INTERVIEW: Malaika Crawford

Interview by Brynn Wallner, photos by Cobey Arner 
November 2022 
        Malaika Crawford and I met this past January on set as “talent” for a video with HODINKEE, where she now works as Style Editor. At the time, she was the watches and jewelry editor at Highsnobiety; and we were put in this room together – mic’d up, hair and makeup done, on a couch in front of bright lights and cameras – to discuss our personal understandings of success. Despite the fact that Malaika’s multi-faceted expertise lay behind the scenes (as an editor, as well as a writer and stylist), she was a natural on camera, warming up the set with contagious bursts of laughter and whip-smart wit delivered in a posh British accent. When the day concluded and we said our goodbyes and the obligatory, very New York “we should get drinks sometime!” I selfishly prayed that we’d actually stick to it. In Malaika I recognized a kindred spirit and a promise of solace from the warped watch world, which can sometimes feel very isolating. Now, less than a year later, her insight and sense of humor has proved absolutely essential to my place here, and I feel grateful to have a rock to hold onto as we’re both pulled by the strong, swift undercurrent of this industry.

BRYNN WALLNER: Have you always been into watches?

MALAIKA CRAWFORD: I touched the surface of the interest when my granny gave me a Cartier Tank for my 18th birthday. That was the beginning of the real watch collection, I suppose, but… you know how a lot of people talk about their first Swatch or Casio? I remember I had a little black and purple Casio, but I don’t have fond memories of my childhood watch.

BW: So at 18 you got the Tank. Did you wear it all the time?

MC: No. I remember not really understanding it. Where I grew up, it was a big thing for people to get a watch on their 18th birthdays. And a lot of people did get Cartiers, but I remember wanting a Rolex, thinking the Tank was a bit of a granny watch…

BW: Well, you did get it from your granny. But she’s fab, right?

MC: She’s fab. I do remember visiting my dad in New York, wearing the Tank with a scrunchie over it. That’s such 18-year old girl behavior, isn’t it?

BW: So how did you eventually develop something deeper for watches?

MC: The deep dive interest didn’t start until much later. In 2014, I moved to New York and was wearing my mum’s Datejust that I still wear today. Then in 2016, the real watch fetish began when I started working for Mel Ottenberg, who used to style for Rihanna. I started to get way more into jewelry and watches just by nature of being a stylist’s assistant for a celebrity. I was constantly pulling jewelry, and Rihanna really liked watches. Then she got a deal with Chopard, so it was watches, watches, watches. I started to think, hang on a sec. This is pretty cool. She was really into it, but for me, it was more surface-level because I didn’t have the knowledge I do today. I remember she was given a double-wrap yellow gold Panthère. I knew it was amazing, and I knew that I loved it, but it wasn’t like, oh, the Panthère is cool because it’s from this Cartier line. I just loved it for aesthetic reasons. I also pulled little diamond watches from Jacob & Co., vintage watches from this place Kentshire at Bergdorf’s. I pulled from everywhere and built up my familiarity within the space.

BW: Did you notice watches being styled elsewhere?

MC: So many magazines have watch brand advertisers, so you have to pull watches. Even if you’re not into them. Look at most fashion editorials: someone is wearing a watch despite what the stylist wants.

BW: There’s some arm wringing.

MC: Yeah, you have to know this about magazines. People don’t realize that fashion shoots are not always organic. You have to hit the credits, which is limiting, but if you’re a good stylist, you work around it.

BW: It feels like that’s changing now, though – it’s less forced. Or maybe that’s only how I perceive it.

MC: I do have to remind myself that people like you and I are so deep in it. We know it’s cool. Maybe some of our friends think it’s cool. But for die-hard fashion people… maybe not so much. They’ll appreciate a Tank or something that says Rolex on it.

BW: Are there any fashion publications doing it right?

MC: M Le magazine du Monde does beautiful, quite creative shoots with watches. Carlijn Jacobs and Charlotte Collett did a really great M Le Monde editorial that I reference a lot.

BW: So, how long did you work for Mel?

MC: Bloody hell. Four years. Which is a long time to be someone’s first assistant.

BW: Like dog years.

