The state of fashion criticism

When I’m not writing or editing a column for Address online or working on the next issue, my time is spent thinking about fashion criticism as part of my research degree at London College of Fashion. Criticism is very difficult to define and most of my research is drawn from discussions and definitions from other disciplines such as graphic design, product design, music, theatre and film, where the subject is more evolved. Against these, fashion is starving for, not just criticism, but also discussions about the role of a fashion critic along with the meaning and place of criticism in the industry in general.

Over the course of the last few years, I have been cautiously optimistic that the subject is starting to receive more attention in the media. Some writers, editors and critics have contributed to the dialogues by reflecting and questioning, with one or two publications have attempted to define fashion criticism with varying success. Whilst most of the discussions haven’t highlighted anything dramatically noteworthy, it has at least started to give a better benchmark for the subject whilst raising the profile of this aspect of the fashion mechanism. Far too long has fashion functioned in its own bubble and the good, the bad and the ugly have all received the same applause.

The increasing discussions around the role of a critic have helped to create confidence in the industry where writers and even critics seem to feel more and more self-assured in expressing evaluations of the collections and fashion in general. Style.com is a good example of this where most of the reviews 10 years ago were predominantly descriptive but now you get more of a sense of assessment. The recent surge in independent publishing has contributed to this, with specialist publications tapping into specialist topics with specialist knowledge. At least at Address, we feel we have more creative freedom to add to the dialogues away from the constraints of advertising and business – after all we make this publication not because we have to, but because we want to. The Internet has also played a significant part in allowing better access to fashion as well as potentially sustainable platforms for discussions. It is allowing individual voices to stem from all corners of the world and more risks are being taken in the expression of ideas, use of voice and format, as the constraints of page real estate is not as limited and financially tied like it is with printed publications.

One of the better new online platforms, The Business of Fashion mostly dedicated to fashion related news, has made a great addition to the discussions around fashion criticism. In the most recent contribution, blogger Diane Pernet of A Shaded View of Fashion blog1 shared her opinions about criticism in an article titled ‘Who Watches the Watchmen’.2 Originally published in a slightly different format on Byronesque website3, in this piece Pernet gives an overview of the current state of fashion criticism, from her perspective. The relationship with PR receives a lot of attention, something British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie extensively discussed in her book British Fashion Design: Rag Trade or Image Industry published in 1998.

As one of my interests is around definitions of who the fashion critics are, what I particularly liked about Pernet’s piece was her list of fashion critics. But this also requires some unpacking. 14 examples of individuals and publications from the last hundred or so years, who, according to Pernet, count as critics, were chosen for this. Some were obvious, such as Cathy Horyn of The New York Times, one of the only critics to actually use the title, and her predecessor Amy Spindler. Some industry heavy weights were included such as Tim Blanks of style.com and Suzy Menkes from The International Herald Tribune. Both of them naturally belong to this list but neither of them uses the title ‘critic’, preferring labels such as fashion editor, fashion writer or journalist adding complexity to our understanding of the job role.

Some of the inclusions however, were problematic. Vogue magazine appears first on the collective list of critics, but no real explanation has been given to this. Can a consumer magazine, mostly dictated by advertising, really deserve the title ‘critic’ and if so, what is the criteria for the title then? If Vogue as a publication deserves it, what makes it different from other publications with similar agendas? And where does one draw the line between consumer-led reporting and criticism?

Another area, requiring further consideration, is Pernet’s inclusion of ‘Inexperienced Bloggers’. Again, no real explanation was given to the addition of this so I wonder what makes a blogger a critic? Rarely have I seen a post by a blogger that treats the subject of fashion in a critical manner. But, bloggers often react to and write about things they seem to personally respond to, but so do critics, as reflected by Jacob in his previous article about Thom Browne – so where does one draw the line then? When a blogger photographs themselves wearing garments from brands given or lent to them, can it be read as a form of critique a la Cindy Sherman, or is it just a form of consumer journalism and advertising/gifting-led endorsement? The inclusion of the word ‘Inexperienced’ is an interesting one, suggesting that experience itself is not a requirement for critics but it is merely a title that can be adapted. As no professional body for criticism exists, the title can be used without limits, unlike the title ‘architect’ where recognition from a professional body and education in the subject are paramount.

