Op-Ed | Can the Current Media Environment Produce an Honest Critic?

The problem with fashion criticism isn’t the lack of honest opinion, but the lack of places to publish it, argues Jason Dike.

Source: FIDé Fashion Week

LONDON, United Kingdom — Cathy Horyn’s retirement has reignited the debate about the state of fashion criticism. It’s been asked whether her departure from her post at The New York Times spells the end of honest critique. But this has always been a rather simplistic argument. The issue isn’t what Cathy Horyn’s departure means for fashion, but whether the current media environment can produce another critic of Horyn’s ilk.

Several of fashion’s most independent, well-versed, fearless and knowledgeable critics got their start working at local and regional newspapers. Horyn worked at Detroit News for four years. Robin Givhan started at the Detroit Free Press, where she worked for seven years. Lynn Yaeger worked at The Village Voice for three decades.

But The Village Voice — which was bought by New Times Media in 2005 and has seen circulation fall from 247,000 in 2006 to 124,998 as of December 2013, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations — no longer has a fashion section and never replaced Yaeger after her departure in 2008. Both the Detroit News and the Free Press now use syndicated Associated Press coverage in lieu of hiring their own fashion reporters.

Why is this important?

Because young writers working at these kinds of papers were able to learn their trade from experienced journalists and, critically, write in the context of a business that wasn’t totally reliant on fashion advertising for income. But with these kinds of outlets either shrinking, disappearing or slashing budgets, there is a chasm where this important stepping stone once was.

That doesn’t mean that the world is devoid of media outlets for fashion coverage. Quite the opposite. But most fashion outlets are visually driven and depend on fashion advertising for their survival. Thus, it’s bad business to publish anything negative about an advertiser or potential advertiser, leaving very little room for honest critique.

As the interconnectedness of the web brings content and commerce closer together, online stores have begun investing significant sums of money in creating well-written editorial. But a shop is essentially there to sell product, so real critique is out of the question.

It’s often been asked how fashion has found itself in a situation where honest critique has been squeezed out, while other creative sectors like book publishing, music and film have managed to avoid this fate.

Johnny Depp and Arnie Hammer both complained about negative reviews of their film The Lone Ranger, blaming these for poor box office performance. Musicians often dislike the reviews they get and are sometimes very vocal about it (Tom Odell’s father even called the NME to complain about a 0/10 review the outlet had given his son). And author Alain de Botton was incensed enough to write the following to a negative reviewer: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.” But despite this, in these other creative sectors, critique exists in a way that it simply does not in fashion.

It’s time for fashion to change this.

But as we, as an industry, grapple with these issues, let’s remember that the real problem isn’t that there’s no one with an honest opinion anymore. It’s that there are very few places left to publish that opinion.

Jason Dike is a writer based in London.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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9 comments

  1. I agree that business driven and funded media is killing off the potential objectivity of critique, though I think it may not be possible any more to nurture as this is the fashion industry, one based heavily on opinion, connections and fragile egos. For someone to start out writing negative reviews, it will be more likely that the the doors to shows will be quickly shut in their faces (as has been done to Cathy Horyn herself) and editors will hold their hands up as there is not much they can do if they want their publication to survive.

    flying adolescent from United Kingdom
  2. Love the article and the question it raises. If you’d like to see visualized some criticism on the creativity, or lack of it, of designers…. you should check out my blog Into The Fashion.
    xo
    Diana
    http://www.intothefashion.com

    Diana Murek from Milan, Lombardy, Italy
  3. Give me Lynn Yaegar.
    Someone who can write. Someone who has knowledge and a sense of fashion history informing her perspective.
    Isn’t the question really about “selective” criticism? How can reporters/critics be honest when their employers/clients/pay masters want add revenue from the very entities they critique? Or……the writer/critic is jonesing for a future book deal.
    Too twisted.
    Lynn Yaegar-catch her in the New Yorker.

    Barbara Alexander from Toronto, ON, Canada
  4. Fashion Critics or reviews are as useful as anal with taste buds! Sorry but these people are paid by magazines which drive incomes from fashion companies advertising money. Besides this commercial partnership the critics also wants to be seen at the shows sitting front row and being invited to fancy dinners and parties and given expensive gifts.

    Even bloggers now are paid for their positive reviews so if you take any of the reviews seriously you are extremely naive.

    Thanh Rodney from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  5. I agree with this completely, and have discussed it with others on many occasions. I am currently attending a fashion-focused school (though I am graduating with a Marketing degree) and the decline of true criticism has made my studies even more difficult. Everyone will have an opinion until the end of time, but having fewer and fewer “role models” and experienced critics to analyze has made even class level exercises more difficult. The implications reach further than just the aspiring fashion critic, those wishing to enter the industry in any capacity will have a more difficult time formulating an educated, and true, opinion of what is happening in the business.

    Cali Milano from Woodside, NY, United States
  6. Great article, thank you for a thoughtful piece. Now we see opinions which is fine and often interesting but with little merit as far as critique or meaningful insight goes. I don’t see the designers as suffering from fragile egos,(unless it’s a Project Runway episode), but I do see poor writing and a general lack of understanding on the part of the bloggers and the Press is sadly mostly paid hacks & shills and they do not offer meaningful critique. No one should do a fashion review, or any review for that matter, just to make nasty mean spirited remarks to spice up their review, that is not what a reviewer’s job is about. How about a solid thoughtful critique? Mary Lou Luther of the LA Times and Tracy Hayes of the DallasMorning News were both progressive fashion editors who wrote well and covered fashion as a serious business, their critiques were meaningful and were never mean spirited. The issue is really about the lack of serious journalism. Fashion is a gigantic global industry and deserves to be treated seriously…it’s much more then just making a cute blouse if you know what I mean. Fashion is a serious business and should be treated as such.

    Sandra Garratt from Palm Springs, CA, United States
  7. Good point re the outlets for fashion criticism. When there are no places for a journalist to prove him/herself, then it becomes difficult for critics to develop. Yet fashion criticism needs to think bigger, and look at the bigger issues in the industry, such as where garments are made, the quality of them, etc. It isn’t merely enough to write about the beautiful garments seen in fashion shows. But this goes back to what I first said, and something that’s also said clearly in this op-ed: there just aren’t enough venues/publications for critics to cut their teeth. One doesn’t start at the New York Times. If there’s no place to start, then how can there be any top tier critics?

    HighFashionAverageWoman.com

    Tish Grier from Belchertown, MA, United States
  8. Ultimately the critique will appear from the customer / readership. Both are getting more savvy. Bad advice and bias gets found out in the end. As does poor journalism.

    I’m sure the better journalists will hate having to pander to their advertisers. Will hopefully create a generation tough enough to say it how it is.

    Steve Johnson from Reading, Reading, United Kingdom
  9. I am not sure that I would agree that Ms Horyn was the voice of truth at the end of her tenure at NYT .. as for MS. Yaeger , well she works for Conde Nast so that immediately lets her out.. you might also ask your self and this included Bof F .. who is brave enough to publish HONEST reportage.. I have prided myself on mine and have built a following because of it ..most are afraid to speak it and more afraid to agree with it

    JEFFREY FELNER from New York, NY, United States