Colin’s Column | Why Fashion Needs Its Fourth Estate

In his latest column, Colin McDowell examines the sorry state of fashion criticism and why fashion needs its Fourth Estate more than ever.

Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes sitting front row | Source:

LONDON, United Kingdom — The fashion world is one of expediency in which few utterances of any kind can be taken seriously. Insincerity and empty, hysterical overreactions are almost de rigueur, especially when uttered by press officers and public relations people. No surprise because, like diplomats, they are not paid to always tell the truth, but to fight their corner on behalf of designers.

And when it comes to fashion writers, the truth is there are precious few who have an opinion and are proud to express it. In fact, there are less than half a dozen. And that’s because the sanctions for speaking truth are severe, because if they are not, the entire self-congratulatory, smoke and mirrors, candy floss edifice of fashion could collapse into an unedifying goo.

In the past, the slapping down of expert opinion was done by paid PR officers (with varying degrees of aplomb). The designer was considered far too grand to personally deal with such lese-majesty. The main weapon of chastisement was the seat at the next show. And the punishment took one of three courses.

Either no ticket was sent out to the truth-telling miscreant and no amount of pleading would enable one to be found. Or a ticket was sent, but for a seat that the PR people knew the writer would not find acceptable, either personally or for the prestige of his or her publication. Or, worst of all, a ticket was send for the journalist’s usual front row seat — and this treatment was only ever meted out to high-profile, front-row regulars — but just before the lights were about to go down, there would be a flurry of activity and the journalist ejected from the seat with the maximum of humiliation, only for it to be taken by a C-list television “personality” or, in Milan, a spare contessa or even principessa, looking as if she had just been rescued from a terrible fate at the hands of her hairdresser; a woman who, like most of the audience enjoying this unedifying but admittedly amusing little pantomime, didn’t know or care that hereditary titles had been abolished when the last King of Italy, Umberto II, resigned in 1946, after reigning for just over a month.

But such front row antics seem like innocent fun compared with the venom released more recently by designers stung by critical remarks. It all began when a series of pouting, petulant and paranoid young men began taking the reins of old, established fashion houses. Did it go to their heads? What’s your guess?

Sadly, this immature and insecure new breed care nothing for the dignity of the professional commentator and somehow feel it’s their right to counter comment with which they do not agree by writing insulting public letters addressed to journalists. They even make personal attacks in order to vent their spleen.

But fashion desperately needs its Fourth Estate just as much as government. And attempts to silence it are nothing more than bullying and must be resisted by all in the fashion world, for the good of the fashion world.

Indeed, this is one of the key reasons why fashion is not in a good place today. Whereas most art forms are kept on their toes by informed commentary, the fashion world has virtually none. No wonder it is currently so unhealthy that the only news that it can proudly muster concerns store openings, profit reports and the continual musical chairs of designer appointments and departures. Never a word about creativity.

True critics assess literature, theatre, film, music, architecture, painting, sculpture and other creative endeavours that have intellectual content. The rest are more correctly seen as commentators, no matter what grandiose titles they choose for themselves.

In the ongoing battle of words, it is important to ask which, if any, is doing a job of any serious significance for the ultimate standards of fashion, now or in the future. The commentator? The PR? The vindictive designer who has lost his head by believing what his paid minions tell him?

Whilst they are pondering, perhaps they might all remember that a true creator always accepts criticism without rancour and, of course, never replies.

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  1. I completely agree with this sentiment. Relatively new to the (internet) fashion scene, I became quickly aware of the lack of educated, well-researched, and well-expressed commentary as a glaring problem. Among established creatives of the industry, one expects nothing more than pure creativeness, and from the media aspect, nothing more than true journalism. However, there are multiple issues at play here.

    Firstly, it is incredibly difficult for someone to garner the information needed to produce a decent commentary on anything, from an issue to a collection. In fact, by the time thorough research is done, the topic at hand will invariably be old news. This is mainly true for those removed from the immediacy of fashion (and most likely have other day jobs), such as bloggers or lesser-known journalists. These people do not have access to the people in fashion, and are there for not immediately privy to insider knowledge. That makes it more common for them to base their opinions on things like twitter arguments, and take sides on issues based on what they might have heard or read, instead of taking time to parse the influx of information themselves. This creates a follow-the-leader effect, which is a huge blow to the credibility of the fashion industry.