MC: Honestly, it was some of the best times of my life and some of the worst. [laughs] A lot of not sleeping for days at a time and traveling all over and carrying twenty bags to the airport and losing dresses at the Sunset Tower Hotel and people screaming and flying across the country to find shoes… People have no idea what goes on behind the scenes. Not in a bad way. It’s just like that for all big celebrities. Rihanna is one of the most famous people in the world. There’s a lot that goes on for someone like that when it comes to styling a wardrobe. On tour, especially. Working the Anti tour was one of the more taxing things I had ever done in my life.

BW: When everyone else was just enjoying the music…

MC: To this day, I’m triggered when songs from that album come on. I do have fond memories, obviously. Come on. I was young, I hadn't been in New York for that long, and all of a sudden I’m in a room with Drake, Rihanna and Naomi Campbell. Woah. But then it just became part of my everyday lifestyle.

BW: Not phased.

MC: Well, you can't be. You gotta be a professional and do your job.

BW: After that, what did you do?

MC: Mel became the Creative Director of Interview Magazine, so I started working as a contributing Fashion Editor there. That was 2018. I started styling a lot of stuff for Interview and built a portfolio working with credible photographers. Mel gave me the gift of building a portfolio while working for him. That is very rare, and I’ll always be super grateful for that. He’s very sweet and he’s still paying attention to what I’m doing now. He actually called me a “watch girl” the other day on the phone.

BW: How did that feel?

MC: Honestly, strange. To hear someone from that world – so far removed from the watch world – felt funny. I was like, okay, this is what people think I am now.

BW: I’ve been with you, witnessing how people are like… what’s up with you and watches?

MC: What’s interesting is that when I posted recently about my HODINKEE job, a lot of my friends didn’t know what it was. They were like, what is she talking about? But I did notice that a lot of straight guys or my boyfriend’s friends knew… because men do be out here paying attention to watches. It unfortunately is gendered. But, you know, we’re here. You and I and quite a few other gals.

BW: When did you start at Highsnobiety?

MC: I finished working for Mel, became freelance, started doing jobs on my own and then COVID happened. And anybody who was a freelance creative working on photoshoots was freaking out, thinking they’d never work again. Like, should I teach English as a foreign language? What do I do? [laughs] But obviously things returned a bit to how they were before. I started styling again and began working at Highsnobiety as a watch and jewelry person toward the end of 2020. I kind of veered off into more fashion projects, but then came back to the watch stuff and went ham on that starting in 2022.

BW: You went ham, meaning you started really learning about them?

MC: I was learning quite a bit about them before then, on my own time. But when I say I went “ham”, I mean that I committed to the space. It wasn’t just the occasional watch shoot, but I was creating a watch category for the website and the magazine.

BW: You did some great work there.

MC: I only have fond memories, and the truth is that I cannot even describe the feeling of being sad to let go of something like that. But, you know, change is hard.

BW: And necessary.

MC: Exactly.

BW: And you decided to commit more to watches, so it’s only fitting that you’d go to HODINKEE.

MC: If I can be brutally honest, I think there is not a single other watch-only platform that I would have considered going to. It’s the only one. The fact that they would hire someone like me in the capacity that I’m working for them means that they’re open to change. It’s not about me trying to write articles on movements and calibers. As much as I can get techy, when they hired me, they were looking for different points of view.

BW: We wouldn't have had this conversation two years ago.

MC: Absolutely not. If you had told me two years ago that I would be working for HODINKEE, I wouldn’t have believed you. That's why it feels so scary.

BW: I’m happy for you.

MC: I’m happy, too. I just have been quite nervous because it’s a big jump. It feels like I’ve had a bit of a crise d'identité – an identity crisis. Do you know what I mean? Your career, especially when you live in New York City, defines you. Working in fashion/celebrity/media… that’s what I know. So then, to all of a sudden leave that… It feels like a leap. 

BW: Well, you’re going to bridge the gap between watches and fashion!

MC: Hopefully, yes. I have good feelings about it.

BW: How has your experience been so far in the watch world? I’ve been with you on a lot of the press trips, we had our first time in Genève… How has it been coming in as an outsider?

MC: I’ll never forget my first real press trip to Finland with TAG Heuer. We went ice driving in the Arctic Circle, which, to this day, is my favorite thing that I’ve ever done. But I do remember feeling like the new kid at school, being on the bus and having no one to sit next to. Not that anyone was hostile or anything, but I’m used to quite flamboyant characters. I thrive in a space with other creatives, and this was a totally different vibe. People behave very differently and are more adult than I’m used to. It felt alien to me, and the male to female ratio… I never want to exclusively make it about that, but it is a thing. I remember asking myself, am I the only female journalist on this trip?

