A Conversation

A Conversation with a Critic: Colin McDowell

NJAL is now an official Nominating Body for the International Woolmark Prize (IWP), which means that fashion’s biggest accolade is now open to another additional 36 new European territories. To celebrate this harmonious union between NJAL and The Woolmark Company, it seems an apt moment to connect with one of the industry’s most renowned commentators Colin McDowell MBE to talk about his role as mentor for the IWP, his illustrious career as fashion’s most revered critic and why designers around the world should be thrilled about working with wool, and NJAL's invitation to apply for the International Woolmark Prize.

Those familiar with Colin McDowell as a fashion critic are probably well acquainted with the scribe extraordinaire’s razor-sharp opinions. His affection for unapologetic honesty has gotten himself banned from certain shows by famous names whose gilded cage he has dared to rattle. It’s McDowell’s elemental knack for insightful judgment, integrity and a deep knowledge of the fashion industry and beyond that really makes him an exemplary mentor for design talent nominated for the International Woolmark Prize. Following NJAL’s appointment as a nominating body for the IWP, the award is now open to the Rest of Europe (ROE), comprised of an additional 36 countries, and NJAL sat down with McDowell to learn more about the art of fashion criticism, why he’s committed to championing young talent, and exactly why the IWP remains one of the industry’s most important incubators for rising talent. If you're a designer based in Europe, click here to see a full list of eligible countries, and apply for the IWP today. The deadline is fast approaching…

Your foray into fashion journalism was somewhat accidental following an impromptu assignment from The Observer, so when do you think you became aware of fashion as a site for critical discourse and contemplation?

Although life as a serious journalist started in London, I had before then spent 10 years in Rome, during which time I had worked with a couturier, and in ready-to-wear - in both cases designing. I also edited a trade magazine and sold fashion illustrations. So, I was already very au fait with fashion when the Observer job came about because Italian designers were just beginning to make a mark in London and no journalists really knew enough about them to write a piece. Journalists are very insecure people and also terrible copycats so, after the piece was published other fashion editors asked me to write about Italian fashion. Et voila, I was a journalist!

Tell us about your youth. Were there any books, magazines, or pieces of art that were instrumental in your creative development as a fashion critic today?

I read English literature and European history at a very traditional British university and that was my cultural bedrock. I was obsessed with modern art and architecture even when I was in my early teens and art in particular remains one of my passions, along with classical music. All of these things I discovered and learnt about for myself. And it has been a fascinating journey – one that I am still on, I might say. This is why, although I love my house in the country, I need London. I live in Soho and it is still an epicentre of youth and creativity, especially film – another of my passions. I am very lucky to have such a life balance

This might be a tired question, but is authentic criticism still possible?

Authentic criticism in fashion is virtually impossible now. I joined the Sunday Times over 30 years ago as a critic and commentator. Fashion was the subject. I was paid to tell the truth. Whether or not I liked a fashion show, I had to say what I felt. It did not always make me popular (I was at one time or another banned by Armani, Versace, Chanel, McQueen and one or two others, but always invited back eventually), but it gained me respect. 

Nobody likes criticism, of course, and especially in something as amorphous as fashion, where there are no absolute rights or wrongs, and is always the result of passion and deep certainty - when it is good. But, in my view, that is exactly why it needs a stringent critical assessment. 

Nowadays, it is very difficult. The major fashion conglomerates are strangling criticism and, by doing so, having a terrible effect on fashion. Their blackmail tools are the ticket to the show and the seat allocation. Just before Paris Fashion Week S/S 16 the London P.R of a very grand old French label tried to blackmail me into not saying what she called 'nasty' things about the suitability of the designer for the label. The result was that I boycotted the show, of course. This situation is very serious and it happens because an invitation to a show is seen as something very personal and privileged – and one that, for that reason, can be removed. This does not happen in other creative areas. A theatre or film critic is never banned because of adverse criticism. Why does it happen in fashion? It would take too long to explain, I am afraid, but it is not difficult to figure out. I'll give you a clue: money.

What’s the biggest problem in fashion today as an industrial cultural complex ruled by the beasts of bureaucracy?

Fashion was a very much less complex thing in Balenciaga's day. There were few designers of note, they were all in Paris and they did two shows per year. Today, designers are increasingly hired hands. They are paid a lot of money and work very hard. I can think of no designer who works for a label not his own who's creativity, doesn't finally dwindle and die. People like Rei Kawakubo and Miuccia Prada are trailblazers for a reason. They can afford to do what they like. So, they can constantly renew themselves by taking the unknown path. Again, this is too big a question to answer here. Let's just say that 'corporatism' kills creativity in all disciplines and it has happened in fashion.

