Will Anyone Dare Call That Collection Ugly?

The close ties between fashion magazines and advertisers are making a critic’s job harder

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PARIS — It might be a spare, Modernist chair carved out on geometric lines or a rich velvet footrest elevated by a gilded frame. However you look at it, this new Paris fashion season is about chairs, namely a nonstop game of musical chairs.

That was how Suzy Menkes, the long-time fashion critic of The New York Times, began her article about Paris Fashion Week early last month. Her report focused on the unprecedented wave of appointments in the elite fashion industry. “The dramatic shake-up of brands, exhilarating for fashion’s progress, is unprecedented.

And this is not about aging designers handing over a supporting role to someone in the wings. Instead, change at the top is becoming a 21st century phenomenon, even with the mightiest brands.”

What Menkes did not say was that fashion journalism has been going through a shake-up that is every bit as dramatic as the one in the fashion industry — and that she herself plays an active role in the game of musical chairs that is taking place among high-ranking fashion editors. An official announcement made a few days later stated that Menkes, 70, would be leaving her position after more than a quarter-century to become the fashion editor of Vogue. As part of her new post, her fashion articles will run in Vogue’s international on-line edition.

Menkes is only one link in a chain of events that has shaken up the flagship of the American daily press. In just over six months, The New York Times has lost three high-ranking fashion critics. In October 2013, Eric Wilson, a young, energetic editor who was said to have a promising future at the newspaper, announced that he was moving to InStyle magazine.

Four months later, Cathy Horyn, an admired fashion critic there, resigned after 15 years on the job. So when Menkes announced that she would be leaving the newspaper as well, there were those who wondered whether this development marked the end of an era.

Although Horyn resigned for personal reasons, her departure reignited the debate about the future of fashion criticism. Horyn, 52, was known for her unique voice and fresh perspective, and also for not hesitating to sharpen her pen when necessary. This naturally led to friction between her and those she criticized. But if these confrontations took the form of focused and rapid conflicts until a few years ago, more recently they became acerbic. In September 2012, for example, Oscar de la Renta took out a full-page ad in the newspaper to publish his response to Horyn’s criticism. When Hedi Slimane was appointed creative director for Saint Laurent Paris, Horyn was kept out of that house’s fashion shows. That time, too, the reason was an uncomplimentary article she had written about Slimane in the past.

Cathy Horyn. Photo by Getty Images

So it is no surprise that Horyn’s departure gave rise to questions about the end of the era of honest criticism. By nature and tradition, the daily newspapers are considered the optimal space for fashion critique because they provide greater free expression compared with fashion magazines, whose editors have to adapt their considerations to the pressures of the big advertisers (which are well-established fashion brands). But these spaces are growing fewer and smaller.

Greater mutual dependency

That does not mean reduced fashion coverage; on the contrary. Still, most of the arenas for such coverage are on the Internet or in fashion magazines, and they are based on visual images and need the power of advertisers to survive. 

You don’t have to be a media expert in order to understand that negative advertising about a commercial entity is liable to be dangerous, and naturally that leaves very little room for open criticism.

In addition, the increasing mutual dependence between the Internet and commercial interests has brought content and its creators close to the commercial arena and has given rise to hybrids in the guise of magazines or blogs whose publishers are owners of brand names. Today it is also very common for on-line stores to invest in creating original editorial content – the website Net-a-Porter may be the most prominent example, although certainly not the only one. And since the primary objective of stores is to sell, they are not interested in genuine fashion criticism.

It is precisely in that space that Menkes is expected to find her place, and there is no question that her transition from the daily press to the world of magazines and online journalism, is of great significance. “I feel this is a perfect time to embrace a new challenge in the digital age,” she was quoted as saying in an announcement that was published last month. But where, we may ask, lies the essence of this challenge: In the need to respond more quickly to events in the fashion industry? In making her writing accessible to a wider readership? Or perhaps in the use of more cautious language that will not challenge the publisher’s relationship with commercial interests, or to put it simply – distance possible advertisers?

In an article in the French newspaper Le Monde that was devoted to the future of fashion critics, Lynn Yaeger, who for three decades wrote about fashion in the New York newspaper The Village Voice, explained how her work at Vogue magazine restricts her. She told how she started out as a journalist when relations with the fashion industry were nonexistent. At that time, several decades ago, “You could write whatever you wanted,” she said. The concept “ fashion industry” did not exist; the space in which the fashion community operated was called the fashion world.

The present terminology reflects the luxury corporations’ domination over this space in the 1990s. “In the world of fashion magazines, when you do not love a collection, there are positive things to say or we avoid talking. At Vogue, our mission is to celebrate fashion, not to criticize,” she wrote.

Vanessa Friedman. Photo by Getty Images

Pressure from the luxury corporations

In the report about her departure Menkes was described as “the pre-eminent fashion critic of her generation… who has set an almost impossible standard for those who may follow.” There is no question about that, but who are those who are expected to follow in her footsteps, and where are the young critics who are supposed to be the future generation of fashion criticism?

While several of the veteran critics are facing retirement age, no new generation of fashion critics has arisen as yet. Wilson, as mentioned, did not fulfill his promise and evaporated into the glossy arena of magazines. Similarly, the future of Jessica Michault as an authoritative critic melted away. Michault worked alongside Menkes at the International Herald Tribune (which last October changed its name to the International New York Times) for 15 years, and when she began publishing independent criticism she was singled out as Menkes’ natural replacement. But in 2012 she also left to edit the online magazine Nowfashion, which takes pride in its ability to provide its readers with photos in real time.

In that case, what type of criticism can grow in the present media environment? Does it have the power to give rise to independent fashion critics such as Horyn, Menkes and Yaeger, or Robin Givhan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2006 for her marvelous writing about fashion? There is no question that the sudden thinning out of the main platform for discussion of fashion is a symptom of the existential discomfort that presently characterizes the profession. In light of the crisis experienced by print journalism and the political pressure being brought to bear by the luxury corporations, the community of fashion critics writing in English has suffered a blow. And since one can count the serious fashion critics on the fingers of one hand, it’s no wonder that they feel threatened.

The person who will try to fill the vacuum at The New York Times is Vanessa Friedman, whose appointment as the paper’s fashion editor and chief fashion critic combines the positions of Horyn and Menkes. There is no question that this is a tough act to follow, but Friedman, a graduate of Princeton University, comes to the job with rich experience in writing and editing. During the past 12 years she served as chief fashion editor of The Financial Times, and in the columns she published in the business newspaper she established a unique and authoritative voice, which she has already declared that she intends to bring with her.

And meanwhile, Horyn is not entirely out of the picture. Since announcing her departure from the newspaper she has published a sensitive eulogy to her close friend designer L’Wren Scott, who committed suicide last month. And at present she is continuing work on a book that will tell the story of fashion reporting in The New York Times from 1850 to the present. Judging by her previous work, we can expect a profound and enlightening study of fashion writing, in a broad cultural context. But ironically, the book is likely to be a summing up of the fashion criticism enterprise, which is now in crisis.