The Rebirth of Fashion Criticism in an Advertiser’s World
Open a fashion magazine nowadays, it is part baffling and part humorous how the editorial content starts on page 150 or 180. The hundreds of the pages before are used purely for advertisers, who finance the majority of the magazine and, thus, hold the majority of the power. Advertiser’s monopolistic influence has caused a phenomenon called Native Advertising which is the merging between advertising and editorial content. Now, more than ever, this term has surged as a relevant subject of conversation as there is a rapidly growing increase in paid content on the Internet. There are entire business models like Buzzfeed, whose only revenue comes from native adverts. These adverts are often disguised to trick the consumer into thinking that the content is considered from an editorial perspective and not a sales one. Despite the pertinence of the term nowadays, this type of advertising has been used by fashion publications for a long time, causing consumers to expect it and accept it, but that does not make it right.
Native advertisement has significantly diminished the amount of honest and insightful fashion critique. The lack of editorial independence in fashion publications has caused magazines to act as mindless cheerleaders; it has incited serious and educated fashion journalists to migrate to non-fashion centric publications and has over-saturated the fashion market, leaving no space for young new talent.
Mainstream fashion magazines, immobilized by advertiser pressure, have lost sincerity and novelty in their editorials and critiques. Their content is dictated by the business and not writers, who are forced to praise every collection thoughtlessly. The reader buys into the magazine to feel enriched by the images of photographers, but they are also there to learn, understand and grasp the references and efforts of the designers. Criticism is what fulfills this need for knowledge, as it teaches the reader how to distinguish not only what is good and what is badbut why. However, criticism in the arts has been regarded dead by many, as there is a new- found freedom in the way art is considered. Today, there seems to be no standard for how art should look like or what art should be. From the Renaissance to the mid-19th-century art and as a part of it, fashion, was used to represent the world, to enlighten and educate. After this, with the rise of modern art, artists more than ever started questioning what art should be and how it should look like. Now, art is about freedomand subjectivity. Consequently, it has led some to believe that they do not longer need criticism, thus; its absence, primarily in fashion, has been blamed on its obsolescence and not on the rise of native advertisement. However, is it actually obsolete? David Strauss writes in The Brooklyn Rail that “Art for art’s sake is fine, if you can get it. But then the connection to reality becomes tenuous, and the connection to the social disappears. If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism.”
The fashion industry needs criticism as it is an industry that famously likes to operate in a vacuum, catering to the same wealthy, white, western demographic. Under this light, criticism in fashion helps expand the conversation and aids the industry to self-examine and pushes it to change.
The word criticism stems from the Greek word krisis, which means dispute and discrimination, decision and judgment. The word itself sets up criticism to take a compelling stand on something. However, how can magazines keep calling some of their mindless cheerleading “criticism” if the diction is vague, the opinions few and the tone uniform throughout? The Guardian calls this merging line between advertisement and editorial content “journalism selling its soul.” The problem is that if the term critic keeps being applied to writers compromised by advertising pressures, the reader is going to believe the sold and biased content being presented is well argued. As the reader believes paid content, journalism is not only selling its own soul but the readers’ as well. Who is at fault here? The advertisers have to keep in business; the fashion houses have to advertise and the magazines have to create a bigger revenue in an era where conventional paper publications face an increasing risk of becoming extinct.
It is arguable that designers are the ones pushing fashion criticism into a road of obsolescence. Cathy Horn, while she was The New York Times’ fashion critic was banned from Carolina Herrera, Dolce & Gabbana and Saint Laurent fashion shows for being harsh and slanderous. Karl Lagerfeld banned Robin Givhan from The Washington Post after she criticized one of his shows. New York Magazine put it this way: “criticize a designer's work, and you can forget about an invitation to the next show; gush about it, and lose your integrity.” However, as artists, critiqueisincrediblyvaluableinthecreativeprocess. Designersshouldopenlyaccept the opinions that educated writers and academics form about their collections. Designers have become accustomed to this mindless praising, so receiving critique has become a foreign concept. Illustrious designers have forgotten the grueling process of hearing your work's flaws that is taught and exercised in art schools all over the world. As advertiser pressure rises, magazines continue to applaud thoughtlessly, offering vague and banal journalism, which continues to spoil fashion designers in a masturbatory way. Unsurprisingly, respected critics with stellar career paths and prestigious educational backgrounds have all migrated far away from the world of fashion magazines.
Vogue, W, or Elle and almost all the leading fashion magazines have no opinionated, prestigious writers in their staff as they have all migrated to non-fashion centric publications, mostly newspapers. There, the writers have more freedom to pursue their ideals, to express their opinions and to exercise their practice.
