In Defense of a Free Fashion Press

Fashion critics and journalists should be allowed to publish critical and substantial commentary on fashion shows without brands banning them from runway shows, says Colin McDowell, a member of the recently launched BoF 500.

Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes sitting front row | Source: theluxechronicles.com

LONDON, United Kingdom — The relationship between fashion houses and the press has frequently been uneasy: half love, half hate. On both sides, respect has often been limited, opportunistic and cautiously given.

More than 60 years ago, Christian Dior is reported to have personally ejected a journalist he was convinced was taking illicit photographs during one of his shows. Cristóbal Balenciaga did everything he could to avoid any contact with the press, with the exception of the grande dames from American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the form of Diana Vreeland and Carmel Snow — and it was only Snow who he really rated. Coco Chanel treated virtually all press as personal lackeys charged with doing her bidding and had constant feuds over how her clothes were featured in magazines. More recently, Suzy Menkes was banned for a long period by Versace. I too have been banned by Versace, McQueen and Armani, among others. Cathy Horyn has suffered the same punishment. The crime? Saying what we felt about a particular show.

To refuse a journalist entrance to a show which you want to have featured in his or her newspaper is the most sterile form of punishment, not unlike the ineffectual teacher who kicks a disruptive child out of class, thereby tacitly admitting that it is the child who holds the power.

I assume the fashion houses which sanction this rather silly reaction to criticism want journalists to feel ashamed. But this assumption couldn’t be more wrong. Most fashion writers are more robust than that and the notoriety that such an action brings always rebounds on the fashion houses. They want to be featured in the top publications and for that reason they always give in first. But what a silly, childish charade they play.

Of course, the motivation for the long history of exclusion has changed since Monsieur Dior’s day. Back then, the great fear was piracy. During the gestation time between order and delivery everything had to be shrouded in secrecy. And the rules as to what might and might not appear in magazines and newspapers were rigidly enforced by the designers. Dior’s behaviour was nothing to do with spite, but merely a matter of commercial expediency. For a few brief seasons, in order to stop pirates, Balenciaga and Givenchy actually showed after all the other fashion houses, when commercial buyers had returned home, and only invited close favourites from the press.

Now, of course, the wheel has come full circle and the designers are desperate for the show to be seen as soon as possible. Photographers are as important as front row grande dames. Getting the story out there is number one priority, hence the rising use of live streaming.

But still it is the written word and the judgement behind it that matters, which is why fashion needs the skilled eye and experience that enables the front row journalist to assess the quality of what is on the runway. For a designer to try and exclude people because they do not find it possible to praise each and every collection is as sterile a move as it is stupid.

A commentator must be allowed to make a commentary. That commentary must have substance. And writers of this calibre must be nurtured, not neutered, by the fashion industry.

Colin McDowell is a seasoned British fashion critic and journalist. He spent many years as senior fashion writer for The Sunday Times.

A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, published to accompany the launch of the BoF 500. To get your copy, click here or visit Colette in Paris, Opening Ceremony in New York, London and Los Angeles, Le Mill in Mumbai and Sneakerboy in Melbourne.

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9 comments

  1. This is exactly why we started our project just a week ago: http://bloguerasdemierda.wordpress.com/ (sorry, maybe you should learn some Spanish). Respect Sir Colin.

    Smith John Smith from Las Rozas De Madrid, Autonomous Region of Madrid, Spain
  2. At issue is the definition of “critical and substantial commentary” Ms. Horyn and others often use their bully pulpits frequently for personal attack, invective ridden, non-constructive criticism that has little or nothing to do with the garments on the runway. Designers in the public eye, who work hard to produce a collection, deserve RESPECTFUL criticism – be it good or bad. The self righteous tone of this editorial fails to acknowledge the classless, tactless, personal attacks that some people are just sick of reading. Kudos to the designers who have said “Enough!”

    Lisa Hart from New York, NY, United States
  3. I guess designers can’t handle criticism and it’s opposite of what we were taught at design school. Designers think that by rejecting “journalists” from shows it would teach them a lesson but designers need to respect journalists no matter what they say. Some designers are blinded by their own snobbish aura. Every critic is entitled to their own opinion.

