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Designers v. Journalists: The Fading Art of Fashion Criticism
Christian Allaire stands up for Cathy Horyn and other fashion "bullies"

image: Daily Beast

Spring 2013’s hottest new trend: clashing prints, or the clashing of designers and journalists?

Spring designs may have bloomed this fashion season, but industry relationships decayed faster than the yellow leaves of fall. First, a bitch slap bonanza at Zac Posen, then Vogue editors refused to share the elevator at Reed Krakoff. Even a full force designer-journalist feud followed the Yves Saint Laurent show (or is it Saint Laurent Paris now?). But amidst the sea of well-dressed mean guys and girls, only one is being labeled a true fashion bully: the critic.

On October 2, Cathy Horyn, the New York Times fashion critic, posted a less-than-flattering review of Yves Saint Laurent’s SS13 show — the first under the helm of Hedi Slimane, formerly of Dior Homme. Among other comments, Horyn wrote, “The collection was a nice but frozen vision of a bohemian chick at the Chateau Marmont.” These Horyn-isms appeared in almost all of her show reviews this season. “Somehow, she needs to pour off some of the feminine syrup,” she said of Clare Waight Keller at Chloé, while Ralph Lauren’s Spain-inspired collection was called out for its insensitivity: “Plainly the King of Seventh Avenue chose to overlook Spain’s economic troubles.”

But a fashion jab here, a snicker there, Horyn’s criticism only took Slimane by surprise (even though critic Suzy Menkes had some words for him as well). In a very public and garish Twitter letter, the designer responded and called Horyn “a schoolyard bully and also a little bit of a stand-up comedian… she will never get a seat at Saint Laurent.”

The tenuous relationship between journalists and designers is worsening. Designers are more protective of their image than ever, and journalists are more afraid to speak their mind — especially if it means being barred from future shows. This happened locally, when writer Justine Iaboni was blacklisted by designer Amanda Lew Kee for penning a negative review. With the rise of brand-blogger partnerships, like Leandra Medine for Dannijo, show reviews are not getting more honest either. Instead, they have become a clamour of love it! need it! die for it! rather than critical looks at the collection.

Bloggers have also diminished the power of traditional critics – everybody has a voice now! – yet designers still fear the critic for obvious reasons: Image. Designers in high-profile roles, especially someone like Slimane, face a lot of pressure to live up to the expectations of the customer and financier– an image a journalist can make or break in a single review. But deflecting, not embracing, criticism is a wimpy way to start a career. Criticism challenges designers to be on their toes, to experiment and to take risks. Some of the most audacious designers of our time–Betsey Johnson, Yves Saint Laurent himself–did not succeed by crying crocodile tears after every bad review. They kept true to their vision and evolved it over time. Slimane still has a long way to go.

Horyn may be the last of a dying breed of critics, but she certainly is not the first “bully” to feel the aftershock of a designer. When Robin Givhan, former fashion editor at The Washington Post and a Pulitzer winner, wrote a belittling piece asking if Karl Lagerfeld has spread himself too thin and calling him “overrated,” she found herself banished from the front row of Chanel that very next season. “Criticism is not personal opinion. At its best it’s opinion based on a set of facts that are set in context,” she said in defense of herself.

Journalists should not and cannot be puppeteers. Fashion, among other art beats, is a challenging one to be objective in. Not only do we observe fashion, but we participate in it as well. We imagine ourselves in the clothes sent down the runway and we question how they will function in a real-life setting (eating food in them, walking in them, being able to bend in them; all important). “Miss Horyn also works for the New York Times, as everyone knows, where conflicts of interest might seem a little out of place,” wrote Slimane.

But in fashion, opinions aren’t so taboo. Fashion writers must have a stance; otherwise they simply become fanboys or shopaholics who can also string a sentence together. Readers do not just want a description of the collection: they want a point of view. There should be a scene, an angle — something a photo cannot provide. More writers should be interested in a conflict and less about where they will be seated at fashion week. Otherwise, what is the point of fashion journalism?

For Horyn, the point is to have a dialogue. She even wrote the Saint Laurent review without attending the show. A show she was not invited to because of a previous article she wrote, saying, “without [Raf] Simons’ template of slim tailoring and street casting, there would not have been a Hedi Slimane.” I’m hoping, however, that with or without Horyn, there will still be fashion critics — even if Lady Gaga writes a rap-diss about you or Oscar de la Renta calls you a 3-day-old hamburger because of it (both true). It’s time to support writers who worry less about extravagance, and more about analysis.

____

Christian Allaire writes about style for Toronto Standard. Follow his tweets here: @chrisjallaire.

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