The Sorrier State of Fashion Criticism

BoF’s Imran Amed reflects on leading fashion critic Cathy Horyn’s recent resignation from The New York Times.

Cathy Horyn | Photo: David Shankbone

LONDON, United Kingdom — On Friday, the collective hearts of fashion fans around the world sank on hearing the surprise news that Cathy Horyn, one of our last true fashion critics, was leaving her post at The New York Times for personal reasons.

Indeed, with the start of a new cycle of womenswear shows only days away, for many of us, it is almost unfathomable to imagine fashion week without seeing it through Cathy’s sharp and honest eyes. Scores of comments and reactions from the BoF community around the world underlined just how unique — and respected — her voice is.

On the BoF Facebook page, Paulo Guimarães of Lisbon, Portugal wrote: “The moments I looked forward to the most during fashion week were reading Cathy Horyn’s take on the proceedings… huge, huge, *huge* loss.”

Eddie Frantz of Australia, one of the original commenters on Ms Horyn’s much-loved New York Times blog, “On The Runway,” posted a comment on BoF, writing: “It is an understatement on my part to say that she will surely be missed. She was one of the few pure, unadulterated voices of fashion criticism.” Another regular commenter, agreed: “I will now have to hang up my NYT blog handle La Genevoise!”

“She added balance and truth to her reviews,” added Michelle Fix from New York. “Rarely do you see anything critical of a collection in WWD or on Style.com. The reviews are always filled with accolades — deserved or not.”

In a memo to the New York Times newsroom announcing Horyn’s departure, executive editor Jill Abramson and styles editor Stuart Emmrich called her “the pre-eminent fashion critic of her generation… who has set an almost impossible standard for those who may follow.”

But the question on my mind is this: Is there anyone who can actually follow someone like Cathy? Have we, the fashion industry, nurtured and nourished truly independent, informed voices who say what they really think? I think not. Too much fashion writing is fluffy drivel concerned with front-row attendees and the “hottest new trends.” And too often, it describes the clothes in only an elementary, superficial way that lacks an understanding of how garments are designed and constructed, and how they fit into a wider cultural and economic context.

What’s more, too many of the honest comments that experienced show-goers make to each other on the way out of a show never make it into print. Too many journalists have told me that their opinions are neutered by the powers that be for fear of pissing off advertisers or jeopardising relationships.

And, while Suzy Menkes continues to cover the shows with seemingly indefatigable energy, Robin Givhan pens honest pieces for New York magazine’s “The Cut,” and Tim Blanks stays up late at night for weeks on end to pen his beautifully crafted reviews for the Style.com, I’m hard-pressed to think of who the next generation of critics to write with an equally informed and honest voice will be.

After all, the entire fashion industry benefits from honest, informed criticism, not least the designers themselves, who need real feedback to evolve and progress their work.

I wish Cathy the very best in this next chapter of her life, and lament the now sorrier state of fashion criticism.

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9 comments

  1. As I’m sure it’s been said many times since the announcement, this is a tragedy for fashion journalism, and I wish Ms. Horyn the best in her personal life. I could go on with the platitudes, but our main focus as a community is to look ahead.

    I believe that the answer to your question of whether or not the world of fashion has nourished independent voices is a resounding “no!” The world of fashion is presented as one raucous, boisterous, colorful party encased with impenetrable glass, a castle into which everyone can see, some are churned up and spat out, and very few are let in. For an aspiring anything in the industry, the odds of making it past the translucent gates on talent alone are painfully low. One must have ins, and one can only get them by pandering to the egos of those higher up. It’s a strange cycle this ego-trip begets, then, where the journalist fears backlash from the creative, and the creative, in time, fears backlash from the journalist; everyone fears backlash from the public, which often ends up taking sides.

    It is flattering to hope that the fashion industry is even capable of cultivating a group of writers that is not only immensely talented, but has a hawk’s eye for detail and holds itself responsible for the execution of one job only: doing justice to the truth in a raw, unbridled, yet truly professional manner. There should be no defamation of character or showering of praises (or, in some cases denouncements that hold little ground). Honest coverage is not restricted to kindness or cattiness. It is an evaluation of history, of skill, or workmanship; it is a drawing out of a message where there seems to be none at all, and the pursuance of an intent from the source itself.

    It follows, then, that fearless journalism is something that needs to be reared in another, less forgiving environment, one that upholds the ideals of being responsible for one’s actions, and receiving and doling out praise or criticism only when deserved, and never otherwise. Such an environment should teach the mantra “If you can’t beat them, move to a different state, hone your skills, start your own team, and try again.” I believe the great aforementioned fashion journalists in the article are true pioneers of these concepts. Fashion, from techniques to backgrounds, can be taught, but honesty is truly a virtue. We, as the collective fashion community, cannot simply wait for greatness to fall into our laps, nor can we create them. We must hunt for it.

    N.B. On another note, I think it stands to be explained that our definition of honest criticism should not automatically be associated with the ideas of merciless assaults and ignited ire. Nowadays, “honest” is a term used for shock value, and a free pass at poorly masked bullying. A truly sincere fashion critic would recognize that they are not bullying a designer into making a prettier collection the next time, but are presenting a point of view with supporting evidence. This fact means that not only is it possible to find such talent in the world, but also that the group of powerful fashion journalists can be augmented, and many points of view on one collection or topic can be considered.

