Colin’s Column | Does the Fashion Critic Matter Anymore?

Fashion Critics (L-R) Cathy Horyn, Godfrey Deeney, Suzy Menkes and Hilary Alexander | Source: FashionWeekDaily

LONDON, United Kingdom — All creative endeavours require critical feedback if they are to develop and mature. Ancient storytellers honed their craft by observing the reaction of their audiences. Medieval strolling players were pelted with manure if they failed to perform well. Vaudeville artists in the American South were physically threatened and run out of town if they weren’t up to standard. Indeed, art, dance and literature all have, and require, the opinion of a chorus.

It’s a tall order to expect critics to always be right in their judgements. And there are many examples where critics have got it completely wrong. They laughed with derision at the Impressionists and we all know how Stravinsky was excoriated for “The Rite of Spring,” which turned out to be the 20th century’s single most influential piece of music. As the saying goes, critics come and go, but true creativity is eternal.

Fashion is different. We do not want eternity in a garment. We prefer novelty. We are excited by new things that capture the moment. There are no eternal verities in a couple of yards of fabric. And for that reason, criticism of the kind dedicated to other arts seems preposterous in fashion, as indeed does the title of critic. It reeks of pomposity.

What is the clothes commentator to say that is not already apparent to others? What depth is to be found in the average ready-to-wear collection? What do the punters want to know before they go shopping, if indeed they want any opinion at all, other than our own?

Well, it seems the fashion critic has three choices. He can buy into the bullshit and accept the whole carnival of press handouts, photo shoots, styling gimmicks, the show and what they say about the actual clothes. He can puncture the bullshit and tell the truth about the lamentable standards of commercial fashion. Or he can play the honest broker and go halfway or simply find other things to write about such as the number of roses in a room and the names of the front row personalities.

But which do we actually want? Or is a runway video enough? And in this era of social media, what kind of voice do we want to hear? The one that echoes or challenges our own? Is expertise really necessary? And what is expertise, anyway?

I have been both amused and irritated over the years by fashion academics who write unreadable piffle about a world they do not know. Few are invited to the shows and none have gone through the apprenticeship of watching hundreds of shows per season, some of which are unbelievably bad. This is the equivalent of a cricket commentator who goes only to the Oval and knows nothing of local cricket greens. Or, worse, knows neither. The scale of comparison vital to all assessment is missing. And no scale equals no meaning.

Technology has given everybody a voice, no matter how much or how little they know. But do we think that all voices can be equal? In the past, there was no doubt. People wanted to know from the people who knew. Now, anybody with a clever way with words is allowed and encouraged to write.

We all have our favourite writers and that is no bad thing. But who will be remembered and read ten years after their deaths?

My answer is: nobody. Does it matter? You tell me.

Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.

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  1. What exactly is this?! My answer is: baloney.

    S.A. from North Bergen, NJ, United States
  2. The question is really interesting. In my case, I discover the name of the fashion critics with the bloggers rise. Before this major event which democratize the “fashion words), I did not consider them. As they never taugh me anything more that I know about season trend, fabrics or the impact of the clothes in my daily life as woman. The last point is the most important…No link with readers or consumers life, a critic which allow to think about the meaning of the fashion in our life as human and not only as pure fashionista. We only remind critic who asks true question on life. Sorry for my bad english…

  3. Great article! It’s great to hear leaders in the industry really considering the state of fashion criticism like this.

    You mention that few fashion academics are invited to the shows; I wonder if selection of academics were allocated tickets to shows, whether the quality of fashion criticism would improve due to their distance from commercial constraints? (ad. sales etc).

    Maybe things would benefit from a variety ‘scales of comparison’. The journalists can compare against their own personal experience of fashions shows over their own lifetime, and the academics can compare with their personal experience of historical archives & documents.

    Or is it necessary to participate in the selling of the clothes (through the media), to be able to effectively analyse the designer’s participation within the fashion conversation?

    Fair comment about the ‘unreadable piffle’, though.

  4. Being an academic myself who happens also to study fashion, I feel compelled to clarify the difference between fashion journalism and an academic approach to fashion. (although I am sure that most of the people who read this article already know it, McDowell might be the one who needs a little tutoring)
    As an academic I have a broader understanding of what “fashion” comprises, and I certainly do no limit my understanding of it to what is shown on the runways. If the authour had actually read some of the “unreadable piffle” he talks about, he would know that…
    To be honest, I don’t understand this gratuitous burst of anti-intellectualism.

