There is a moment at the end of Unzipped, the 1995 documentary about American fashion designer Isaac Mizhari, where he is filmed buying a copy of the New York Times from the newsstand on his block. It is the morning after his show – he looks pensive, collar turned up, a hat tilted over his face. Bent over in the store, he reads the review to a friend down the phone. ‘After Mizrahi has had some tough going recent seasons… with this collection he pulled everything together like the Isaac of old.’ Out on the street he turns to the camera, grinning. ‘They gave it to me! Hallelujah! Oh my god, I feel like Marlo Thomas,’ he shouts.
Although this scene was filmed just under twenty years ago, it seems like something from a bygone era. We no longer have to leave the house to read a review of a fashion show. Now, they rarely exist as a physical thing that you can pick up and read. Instead, they are streamed directly on to a computer, or phone, with designers able to view the initial comments before they have even left the venue. But more than this, the sense of outdatedness comes from the relevance and importance that Mizrahi affords the critic. Like so many designers before him, he uses the review in the Times to gauge reaction to his collection – a definitive voice that declares whether a season’s work is a success or failure.
When Cathy Horyn, chief fashion critic of the New York Times, retired earlier this year it seemed like the end of an era. Famously fastidious, her acerbic reviews saw her banned from Gucci, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Helmut Lang and Saint Laurent, to name but a few. However, whilst controversial, her reviews were intelligent, considered and launched as many designers as they offended. Towards the end of her career, she was one of the only writers that challenged the overwhelmingly positivist attitude that has emerged in fashion journalism of late – and the increasing necessity for writers to retain advertising, contracts and invitations – the many things that staying on the right side of a luxury brand can bring. In the days of Mizhari, a positive review was hard to find, now it becomes increasingly difficult to find a negative one.
Perhaps it may sound overly cynical to suggest that a positivist fashion industry is such bad thing. After all, this is an industry that has been blighted over the past few years with controversies and pressures – the suicide of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano’s very public breakdown and accusations of racism, sexism and size-ism. However, what struck me when I read the reams of communication from various fashion writers and magazines during last month’s shows – reviews, Instagrams, tweets and live feeds – was a complete lack of dissent, a lack of honesty. The comments instead read like re-hashed press releases, negating the very purpose of a review. Can a creative industry really remain forward thinking in its outlook if it is never challenged?
This is not to say that good fashion criticism has completely disappeared and that there are no longer any challenges to fashion houses. Robin Givham recently got banned from Chanel for questioning the cult of Karl Lagerfeld. Alexander Fury of the Independent was perhaps the only one to say what many were thinking about this season’s Celine show – leveling a rare criticism against Phoebe Philo. What is scary, however, is the penalties that such opinions now hold. Luxury brands have made it increasingly difficult to speak against them. And, if you do, fashion writers can endanger their entire career. After all, what magazine will be happy if their features editor is banned from the most important shows of the season?
Why is this attitude so accepted within the fashion industry? After all, what other creative industry wields so much power over those who write about it? You can say that fashion is big business, but so too are films and television, even plays and exhibitions are now heavily reliant on consumers. But in none of these industries do critics that write bad reviews get banned or punished. Instead, studios, artists, authors and directors push themselves to garner good reviews – and when they do, they are Isaac Mizrahi, running down Broadway.
But maybe, as with the evolutionary tendencies of the world we live in, all things must cease to exist, to matter. Does the fashion critic hold relevance anymore? Modern media has made the fashion industry more graspable that ever – we can see a show on a live stream, follow backstage on Instagram and get an almost instantaneous sound bite from the designer on Twitter. The coverage we now see at home is almost better than for those that are there – soaring camera angles, front and back views, an instantaneous response. Can we not make our own decisions? Do we need the fashion critic to tell us what to think?
I still believe that fashion criticism is essential. On a basic level, it seems a worrying situation where writers cannot share honest thoughts because of their reliance on the backing of fashion houses. Quashing opinion and those rare voices of dissent means that we risk losing all objectiveness in journalism. But more than this, consumers will begin to lose trust in both fashion press and the houses it relies on. If i-D Magazine calls every show ‘amazing’ then how do we know what is best to invest in, to buy into? This is not to say that fashion criticism should be overtly negative or tell us how we should think or buy. But with honesty should come debate, and that is what the critic should stir. How much more fulfilling will a positive review then become? How much will it help to stimulate sales?
Luxury fashion should not be afraid of criticism. It must get used to it, breed it, even. For as the luxury fashion industry begins to stall, fashion houses and designers need to find new ways to regain our trust. We are not stupid – when we see an Instagram of a fashion editor thanking a designer for their new bag, we can see right through it. Positive reviews no longer mean anything. Consumers want honesty. The fashion industry as a whole must learn to be more truthful, to expose its faults but also celebrate its achievements. Because how can fashion continue to grow without being challenged? Fashion has had a long history of rebellion, protest and change. We must not allow things to get boring.
Jack Moss is a fashion writer from London.