One thing that I’m very impressed with about Pernet’s article was that the definition was not just assigned to writers and journalists, but other industry professionals as well. Whilst the breadth of practitioners covered in Pernet’s review isn’t quite as wide as it could have been, at least it is a starting point in looking at this debate from a more lateral perspective. Can a stylist or a fashion editor be a critic as well, as Pernet suggested with the inclusion of Diana Vreeland? Delightful also was the inclusion of designer critic Elizabeth Hawes who contributed to both fashion design and criticism. Unfortunately Hawes is a one of a kind as rarely do designers contribute to critical dialogues through writing, unlike in architecture and, at times, in product design, for example.

The problem of all this is labeling and the job description. If we are to start assigning the label left, right and centre to various, writers, editors, bloggers, magazines, stylists and designers, what is the criteria we place on defining the job role? Having an opinion? Having an informed opinion? Commenting on fashion? Writing about fashion? Having taste? Having the most readers? Challenging the reader? Making fashion accessible? Or something else? To continue the debate, I would like to throw a few more names into the mix. None of them use the title fashion critic. All of them highlight different perspectives of my reading of criticism. Some are there to question the role, some to confirm the generally understood definition.  With all of them, it’s easy to argue for and against their inclusion. And this is just starting to scratch the surface.

 

1. DIS magazine

DIS is the most exciting publication around now. This New York based, post-Internet multimedia platform that was launched in 2010, fluidly combines familiar cultural codes drawn from fashion, culture, media and art, and, through this, challenges prevailing perceptions of taste, values and style. DIS is on the new frontier of pushing the media platforms used by critical practitioners. It explores banality and novelty through referencing marketing messages, stock photography and counterculture as a form of dis-statement. What looks like a styling shoot, can be read as a styling shoot, but also, very easily, as a form of visual critique.

 

2. Begüm Sekendiz Boré

Begüm Sekendiz Boré is a visual artist and writer based in Paris. His online space ‘Dandygum’ consists of a stream of imagery cross-referencing fashion with contemporary culture and art. Through the way he combines imagery, the artist draws attention to fashion’s relationship with art and culture. The timeline established by the imagery highlights the cyclical and referential nature of fashion where very few ideas are actually new. The visual collage work that Begüm Sekendiz Boré creates, is allowed by online platform Blogspot and the endless recourse of imagery found online, taking full advantage of the possibilities the new media allows in creating and disseminating critical work.

 

3. WORN journal

WORN journal is a biannual, printed publication from Canada. The team behind this biannual, seem smart and on it. They treat fashion with brain, but WORN is not an academic publication. The content examines the cultures, subcultures, histories, and personal stories of fashion highlighting smaller fashion brands and allowing space for new writing, styling and illustration talent. ‘We pay attention to how what is worn is made, interpreted, transformed, disseminated, and copied’ their website states. Most fashion publications exist to confirm the status quo of fashion and they offer very few surprises. As an independent publication, WORN mission statement reads beautifully: it’s just what you want from a journal dedicated to fashion. It is paramount that independent media ventures like WORN are supported, they are the much-needed opposition, constantly challenging the comfortable positions held by the ruling parties.

 

4. Penny Martin

Editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman magazine, Penny Martin has skated in between academia, curation and media. Her CV includes academic research, a role as the curator at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University before being asked to join SHOWstudio in 2001. In 2008 she was lured back into academia by the London College of Fashion before starting to edit The Gentlewoman magazine. Penny Martin’s move to media was a real loss for academia, but I much rather hear her critical evaluation of fashions than academic contributions. This begs the question, what is the role of academics in critical dialogues? Could there be a time now to break away from the myth of academics hiding in the libraries and writing unreadable papers read by only a few. Imagine the contribution they could make in public dialogues, steering discussions and voicing opinions. Helen Sword’s new book Stylish Academic Writing is breaking the myths that academic writing has to be boring: could the same happen with criticism as well?

 

5. Judith Clark

Talking of academics with an active, rigorous voice outside academia, Judith Clark ticks all the right boxes. Alongside heading the MA Fashion Curation course at the London College of Fashion, Clark has curated a number of exhibitions including Chloe. Attitudes, Diana Vreeland after Diana Vreeland, The Concise Dictionary of Dress and Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back. Critics job is to highlight, preserve, steer and question, all of which Clark does through her curatorial work as an exhibition maker. The best part of her work is that it is academically rigorous alongside being critical: but also accessible, reaching a huge audience wanting to engage and understand fashion.