The Washington Post has Robin Givhan, who has been extremely and refreshingly vocal about the industry’s problem with race and discrimination, expressing that the industry is “judgmental about your weight, your hair, and your clothes.” The Independent in London has Alexander Fury, who is famous or unsurprisingly infamous for his extremely honest and straightforward reviews that always have a trace of irreverent humor, evident in instances like when he called out Moschino for “mashing the notions of seasons into a meaningless lukewarm pulp”. Comparably, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times was banned from Heidi Slimane’s first show for Saint Laurent because of a review Horyn had written back in 2004, where she pointed out the influence designer Raf Simons had on him. After Slimane banned Horyn in 2012, she wrote a piece stating how absurd it is that designers ban journalists from their shows. Following this article, Slimane called Horyn “a schoolyard bully and also a little bit of a standup comedian” on his twitter page. Similarly, Colin Mcdowell one of Britain's most prestigious fashion journalists, says, “I have been banned by Versace, McQueen, and Armani, among others. The crime? Saying what I felt about a particular show.” What all these examples indicate is that designers feel threatened by the commentators. People like Slimane or Lagerfeld know critics posses power and are afraid of facing impotence as they know they should not expect to receive praise for every single collection. Not only does banning a journalist from a show virtually halts all opportunity for fashion criticism, it also forces journalists to make the move to newspaper publications, which are learned and revered, but not fashion-centric.
The Washington Post or The Guardian are not the first places a teenager in love with fashionwill go to learn. “Vogue is the Bible of Fashion” is what you are taught by the media and by your peers, even by their sale statistics, as American Vogue sells an average of 300,000 copies an issue. Vogue is the catalyst between information and interest. It is the place where a plethora of fashion-obsessed children with little access to the industry, go to learn and dream. However, the fact that all the interesting voices in fashion have moved away from magazines, leaves the role of the medium muddled and perhaps, futile, as the fashion world becomes more and more globalized and the consumer becomes savvier.
If the magazine fails to give honest criticism, what it ends up becoming is a conglomeration of bought fashion editorials, which are shot by incredible photographers like Mario Testino but whose content and styling are also dictated by the advertisers. Racked conducted a study in 2014 that counted the number of advertisers in a magazine and subsequently counted how many times the advertisers had an editorial mention inside the contents of said magazine. It turns out that out of the 152 brands Vogue advertised, 52 werealso mentioned in the editorial pages, usually more than once. Celine, for example, had four pages of ads and ten editorial mentions throughout the publication. All in all, 34.2% ofadvertisers in Vogue made an appearance in the September issue of 2014. This indicates that magazines are not exercising creativity as bought content makes it difficult for a stylist or a writer to communicate their true artistry through work that is compromised by business liabilities.
So where does this leave the role of the fashion magazine? If commentary is no longer available, one would think, their only role is to dictate taste, to identify the trends and provide places to buy into these trends. Nevertheless, in fashion today, trends have become even more obsolete than critique. In an article from Women’s Wear Daily By Louise J. Esterhazy, she points out “there are no trends…fashion today is a bouillabaisse of everything”. The Internet is partly responsible for this: what you want, the look you desire, is available instantly. Identity is a lot more self-curated because we as consumers have a lot more places to curate from. No one wants to be told what to wear when we have the freedom and tools to decide for ourselves.
So if trends are no more, critique is not published, and editorial content is not authentic, whatis the point of the 600 pages of Vogue’s September issue?
Showcasing new talent and curating upcoming designers and creatives should be one of the magazines’ primary functions, especially when critique and experimental editorials are gone. However, featuring young designers is nothing but utopian, as the mindless cheerleading and native advertising has created an over-saturated market, where it is nearly impossible to stand out.
Twelve years ago New York Fashion Week was nearly two times smaller than what fashionweek is today: 350 shows over nine days. Critics are not in the center of fashion week anymore; there is no elimination process, no curation of creativity, nothing, and no one that discredits the untalented and pushes forward the creative genius. Designer Oliver Theyskens says, “Professionals in fashion are overwhelmed with the images and websites. It's very tough to get their attention.” This over saturation is a problem for editors who have to travel frantically to keep up with the speed of fashion. It is also a problem with already established designers as they have to pop-out new work like a cookie factory just tostay relevant. However, the most affected by the over saturation of fashion week are young designers trying to make it. Two things are problematic for young students trying to launch their creative visions. The first one is scoring a time slot in any fashion week, as it is incredibly expensive. The second one is finding a way to afford advertising space in a magazine, which is essentially the only way to be featured in them. In an industry that prides itself in celebrating the young and the new, it is paradoxical how difficult it has become for new designers to launchtheir careers. It has become so competitive that even seasoned young designers like Meadham Kirchhoff, whose collections credible fashion critics loved, were forced to be taken offschedule because of lack of funds.
The fact that young designers do not even have a platform anymore to showcase their newideas makes it increasingly difficult for fashion to keep thriving on its self-defined ethos of housingthefringesofsociety. CouldAlexanderMcQueenhavemadeit, withhishumble background, in the fashion landscape of today that revolves around business and not creativity?
With trend forecasting dead, critics gone, editorial content bought and the consumer growing bored, what is the future of the fashion publication? All fingers point to obsolescence, but there is another possibility. The future lies in a rebirth of the fashion commentary. Trends are vanishing, making it hard for the consumer to decide what is good. Magazines do not offer any commentary. Consumers are overwhelmed and do not know where to look, but they are also, now more than ever, willing to invest time and effort to find the best of the best, which is where criticism comes in.
We need commentary, we need smart, educated curators that teach us to differentiate between the bought and the honest, the good and the bad, what is worth your time and what is not in the increasingly over-saturated spectrum. However, the rebirth of criticism is only imminent if both designers and consumers force themselves to recognize the growing importance of it. In literature, art and music, there is critique, it is needed for the creative process to thrive, for the art to be nurtured, young designers to be featured and the fashion industry to keep producing insightful, inspired work.