    Secondly, if someone with quick wit and sharp tongue were lucky enough to be considered something of an arbiter of fashion (which would most likely only come from multiple degrees and an impressive resume of fashion/business/art matters) there would be enormous pains taken to impress said person. That doesn’t seem like an issue at all, at first glance. But-and we sometimes see this with a few bloggers who have “made it”-the honest criticism takes a back seat to the pampering and privileges that are suddenly involved. It is much easier to lend a harsh and honest word to a brand when one has nothing to lose. However, if one “loveloveloves” a brand, and are suddenly thrust in the silken throng of the fashion elite as a VIP and main spokesperson, but the brand eventually produces or does what s/he considers to be an atrocity, what are the odds of someone risking their new found lifestyle to call the brand out on it? Silence would be most beneficial for all, in that case.

    The acceptance of criticism is an issue that each individual must learn to deal with on his or her own time. But the ability to dole out criticism in the most civil way possible? That is one of the greatest hurdles to overcome. The criticism is generally laden with unnecessary personal attacks on character, or have a lot of hypotheticals – hypothetical intentions, hypothetical inspirations, etc – which makes for shoddy work in the journalism aspect.

    There are, in fact more than half a dozen “fashion writers” who are more than eager to express their credible opinions, but that all depends on both the level of prestige you want a fashion writer to have, and where/how hard you look for these writers.

    -Khadijat of Youth Savage

    Khadijat Yussuff from Pittsburgh, PA, United States
  2. Mr. McDowell, thanks for finally giving a true opinion on Hedi Slimane and others.
    Though, as said by Miuccia Prada in a recent interview talking about the fashion industry, “Mine is not an artistic world, it is a commercial world. I cannot change the rules.” The Fourth State today is an embodiment of this, and the best designers know it all too well.

    flying adolescent from Enfield, Enfield, United Kingdom
  3. This brings to mind Hedi Slimane….

    Joy Li from Cupertino, CA, United States
  4. The worst of the letters was when Slimane wrote, “I also often hear that [Horyn's] style is seriously challenged, providing that she is meant to be an authority in the village.” This is the crux of the problem. Why must one dress fashionably in order to have any credibility? By analogy, I suspect many art critics cannot afford to buy the pieces they critique. Similarly, design critics do not buy every chair, nor do architecture critics buy every house.

    Anjli Patel from Toronto, ON, Canada
  5. This is a great point, but I have a bone to pick. Why beat around the bush and not name names? Mr. McDowell is clearly referring to Hedi Slimane’s tantrum at NY Times critic Cathy Horyn, but by omitting the specifics, isn’t he too playing by the rules set forth by the PR agencies and luxury conglomerates he’s allegedly rallying against? While the point he makes is valid, criticisms like this deserve specific examples, The Slimane vs. Horyn battle being the most recent and prominent. I think, also, it would be interesting to examine the history of fashion criticism in this context. Horyn is in a unique position, she is not expected to bend to the will of advertisers, but many have come before her. Amy Spindler was notoriously rigorous with her reviews. Holly Brubach, too, was insightful and eager to point out flaws in the fashion system. The New Yorker’s Kennedy Fraser was straightforward in her assessments of the industry. Essentially, I’m just saying that by not giving detailed accounts of these affronts to the field of true fashion criticism, the article loses much of it’s desired impact.

    Max Berlinger from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  6. Excellent points made here – if only designers and their PRs would remember that criticism – constructive, informed and honest – is a precious commodity for learning and developing skills and creative awareness – now can you please take a similar stringent look at design education Colin?!

    Lizzie Huxtable from United Kingdom
  7. I entirely agree that the fashion industry should not stifle reporting or commentary. But I’m not sure the fault for the paucity of this activity lies with immature designers. Creative people have always been ruthlessly mean to their public detractors… see Picasso, if you want a roadmap for immature inability to accept criticism. I would instead look to the fashion press itself: the blurred distinction between content, editorial and business ( publishing), the social coziness between press and the people on which they report. And if there’s no coverage of creativity, perhaps it’s because the institutional fashion industry successfully suppressed that more than a decade ago. Sad, but the demonstrative designer is the least of our problems.

    Henry Welt from New York, NY, United States
  8. I agree that critics can play an important role in the industry.
    However, there are definitely critics that have let their exposure and power go to their head and act like they can say whatever they wish, no matter how extremely subjective they are being. Oftentimes, they forget that this is people’s livelihood and life’s long hard work they are affecting and act like they are on some high horse. In addition, there are critics that are only journalists and have never worked in real fashion a day in their lives — how could those ones possibly be qualified to judge what a designer and house does?! They are not.
    Lastly, there have been countless times where critics include personal and completely unnecessary comments in their reviews also.
    I am of the opinion that everyone must respect everyone’s hard work and position and everyone MUST remember that they are representing a brand, an institution larger than themselves, when at work and drop any super-inflated personal egos.
    I personally applaud the courage to speak out against critics and their unfair and inaccurate reviews and personal attacks WHEN it is warranted and when done in a professional manner (egos aside).

