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Is Fashion Criticism Dying Out?

22/04/2014 13:27 BST | Updated 18/06/2014 10:59 BST

All publicity is good publicity, or so the old maxim goes. But in the fashion press, the idea of publishing a negative review of a fashion show isn't something that gets realised very often. It seems that designers' delicate egos - and more importantly their advertising budgets - are put first, ignorant of the fact that no one wants to read insincere drivel about how revolutionary Karl Lagerfeld was when he put Cara in holey pink leggings at Chanel this season. Okay I'm kidding; they've grown on me. But everyone loves reading a bad review, right? So it's a shame, because the most established, controversial fashion critics are either leaving their positions or are approaching retirement, leaving many of us asking what on earth we will read when they're all gone.

The controversial Cathy Horyn - the New York Times' most revered fashion writer - a couple of months ago left her post at the paper, prompting her readers to proclaim the departure "a tragedy for fashion journalism". Indeed, one of the only voices left in the fashion industry that dared to piss people off has disappeared. Her impressive list of show bans over the years has included Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Helmut Lang and Oscar de la Renta. Scandalous. But far from construing her as a fashion outcast, the 57-year-old's significant catalogue of designer enemies has only served to create a badge of honour for her unflinchingly honest critique. In an industry overflowing with fluffy fashion writing, Horyn stuck two fingers up and spoke her mind, and we can only be grateful that she had the platform of the New York Times to do so, and lament the fact that she's no longer there. It was Horyn's write-up of Saint Laurent's SS13 collection that prompted Hedi Slimane to write her a barbed letter calling her a "schoolyard bully," and saying she would "never get a seat at Saint Laurent, but might get a 2 for 1 at Dior."

Acting out against criticism can backfire, however. The end of this fashion season saw the influential website Style.com dish out a punishment of its own after a similarly grievous letter was fired at Tim Blanks, the website's articulate Editor-at-Large. Displeased with Blanks' reviews of his shows of the past two seasons, designer Jean Paul Gaultier penned Blanks a furious and melodramatic open letter before posting it to twitter. Blanks has said that "fashion is full of people with very thin skins and fragile egos." His sentiment was proven by Gaultier's outburst, and the fashion industry waited with hot anticipation for Blanks' review this season.

Funnily enough, it never came. Style.com has dropped the paddy-throwing Parisian from its list of significant designers. And as a result - because the website is such a strong point of industry reference - the Paris Fashion Week coverage barely touched Gaultier's AW14 show. A designer as famous as JPG being discarded from the elite list on Style.com isn't as trivial as it sounds. In fact, it means being thrust dangerously close to the thing all designers fear most: irrelevance.

So in a world where honesty gets lost in the clash between the egos of the designers and writers, where can anyone publish anything honest - especially now that the old guard of fashion criticism seems to be leaving? In another power move, Suzy Menkes, often dubbed "fashion's authority", has just left a 25-year-stint at the International Herald Tribune and tottered her pompadour off to Vogue to become its International Editor. Which leaves us asking if the 70-year-old's writing will be diluted by the transition from newspaper to magazine. After all, newspapers don't have the pressure to kowtow to brands in the same way that fashion mags do, for the simple reason that they don't rely on advertising as much.

Something that lies safely outside the domain of magazines and newspapers is Nick Knight's SHOWstudio, which has carved an impressive solution for stimulating fashion debate: from the safety of their Knightsbridge studio, their wonderful Editor, Lou Stoppard, gathers a panel of fashion's best brains to view the live-stream of a fashion show, or to discuss a fashion topic. What follows is a diplomatic and thoughtful discourse free of censorship and full of vital first impressions. It's clever, and it's filled a gap in the industry that most people perhaps didn't realise was missing. Stoppard backs this up, saying that "People do feel like [SHOWstudio] is a free, open space. They leave their publications or their studio to come here and they can say something honest."

And sparking honest debate is so important in an industry that comes under fire as much as fashion does, because if we don't respect ourselves enough to speak openly about what we do, then what are we writing but sad regurgitations of press releases, reinforcing the belief that fashion is depthless? Treasured British fashion journalist Colin McDowell puts it best when he says that "a commentator must be allowed to make a commentary. That commentary must have substance. And writers of calibre must be nurtured, not neutered, by the fashion industry." We need to cultivate honest critique of fashion, not diminish it. Otherwise, what are we all here for but to watch some pretty clothes come down a runway? And believe me, frightening existential questions like that are the last thing that the frail egos of the fashion industry want to ask themselves.