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Op-Ed | Who Watches the Watchmen?

Courtesy of our friends at Byronesque, pioneering fashion blogger Diane Pernet laments the current state of fashion criticism and brings us a brief history of fashion critics past and present.
Suzy Menkes, Cathy Horyn, Sarah Burton and Phillip Treacey | Source: Bacca da Silva
  • Diane Pernet

PARIS, France — In any other field, like theatre or film, critics can say what they feel without the risk of not being able to attend another opening of a director's work, whereas in fashion, if you say something negative, you can forget receiving another invitation from that designer. Or you might get put on probation for a season or two, or banned from their shows until they realise how foolish this makes them look. It is no wonder that most 'critics' are not critics, but just give a report of what goes down the runway, without voicing any real opinion. It is also no secret that for more than the past decade, editorials have been ruled by advertisers. You place an ad, you get an editorial page, and if the advertiser does not get proper coverage, they pick up the phone and demand editorial coverage or they will pull their money. So, can you really expect a critic for a publication that thrives on that ad money to say that the Chanel or the Louis Vuitton show was crap? Not likely.

It takes a certain amount of curiosity and openness toward what is new, combined with a strong understanding of what went on in the past to be a really great critic. For example, if you have no references, then you might think that what is going down the catwalk is actually something new, but with experience you know where and when it's been done before, and then it is hard to get too excited over the regurgitation of fashion looks. Having said that, people such as Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot and Godard have been credited with saying that it is okay to steal as long as you take the work to a new place and introduce it to a new audience. I suppose the same applies to fashion. The less talented designers will imitate, while the more talented designers deface it and make it better. Perhaps that feels a bit off point, but it seems relevant to me when you think of situations where designers were caught red-handed stealing from others but the journalists excused their behavior, stating that everyone does it so it is okay. In 2009, Sameer Reddy discovered a photo in a book on the late Kaisik Wong that was line for line in the Nicolas Ghesquière collection for Balenciaga. More recently, J.W. Anderson ripped off the design of an early J.Crew sweater. ­

Over the past decade, the major change has been that businessmen rule the fashion industry and creativity has taken a backseat to advertising budgets and communication. It is a mystery to me how PRs make their selections for the shows. I know for a fact that many PRs don’t even listen to who the designer would like attending their show –they make that decision for them. Oftentimes, the designer can request for someone to be invited, but if the PR does not find them worthy for whatever reason, the designer is fairly useless in making that happen. This is something that would never have happened more than a decade ago. The PR and the designer would go over the lists and they would have the final say as to who gets invited. We are in an age where stylists and PR seem to have more power than the actual creator, and that is a really sad state of affairs. 

When I go to a show, I always look for something that touches me on an emotional level and takes me somewhere that I have not already been. However, with sites like, it is just as easy to watch the shows on your computer in real time and whenever you want to, which will eventually diminish the power of the PR. Of course, on those few shows that are truly spectacular, you miss something by watching it online, but for the most part it's like the scene in the movie Ready-to-Wear by Robert Altman with Julia Roberts watching the report on CNN and then filing her copy.

Whether they're in the front row of the shows or in front of a computer, I like reading Tim Blanks, Cathy Horyn or Suzy Menkes because they say what they think, which, is historically how it used to be.

Vogue 1891 - Present

Source: Vogue

Are current Vogue editors critics? I'm not sure if a lot of editors even read books, much less offer serious criticism of the collections that they cover. Their focus is more about fitting all the advertisers into the editorial pages. Vogue China has to turn down advertisers because their unwritten law is one ad equals one editorial and there are only so many pages one can put into an issue before it becomes obscene. Today, there are no more Diana Vreelands, Anna Piaggis, Polly Mellons or Isabella Blows. In their place there are expert business women who know how to seduce their advertisers and satisfy the major players. It's like Nicholas Coleridge predicted in his book The Fashion Conspiracy back in 1988: the corporate death of the fashion industry.

Diana Vreeland 1936-1971


When I think about Diana Vreeland, two films come to mind: William Klein's satire on the fashion industry Who Are You, Polly Magoo? and Stanley Donen's Funny Face. Both were parodies of Vreeland, who proclaimed herself as "the one and only fashion editor." She was among the most influential women of the 20th century and felt it was her duty to give people a point of view, because most of them had none. She was famous for saying, "Don't give them what they want, give them what they don't know they want."

Elizabeth Hawes 1938-1971

Source: Ralph Steiner

Elizabeth Hawes wore several hats: she was a designer, a writer and an outspoken critic of the fashion industry. She wrote a book in 1938 called Fashion is Spinach. "Fashion is a parasite on style. Without style, he wouldn't exist but what he does to it is nobody's business. Fashion is apt to insist one year that you are nobody if you wear flat heels and then turn right around and throw thousands of them in your face," said Hawes. She was also the first designer to show a collection from a non-French design house during the Paris season, along with encouraging a cross-gender dressing movement. She'd be happy now to find that the period of fashion dictatorship is long gone. Or is it?

John Fairchild 1960-1996


John Fairchild was known for his acerbic tongue and his ability to instill fear in the overlapping worlds of fashion and society. His reign of terror was due to his ability to give and take publicity. The whole idea of an "In and Out" column totally bores me and feels like an '80s door policy. But to not get reviewed at all in WWD was once as painful as receiving a bad review. Editors were instructed to make derogatory comments about independent designers that had no money for advertising. As time went on, however, good buyers gave less credibility to WWD reviews and learned to trust their own judgment.

