I have a complex relationship with fashion. Having studied fashion design at university, spent the better part of my career working with garments and fashion in general and now occasionally teaching fashion design, I am fully aware of the ins and outs of fabrics, pattern cutting, construction and finishing. When I’m wandering around shops, I tend to levitate towards both mens and womenswear departments to inspect and examine the tactile merits of garments as quality, colour, materiality and make are all important to me alongside clever and relevant design. When it comes to fashion, the product is always at the forefront of my mind. That is, until all the other components such as presentations, PR, promotion and people in general get in the way. Hence I take a specific position when reviewing catwalk fashion.
Fashion shows are an integral part of the fashion mechanism, but they are not the places for me. I was bluntly reminded about this during the recent London Fashion Week in February, when I thought it might be refreshing for a change to attend a show to see garments in a 3-dimensionial format in a show context. The process, of course, is incredibly painful, and in order to see a ten minute show usually involves ten times as much queuing and waiting, if not more. It had been a while since I last attended shows and the rules have drastically changed over the last few years. Firstly, no one actually watches the show anymore. Well they do, but mostly mediated by phones and iPads in an attempt to capture the show, as if some sort of proof for having been there. This is the material for Twitters, Instagrams and blogs. As the show started, more and more recording devices rose up in the rows in front of me, eventually blocking my direct view of the collection, instead giving me a 2-dimensional view framed by iPads and camera phones. Having left the comfort of my studio desk, away from seeing fashion transmitted to me via computers to the live shows, I had gone a full circle, back to the square screen. How ironic.
The ability to write a catwalk review varies, depending on the space between the garments and the critic. The distance can vary from a few centimetres to a few thousand kilometres subject to access. Whether examining a garment close up with the ability to touch, feel and interrogate minute details, or from far away as a stealth observer, both of these methods have their advantages but, equally, propose problems.
Over the past half a century, attending fashion shows has come to exemplify the mark of a proper critic. Access has been more or less guaranteed by an affiliation with an established newspaper or a magazine, given, of course, that the subsequent write-ups have been positive or at least neutral in tone. Critics voicing disappointment towards a collection, usually get a slap on the wrist with the denial of access to future shows as PR departments exercise their power as the gatekeepers.
Attending shows gives the critic an authentic idea of the collection. Not only do you get to see garments moving past you, but the music, the show setting and sometimes even the scent of the show is there to be written about. It is all about the experience. Recently Tim Blanks reflected on attending the Prada a/w 2013 show, which had cinematic settings, animated shadow reflections and an atmospheric aura. ‘You had to be at that show! I mean pictures and videos just couldn’t possibly do it justice.’
Yes, the fashion show has the ability to enhance the communication of the collection concept, which is important for designers as an extension of their artistry. But it has its problems as well. Clearly, it is an extension of PR and an exercise in power in persuading buyers, press and guests into buying the collection as mediators, promoters, resellers and communicators of fashion. But if you are constantly trying to impress industry peers, where does that leave the customers, who rarely if ever, buy into concepts or shows. They buy garments that are well designed and manufactured and feel relevant for their wants and needs.
Seeing a model going down the runway is like seeing a speeding car going past you. Impressions of shape, colour and some of the detailing are easy to identify but you don’t know what’s underneath the bonnet. Attending a show is one thing, but getting an access to backstage or an invitation to the studio or re-see to inspect the garments is another matter. Designers are happy to take time out to talk to the journalists (well, those in important positions) and walk them through the collections days before and after the shows. Showrooms and re-sees are organized for buyers and press to get a better idea of the garments. Alternatively you might need to wait for the press day a few months after the show in order to see the garments again or until they are delivered to the shops and showcased in magazines four to five months after the first presentation. All of these points of access are potentially beneficial for the critic but getting up close and personal doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a better perspective as every angle comes at a price.