    Monica from Vienna, Bundesland Wien, Austria
  5. Wonderful article and so very true of our times. The few who still remain, that had any credibility have lost it by writing about the flowers and the bullsshit rather than the clothes and so many of the “new voices” seem to think that just because they have a keyboard they are qualilfied

  6. I will say this, the critics who are currently at the top of the fashion chain will stay there and those wishing to voice their opinions in the same academic non biased manner, will not get to that point in their careers. Companies simply have too much power within the advertising industry to censor any thoughts that are not in their favor.

    We have reached a point where everything is all flowers and sunshine. Fashion companies have deemed it impossible to properly critique a show as the art they present. If you [a young critic] say a negative word about them one season out of 10, it’s over, you’re blacklisted and can’t do your job by seeing the clothes in person or being allowed to write about it by your editors.

    I think the main reason why critics are becoming obsolete, isn’t because of the internet/the public having a voice, but because they’re being silenced by the people they write for.

    jc from New York, NY, United States
  7. What is needed is more criticism not less! If critics play no role then why are designers constantly throwing hissy fits and banning them from their shows? There is so much sycophancy in fashion and in fashion journalism that critics need to be encouraged for the health of the industry. For example, Robin Givhan’s recent critique of Karl Lagerfeld – we need more people pointing out that the emperor is naked.

    Also blogs do not play the same role as critics, firstly I think McDowell is underestimating the use of historical knowledge and context that critics (like him) bring to the table. Secondly the majority of bloggers have lost their ability to produce independent journalism by accepting gifts and payments from designers. Fashion journalists whose publications are not dependent on fashion advertising at least have an independent platform from which to express their opinion.

    As for academics ‘daring’ to comment on fashion, I am sure that if the industry can guarantee that its products/philosphies/influence will leave society untouched then academics will agree the same.

  8. Interesting article. In my modest opinion, I believe that even though we do not search for eternal verities in garments as you mention, that does not mean that they are not conveying precious information about our contemporary condition. In my perspective the real task of the fashion critic would be one that comprises more than descriptions of the material elements shown as we have video and photography covering that part. I would personally appreciate a more in depth approach that would position the fashion object as a visual translation of our times. This of course may sound like a cliché but to undertake such interpretations demands staying with an object for a longer period than perhaps the fast rhythm of the fashion industry nowadays permits. It would be a long discussion though. In a few words, I would be very glad to see fashion criticism going more towards art criticism. Is is that fashion is so related to function that we forget to look beyond this? Just some thoughts.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this question for a while. In the current fashion scenario, the only people who cares about fashion critics are the those involved in the fashion world. Basically, the consumer doesn’t care about reading what they write, I’m sure they prefer to check what her favorite blogger are saying about “the killer shoe” or the “bag that I would die for”. It’s sad because the clothes, the designer work don’t matter anymore. A fashion show is now about the celebrities, the first row, the street style, the backstage…
    Anyway, for me the critic review still matters and a few of them are essential to be read (Cathy, Suzy). But who will be their successors?

  10. my only avenue to fashion is the internet.

    cathy horyn, tim blanks and other fashion writers have always mattered to me.

    I can’t envisage a whole runway presentation via several jpegs, and I am not going to sit through every fifteen minute video on youtube.

    dan from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  11. Monica, I concur your point of view, in all possible sense. I’m convinced they are at least two main, very distinct, types of fashion journalism. The first, a collection of inherent bullshit aimed mostly at a superficial type of reader seeking to indulge in trends and stay below the said bullshit. Then, there’s the other kind, that drives, through analysis, perspective, knowledge and so on, a certain point of view of fashion, the evolution of a house or of a designer, that really matter for people that love fashion for more than its superficiality, that encompasses history, culture, art and converge in a collection or pieces of garments. That, for me at least, is a fashion critic’s role.

    JSB from Quebec, QC, Canada
  12. Society always benefits from thoughtful reflection on creative output, if only because it creates a historical record for future use. Blogs cannot (yet) claim to supplant either traditional fashion critics like Cathy Horyn or fashion academics like Valerie Steele (and I second the commenter who noted that BoF erred in lumping the two together.)

    10027Guy from New York, NY, United States
  13. I, as Monica from Vienna so eloquently put it, am also puzzled by this “gratuitous burst of anti-intellectualism.” When I saw the title to this article, I thought I would read about how knowledgeable critics are still a vital part of the fashion world. I was surprised and disappointed to find the author washing his hands of critics who “buy into the bullshit,” and write “unreadable piffle.”

    With a healthy dose of condescension, McDowell is himself buying into bullshit. He is propogating a new mentality in fashion that has been growing increasingly popular – that is that with the democratization of fashion today, we find that pretty much everyone considers themselves a worthy critic.

