Op-Ed | Who Watches the Watchmen?

Courtesy of our friends at Byronesque, pioneering fashion blogger Diane Pernet laments the current state of fashion criticism and brings us a brief history of fashion critics past and present.

Suzy Menkes, Cathy Horyn, Sarah Burton and Phillip Treacey | Source: Bacca da Silva

PARIS, France — In any other field, like theatre or film, critics can say what they feel without the risk of not being able to attend another opening of a director’s work, whereas in fashion, if you say something negative, you can forget receiving another invitation from that designer. Or you might get put on probation for a season or two, or banned from their shows until they realise how foolish this makes them look. It is no wonder that most ‘critics’ are not critics, but just give a report of what goes down the runway, without voicing any real opinion. It is also no secret that for more than the past decade, editorials have been ruled by advertisers. You place an ad, you get an editorial page, and if the advertiser does not get proper coverage, they pick up the phone and demand editorial coverage or they will pull their money. So, can you really expect a critic for a publication that thrives on that ad money to say that the Chanel or the Louis Vuitton show was crap? Not likely.

It takes a certain amount of curiosity and openness toward what is new, combined with a strong understanding of what went on in the past to be a really great critic. For example, if you have no references, then you might think that what is going down the catwalk is actually something new, but with experience you know where and when it’s been done before, and then it is hard to get too excited over the regurgitation of fashion looks. Having said that, people such as Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot and Godard have been credited with saying that it is okay to steal as long as you take the work to a new place and introduce it to a new audience. I suppose the same applies to fashion. The less talented designers will imitate, while the more talented designers deface it and make it better. Perhaps that feels a bit off point, but it seems relevant to me when you think of situations where designers were caught red-handed stealing from others but the journalists excused their behavior, stating that everyone does it so it is okay. In 2009, Sameer Reddy discovered a photo in a book on the late Kaisik Wong that was line for line in the Nicolas Ghesquière collection for Balenciaga. More recently, J.W. Anderson ripped off the design of an early J.Crew sweater. ­

Over the past decade, the major change has been that businessmen rule the fashion industry and creativity has taken a backseat to advertising budgets and communication. It is a mystery to me how PRs make their selections for the shows. I know for a fact that many PRs don’t even listen to who the designer would like attending their show –they make that decision for them. Oftentimes, the designer can request for someone to be invited, but if the PR does not find them worthy for whatever reason, the designer is fairly useless in making that happen. This is something that would never have happened more than a decade ago. The PR and the designer would go over the lists and they would have the final say as to who gets invited. We are in an age where stylists and PR seem to have more power than the actual creator, and that is a really sad state of affairs. 

When I go to a show, I always look for something that touches me on an emotional level and takes me somewhere that I have not already been. However, with sites like NowFashion.com, it is just as easy to watch the shows on your computer in real time and whenever you want to, which will eventually diminish the power of the PR. Of course, on those few shows that are truly spectacular, you miss something by watching it online, but for the most part it’s like the scene in the movie Ready-to-Wear by Robert Altman with Julia Roberts watching the report on CNN and then filing her copy.

Whether they’re in the front row of the shows or in front of a computer, I like reading Tim Blanks, Cathy Horyn or Suzy Menkes because they say what they think, which, is historically how it used to be.

Vogue 1891 – Present

Source: Vogue

Source: Vogue

Are current Vogue editors critics? I’m not sure if a lot of editors even read books, much less offer serious criticism of the collections that they cover. Their focus is more about fitting all the advertisers into the editorial pages. Vogue China has to turn down advertisers because their unwritten law is one ad equals one editorial and there are only so many pages one can put into an issue before it becomes obscene. Today, there are no more Diana Vreelands, Anna Piaggis, Polly Mellons or Isabella Blows. In their place there are expert business women who know how to seduce their advertisers and satisfy the major players. It’s like Nicholas Coleridge predicted in his book The Fashion Conspiracy back in 1988: the corporate death of the fashion industry.

Diana Vreeland 1936-1971

Source: DianaVreeland.com

Source: dianavreeland.com

When I think about Diana Vreeland, two films come to mind: William Klein’s satire on the fashion industry Who Are You, Polly Magoo? and Stanley Donen’s Funny Face. Both were parodies of Vreeland, who proclaimed herself as “the one and only fashion editor.” She was among the most influential women of the 20th century and felt it was her duty to give people a point of view, because most of them had none. She was famous for saying, “Don’t give them what they want, give them what they don’t know they want.”

