March 12, 2013
reinventing fashion criticism
Why are there no recognizable new fashion critics? You would think, with an abundance of free media for the taking, one or two strong fresh voices would rise to challenge the established names and push this type of writing further. I can only think of a few who have more recently made a strong impression with personality and flair, only to abandon the form. Alexander Fury did consistently insightful and contextual reviews for SHOWstudio – he has now moved into an editorial position at LOVE. Sarah Nicole Prickett brought a sharp eye and sharper pen for a few memorable seasons in Toronto and New York. Now she no longer writes about fashion. Further off the radar, I enjoy the brief, sensitive, poetic reviews on Fashion156 by John Michael O’Sullivan of 1972 Projects – his unique work does not enjoy the attention I think it deserves.
There are many possibilities for fashion criticism that haven’t yet been played out, but for all the critics’ protests about the encroachment of the bloggers, isn’t it odd that so few bloggers are actually challenging them with direct competition? What does that mean for the future of fashion criticism?
Fashion has changed. Fashion criticism has stayed the same. Same names, same game. We often forget that fashion criticism in its narrowest form is a fairly recent development – in the 1990s. Fashion criticism emerged just as more academic and intellectual interest was focused on fashion for the first time, while at the same time supermodels legitimized fashion with popular attention. Most importantly, newspaper journalism had not yet been transformed by the media revolution. Fertile ground for fashion criticism existed for less than a decade. Since then, no new seeds have taken root.
The internet, for all of its many benefits, is a terrible environment for fashion criticism. The paradox of free speech is that it’s more in the sense of free market than it is like actual freedom. Horyn, Menkes, Alexander, McDowell and their contemporaries all have the tremendous subsidy of a major media corporation that protects their freedom of speech for them. Freelancers and bloggers, on the other hand, have to look out for themselves. Being critical isn’t good business in fashion. There are no economic advantages to it. It’s also tremendously difficult to do well, and be popular doing it, since it is a somewhat intramural, confrontational pursuit. Fashion is wary of words. For fashion criticism to survive and thrive, it needs at least one degree of separation between the creator and the money required to support their work.
A great fashion critic needs to be an outsider’s insider. They need to be obsessive and knowledgable about fashion history, recent and past, and also be well versed in the culture at large as well. Able to grasp the technical language of fashion as well as being able to interpret an expressive, visual phenomenon using words, without falling into the claptrap of cliches. Ideally, the critic needs to be able to write about a narrow topic in an expansive way that would also draw in the casual reader. A strong personality is a major plus. It is no wonder so few bloggers or young writers have such a unique combination of exceptional talents, not to mention the encouragement to pursue criticism as a career.
When I was reading the fashion criticism on offer this season, I was frustrated. The old guard seemed far older than usual – griping about bloggers and email invitations, bemoaning the digital influence on design. Many missives seemed to be pining for the glory days of fashion criticism rather than keeping up with ever-changing fashion as it is NOW. There were two insights in particular that I was looking for and never found – a dispassionate, up-to-date commentary on the effects of the media revolution on fashion, and a cool consideration of why, exactly, Hedi Slimane is offending the fashion establishment so much right now.
It’s clear that if I want to read these things, I will have to write them myself, and this post is a stab in that direction. Perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I think I’m in an ideal position to experiment with fashion criticism. Since my writing is wholly un-monetized and somewhat distanced from my business as an illustrator, I have more freedom in what I choose to write about than most. I also have the freedom of time – unlike a newspaper reporter, I have the privilege to ponder, research and wait for a genuine insight to emerge rather than racing to cover a particular event in a timely fashion. I also want to stretch fashion criticism beyond its traditional format of runway reviews and designer profiles, because really, it could be so much more.
Are you aware of any fresh voices in fashion criticism? I’d love to learn their names. What do you think the future of fashion criticism should be like?