Caroline Hartmann is the founder and editor behind TACK, an online fashion publication dedicated for promoting emerging design talent, fashion criticism and fashion industry debates. Address editor Johannes Reponen interviewed Caroline over email about her intentions with TACK and views on fashion criticism.
Johannes Reponen: Could you talk about your professional background, what did you do before launching TACK?
Caroline Hartmann: My background has always been in journalism. I never expected to work in the fashion industry, but as an arts-and-culture writer I gravitated toward fashion writing early on. That led me to contribute to a couple of online publications while I was still an undergraduate, which then paved the way for other opportunities and allowed me to not only cover fashion weeks, but to gradually gain an education in how the industry really works.
I went to New York University for my master’s degree in Journalism—Cultural Reporting and Criticism, specifically—and that experience really confirmed for me that pursuing an editorial career was what I wanted, whether that be in magazines, book publishing or something in the digital space. I was working as a freelance editor after finishing my master’s, but had always kept one foot in the fashion industry and realised it was a passion I kept coming back to time and time again. When I was contemplating what my next step would be professionally in 2012, I started thinking about the different ways I could combine my fashion and editorial experience to approach the industry from a more critical and nuanced point of view that I’d consistently felt was lacking in the media.
JR: Where did the idea for TACK come from?
CH: The idea for TACK started coming together in the fall of 2012. I knew I wanted to explore digital publishing in a more direct way, and at the time I had reached the height of my frustration with the fashion industry in terms of media coverage. I’ve always loved the thrill of seeking out emerging artists, and felt there weren’t enough outlets truly committed to following new work and giving it the attention it deserved. The fashion industry has a way of falling into its own ruts, and the widespread obsession with fashion week and well established design houses has dominated coverage for years in a way that’s not only exclusionary, but over time, incredibly repetitive, dull and uninspiring. The goal was never to replace that form of coverage, but I wanted to add some of what I felt was missing. I wanted to use fashion as a lens to view the culture through, and I wanted to create an accessible environment where fashion could be considered from academic, artistic, technical and critical viewpoints, rather than focus solely on things like personal style and shopping.
I also felt strongly that the lack of informed, quality fashion criticism and thorough analyses of the industry was hugely problematic; these kinds of stories felt essential to me and they were what I wanted to read the most, but often difficult or impossible to find. Craving a new source of information and a diversity of opinions—while hearing the same eagerness from people around me and within the industry—I decided that a publication with these topics at the forefront and an openness to experimenting in fashion and online was an option that felt rewarding, and something the industry needed more of and still does.
JR: Could you describe what TACK magazine is about? What are your aims? How do you operate TACK?
CH: TACK’s primary mission is twofold: To discover and discuss emerging designers, and new innovative work within the industry in general; and to produce fashion criticism without censoring or shying away from thoughtful commentary, as opposed to the broad, ubiquitously positive exclamations in place of substantive responses that have become standard within the industry.
The current aim is to continue to expand the magazine’s team and turn TACK into a membership-based community where the audience can engage more deeply with the material. I’d also like TACK to provide a certain level of education to its readers who want to understand how the fashion industry functions from the ground up and behind the scenes. And because TACK is invested in supporting emerging talent, building a publication that also initiates strategies to support and promote that new work is extremely important to me.
JR: At Address, we are especially interested in fashion criticism. You mentioned that fashion criticism is at the core of what TACK is about, but how do you define what fashion criticism is?
CH: Fashion criticism implies a broad scope, and like any form of cultural or art criticism, it’s not always easy to define. That being said, I’d argue that fashion criticism as a practice should include an assessment of: aesthetics, design, craft and execution; an understanding, or at least an attempt at understanding, the designer’s goals, intentions, influences and creative process; a conscientious and thorough evaluation of the fashion industry, the way it works, its messaging and various forms of impact; and a thoughtful consideration of what fashion means to us, what it can teach us about ourselves and the world around us, and how clothes and the act of dressing have affected us personally and societally in the past and how they might be affecting us in the present.