Hebe Dorsey 1970-1987

Source: IHT

Hebe Dorsey was a French Tunisian-born fashion editor who was fond of giving acidic reviews known to go beyond the clothes and under the skin of many designers. Dorsey, like many other fashion editors, was a member of the social set. She enjoyed covering society events almost as much as she did fashion. She was known for her sharp sense of analysis and was witty and irreverent, which is probably why she remained an influence in fashion for so many years.

Lynn Yaeger 1978 - Present

Source: The Sartorialist

The Village Voice's Lynn Yaeger. She is currently a contributing fashion editor to and before that she was the fashion reporter at The Village Voice for 30 years. Yaeger is known both for her 1930s cupid doll look and her sharp tongue. Fearless is a good way to describe her, as she is someone who is not afraid of expressing her opinion. I don't always agree with her, but I respect her opinion and she is a very good read. Some have said that Yaeger has softened her tone since working for and that now she plays it safe. I'm not so sure about that.

Elsa Klensch for CNN 1980 - Present

Source: Style by Elsa Klensch

Elsa Klensch was probably the first to report on fashion for cable television. She did come from a fashion background, having worked as an editor for WWD, Vogue, W and Harper's Bazaar. I don't think she ever gave any kind of opinion. It was basically over-appreciative reporting on the latest collections. It felt more like free fashion PR. In addition to the fashion coverage, there was a fair amount of attention given to cultural icons and fashion celebrities. If you were not on the guest list, you could catch it on "Style With Elsa Klensch," and, of course, as a designer that was the place you wanted to be.

Tim Blanks  1985 - Present

Source: Showstudio

I met Tim Blanks years ago in Toronto, where one of my clients had put on my fashion show. Tim was sitting next to me as we both experienced it. We met again in 1991 when he was the host of "Fashion Files" and I was assisting the producer. After 17 years at "Fashion Files," he moved over to Tim is an over-achiever and sped through school and university, skipping I'm not sure how many grades. Let's just say he's smart as a whip, knows and loves fashion, and has exquisite taste. He prefers having a conversation with his audience rather than reporting on the obvious.

Suzy Menkes 1988 - Present

Source: Courtesy Photo

It's been a long stretch, but Menkes has not lost her enthusiasm for reporting on fashion. She has integrity and never stoops to bitchiness as a way of selling papers. I guess she would not have lasted very long at WWD. A decade ago she was banned from the French mega-luxury conglomerate LVMH's shows for one week.  The fashion press formed a united front behind  her, making LVMH look like fools if they did not lift the ban. Those less powerful than Menkes would never dare to tell the truth.

Colin McDowell 1990s - Present

Source: Courtesy Photo

When the outspoken Colin McDowell is banned from a show, he takes it as a badge of honor. In a recent article for The Business of Fashion, he clearly states the three choices of a fashion critic. "He can buy into the bullshit and accept the whole carnival of press handouts, photo shoots, styling gimmicks, the show and what they say about the actual clothes. He can puncture the bullshit and tell the truth about the lamentable standards of commercial fashion. Or he can play the honest broker and go halfway or simply find other things to write about such as the number of roses in a room and the names of the front row personalities."

Amy Spindler 1994 - 2004

Source: 10 Magazine

Spindler was credited with raising the standards of fashion writing. She saw fashion as a cultural barometer in the same way many of us look at music or art, in the broad context. What set her apart from many of her contemporaries was that she was constructive with her criticism and not malicious or cutting. She was outspoken about magazines glamorising "heroin chic" and wrote a front-page article for the New York Times, where she was style editor, about the death of Davide Sorrenti, a young fashion photographer that died of a drug overdose. I wonder, if she were still alive, what she'd have to say about Terry Richardson and his escapades with young models.

Cathy Horyn 1998 - Present

Source: Katy Winn

It is a little known fact, but before Cathy Horyn was a fashion critic, she was a war correspondent. She began her fashion career in 1986 writing for the Detroit News, followed by The Washington Post. And, in 1996, Horyn was one of the few fashion journalists who really took the word 'critic' seriously. She is fearless and due to her negative reviews has been banned from Herrera, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Helmut Lang and Oscar de La Renta. She is tough in her criticism and probably, like Colin McDowell, wears being banned from a show like a badge of honor.

Judy Licht  2000 - Present

Source: Jamie McCarthy

I often wonder if all it takes to be celebrated as a fashion authority is to be the first at doing something. Maybe that can explain the success of Judy Licht and her program, "Full Frontal Fashion." Licht treated fashion as another form of celebrity watching. Prior to her induction into fashion, she had been a celebrity reporter and a newscaster. She also managed to keep the cliché of fashion fluff alive.

Inexperienced Bloggers 2006/8 - Present

Source: Dustin Fenstermacher

I find it amusing the way so many seasoned journalists are still threatened by bloggers. The bloggers are not masquerading as mature journalists. They are more like consumers excited to find themselves suddenly given access to the shows and along with that, a certain degree of credibility. The ones that write their content based on who is paying the bills are no better/or worse than the magazines that only report on their advertisers. I enjoy the enthusiasm of Tavi, Susie Bubble and Bryanboy. Each has their own vision of fashion. And of course it is fresh and much less cynical than the editors who come to shows, throw their heads back and say, “Now try and please me.”

A version of this article first appeared on Byronesque, a curated vintage marketplace founded by Gill Linton.

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