Back to Fashion at The New York Times’s Style Section

Stella Bugbee’s Style section has tacked towards the kind of runway coverage and clothing reviews that her predecessor Choire Sicha once eschewed

The definition of “style” has been a polarizing question ever since The New York Times introduced its Styles of the Times section, the brainchild of Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., shortly after he was named publisher in 1992. For one, the name of the new section, which was meant to cover fashion and youth culture from a lower Manhattan perspective (derided as “downtown aliterates” by some critics) was already in use within the newsroom to describe the staff who covered fashion, home, and lifestyle topics. They felt like the new section was at best confusing — ”We have to explain to people that we have a ‘style’ staff and a ‘Styles’ staff,” one writer told New York magazine’s Jeannette Walls — and at worst an insult to their work — “We felt we were being told we were too old and out of it.” In 2017, when Choire Sicha, formerly an editor of Gawker and a co-founder of The Awl, took the reins of the section — now called just Style, though “Styles” has stuck as a nickname, both inside and outside The Times — he brought an expansive definition of the term. “I have a hard time imagining anything beyond the purview of Styles,” he said in a Times reader Q&A. “We are interested in fashion in, like, 14 different ways, and our job is to help people get to whichever of those they care about.” But if Sicha’s version of the section was a “hotbed of experimentation,” as a note from Dean Baquet, Joe Kahn, and Sam Sifton put it when he stepped down last April, then the new Style, edited by Stella Bugbee, founding editor of New York’s The Cut, is markedly less experimental and more interested in fashion qua fashion. According to a recent job posting for the section, today’s Style section “is a mix of news and criticism across themes that range from what we wear to what we buy and how we socialize.”

When it debuted, Styles of the Times was dismissed by some of the paper’s traditional readers as “un-Timesian,” but Sulzberger made it clear that that was the point. At an Upper East Side party, the young publisher told one unhappy subscriber that if the section was alienating older white male readers, then it meant “we’re doing something right.” Deemed Sulzberger Jr.’s “baby,” the section was intended to draw in twentysomething readers who had not picked up the paper since they left their parents’ homes. Drawing on a slew of freelancers, Styles featured flashy, high-spirited stories about runway and street style trends, nightlife excursions, and celebrities in the worlds of art and fashion. “It seems that anyone who wears clothes is writing about fashion,” fashion reporter Woody Hochswender complained to New York. It was also Styles that a Seattle record store clerk would dupe into printing a list of fake grunge slang, like “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” for “hanging out” and “lamestain” for “uncool person.”

Styles has evolved on multiple occasions in the decades that followed, modulating between reaching out to an audience who wouldn’t otherwise read The Times and serving the lifestyle and fashion brands who would otherwise advertise in younger, hipper publications. These dual pulls sometimes meant that the section, while always casting a curious eye on the wealthy, young, and image-conscious, would become cognizant of its own status as a “section for and about the affluent,” as writer Jacqui Shine put it in her 2014 history of the section for The Awl. Under Stuart Emmrich, who edited the section from 2010 to 2017, one former writer who worked there told The Fine Print that the mandate was “making fashion coverage as accessible as possible. That was sort of his thesis.”

During his four years at the helm, Sicha was largely credited with importing Internet culture with a kind of wandering reporting that produced “self-aware” and “playful” features about the perils of fast fashion, a screwball holiday gift guide, and elaborately designed packages on Juneteenth and Y2K. To many readers, the new Style section under Bugbee has seemed nearly unrecognizable from its former iterations as it has begun to inch back to more focused coverage of New York tastemakers and goings-on in fashion. Style has also seen a host of departures after Sicha’s exit, including three high-ranking editors (one of whom, Joanna Nikas, joined Sicha at New York, where he is now an editor-at-large) and reporters like Caity Weaver and Taylor Lorenz have moved to new positions within The Times or left the paper entirely.