    The fact is that most people are not worthy critics, and to think otherwise is, in my opinion, a very damaging view to take. As McDowell intelligently points out in his introduction, critics have always been an important part of any aestetic, artistic, or intellectual pursuit. However, he points out that fashion is essentially a world removed from the need for critics, simply because everyone is a critic, and now with technology, all critics can have a voice. But the truth is that not all critics are equal.

    What critics like Cathy Horyn, Suzy Menkes, and others like them contribute is a vast wealth of knowledge about fashion that very few people have. I, a lifelong student of fashion, have learned more than I could ever express from reading their reviews. This is because all high fashion has to be framed in context. Fashion is nothing but a creative expression of the times, and so it is a constant reflection of history at a given moment. This is what makes it so exciting!

    A good critic adds richness to our collective experience of fashion by using historical knowledge, aestetic awareness, keen observance, and intelligent analysis to quantify the mood or feeling of a collection in prose. Yes, we can all watch a video of a fashion show, and yes, fashion is, like all artistic endeavors, up to the indivdual to interpret. But do critics not help us to understand more than what meets the eye?

    I would argue that they do. They have done it a thousand times over for me. I, for one, will be sad to see the day when the critics pictured above have given up their seat in the front row, not just because I respect those who have taught me so much, but because I fear that no one will be able to replace them. In this world of constant streams of media and brands with 8 collections a year, the little slice of deeper analysis these critics provide us on the pages of their publications is a rarefied luxury, and one I value greatly.

    So, Mr. McDowell, does fashion critic matter anymore? I would argue that they most definitely do.

    Trevor Cook from New York, NY, United States
  14. I think you explained the whole thing: “Fashion [critique] is different. We do not want eternity in a [column]. We prefer novelty. We are excited by new [ideas and perspectives] that capture the moment. There are no eternal verities in a couple of [paragraphs on fashion].”

    It stands to reason that fashion discussion would not be any less susceptible to the ever-increasing whims of the audience than fashion itself. Disposable pontificating is the order of the crowd.

    Personally, I don’t care about any critical eye or voice but my own. Why on earth would I outsource the opinion-making process on something so entirely, fantastically subjective as fashion to someone else (rhetorical!).

  15. Of course fashion critics matter – Cathy Horyn and Robin Givhan are two excellent examples. Another who comes to mind is Alicia Drake, who wrote The Beautiful Fall. As usual, Colin McDowell plays the crotchety, holier-than-thou cynic… very tiresome.

    Ben CS from San Francisco, CA, United States
  16. Now, more than ever, we need fashion journalists and critics. Bloggers by and large don’t know very much. Fashion magazines largely regurgitate what is fed to them by PRs, or play by their rules. The role of the fashion critic should not be limited to writing about shows, but to investigating behind the scenes, writing about the businessmen and the empires, topics you don’t hear about otherwise. Vanessa Friedman is an excellent example of a journalist who does this very well. I suspect that Crotchety Colin knows all this and is simply baiting his readers.

    Ben CS from San Francisco, CA, United States
  17. I am outraged by this shallow article

    Kasia from Varese, Lombardy, Italy
  18. Fashion academics don’t tend to review catwalk shows. What they do is to place fashion as an industry and commercial art form into a wider cultural, historical, political and social context. Fashions critics have an entirely different job and I’m not sure why the two are being conflated here.

    Colin McDowell, previously one of my favourite fashion writers, has unfortunately gone down a notch in my estimation.

  19. is it a new way of writing articles? you put up a question with some shallow points in the name of “article” and then your well informed readers weight in and make the real argument?! besides, what a bad understanding of academic work! writer clearly has no clue what academic approach to fashion is about. if it was not for the insightful comments I would have regretted spending my time on it.

    Maryam from Toronto, ON, Canada
  20. Wow. I never comment on articles, but this one is so disappointingly uneducated that I have to. I hope it was a provocation to get more pageviews. As some other commenters have noted, there’s much more to fashion than runway shows. There exists a whole another world of fashion academia, which researches fashion as a part of culture. This has nothing to do with fashion journalism.

    Salle de balle from Begunje Pri Cerknici, Bohinj, Slovenia
  21. Ms. Horyn has 4 core followers that swells to 6 during the collections for the rare post she submits to “On the Runway”.
    Not to detract from her brilliant reporting, at times she has transported me. However the reader is keenly aware of her selective criticism, condescension and complete indifference to the blog and its former followers.

    Barbara Alexander from Toronto, ON, Canada
  22. I guess old school fashion journalism has had its day, like old school fashion education…best not to get bitter about it…

    Colin Gale from Shanghai, Shanghai, China