should really be a movie. And in FOCUS, I thought the most interesting characters were Bert Stern and Richard Avedon, both brilliant, both tortured, both with roller-coaster lives.
DP: Your approach is totally different of course from the 1980’s tv show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but I imagine people have always been obsessed by the wealthy and how they got to be where they are and if there are sordid stories even better. Of course, the tv show was just a glossy home visit and never went beyond the surface. In your deep dives into the wealthy society, who were your most fascinating characters?
MG: There are too many! Among the most famous: Calvin Klein, Tina Chow, Pamela Harriman, Richard Gere, Alec Baldwin, JFK Jr., Greta Garbo, Stephanie of Monaco.
DP: What is the book that you are currently working on? How long does it usually take for you to write a book and do you have a schedule like you get up in the morning and write for a few hours every day?
MG: The new book is the story of about a dozen colonial American families over 400 years. The title has yet to be finalized. Due to COVID, it’s taken a lot longer than most of my books. I spent the shortest time on MODEL, nine months of research, three months of writing. This one has taken four years!!!!
DP: What is your after thought about working in the fashion industry
MG: I had a great time, it was a lot of fun, I met a lot of amazing people some of whom remain friends. The people that remain friends are the people that get the joke. Whereas fashion absolutists…Put it this way, I remember that there was a moment when Gianni Versace’s PR people came after me, I had asked some questions about who might have shot Versace and in fact I was wrong, it was a serial killer. All I said was people in Milan were talking about Versace and organized crime. And they were asking questions about that, which was absolutely true. One of Versace’s publicists at, as it was then called, Keeble Cavaco and Duka, there was an item on page 6 that they must have promoted about how Michael Gross had slandered the memory of Gianni Versace and the comment that I remember from that is: Who is he, he doesn’t even get good seats at fashion shows. Which was so perfect an encapsulation about everything I’d come to hate about fashion.
I got out just as it was about to change. Years later when I wrote FOCUS, I was able to write a chapter on how and why it changed.
Just like rock and roll in the 60’s and 70’s it was a garish world full of fabulous characters and I love them, my bookshelves are still full of fashion books, my walls are full of fashion photographs, we still have lots of friends in the fashion industry, I don’t have a bad feeling about it, I just have a great nostalgia for what it used to be. The pictures on my walls are from the 30s through the 70s. That says something, I guess.
I say this all the time. I will be reading one of the rare fashion reviews in the Times. And I look up at Barbara and say I’m so glad that I don’t have to do this anymore. Once a season or once a year I go to a fashion show. I go just to remind myself why I left.