Elizabeth Hawes 1938-1971

Source: Ralph Steiner

Source: Ralph Steiner

Elizabeth Hawes wore several hats: she was a designer, a writer and an outspoken critic of the fashion industry. She wrote a book in 1938 called Fashion is Spinach. “Fashion is a parasite on style. Without style, he wouldn’t exist but what he does to it is nobody’s business. Fashion is apt to insist one year that you are nobody if you wear flat heels and then turn right around and throw thousands of them in your face,” said Hawes. She was also the first designer to show a collection from a non-French design house during the Paris season, along with encouraging a cross-gender dressing movement. She’d be happy now to find that the period of fashion dictatorship is long gone. Or is it?

John Fairchild 1960-1996

Source: NYMag.com

Source: NYMag.com

John Fairchild was known for his acerbic tongue and his ability to instill fear in the overlapping worlds of fashion and society. His reign of terror was due to his ability to give and take publicity. The whole idea of an “In and Out” column totally bores me and feels like an ’80s door policy. But to not get reviewed at all in WWD was once as painful as receiving a bad review. Editors were instructed to make derogatory comments about independent designers that had no money for advertising. As time went on, however, good buyers gave less credibility to WWD reviews and learned to trust their own judgment.

Hebe Dorsey 1970-1987

Source: IHT

Source: IHT

Hebe Dorsey was a French Tunisian-born fashion editor who was fond of giving acidic reviews known to go beyond the clothes and under the skin of many designers. Dorsey, like many other fashion editors, was a member of the social set. She enjoyed covering society events almost as much as she did fashion. She was known for her sharp sense of analysis and was witty and irreverent, which is probably why she remained an influence in fashion for so many years.

Lynn Yaeger 1978 – Present

Source: The Sartorialist

Source: The Sartorialist

The Village Voice’s Lynn Yaeger. She is currently a contributing fashion editor to Vogue.com and before that she was the fashion reporter at The Village Voice for 30 years. Yaeger is known both for her 1930s cupid doll look and her sharp tongue. Fearless is a good way to describe her, as she is someone who is not afraid of expressing her opinion. I don’t always agree with her, but I respect her opinion and she is a very good read. Some have said that Yaeger has softened her tone since working for Vogue.com and that now she plays it safe. I’m not so sure about that.

Elsa Klensch for CNN 1980 – Present

Source: Style by Elsa Klensch

Source: Style by Elsa Klensch

Elsa Klensch was probably the first to report on fashion for cable television. She did come from a fashion background, having worked as an editor for WWD, Vogue, W and Harper’s Bazaar. I don’t think she ever gave any kind of opinion. It was basically over-appreciative reporting on the latest collections. It felt more like free fashion PR. In addition to the fashion coverage, there was a fair amount of attention given to cultural icons and fashion celebrities. If you were not on the guest list, you could catch it on “Style With Elsa Klensch,” and, of course, as a designer that was the place you wanted to be.

Tim Blanks  1985 – Present

Source: Showstudio.com

Source: Showstudio

I met Tim Blanks years ago in Toronto, where one of my clients had put on my fashion show. Tim was sitting next to me as we both experienced it. We met again in 1991 when he was the host of “Fashion Files” and I was assisting the producer. After 17 years at “Fashion Files,” he moved over to Style.com. Tim is an over-achiever and sped through school and university, skipping I’m not sure how many grades. Let’s just say he’s smart as a whip, knows and loves fashion, and has exquisite taste. He prefers having a conversation with his audience rather than reporting on the obvious.

Suzy Menkes 1988 – Present

Source: Courtesy Photo

Source: Courtesy Photo

It’s been a long stretch, but Menkes has not lost her enthusiasm for reporting on fashion. She has integrity and never stoops to bitchiness as a way of selling papers. I guess she would not have lasted very long at WWD. A decade ago she was banned from the French mega-luxury conglomerate LVMH’s shows for one week.  The fashion press formed a united front behind  her, making LVMH look like fools if they did not lift the ban. Those less powerful than Menkes would never dare to tell the truth.

Colin McDowell 1990s – Present

Source: Drapers

Source: Courtesy Photo

When the outspoken Colin McDowell is banned from a show, he takes it as a badge of honor. In a recent article for The Business of Fashion, he clearly states the three choices of a fashion critic. “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.”