    -Khadijat Yussuff of The Off-Beat Edit

    Khadijat Yussuff from Pittsburgh, PA, United States
  2. There’s but a thin line between -criticism- and -critique-. I find Cathy Horn demonstrates the latter, almost emblematically, she’s an Example to all.

    Jean-Pierre Bal from Belgium
  3. I totally agree with your comments on the state of fashion criticism and fashion writing, the ability to “talk” about clothes.
    I feel however that the industry is waking up to the issue. Certainly this is the reason why Modeconnect, a digital platform for and about fashion education has partnered with The Woolmark Company, Polly King and Co and Laurence King Publishing to organise an International Fashion Writing Competition that will provide both exposure and experience to aspiring Fashion Writers.
    I am involved with this competition and feel it deserves all the support it can get!

    http://modeconnect.com/international-fashion-writing-competition

    Mark Atkinson from Île-de-France, France
  4. Bravo! As Jean-Pierre Bal stated, there IS a thin line between criticism and critique…and it’s a line that is getting fuzzier by the minute. It’s no accident that Ms. Horyn, Suzy Menkes and Robin Givhan are so revered, especially now, when there is so much candy fluff and PR marketing dross out there masquerading as opinion. The fashion critic may be an endangered species but fashion SHOULD be measured, analysed along the same lines and held to the same benchmarks as art, music, film or even food. Otherwise, its importance in the scheme of things is debased, the bigger picture is lost and things don’t progress.Yes, all being said, opinion IS merely opinion….but I’d rather hear from someone who actually had SOMETHING to say, whether I agreed with it or not. Also having said that, I also would like to point out that far from being the autocratic monster that some in the media make her out to be, the ‘On The Runway’ blog was one of the few places online where one felt real discussion and debate could take place. You sensed that she always really appreciated everyone’s diverse viewpoints…especially ones that were different to her own, (and we WERE a diverse lot!…it always made for a healthy, satisfying discussion.) She especially liked the people who WEREN’T fashion professionals, because they always brought a fresh perspective to the table. That was always very impressive to me and I shall miss her and all the other fantastic commenters on that blog, though I do hope that some of us will have a reunion of sorts there when NYFW gets under way soon.

    Eddi Frantz from Australia
  5. Could not agree more. Her acute critical eye, her precision and clear voice and viewpoint are just the beginning. Cathy Horyn brought us the ‘big picture’ from her perch at the Times — she understood the art, the craft, and (yes) the business of fashion from the ground up — so aware and sensitive to the subtleties of crafting a garment, building ensemble, creating a look, while taking in the entire sweep of seasonal and epochal shifts, and understanding the nexus between the aesthetics and the marketing and manufacture of design and global fashion branding. She really took it all in; & Jill Abramson & Stuart Emmrich pointed out so accurately set an almost impossibly high standard. I’m glad that Suzy’s still on board; and I, too, LOVE Tim Blanks precise & always elegant reviews; but Cathy Horyn has always been the smartest girl in class that you wanted to share your notes with first (as she did with so many of us in the On the Runway blog). There are so few — as you know first-hand — who can speak with that kind of authority and scope. I’m sure we’ll be seeing her in the Times’ T Magazine (& maybe the Styles pages, too) and elsewhere (and she’ll be working on a book with the Times’ editors); but her presence will be sorely missed around the world’s runways.

    Ezrha Jean Black from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  6. There are many bloggers who have the capacity to provide an honest and intelligent assessment of the collections. The question is whether the designers will let them in to perform the task. Then again, our technology allows anyone to review collections from a distance, so perhaps it comes down to a literary showdown to see who takes the reins. Perhaps the answer is a bit simpler: has anyone thought to ask Ms, Horyn who she’s like to see as her successor?

    Darryl Warren
    Fashion Observed

    Darryl Warren from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  7. It is interesting to see much people value and appreciate Ms. Horyn’s criticism of modern fashion. I think her legacy will remain if only fashion designers could take a second look at her criticisms and reflect that in their designs.

    Irene Essien-Akpan from Greensboro, NC, United States
  8. I actually gasped outloud when I read that Cathy Horyn was leaving the NY Times. She was one of the main reasons I read the NY Time’s fashion section as she had always the greatest insight and anecdotes behind collections, and the guts to say something that was perhaps not so politically correct. As she said once in a tv sound byte, “I’m going to say whatever I want”.

    She’s part (or was part) of a dying breed of journalists that were not afraid to call BS when they see it. While NY Times do run interesting articles here and there on fashion, should I even bother to read On The Runway anymore?

    I’m putting my faith on BOF for upkeeping a platform in which fashion critics can have their say. In the mean time, crossing fingers that Ms. Horyn will be writing a book on fashion or will contribute an article here and there. The story can’t end like this.

    Dahlia Pham from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  9. “What’s more, too many of the honest comments that experienced show-goers make to each other on the way out of a show never make it into print. Too many journalists have told me that their opinions are neutered by the powers that be for fear of pissing off advertisers or jeopardising relationships.”……..

    I find this quite disturbing. To think that there is an orchestrated effort to quash genuine opinions for the sake of dollars or not pissing someone off is repulsive. Perhaps we should all be re-evaluating where our industry has strayed and how the percieved leaders have led us here…or more importantly, how do we deliver ourselves from their tainted grip?

    David White from Allentown, PA, United States