In September, during New York Fashion Week’s expanded in-person programming after a curtailed 2020 edition, Style responded with comprehensive, fashion magazine-type coverage: 6 days of fashion show round-ups and deep dives into the careers of designers and stylists, alongside the fashion critic Vanessa Friedman’s regular reviews of runway shows. In September 2019, the last pre-pandemic edition, Style’s Fashion Week coverage was noticeably more sparse. Beyond a few party reports, runway slideshows, and Friedman’s reviews, only a handful of pieces were given over to New York City’s premier fashion event, and these were somewhat eclipsed by articles that questioned the industry gathering’s underpinnings and traditions. One trend piece detailed the rise of YouTube as a Fashion Week platform (over glossy magazines), and another asked if the celebrity editor was becoming “extinct” in the age of Instagram influencers.

A willingness to examine cultural and, well, style conventions through the lenses of class, gender, and sexuality was a recurring theme of Sicha’s Style section, with arch headlines like “Why Don’t The Rich Just Stop Working?” or “Wait — What Is ‘America’ Anyway?” Columns like The Cycle, The Look, and From Hereoffered meditations on topics ranging from wellness and body positivity to cultural inclusivity. Sicha also emphasized visual storytelling as opportunities for collaborations between photographers and journalists. Shepherded by visual editor Tracy Ma, who also departed in 2021 and has since worked on projects for Frank Ocean, the results were zany, outré projects with little relevance to fashion or New York, like a contest to determine “the new American celebrity” and an interactive FAQ about the British royal wedding. That emphasis on developing new and unusual forms of interactive content seems to have become less of a priority: As of late last year, The Times’ Digital Design team was still searching for a new visual editor for Style, citing Ma’s work as examples.

“I was so nervous about joining the New York Times because I was like, is this place going to get me? I’m a weird Internet person,” said Lorenz, who joined Style in August 2019 after reporting on technology and culture for The Atlantic. “But when I interviewed with Choire, I thought, okay, he gets it. I thought it was the perfect home for me because it was so creative.” Lorenz said she had assumed that The Times prioritized its print product, but joining Styles—which she described as “super digital”—upended those expectations.

In the absence of complicated graphic design work and dedicated columns for cultural commentary, the fashion vertical appears to be the most lively and frequently updated Styles vertical, even after last month’s New York Fashion Week concluded. Recent, prominently featured stories have concentrated on the cultural scene in New York, including a favorable report on The Drift, a piece on a Midtown bar with celebrity investors, and a profile of the cult magazine store Casa Magazines. None of these topics would have been off the table during Sicha’s tenure, but as Lorenz noted, Styles coverage often didn’t seem very New York-driven—dealing instead with online communities (as in Lorenz’s own pieces about TikTok users and creators) and the free-floating world of ideas and trends (as in a 2019 piece about the popularity of the term “adjacent”).

After graduating from Parsons, Bugbee got her start in advertising before pursuing a media career. But in 2012, when she was named the editor of The Cut, initially a fashion and women’s lifestyle blog, she began overseeing extensive fashion coverage before the vertical was given a more expansive remit of “style, self, culture, and power” in 2017. “I was always fascinated with…the way in which fashion and power overlap, and the way in which fashion and self-expression overlap,” Bugbee said in an interview at the time. Though these themes are apparent in some Styles pieces that have run since she took over—including reports on gender fluidity and protests in the fashion world—the target readership for Styles seems to have narrowed, returning to a version of its original audience in the ‘90s: the fashion-savvy who can afford to live in lower Manhattan.

“Since the Styles section first debuted in 1992, its mission has been to cover the world of fashion—its people and its players—vibrantly and with urgency,” said a Times spokesperson. “That mission remains unchanged. Stella and her team continue to enhance our coverage of fashion that elevates the section in so many ways.”

Styles turns thirty this year, which makes it one of the younger sections in The Times. In some ways, little has changed in that time: The Times, now more concerned with digital subscriptions than newsstand sales, is still struggling with how its overpowering legacy can limit it in attracting a broader audience and competing with popular sites like The Cut for younger readers and the advertising that follows them. Amid the staffing turbulence of the last year, Styles appears to have moved backward instead of forward—gaining some focus but also losing some of its strangeness and complexity in the process.