Amy Spindler 1994 – 2004

Source: 10magazine.com

Source: 10 Magazine

Spindler was credited with raising the standards of fashion writing. She saw fashion as a cultural barometer in the same way many of us look at music or art, in the broad context. What set her apart from many of her contemporaries was that she was constructive with her criticism and not malicious or cutting. She was outspoken about magazines glamorising “heroin chic” and wrote a front-page article for the New York Times, where she was style editor, about the death of Davide Sorrenti, a young fashion photographer that died of a drug overdose. I wonder, if she were still alive, what she’d have to say about Terry Richardson and his escapades with young models.

Cathy Horyn 1998 – Present

Source: Katy Winn

Source: Katy Winn

It is a little known fact, but before Cathy Horyn was a fashion critic, she was a war correspondent. She began her fashion career in 1986 writing for the Detroit News, followed by The Washington Post. And, in 1996, Horyn was one of the few fashion journalists who really took the word ‘critic’ seriously. She is fearless and due to her negative reviews has been banned from Herrera, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Helmut Lang and Oscar de La Renta. She is tough in her criticism and probably, like Colin McDowell, wears being banned from a show like a badge of honor.

Judy Licht  2000 – Present

Source: Jamie McCarthy

Source: Jamie McCarthy

I often wonder if all it takes to be celebrated as a fashion authority is to be the first at doing something. Maybe that can explain the success of Judy Licht and her program, “Full Frontal Fashion.” Licht treated fashion as another form of celebrity watching. Prior to her induction into fashion, she had been a celebrity reporter and a newscaster. She also managed to keep the cliché of fashion fluff alive.

Inexperienced Bloggers 2006/8 – Present

Source: Dustin Fenstermacher

Source: Dustin Fenstermacher

I find it amusing the way so many seasoned journalists are still threatened by bloggers. The bloggers are not masquerading as mature journalists. They are more like consumers excited to find themselves suddenly given access to the shows and along with that, a certain degree of credibility. The ones that write their content based on who is paying the bills are no better/or worse than the magazines that only report on their advertisers. I enjoy the enthusiasm of Tavi, Susie Bubble and Bryanboy. Each has their own vision of fashion. And of course it is fresh and much less cynical than the editors who come to shows, throw their heads back and say, “Now try and please me.”

A version of this article first appeared on Byronesque, a curated vintage marketplace founded by Gill Linton.

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  1. If there were media organisations that were wanting to expand their core team by nurturing and development young journalists; and who want to diversify the aforementioned critics then it’s quite possible that with a delegation of such journalists, fashion criticism could be healthier. As it stands, journalists are finding it very difficult to land jobs with different organisations, in particular, national broadsheets. It’s paradoxical always in fashion that we dwell in the past, and lament about its history when it’s intend is always about creating the future.

    If there was an organisation, operating in a similar structure such as a NGO, but one for fashion journalism activism, maybe this could work? I mean, impoverished hopefuls have had to turn to blogging in order for their point of views to be listened to.

    Michael from Revesby, New South Wales, Australia
  2. Let’s not forget Nina Hyde, who was fashion editor of the Washington Post from 1972 to 1994. Not only did she write what she thought–and reported thoroughly–in her cracker sharp pieces, she also started the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer research at Georgetown University, with a $1 million grant from Ralph Lauren. She saved women. And not just from bad fashion. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/06/obituaries/nina-hyde-57-a-fashion-editor-who-became-a-pacesetter-is-dead.html

    Dana Thomas from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  3. Ghesquière’s plagiarism was exposed in 2002, not 2009.

    Scout from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  4. This article was fantastic! Thanks so much for enlightening me once again here on The Business of Fashion!

    Denise from Saint Paul, MN, United States
  5. You left out Vanessa Friedman of FT and Robin Givhan, who actually had the balls to call Karl Lagerfeld a sell-out!

    Zina from Dhaka, Dhaka, Bangladesh
  6. You are right, a typo 2002 not 2009 and yes Nina Hyde should have been included.

    asvof from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  7. Diane,

    This is a fantastic article. It’s nice to read such an honest account of the current situation of fashion criticism. And bravo for highlighting the work of the wonderful Amy Spindler. She is sorely missed.

    Jessica Michault from France
  8. Let’s face it, a lot of great and important people were left out it was not a complete roster of critics it was just a sampling.

    Diane Pernet from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  9. I second Zina down below. Robin Givhan is a true talent and so kind. I was able to meet her once and had a 30 min one-on-one. And I mean c’mon only fashion journalist to win a Pulitzer. She def deserves a hat tip here. Newsweek were crazy to let her go.

    Melissa from Central District, Hong Kong (general), Hong Kong
  10. Actually, since Givhan is only writing her book now. Why is she not on BoF? I know I’m not the only one who would love to see her filling up these pages. She’s the sort of contributor we want!