    Smith Jones from New York, NY, United States

    JEFFREY FELNER from New York, NY, United States
  10. “Indeed, this is one of the key reasons why fashion is not in a good place today. Whereas most art forms are kept on their toes by informed commentary, the fashion world has virtually none. No wonder it is currently so unhealthy that the only news that it can proudly muster concerns store openings, profit reports and the continual musical chairs of designer appointments and departures. Never a word about creativity.“

    Totally agree with this statement, and find it a bit ironic that this voice is showcased in a website devoted completely to the BUSINESS of fashion, not the creativity. There is a huge difference between fashion and other creative industries (literature, film, music, architecture, painting..etc.) because only fashion is amenable to mass consumption and disposal. Fashion does not necessarily have to have intellectual content to be successful (see fast fashion, rip offs), or profitable. Image takes precedence over everything, and driving that, cold business, sans any creativity.

    依齡 李 from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  11. Are you saying there’s really only you and Suzy Menkes who can hack it! You don’t need to worry, there are people on my Fashion Communication course at Huddersfield and the international students I met at Conde Nast’s summer School yesterday who are determined to set new bars on the Fashion writing scene. I’ll raise your ideas with them and see what we can invent. There are some inspired people coming through, you’ll find.

    Jayne Sheridan from Barnsley, Barnsley, United Kingdom
  12. I started reading BOF during the whole Hedi Slimane re-namimg YSL fiasco, and found this article interesting. Unstated, however, is that it seems to be only newspaper journalists and a few bloggers who will say that the Emperor has no clothes. Magazines never do, as they cannot afford to lose the ad dollars.

    Let’s not forget Oscar de la Renta’s spat with Cathy Horyn over her use of the word ‘hot dog’ when he clearly didn’t understand what she was saying. He either took out an an in WWD or the NYT, I forget which, which only served to make him look childish.

    pam bernstein from Plymouth, MN, United States
  13. espectacular articule! congrats!

    Carlos Feltes from Central, Paraguay
  14. Darling Colin,
    Don’t worry. It isn’t just you and Suzy Menkes who can keep on hacking it! There are many super writers coming through from our Fashion Communication course at Huddersfield and from the Conde Nast Summer school students I met yesterday. I’ll keep you posted!

    Jayne Sheridan from Barnsley, Barnsley, United Kingdom
  15. Beyond our words and our worlds!
    It’s a moment in time when we are between shows but change is happening beyond our worlds of style and status seeking. So what luxury to spend precious moments thoroughly engaged in self-contemplation as we regenerate during the silly season! There are talented writers waiting in the wings, made-up, ready to key in the haikus, the sonnets, the ballads on the liquefaction of the clothes. Trust me, I’ve read them and met them practising in our Fashion schools! Let’s not step on their new dreams.

    Jayne Sheridan from Barnsley, Barnsley, United Kingdom
  16. Yes! What a great article, well said, Colin.

    The modern fashion game in general is just that, a “game,” which is in desperate need for un-biased, neutral referees.

    Jene Stefaniak from Astoria, NY, United States
  17. I think Michael Kors is crap.

    There. I said it.

    Matthew Mountford from Fremont, CA, United States
  18. There is a saying that I grew up hearing that still applies to almost everything I do ” who doesn’t hear will feel.” Fashion journalists have been chosen not only by the fashion publications they write for, but also the readers they attract everytime their columns are published. They want the truth, and when they attempt to share it about a collection, instead of the designer taking that critism and using it to adjust problems where they can, before going into production, they arrogantly plot how to get back at those who wrote vexed them. That would be the lack of hearing coming out. The result of that, poor sales, no profits and a business going no where except constant rotation on the sales racks. That would be the financial feel many designers fail to get until it’s too late to save the brand. That’s ok there are countless other designers out there to replace the hard-headed ones who still think one hand doesn’t help write the other into magazines and stores.
    It’s a good thing I don’t care much for front-row seating or invites at fashion shows, the beauty of live-streaming and tradeshows! I’ll write my truth from the comfort of my home or coffee shop, and keep my credit cards neatly tucked in my wallet for those designers who’ve figured out the formula, from the runway to the journalists mouths and pens to the consumers wallets then bodies.

    Kalyca Romeo

    Kalyca Romeo from Brooklyn, NY, United States

    Well said. I couldn’t agree more.

    Stanley Lui from Singapore, Singapore (general), Singapore