Accessing collections online is not authentic. It doesn’t give a real sense of the atmosphere, scale, sound and movement of the show or the collection. The disadvantage is clearly that one is left with mere impressions with no ability to touch, smell, hear or see the collection unmediated. What you see or read on the screen about a collection is based on photographers’ documentation, or videographers’ edits and writers’ value perceptions. However, there is a gradual shift taking place in the industry where more importance is placed on online tools as part of the overall show production and communication. This is demonstrated by brands and media organizations investment in recording technology alongside the fact that the mainstream press is accepting online as a viable viewing method. Examples of this include The New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn commenting on the first Saint Laurent Paris show using online imagery, as her access to the live show was rejected, and The International Herald Tribune fashion editor Suzy Menkes reviewed the first few days of a/w New York shows via live streaming as her access to the shows was denied by severe weather conditions. This way of reviewing feels particularly relevant now when resort collection are showcased all over the world – Chanel in Singapore, Dior in Cannes and Oscar de la Renta in New York, all in the space of few week, making it almost impossible for the critic to be on three different continents at the same time.
Accessing shows online has its particularities when it comes to reviews. Concepts are relatively easy to decode from the way in which a collection has been designed, if importance is placed on this. Colour, detail and proportion can be sufficiently captured, given the level of visual documentations. Of course one must always keep in mind the mediating nature of screens, pixels, colour calibration and all the other layers of digital stuff in between the critic and the garment. Black collections are a nightmare to look at online as texture, detail, even cut, usually go missing, particularly if the lighting is bad.
Unlike the actual shows, online spaces are constantly evolving. The great thing about sites like Style.com and catwalking.com is that they are continuously enhancing the way in which shows are being documented from making the images bigger, publishing more detail shots, documenting the ‘atmosphere’ of the show from new perspectives and even adding in back views of the garments. The speed in which images are uploaded online is staggering: in some cases this happens within minutes after the look has appeared on the runway.
Video effectively supports the transcription of a collection as it helps to give a sense of movement of garments allowing interpretations of weight and handle of cloth, cut and fit. A welcomed addition in recent years has been the spread of live streaming of shows. Burberry, particularly, has perfected this, making it an incredibly smooth viewing experience with additional brand related footage from backstage, making of the collection and other insights which perhaps is not accessible to people attending the show. Some designers have embraced the immersive and inclusive nature of fashion film either as part of the show context as with Alexander McQueen’s s/s 2012 Plato’s Atlantis or as a primary presentation format used by the likes of Gareth Pugh. In these cases it is the mediated visuals that take the center stage with the live show acting just as the secondary backdrop. Whilst access to attending live shows is limited, the shows in general are more accessible then ever before. And because of this, everyone could be a critic.
Critic chooses their positions, not just on how they understand fashion and what they deem to be worthy of writing about, what’s good and bad, successful, unsuccessful, relevant or irrelevant, but also where they position themselves in relation to the industry. I recognize the downsides of my chosen viewing perspective and admit that because of this I might miss important elements such as material qualities of fabrics and construction and that I don’t get to fully interrogate intricate detailing, shapes and cuts. But it’s a price that I’m willing to pay for not having to talk to PR people, chase access, write something that I have to, or need to, in order to conform to the industry codes. It is a position that is perhaps not approved as being authentic or real, but it provides me with a perspective that is not only sustainable for me but also allows me to give a different voice to the dialogue.
Sometimes I consider how I would feel if I was given the opportunity to cover the shows for a national or international magazine or a newspaper and given all the access that I needed. Would I take it? Probably not. Whilst I admire critics such as Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes for their stamina in attending show after show, I feel a kindred spirit with The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani for her reclusive approach to the industry she works in. After all, it is all about perspectives. And the more perspectives we have in the industry, the more change it has of evolving, adapting and flourishing. TV didn’t kill the radio as online media hasn’t killed print. Reviewing fashion shows online, certainly won’t affect the offline perspectives. In fact, they need each other as much as the fashion industry desperately needs fashion critics and vise versa.