BoF Logo

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.

Colin’s Column | Why Fashion Needs Its Fourth Estate

In his latest column, Colin McDowell examines the sorry state of fashion criticism and why fashion needs its Fourth Estate more than ever.
Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes sitting front row | Source:
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — The fashion world is one of expediency in which few utterances of any kind can be taken seriously. Insincerity and empty, hysterical overreactions are almost de rigueur, especially when uttered by press officers and public relations people. No surprise because, like diplomats, they are not paid to always tell the truth, but to fight their corner on behalf of designers.

And when it comes to fashion writers, the truth is there are precious few who have an opinion and are proud to express it. In fact, there are less than half a dozen. And that’s because the sanctions for speaking truth are severe, because if they are not, the entire self-congratulatory, smoke and mirrors, candy floss edifice of fashion could collapse into an unedifying goo.

In the past, the slapping down of expert opinion was done by paid PR officers (with varying degrees of aplomb). The designer was considered far too grand to personally deal with such lese-majesty. The main weapon of chastisement was the seat at the next show. And the punishment took one of three courses.

Either no ticket was sent out to the truth-telling miscreant and no amount of pleading would enable one to be found. Or a ticket was sent, but for a seat that the PR people knew the writer would not find acceptable, either personally or for the prestige of his or her publication. Or, worst of all, a ticket was send for the journalist's usual front row seat — and this treatment was only ever meted out to high-profile, front-row regulars — but just before the lights were about to go down, there would be a flurry of activity and the journalist ejected from the seat with the maximum of humiliation, only for it to be taken by a C-list television “personality” or, in Milan, a spare contessa or even principessa, looking as if she had just been rescued from a terrible fate at the hands of her hairdresser; a woman who, like most of the audience enjoying this unedifying but admittedly amusing little pantomime, didn't know or care that hereditary titles had been abolished when the last King of Italy, Umberto II, resigned in 1946, after reigning for just over a month.

But such front row antics seem like innocent fun compared with the venom released more recently by designers stung by critical remarks. It all began when a series of pouting, petulant and paranoid young men began taking the reins of old, established fashion houses. Did it go to their heads? What’s your guess?

Sadly, this immature and insecure new breed care nothing for the dignity of the professional commentator and somehow feel it’s their right to counter comment with which they do not agree by writing insulting public letters addressed to journalists. They even make personal attacks in order to vent their spleen.

But fashion desperately needs its Fourth Estate just as much as government. And attempts to silence it are nothing more than bullying and must be resisted by all in the fashion world, for the good of the fashion world.

Indeed, this is one of the key reasons why fashion is not in a good place today. Whereas most art forms are kept on their toes by informed commentary, the fashion world has virtually none. No wonder it is currently so unhealthy that the only news that it can proudly muster concerns store openings, profit reports and the continual musical chairs of designer appointments and departures. Never a word about creativity.

True critics assess literature, theatre, film, music, architecture, painting, sculpture and other creative endeavours that have intellectual content. The rest are more correctly seen as commentators, no matter what grandiose titles they choose for themselves.

In the ongoing battle of words, it is important to ask which, if any, is doing a job of any serious significance for the ultimate standards of fashion, now or in the future. The commentator? The PR? The vindictive designer who has lost his head by believing what his paid minions tell him?

Whilst they are pondering, perhaps they might all remember that a true creator always accepts criticism without rancour and, of course, never replies.

© 2021 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions

The Business of Fashion

Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
The BoF Sustainability Masterclass Series
© 2022 The Business of Fashion. All rights reserved. For more information read our Terms & Conditions and Privacy policy.
The BoF Sustainability Masterclass Series