Diagnosing Fashion: The Dying Art of Professional Critique


A few days after The Fashion Law posted an article about the onslaught of dumbed-down fashion writing via blogs, fashion followers collectively groaned at the news that Cathy Horyn—the famed New York Times fashion critic—was resigning from her post to care for her ill partner Art Ortenberg (who sadly passed away this week). Viewed together, these moments acknowledge a discomfiting reality that’s been a long time coming: that fashion and its various arenas are in the midst of a transformation that isn’t necessarily positive. More and more, the world of clothing and design appears governed by the confinements of consumerism and strict trend following, in lieu of the legitimate artistry and individuality that it once privileged.

In a memo to the newspaper’s staff, the Times executive editor Jill Abramson and styles section editor Stuart Emmrich noted that Horyn was “the pre-eminent fashion critic of her generation… who has set an almost impossible standard for those who may follow.” The inimitable Imran Amed, the founder of Business of Fashion and one of my favorite contemporary voices in the industry, posed a few important questions in response:

Is there anyone who can actually follow someone like Cathy? Have we, the fashion industry, nurtured and nourished truly independent, informed voices who say what they really think? I think not. Too much fashion writing is fluffy drivel concerned with front-row attendees and the “hottest new trends.” And too often, it describes the clothes in only an elementary, superficial way that lacks an understanding of how garments are designed and constructed, and how they fit into a wider cultural and economic context.

He then honors the few remaining serious critics, but rightly questions whether or not there are valuable contenders to eventually take their place:

And, while Suzy Menkes continues to cover the shows with seemingly indefatigable energy, Robin Givhan pens honest pieces for New York magazine’s “The Cut,” and Tim Blanks stays up late at night for weeks on end to pen his beautifully crafted reviews for the Style.com, I’m hard-pressed to think of who the next generation of critics to write with an equally informed and honest voice will be.

The knee-jerk response might be that fashion bloggers are the new fashion critics, but that’s a faulty premise at best, as these bloggers are constricted by their brand partnerships and advertising relationships. And can you honestly think of a blogger who dares offer a truly negative commentary on a specific collection or design house? The closest they’ve come thus far is a disinterest in certain trends, or perhaps a noted fondness for earlier collections over whatever is most recent. But there doesn’t appear to be much room for full-frontal, no-strings-attached honesty in a blogosphere that is always treading on the potential for more lucrative relationships. Not to mention the fact that the language of criticism itself appears entirely absent from their arsenal, which is mainly comprised of the most basic sartorial terminology (see: trends, shapes, colors) with little to no grounding in the extensive history of fashion.

Certain bloggers attempt to posture themselves as more intelligent than the rest, or perhaps more unique. Most of these gestures are futile. Using flowery language (drunk off that thesaurus) or highlighting a trend purely for it’s weirdness or wow factor doesn’t really alter the fact that you’re concerned solely with what’s popular right now, with what you make money off of promoting, and with the fact that you yourself are a brand.

That latter point is at the heart of why bloggers-as-next-critics is a problematic notion. Though all critique is inherently personal, writers like Horyn and Menkes never come at their writing from a solely individual vantage point. They always reflect on fashion as it might relate to more universal themes, and to the myriad lifestyles on offer. Conversely, bloggers often speak only out of their own contexts (what they like, or their friends) – there is much less regard for how a collection might play out on the world stage. And wrapped up in this is the highly curated image of themselves they are always working to project and protect.

I’ve written for a few of these blogs, and have had my pieces sent back to me with edits whenever they were remotely critical of the industry. That doesn’t bode well for the self-editing fashion bloggers would surely engage in throughout their own so-called “critiques,” which would essentially rewire that particular writing form by depleting it of its foundation, which is to say: actual criticism.

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