Certainly not every piece of fashion criticism needs to contain the whole lot of it, but sadly there’s very little fashion criticism that includes any of it! We’ve mistaken the word “criticism” for an inherently negative review—not a new battle for critics of all kinds—which is quickly taken for bad publicity and something to be snubbed out at all costs to ensure the better good of the brands and products being discussed. The industry, too, acts as a powerful machine that rarely responds well to critique (consider the debates surrounding racial diversity or manufacturing regulations). It’s a shame that individuals and companies have drawn a hard line when it comes to granting access to writers and an open attitude to the public—the very public that is worshipping and buying their clothes. I believe that fashion criticism can educate an audience that genuinely wants to learn more about fashion, does not automatically dictate a negative or disparaging viewpoint, further pushes designers and creatives toward compelling and innovative work, and inspires worthwhile dialogues about art, fashion, taste, social politics, history, and much more. Is fashion criticism absolutely necessary? Not technically. But I do believe that criticism ultimately challenges and improves its subject and its audience in ways that branding, promotional writing, ad-dependent content and journalistic red tape does not.
JR: When Robin Givhan left the Washington Post as their fashion critic, her position was never replaced. I wonder if the New York Times will appoint a new fashion critic now that Cathy Horyn has resigned. In some respects critics are becoming extinct, though at the same time it seems to me that digital spaces are giving a new lease of life to criticism. What do you think are the challenges and benefits of publishing fashion criticism online? Why did you decide to create TACK as a digital publication, not a physical one?
CH: This is an interesting question, and I think a few different things are happening here. First, it’s not uncommon for arts critics to reach a point in their careers where they no longer feel they can (or want to) comment on what’s current—take the beloved film critic Pauline Kael, for example, or the art critic Dave Hickey who told The Guardian, “It’s (art) nasty and it’s stupid. I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit.” I’m not saying that’s the reason for Horyn’s departure—though I do think there was evidence of a tapering passion in her writing—and it will happen in fashion as it has elsewhere as critics get older, and that’s a good thing. It makes room for new voices, new opinions and new perspectives. But it’s also worth noting that to be a great critic, you need an invested audience, and building the necessary trust, expertise, skill and ability to entertain, inform and challenge readers is a difficult task. You don’t rise to Horyn’s status, or Givhan’s for that matter, simply by assuming the empty slot; so even if new writers and reporters are brought on to replace those who have left, it doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly have a new lineup of trusted critics overnight. At the same time, we also won’t see new critics rise to acclaim if existing or new publications don’t invest in potential critics and play a part in cultivating their long-term careers. There are only so many Colin McDowell’s that can float freely as contributing critics, especially before gaining a solid reputation.
Second, I think it’s a sign that people are steadily moving away from newspapers as a primary source of arts and entertainment coverage, particularly when it comes to the runway. There’s also the practical reality that with the knowledge and experience gained by being a leading fashion critic come new opportunities (e.g. Eric Wilson leaving The New York Times for InStyle). I don’t think the fashion critic is becoming extinct, but the role of the fashion critic is becoming murkier as media coverage leans away from honest reporting and toward more consumer- and sales-driven content. Frankly, as budgets tighten and the fashion-media market balloons, critics can sometimes be a hard sell.
I decided to launch TACK online for a number of reasons—available capital, wide reach and accessibility among them. And of course, for an industry that moves as quickly as fashion does, it just makes more sense for reporting and criticism to be produced and published at a more congruous pace. I think The Business of Fashion is doing an outstanding job so far, and has shown that high-quality reporting and criticism can keep up and find an eager audience online. But the bottom line is that we’re no longer on our way toward a digital media world—we’re already there. As much as I love the feel of a print magazine in my hands, I have to admit that I rarely buy print magazines anymore and I enjoy the access of information online. There’s still value to be had from print publications, but the objectives will be different. I also think there’s an enormous potential in online content and reader interaction that we haven’t tapped into yet, and I’m extremely interested in exploring what an online publication can be and what kind of experience an online publication can provide that a print magazine cannot.