What\’s the role of the fashion journalist today? As a veteran of the industry, that\’s something people ask me all the time. They\’re always trying to bait me to say the obvious. I might be old school, but I certainly don’t think that school is as relevant as it once was. The role of criticism is changing as we speak, and the sooner the better, as this state of flux does not serve this industry well. We need voices that reflect both the new role of the critics and the new role of the brands themselves.
So what actually has changed? There has been a time shift, of course. Thanks to the flow of social technology, everything is immediate. No one waits to hear a description of a collection. But the other thing that\’s shifted, the much more significant shift, is that anyone with a smartphone and a love of shopping is now also a critic. And while everyone thought that this would make for new important voices and fresh faces, really, all it’s done is force everyone to write in the first person.
It\’s, \”I think this\” and \”I think that.\” Back in the day, whether it was coming from Vogue, Suzy Menkes, or Cathy Horyn, all the great fashion journalists of the 20th century, it was spoken with an authority that meant more than simply stating “I was there.” It wasn\’t that they just happened to get a ticket to the show and said, “I like this, I like that.\” They had an authority that no one else had. They wouldn\’t simply say, \”It\’s all about roses this season.\” Yeah they said that, but they also said, \”This person did roses and it’s amazing and this is why. And this other guy, he also did roses, and this is why it wasn\’t amazing.\” It had nothing to do with how the writer happened to dress or what their personal style was.
So what about this state of flux? Of course, the big publishers, now consolidated, are doing big business with the brands, most of which are also owned by these fashion conglomerate powerhouses. So the chance of an on-staff writer doing a takedown of Dior is slim to none. It’s also hard to blame the new independents. Think about it. The way for a blogger to make money is actually worse in terms of conflict of interest. They\’re not working for a publishing house that\’s doing business with the brands. They\’re working directly for the brands! So everybody thought that blogging was going to lead to an independent voice, when actually, their shackles are much tighter. The independents, writing in the first person, serve at the pleasure of the brands they are covering. Otherwise, no access, no product, no chance to build their own brand.
This, of course, is news to no one. But actually, I think the interesting conversation about this topic is on the other side. What does the flip side of that loss of the critic’s authority mean for the industry, in a creative sense? For instance, look at the cult of Comme des Garçons. Talk about no one speaking with any authority! Let’s be honest: Rei Kawakubo was avant-garde in the 1980s, and I would say, reached her artistic height in the \’90s. But still to this day, when she does a show, she\’s not doing anything new. She\’s not really avant-garde anymore, but because everybody looks at what an avant-garde fashion show should look like, in the movie version, they\’re calling it avant-garde. And it isn\’t! And that is terrible, especially for the next generation because they don\’t know the difference. They don\’t even know what they\’re looking at, but they think they know what the brand means.
The uncomfortable truth is that what was once radical, in the absence of criticism, has become a crutch to the new generation. The language developed by the avant-garde in the 20th century has become the banal cliche of today. Certainly it\’s not because Comme des Garçons is spending so much or has so much power through advertising, certainly not.
And then there is the curious case of Hedi Slimane. His debut at Saint Laurent wasn’t revolutionary at all. He just applied 21st century attitudes and realities to a “beyond criticism” brand. Suddenly, there were all of these critical venomous voices! Didn’t just invite the usual crowd? Didn’t try to reinvent the wheel? Broke it down to the basic YSL language, not uttered since the 1970s? The minute he put that show out, all of a sudden, everybody grew these critical set of balls. Where did that come from? And was all of that poison directed at him? It was really interesting. Pity there were so few naysayers that saw the link back to YSL and his critically destroyed debut of Rive Gauche in 1966. “What? Selling off the rack? This will destroy the brand!” Instead, today’s false critics either complained they weren’t invited to the show or that the pieces weren’t the immediate showstoppers that would get them photographed wearing them. These are “writing in the first person problems” that clearly have had no effect on sales whatsoever.
Do you think cool girls are sitting there and trying to get their hands on a critique of a show? I don\’t think so! They\’re looking at what Rihanna wore to the VMAs. They\’re looking at the lead singer of a cool band who is wearing Saint Laurent at the Grammy’s because Hedi Slimane is keen on his music and he\’s picked up on them.
The other thing we used to say, “See all these shoes this season, this one pair of shoes, that\’s the pair you should get.\” Now it\’s like, “Here are the 150 shoes of the season.” What happened to the voice that would say, \”Yeah there are 150 shoes, but this is the one pair.\” Somebody like Hedi came along and said, “This is the pair, see this one pair of shoes, I\’m only going to make one pair of shoes, this is it, this is the one.\” I think that\’s exactly what he captured. One thing I think you could say about his collections is they\’re very slim. Slim in the way that they\’re designed, but also slim in their point of view. It\’s such a precise slice.
You look back at it now, and he was right. He\’s doing the same thing that Karl Lagerfeld always did with Chanel. He said right from the get go, “I\’m not going to reinvent the wheel with Chanel. There\’s the quilted bag, there\’s the camellia, there\’s the little suit, and all those little things. I\’m just going to take that language and mix it up, and I\’m going to play with it, but I’m never going to go outside that language.\” So what he did is that he made up a language for that brand, and he just speaks in those syllables, those visual codes.
The consumer at this point just wants the tools that make them look good in their Instagram selfie! There are certain designers and certain brands that have become beyond criticism, so that even when they do a collection that is not nearly as good, they still get the adulation. That\’s just not healthy. I think we need more writers to speak with the authority that is appropriate for the industry as it functions today. What does that mean? It means redefining what is a good collection. Sadly with a few exceptions, the public isn’t listening.