Interview with Natasha Stagg

Originally printed in Issue 20
Interview by Tatum Dooley
Portrait by Jody Rogac

Natasha Stagg is a prophet. Before the term “influencer” was common parlance, there was her 2016 book, Surveys, which tracked the main character’s attempt to aesthetically brand her life. With the passing of time, we have come to see this narrative as an early prediction of our bizarre relationship to social media, and how our dependence on it has shaped individual identities and culture at large.

The impulse is now to look to Stagg for visions of the future. In her recently released collection, Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019, she delivers. Stagg is especially suited to make predictions on the trifecta in the title since she has a view of the media industry from both sides, seamlessly drifting from a cultural critic to high-end fashion copywriter, while resolutely never becoming fully engrained in either. Her status as an outsider with full access to the inner circles creates writing that is equal parts gossip and insightful critique.

Here we discuss the aftermath of publishing her second book, the cattiness of literary circles, and fast fashion—I also try to pry a few predictions from her.

Tatum Dooley: I’ve noticed in a lot of press with this book— because it is a book of essays and you are constant throughout all of the essays—that it seems like the object is the book and the subject is you. The book becomes a vessel for you…

Natasha Stagg: It’s hard to take ownership of that, because I don’t necessarily see it as this book about me, but of course it is, inherently, because some of the essays and stories are pretty personal. But I thought it was a book about my experience within a certain city during a certain time. They reflect on the city and my experience with becoming a writer during a time when a lot is changing for the world of writing and identity in general, personal branding and self- promotion and content creation and all that stuff. It is pulling writers in a lot of different directions.

I noticed on your Instagram that you share people’s pictures of the covers of your books. It feels to me that it’s something more than self- promotion. What is your interest in those images?

I don’t want to make anybody feel bad for doing that more earnestly, but I think when Surveys came out, I thought it was really funny that people were taking pictures of it. I just wasn’t super aware of that as a common thing that people do on Instagram. But it is, clearly. A lot of people take pictures of novels as a sort of still life. I guess it’s a combination of letting people know what you’re up to and also that you’re interested in reading.

It’s funny to me because I had written this novel about a woman who was going through all the emotions that come from becoming famous online and negotiating how much of oneself to share and aestheticizing your personal life and branding it. And then I started posting other people’s pictures of my book with a latte with that heart foam or, you know, the college dorm room, houseplants, or on the beach with a blanket that was the perfect colours. I just thought it was ironic.

In the book, Sleeveless, you have a chapter about working for a facial recognition app doing consulting. I wonder if that affected your relationship to Instagram?

I want to say yes, but I think the truth is that all of these things are so pervasive that I kind of forgot any relationship I ever had to working behind the scenes at a place like that. You know, once those things are offered to you and they actually match up with something that you’re interested in, they give you something that you didn’t know you wanted. You can be an intellectual and still want to use facial filters. I think that everybody is getting really good at finding something that somebody will want, even the people that have made themselves kind of immune to advertising in the past.

I find that augmented reality filters connect to this hysteria around Kim Kardashian or Kylie Jenner figures. There’s a notion that technology is encouraging young people to have cosmetic surgery.

The world of cosmetic surgery has evolved into producing avant-garde versions of people. There are examples of artists who have gotten plastic surgery to look weird and not necessarily traditionally beautiful and then there are people who identify as different beings or animals. I feel like the place we’re at now with cosmetic surgery is—it used to be so black and white, like, that’s for desperate people— but now it could be empowering. It could be called all these different things and it’s really hard to wrap your mind around it, especially when it’s coinciding with online self-identification. Your physical presence is less important sometimes, depending on who you are, than the one that you project online. I think it’s such a complicated thing to talk about.

In a few of your essays, you go back to this dichotomy of “outsider-insider”: you have inside access into fashion weeks or music festivals, but when you’re there you feel like an outsider. I was wondering if you feel the same way in the literary community—if you feel that sense of being somebody that publishes books, but not quite inside this community?

Oh, yeah, totally. I don’t know if it’s just, like, me and that’s the way I view myself with everything. It must be partially that, but I definitely have tried to ingratiate myself in literary New York. I’ve made some friends who are writers, but I’ve mostly felt like the literary community is the opposite of the fashion world and almost at odds with it. That’s how I feel when I’m trying to go to these exclusively literary things. It’s just so anti-fashion. I mean, there’s a style to that world too. Everybody has an aesthetic, but it’s really a lot of people saying things like “Oh, I don’t know anything about fashion, that’s not my thing, I’ve never thought about it…I just kind of buy clothes when I need to.” They represent my image of somebody who’s not interested in fashion, but I think that’s sort of a misconception.

There’s also an aesthetic that they’re buying into and it’s not my aesthetic at all. It’s sort of a cattier place. Ironically, I think literary circles are a little bit cattier than fashion circles, because they have the words for it. They’re better at having conversations and being gossips, and so they are.

What is your desire to publish books instead of magazine articles?

I think it’s kind of a selfish desire, a book is your own thing—it has your name on the cover, and a magazine is you contributing to someone else’s thing.

Roland Barthes wrote that fashion has no meaning and that the semiotics of fashion come from fashion copy and magazines. I wonder if you agree with that.

Yeah, I mean, I agree with everything I’ve ever read of Roland Barthes. He got fashion better than anybody. I just think it’s strange that no one’s done it better than him since, and people still have to quote him because he’s just the best.

Do you think that we’re moving towards a collapse of trends? I’m thinking about Extinction Rebellion and people choosing not to buy anything for a year.

That would be amazing. I feel like that would be so beneficial to everyone other than brands. But also there are ways for brands to participate in that kind of movement and some of them are. I hope so. I think it’s really crazy that we consume so much and that it’s not considered a really dangerous addiction. You know, it is an addiction. And it’s harmful to everyone.

How do you think that brands would participate in it?

I probably shouldn’t have so much of an opinion about it because I’m complicit, you know? I’m working for brands and writing about fashion and celebrating it in some way. It’s just unfortunate that clothing is an object that has to be created, whereas music and movies…all these things have to be created, but they’re not physical objects that then have to be recreated and packaged and delivered. Fashion involves so much physical duress on the environment and the other industries that are culture-creating just feed out content. There’s also something really harmful about accelerating one’s desires in those modes too. I don’t think it’s beneficial for anyone to get too caught up in consuming anything, whether it be social media or wanting to be involved so badly that they become self-destructive in some way. But I think, specifically, fashion has this responsibility to understand that it is their very nature to tell people to consume more and that what they’re telling people to consume is costing the environment greatly.

Read this article in print in our current issue, or read Natasha’s short story in our literary zine Total Pet Vol. 1, order here.