    Melissa from Central District, Hong Kong (general), Hong Kong
  11. No Robin Givhans? I find her titillating.

    Kay from Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria
  12. My typo now: Nina was at the paper until her death in 1990, not 1994.

    Dana Thomas from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  13. Excellent article !

    WomanTalk.TV from Prague, Hlavní Mesto Praha, Czech Republic
  14. I think you should add Sarah Mower to the line-up: passionate observer of fashion, brilliant writer, with unique ability to use messages from the runway to explain shifts in broader culture and society – or perhaps the other way around…

    Kate Patrick from United Kingdom
  15. Interesting read! But no mention of Robin Givhan, the only critic to win a Pulitzer for her fashion criticism?

    Simone from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  16. Excellent article Diane! I am an avid reader of your website. Thanks! There is so much attention paid to the so called great designers and although some of them are truly great! The so called essential advertising space driven by huge sums of money is consistently filled with the same fashion houses. This in turn forces some journalists to void their opinions and serve up the same old names and discussions. I would love to see a shake up, but with money driving the cogs and the jobs, I doubt in the real world it can happen.

    Deborah Campbell from Reading, Reading, United Kingdom
  17. P.S I am Deborah Campbell from Winchester not Reading? No idea why it calculates my location incorrectly, this has happend before.

    Deborah Campbell from Reading, Reading, United Kingdom
  18. Thank you for this. There are far too many reviews with “omg-amazing-awesome” than reviews of shows that actually have substance, relate to history and are serious. My favorite fashion writer is Cathy Horyn!

    mel from Miamisburg, OH, United States
  19. Robin Givhan is also a favorite who really goes deep into the fashion relating everything from politics to art! She should have been included.

    mel from Miamisburg, OH, United States
  20. I am completely gob smacked as to how you overlooked Robin Givhan the only journalist to have won a Pulitzer for fashion writing..
    She also wrote for the Washington Post at the time, which is/was considered a reputable publication..
    What happened? It made me ask who else you had omitted, and how well had you researched the story.

    Mutale from New York, NY, United States
  21. Thanks for pointing out that Robin Givhan and Vanessa Friedman absolutely deserved to have a spotlight on their respectful and courageous work. On my part I say it was never meant as a complete list but that said i do regret that i did not include them and Nina Hyde.

    Diane pernet from Italy
  22. Thank you Jessica and thank you fir your great work.

    Diane pernet from Italy
  23. Tim Blanks has been a hero of mine since “Fashion File” aired in the 90′s. I would faithfully watch it on late night cable, along with Jeanne Beker and “Fashion Television”.

    To add to Michael from Revesby, I think part of the problem with the current state of fashion criticism is that it has become trendy for major publications to hire bloggers with no journalism experience and no solid fashion background. Here in my big metropolitan American city, the website for the city’s biggest paper has a handful of local 20-something bloggers with no other writing experience penning the style section. Not only are the articles full of spelling and grammatical errors, but “OMG, I’m obsessed with these shoes!” is as hard hitting as it gets.

    Suzi and Tavi are obvious exceptions to this as they clearly can write but for the most part, this is what we’re left with.

    Beth from Philadelphia, PA, United States
  24. “Inexperienced Bloggers”, the segregation and elitism on this site is amazing!

    PS. I’m not pleased with taking a quote that has such a direct and strong political meaning and white-washing it to suit your little fashion article.

    Raf from Ajax, ON, Canada
  25. I was thinking about this very subject recently while plugging through the NYT/IHT online archives while researching a piece on Balenciaga; I was struck by how spineless, in particular, Menkes has become. I often find her reviews too flattering, and so I was delighted to note that she was not always so easily duped. An S/S 01 review published on October 14, 2000, began with “An angelic collection from Balenciaga — all cascading white dresses that were pretty yet edgy — contrasted with a vile show from John Galliano that was a parody of the worst of his Dior designs.” (!!!) “Vile”? “Worst…designs”? “Parody”? Could I really be reading Suzy? She goes on to refer to the looks as “trailer-trash slutty” and questions whether Galliano had to “kill the thing he loves,” ultimately deeming it a “travesty of a show.” I have come to expect this incisiveness from Horyn, but not Menkes, or recent Menkes, anyways- can we get the old Suzy back? The swooning reviews of sleepy, lazy collections with big advertising budgets is getting, well, tired.

    Kelly from London, London, United Kingdom