Why Fashion Needs Critics
Fashion media is paid for with advertising dollars. While it is an open secret within the industry that this translates to editorial coverage – be that inclusion in a fashion photo spread or positive written reviews – this is not necessarily common knowledge to the average reader of a fashion magazine, who trusts that what (s)he is consuming are the unbiased suggestions of a fashion professional. There is sometimes a general feeling within the industry that there was a turn in the integrity of fashion criticism as the fashion world became more overtly commercial beginning in the 1990s. But advertising has been present in fashion magazines since at least the 1830s, and the model, which is still used to this day, of garnering a large circulation, selling fashion magazines for less than production cost and then making up the difference through advertising dollars has been common practice since the late 19th century. The clothing industry and fashion magazines have grown in tandem, with fashion scholars suggesting that “the relationship between fashion media and the fashion industry is one of mutual economic dependence” and that “fashion journalism cannot be seen as being separate from fashion itself. The two are symbiotic” (see: The History of Fashion Journalism by Kate Nelson Best).
And so it was with a disruptive force that fashion bloggers and other self-appointed fashion critics of the digital age emerged upon the scene. There was, of course, outcry from the old guard of fashion journalists who argued that a certain amount of contextual knowledge is required to analyze a seasonal collection, as well as the broader social and cultural implications of what might be happening in fashion at any given time. But social media gave voice to self-taught fashion experts, to younger and more diverse voices, to individuals who without the proper connections and traditional privileges may never have otherwise made it into the fashion world. And precisely because they arrived without connection or economic investment, they were free to say whatever they wanted. This was the new guard, representative of a changing world in which diversity and inclusion were top of mind, where brands could no longer silo themselves away from the opinions, feedback, and expectations of the average citizen.
While the influence of these early bloggers and self-styled critics can, in many ways, still be felt, and while digital media remains a space where marginalized voices can make themselves heard, fashion is adept at absorbing dissent. Today, many of those early bloggers and critical voices are offered collaborations with fashion brands or hired as influencers, invited to fashion shows and exclusive previews which include perks like free accommodation at luxury hotels, “gifted” clothing and accessories, and otherwise invited into an economically motivated relationship which, like advertising dollars at magazines, come with strings attached. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with getting paid for the labor of disseminating fashion consumption, it should come as no surprise that the exchange of money for inclusion inevitably forecloses the possibility of unbiased review.
Fashion is a business with significant economic impact, but it is also a creative industry – a positioning that the fashion world takes great pride in reinforcing through artist-designer collaborations, and exhibitions in the cultural space of fine arts museums. And yet, in the arts – from the visual arts, to literature, to the performing arts, ranging from live theatre to pop music to film – criticism is part of the deal. Critics are revered or ignored, and while they generally no longer hold the power to make or break a career in any industry, they are an important part of the landscape. Critics offer feedback on an artist’s work; they praise ingenuity, they see through gimmicks, they provide meaning and insight.
But in the world of fashion, critics are notoriously banned from shows. Fashion critic Cathy Horyn points out that in an era when shows will be posted to the internet faster than any critic could publish a review, barring journalists from shows is both pointless and petty. But the habit of controlling fashion media – through advertising dollars, financially motivated relationships with digital cultural producers or denying access to journalists – speaks to one of fashion’s blind spots. Critics need to operate outside of what they review, because this allows a certain clarity of vision and the ability to offer unbiased – if still subjective – reflection. The role of the critic is not necessarily synonymous with criticism, in the sense of only providing negative feedback. Rather, the critic is the canary in the coal mine, tasked with fitting the minutiae of individual offerings into the broader context, while also tracking the nebulous movement of that broader context in general. In this way, the presence of critics in the arts provides space for accountability between the artist, the industry, and the audience.
Self-reflection is key to growth, and in an industry where paid accolades are the only functioning form of critique, the fashion world has foreclosed the opportunity to truly embrace some of the values that it upholds most strongly, such as creativity and ingenuity. In many ways the industry has grown stagnant – think of formulaic fashion presentations, heritage brands perpetually re-inventing offerings from their heydays, and claims that fashion has not truly offered anything new in decades (see: Fashion: A Philosophy by Lars Svendsen). Perhaps if the fashion industry had a thriving critical element, creative output would also be thriving. Instead, the voices meant to stand outside of fashion – meant to look in and then offer up what they see – are either muzzled or absorbed. Either way they are silenced, and in their wake the fashion industry lurches on – formidable and broken.