LONDON, United Kingdom — Not long ago, I hosted a dinner at London College of Fashion focused on fashion writing. The assembled journalists, editors, bloggers and scholars spent the evening debating what makes a good fashion writer, the meaning of integrity, why criticism of brands isn’t encouraged in the mainstream fashion press and if it’s realistic to expect an unbiased view of the fashion industry from publications dependent on fashion advertising for their survival.
Getting members of the fashion industry to speak candidly and on the record about the often-fraught relationship between journalists and brands is not an easy feat and the ambivalent relationship that many writers have to the so-called fashion system was evident in some of the responses I received to my dinner invitation. “Will we be recorded?” was a question asked more than once. One very well known fashion journalist declined the invitation, saying: “I feel that we are now just garnish for fashion PRs and designers. Few people read what we say; we are not the gatekeepers any more, and none of it matters. So I am feeling bleak and don’t want to talk about it.”
It’s an open secret in the fashion industry that advertisers dictate editorial content, mostly tacitly, sometimes explicitly. Stories of reporters being banned from shows after unfavourable reviews are part of fashion folklore, but accounts of designers and their public relations people demanding final approval of articles, cutting short interviews after an uncomfortable question has been asked and bringing their own recording devices to interactions with journalists are surprisingly common. Indeed, the very idea of PRs sitting in on interviews in the first place is, today, considered so normal that it fails to even raise eyebrows.
What journalists tend to talk a lot less about are the generous gifts sometimes bestowed upon us after a favourable article (sending it back would be rude, keeping it feels like an implicit understanding that more good reviews will follow) or the difficulty many of us find when it comes to writing critically about someone you know and like (and will be bumping into shortly at the next industry event).
In the current issue of Vestoj (the magazine I edit) which focuses on the dynamics of power in the fashion industry, American Vogue’s European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles remarks: “Fashion advertising and editorial complement each other. Fashion is all about creating desire, and both advertisers and editors want to seduce the consumer; after all, that’s our job.” While it’s no doubt true that the purpose of most fashion editorial is inextricably meshed with the interests of advertisers, fashion is hardly the only industry where advertising and public relations machinations have ever-increasing influence over the way journalists operate. It is, however, worth pointing out that unlike a film or music critic (who can’t be banned from watching a movie or listening to a track), a fashion journalist or editor barred from participating in industry affairs is, in effect, being prevented from doing his or her job. Being blacklisted by a specific brand often means not only being banned from fashion shows, but also being blocked from conducting interviews and borrowing garments for fashion shoots. A few of these kinds of embargos and a publication can very quickly become irrelevant in terms of its fashion capital.
Realistically, to write about the fashion system, you need to operate within its parameters. Fashion values exclusivity. It is hegemonic and self-reinforcing. As the editor of a much-respected fashion biannual recently wrote to me when turning down an invitation to participate in Vestoj’s “On Fashion and Power” issue: “Surely you realise that people in the industry are there not only because they understand these power structures, but also because they love to know about them (though not necessarily approve of them, as you say). Why on earth would they then jeopardise that vantage point? Surely, they value participating in them (whether subversively or not) more than communicating about them and thereby shutting themselves out?”
Put more plainly, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
In this climate, magazines like Egoïste and The Gentlewoman are often listed when insiders are asked to name examples of good fashion publications. Sophisticated-looking and full of lengthy articles, these are magazines that appeal to our urbane side and that flatter our view of ourselves as discerning fashion consumers as well as participants. But what distinguishes a gushing profile of Prada’s Verde Visconti, which appears in the most recent issue of The Gentlewoman (not far from an advertisement by the same label) from an obsequious review of the brand on Style.com or an editorial full of “total looks” in any one of the current crop of fashion glossies?
To paraphrase Hamish Bowles, today’s fashion publications are primarily in the business of seducing the consumer (and selling product). And whether it’s via the straightforward vehicle of advertising or the more insidious approach outlined above, the result remains the same: the freedom of editors is nominal and big brands rule the roost.
The fashion industry today is a place where most insiders are keenly aware of the lack of autonomy afforded to reporters and critics, and the neutering influence that status and prestige has on critical thinking. Like a legion of Janus-faced cohorts, we make use of our professional face when necessary and switch to our private face when the proverbial tape recorder is finally turned off. Though fashion is clearly not the only industry where professionals have great difficulty seeing their own role in something they may not like, it’s one where we are not often held accountable. Instead, we make concessions, come up with excuses and, when that doesn’t work, we simply learn to live with the discrepancies.
So whereas I’m greatly tempted to turn this article into a rallying call for disgruntled fashion editors, I will stop here. Fighting the system, after all, isn’t for everybody. What we can all do, however, is look for the cracks in it. The chinks and fissures in any system is where the most intriguing stories are often found and the fashion system is no different.
So scratch the surface, question the accepted wisdom and bring a critical eye to those admired uncritically. Only, then, can our work begin to really matter.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is the founder and editor-in-chief of Vestoj and a senior research fellow in fashion theory and practice at London College of Fashion.
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