BW: So drastically different from the fashion world…

MC: …where it’s all women and gay guys, my comfort zone. It’s not that I don’t have straight male friends. It’s not like I can’t hang with the guys…

BW: You love guys!

MC: I love the lads! [laughs] But it feels odd when you’re in a professional setting. There are lots of PR women in the watch industry, but when you go on a trip and you’re the only woman, you can’t help but feel it. Everyone made me feel very comfortable; it was just a shocking reality. Much like being in the Palexpo, where Watches and Wonders was held. It’s not that I can’t handle it, it’s just that it’s striking.

BW: And it's predominantly white.

MC: To be honest with you, the white thing was more overwhelming than the woman thing. I remember looking around the dining hall when we were having a break from driving in Finland, and I thought, oh my god, there’s not a single person of color in this room, and there are, like,  eighty people here. And then when we went to Geneva, it was worse because it was on such a large scale. You know, it’s the reality. And the reality is white men.

BW: Again, so unlike the fashion industry.

MC: It’s always tough to talk about this. In the fashion industry, it’s very diverse. I grew up in London, which is very diverse. I have a very diverse family with all kinds of people from all over the world. It’s just quite strange being in this building in Geneva with thousands of people, asking myself, why does this feel so weird? Oh, I know why it feels so weird… It takes a minute to register. It’s quite disturbing, but hopefully things will change. They already are, but I think significant change will be slow.

BW: Obviously I’m a white woman, so it’s not as crazy for me. But I do get people saying I’m a “disruptor.” I’m here for change, but I’m also trying to tow the line between that and respecting what came before us. This is such an old, formidable industry. I know I’m part of the new guard, but I try to be careful not to be too flippant.

MC: I one hundred percent agree with you. Again, I want to be a woman in the space, but I don’t want to make it all about me being a woman. You want to welcome positive change, but you also understand there’s a legacy before you.

BW: Built on hundreds of years of hard work.

MC: People who are really into watches, like journalists and specialists… Those who have dedicated their lives to this… they have a lot of information in their brains that a lot of people simply do not have. I appreciate that, and I want to be an advocate for change without “disrupting” or bombing anything.

BW: I will say it’s nice to be in an industry that’s not so easy to fake. It’s rare. I mean, everyone has a clothing line now.

MC: Everyone’s a stylist, everyone’s a photographer, everyone’s a creative director.

BW: It’s refreshing to be in an industry protected from that because it requires real, specified knowledge.

MC: Yes. It takes knowledge and dedication, but sometimes I do wonder if it is more interesting for me to have an outsider perspective. The fact that I don’t know everything is actually valuable in this industry. I’m learning, though, and I really enjoy it.

BW: It takes a lot of commitment and reading to learn about watches.

MC: We’re probably reading and taking in more information than we realize. I surprise myself sometimes. It could be a casual hobby, but if you really want to get into the nitty gritty and be a professional in this space, it’s not casual. Don’t you think it’s a superpower to have all this information that not many others have?

BW: Definitely. And I get what you’re saying about retaining the fact that we’re not fully experts. I’m coming at this from a fresh perspective, and that’s part of what makes my presence here compelling. It’s all about striking the balance. But you know what? I think we’ll stay fresh no matter what.

MC: Do you think we’ll be fresh well into our 80s?

BW: What does your Granny think of all this?

MC: I love my Granny. She’s my little hero. I think she’s of an age where this is going a little over her head. With fashion, she really got it. When I had my first story in Italian Vogue, she was over the moon and bought ten copies. My mum thinks my involvement in watches is great. She’s very encouraging. My granny was in the fashion industry and my mum is so scarred from that, so she’s happy that I’m less in it now. Although, I hate saying that.

BW: I mean, we're not in our early twenties anymore. Working high-stress jobs in fashion is not very sustainable.

MC: I’ll never forget when I watched The Devil Wears Prada with my ex. He was like, oh my god, this is real. But, you know, I really think HODINKEE is a chance for me to build a new category that didn’t exist before. How cool is that? There’s not many places where you can genuinely do something new.

BW: It’s the tip of the iceberg, baby.

MC: It’s the tip, mate. I’m coming for you.

If you want to continue getting into our heads, tune into our watch podcast: Killing Time with Brynn and Malaika