 

6. Poorly Dressed

Poorly Dressed is an image blog highlighting how ludicrous fashion sometimes is. Each post usually consists of an image with a humorous caption ranging from people wearing fashions in unusual ways, odd catwalk ensembles and extreme fashions. Fashion as a subject is not glamorised and worshipped on this blog, but it’s seen as a mere mortal that makes mistakes and at times stumbles upon its own cleverness. Critique doesn’t have to be 5000 words long, sometimes just an image and a title will do as highlighted by Poorly Dressed. Fashion needs to be treated with humour sometimes to highlight its pompousness. Of course one could easily label this to be satire – but it’s important to remember that satire is just another form of criticism, which can come from an intellectually rigorous place.

 

7. Neil Kerber’s Supermodels

Continuing with a satirical take on criticism, Neil Kerber’s ‘Supermodels,’ that has appeared bimonthly in Private Eye magazine in the past 20 years, is an essential on this list. Two or three frames in a cartoon strip, quickly draw our attention to sometimes bizarre practices of fashion and the culture around it, with light-hearted humour. So successful has Supermodels been that one of its characters, Polly Bean has gone to have a life of her own in pages of fashion magazines. What Gerald Scarfe contributes to political discussions with his cartoons of Thatcher, Blair and Cameron, Neil Kerber does for fashion with his depictions of Wintour, Lagerfeld and Moss.

 

8. Charlie Porter

Charlie Porter is a seasoned fashion writer and journalist who regularly contributes to i-D, The Fantastic Man and The Guardian. Whilst perhaps not as well known outside the industry as Tim Blanks and Suzy Menkes, Porter approaches writing about fashion as an enthusiast with a critical eye on details and an ability to observe and contextualise fashion as part of culture. Whilst I appreciate Porter’s writings for i-D et al, where his voice truly comes alive is on his own website where Porter often publishes experimental, personal and witty writings. Rarely do you see a writer’s voice come alive in such a rich way, mixing opinions, humour and subtle rigour.

 

9. Hussein Chalayan

Central Saint Martins graduate Hussein Chalayan has created a strong body of work as a fashion designer. Alongside his commercial work, Chalayan is known for creating catwalk pieces that change shape using technology, incorporate new material innovation and question cultural identities and notions of fashion. During his 20-year career, he has already been subject to numerous exhibitions and books. Whilst Elizabeth Hawes is one of the only fashion designers with an active stack in written form of fashion criticism that does not mean that she is the only critical practitioner in fashion. The equations of Chalayan’s work can endlessly be debated: is it fashion and art or is it fashion and technology? Equally, we could read it as fashion and criticism as his creations ask central questions about meaning, reading, place, perception and practice of fashion. The term critical designer is commonly used in product design but the fashion designers, who would be entitled to this label, are more often called ‘artists’ in our industry. 

 

10. Mademoiselle Agnes & Loïc Prigent

TV presented Mademoiselle Agnes and film maker Loïc Prigent regularly collaborate on shows for French TV. These include programs such as Habillé(e)s pour L’Hiver and Habillé(e)s pour l’été, a review programs about fashion show seasons. Their production company LALALA Productions is behind seminal fashion documentaries such as Signé Chanel (2005). Even with the surge in fashion film allowed by the Internet, it is interesting to see that only very few names are cultivating their authorial voices using this medium. The combination of Mademoiselle Agnes’ approach to fashion where nothing is holy and everything is jolly and Loïc Prigent’s detailed camera work relying on hand held technique whilst spotting the minute nuances, subtle detailing and odd observations that makes pleasurable viewing, is perfect for general viewing public and dissemination of fashion information. I doubt a program dedicated for fashion on BBC would be as much fun and equally ballsy as theirs is.

 

10 ½ . Mr Blackwell

Readers of Address issue one, already know that I have a fascination for Mr. Blacwell and he deserves to be on this list as number ten and a half. He is also gracing the title image of this article. Whilst his critical practices are still debatable and his legacy left an perhaps an undesired image of what a critic is or does, at least he embraced the title Fashion Critic, and made himself a household name as a fashion commentator.

No doubt this labelling of fashion critics is not over yet.

 

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