    A Lonewolf In Fashion from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  4. From The Brand Side you want Complete Control of information : From the reporting & public side you want complete access.

    I tend to think the freedom of exchange of information is the correct way to go. Design something innovative, understandable and fantastic and reap the rewards of a truly great product.

    LXIV APPAREL from Raleigh, NC, United States
  5. Cathy Horyn has 4 core followers who have been with her for several years on her blog “On the Runway”.
    Her indifference, inattentiveness and selective criticism may contribute to her low following.
    She is a brilliant writer, but critic? I think not.

    Barbara Alexander from Toronto, ON, Canada
  6. As a fashion writer who covered NYFW for six years and has since moved into the industry working directly with designers, most recently as the Director of Designer Relations for Manufacture NY, I feel my perspective is more accurate than most. To Mr. McDowell’s primary point I would say that a designer/brand should never have any response to a negative review. We’re adults, grow up and take criticism even if it’s uninformed or personally motivated. From the designer’s side though the frustration arises from the fact that 90% of the fashion press has no idea how clothes actually get made or understands anything about how the fashion industry functions. If you were watching a sporting match and the commentators knew nothing about the sport they were calling your bewilderment and frustration would approximate what the designers feel when the 40th pretty 20 year old comes up and asks the same insipid question that the last 39 did. Great critics, ala Kenneth Tynan or Pauline Kael, are as knowledgeable and passionate about their subject matter as the artists they cover. If they’re not then why do we care what they think? My response then boils down to two edicts. To the brands, grow up. If you believe in a collection then you won’t care what the press thinks. They’re not the buyers and they have never had as little influence over them as they do right now. To the critics, study up. If you don’t know what muslins are or who Mainbocher was then why should we read you?

  7. Brands and designers have a right to do whatever they chose, whether it be childish, reactionary or wrong. They invite journalists to their shows, they can choose not to invite journalists also.

    Perhaps what is missed here, is that everything a brand does impacts on the essence, equity and concept of that brand.

    If a brand (and by extension its designers & staff) choose to act like bigots, refusing entry to show, shunning the media, then this is the brands essence.

    Traditional media is just one of 5-6 key elements of how a brand communicates to its consumers (product, distribution, real word-of-mouth, etc etc)

    So if they choose to exclude the traditional media, deal with it.

    Times are changing people, brands have more and more ways to connect with consumers.

    and yes it might be a bit puerile for brands to exclude media based on what they say.

    But if you live in a world where you think brands aren’t manipulating and influencing everything that they communicate to consumers, perhaps you are living in even more of a fantasy…. ??

    The media is just one tool that brands use, if you don’t like how they are using it, there’s not much you can do.

    mark ggg from Germany
  8. So incredibly well written! I wrote some comments and my point of view on http://www.madeleineholth.com Would LOVE for someone to comment on it and tell me their opinion!!!!

    Madeleine Groven Holth from Norway
  9. Terrific article which exposes the struggles between designers and critics / writers. After all, that’s what fashion writers are and we need to realize that. As an aspiring designer, I must realize that what people write and report is always important. That being said, I should always expect professional honesty and not personal vindictiveness . Readers are entitled to that sense of professional journalism. Designers should invite respected and educated opinion and accept it as just that. To exclude opinion only exacerbates a breakdown between two segments that need each other to exist successfully. It also exemplifies a real lack of professional maturity. I don’t think that it is quite sensible for any designer or fashion house, REGARDLESS of name or label, to imagine every piece of every line would be accepted with great praise. It should also be noted that In light of the recent resignation by Cathy Horyn from the New York Times, I would say this article has more industry relevance now than when initially published.

    There are some great comments here and I would direct attention to Seth Friedermann. Well said, sir. You not only offer an educated and informed op-ed for readers, but your honesty is quite refreshing. We all need to realize our own roles and what we have to offer this industry to make it more successful on the whole. Often times our best resource is the one standing beside us, though we may not completely agree with their opinion or observation. At the end of the day, our valued customers will be always be the ultimate judge of our work. We need not be consumed by the opinion of just one when there are perhaps millions who would think otherwise. Good day.

    David White from Allentown, PA, United States