There’s a steadying rise of fashion scholarship around the world, yet fashion in academia still comes loaded with pejorative connotations. Why do you think “the F word” still sours pendants? Do you think fashion has scope for intense academic pursuit today?

If one is truly honest, the study of current fashion design as if it were an art form is pretentious nonsense. Modern fashion is a commodity. Based on very expensive shows (and clothes), it is a conjuring trick. What matters is the publicity it brings in order to sell cheaper clothes and different lines, and frequently fragrances and cosmetics. So, Paris is becoming for fashion as Hollywood is for film: the semi-ignorant setting out to mislead the entirely ignorant.

Fashion is synonymous with celebrity and entertainment. Though it has leveraged an increased sense of visibility, is this relationship problematic since it has only intensified the archaic notion of fashion as frivolous?

I do not think that the idea that fashion is frivolous is archaic. I think it is absolutely right. Fashion – something that changes for no apparent reason at regular intervals is ephemeral. There is nothing to study. But there is plenty to appreciate and find moving in fashion even if, like the work of Galliano, Westwood and McQueen, so much is unwearable at the time of its creation. So, interest in fashion is, like many of the arts, enhanced by time. But, even then, it is not of any scholarly interest in itself. Rather, it is a barometer of past time – in social movements, the arts; the sexes and many other much more crucial things than fashion is to modern civilisation.

Is the archetypal format of the fashion show still integral to fashion?

The fashion show is still seen as integral to fashion but, in fact, its impact is waning. In a way, it is like a walk between a supermarket's shelves. A way of catching up with something new, even if we do recall that we saw something very similar on the shelves of a rival supermarket just the day before. And, like supermarkets, fashion smothers us with too much choice. I was once in a supermarket in L.A where there was a choice of 18 different brands of orange juice! And fashion plays the same game, not only in clothes but in real estate. Go to any shopping mall in Shanghai or Beijing and you will see all the great western labels, but no customers.

What have you learned in your role as mentor for the International Woolmark Prize?

To be able to mentor the young is a privilege and an honour. It is also a very humbling experience because, if it is to be successful, the mentor cannot be vain, manipulative or dismissive. The role is not to form a designer in one's own image but to help that designer find his or her image for themselves. This is very delicate work and it is only successful if the mentor allows himself to have no pre-conceived ideas of right or wrong. There are no rights or wrongs. 

What to do and how is not a decision for anyone but the designer. But what the mentor can do is help the designer to open his mind and question what he is doing so that, at the end of the session, he is more confident in himself. It is, I suppose, a process of illumination. I take the honour of being a part of this process very seriously. My only regret is that distance and finances force us to do it quickly and briefly.

How do you think the International Woolmark Prize beats out other talent search initiatives?  

What I like about the International Woolmark Prize is its diversity. It has an impressive global reach which can only get bigger and better. I love being part of it as it reflects so many of the ideas of Fashion Fringe, an initiative to find and sustain young design talent. And, like Fashion Fringe, the subject and object of the Woolmark Prize is to make things better for the individual and the industry. Who wouldn't be excited by being part of such an initiative? 

It is really amazing how many different ways Merino wool can be used by young fearless talents who just have to feel it to realise its quality and diversity. Smooth and flowing, delicate and ethereal, strong and powerful: I often feel that our young design talents need to be very good to work with such a diverse material. But, of course, that is the point of the International Woolmark Prize. We bring together the best Merino wool and the most original and skilled young designers and watch the magic grow. And it does. I am always fascinated by the chemistry that is taking place.

Why does the International Woolmark Prize attract such a diverse compendium of fashion talent?

The diversity of talent I find in the candidates is very encouraging. Clearly, they reflect what is happening in international fashion to a certain degree but there is an individuality and even quirkiness that is very exciting. 

I wish we could augment what we do by running a summer school for all candidates to get together so that their cultural similarities – and differences – can interact with each other- just as universities have always done. A pop-up Woolmark Academy, if you like. The fashion world is global – and so must the International Woolmark Prize be, also, and young people from different cultures, climates and ethnicities can and do work together, feeding each others' creativity, and I know no better definition of true education than that.

I am delighted that we have the International Woolmark Prize for Rest of Europe (ROE) because it gives out a clear signal: we do not believe in boundaries or differences in language and culture or in any other barriers to talent, no matter where it is found. And, after all, what raw material is more international than Merino wool?

The message to emerging designers and students is simply: you are not alone. The world is yours. Take it.