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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
By
  • Colin McDowell

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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