Fashion polemicist: NOT VOGUE

NOT VOGUE represents the next wave of fashion criticism. Challenging traditions by maximizing the opportunities provided by the internet, NOT VOGUE composes ‘poems’ using visuals and sharp statements that critique fashion using its own material as medium. In an email interview, ‘Steven Oklyn’ the pseudonym behind the site, states his polemic on fashion.


Johannes Reponen: When it comes to new ventures and ideas, their ability to survive and flourish is dependent on the right timing in relation to cultural climax, interest from audience and availability of right distribution channels whether media or space. Personally, I don’t think Address could have existed 10 years ago and when we started it in 2011, it felt like the right time to begin to expand and challenge the dialogues around fashion, which is our mission. I’m interested to know why you started NOT VOGUE? In a few interviews you have talked about where the name comes from in reference to something that Carine Roitfeld said in 2010, but why did you think it was relevant to start NOT VOGUE soon after? What was your motivation?   

Steve Oklyn: With all of my projects, I need to start with the title. As you said, the name NOT VOGUE came from a Q&A with Carine Roitfeld. I am not directly involved in the fashion industry. But as a cultural pattern wonk, the exponential growth of the fashion-industrial complex since the late 1980s is a topic of personal interest. In everything I have devoted my time to, the link is finding the unseen relationships. Once you break through the first visual layer of the global spectacle and begin to navigate beneath the seen (scene), the structure of these societal interrelationships is revealed. By mapping those deeper connections, the institutional goals become clearer – as does the way in which the individuals involved contribute to the greater corporate messaging. After naming the project and obtaining the web domain, I took a few months to think about the why of the project – which I term the event.

I date the recent cycle of fashion-industrial propaganda to the Marc Jacobs grunge collection for Perry Ellis s/s 1993. The runway show was in the fall of 1992. The early 1990s marked a massive acceleration in the fashion industry’s strategy to create a worldwide network of identity control. We have now seen 20 years of rapid, unquestioned, global growth on the part of the identity overlords (dominant fashion brand conglomerates including LVMH, Kering and Richemont) and their pay-to-play spin mechanism, Conde Nast International, which now publishes 23 print editions of Vogue. The key word here is “unquestioned.” By the fall of 2010, the financial scale and global reach of these new identity engineers had reached unprecedented levels of cultural, sociopolitical, and corporate influence. The most disturbing result was how deep their control had become on the individual level. What I am talking about is a handful of self-proclaimed societal dictators using a multibillion-dollar war chest to create faith in the idea that the individual will be happier and more personally fulfilled if, starting in their teens, they devote a sizable percentage of their time, financial resources and their definition of selfhood to corporate brand engineering. This is, of course, just a technocratic description of brainwashing.

NOT VOGUE’s visual counterattack – the logo with Colonel Gaddafi and Anna Wintour – was envisioned when the Libyan civil war escalated in the spring of 2011. Both the relevance of the event and the motivation to initiate the event just clicked into place. The first post was published on July 12, 2011. In the Paul Virilio sense, this is an informational war. Without any individual or societal resistance for 20 years, the fashion-industrial complex’s propaganda divisions have waged an uncontested mind-grab across the globe. Emerging markets have been particularly vulnerable to this mind-grab. The past few waves of digital native youth are totally unprepared to understand or fend off this invasion of the identity snatchers. The motivation of NOT VOGUE is clear: to wage an informational guerilla counterattack; to create a message that reveals the unseen relationships of the fashion propaganda machine; and to develop a manual of counter methodologies to combat their amphetamine-like consumer rapture. The relevance of NOT VOGUE is also clear: To allow each person as much freedom as possible to explore their own sense of self, their own individuality. For the NOT VOGUE community, there is no difference between a little red book and a little red designer handbag. Both are about control. NOT VOGUE is about exposing and shattering that control.


JR: I see your work as a new form of fashion criticism. But looking at criticism in general, it’s astonishing how in most other creative disciplines, such as art, film, music, architecture and literature there is a relatively good balance of critics and criticism, yet in fashion this concept doesn’t really even exist. Of course it’s never balanced, but at least in other fields it feels like there is a relatively healthy opposition unlike in the fashion industry where it’s much more like a collective blind dictatorship. Only a few fashion commentators use the title ‘critic’ and are willing to put themselves on the line with their opinions, whilst most just seem to, and more importantly want to, applaud the naked emperor. Why do you think that is? You mentioned the unquestioned power of the fashion business and commerce, is this the reason? And what role do you think, criticism should play in fashion?  

SO: I completely agree with you regarding the unique position that the fashion-industrial complex has when it comes to suppressing the idea of a critical class. I do not think of the most visible writers following the fashion calendar as critics; rather, they operate as extensions of the massive propaganda mechanism constructed by the fashion-industrial complex. Their articles and columns serve to extend messages that are constructed and disseminated by brand intel departments prior to the presentation of every collection. This is all done in a highly controlled and orchestrated manner. It is all top-down message construction and control. The same elite writers (who are really publicists) are admitted to the same presentations and given the same privileged access to the inner workings of each programmed spectacle, which include fashion shows, collection presentations, corporate fashion exhibitions, and corporate brand celebrations. Every moment that a fashion brand can construct a predetermined corporate message, the preordained fashion press elite is impelled to attend – and then use their editorial real estate to relay “the specialness of it all” in the same reverential tones.

Occasionally – and truly uncommonly – one small expression of dissent from the party line (corporate allegiance) will appear. But even these occasional transgressions on the part of a press member seem scripted by the fashion overlords. NOT VOGUE views the closed information loop of the brands to the press as a feudal construct. The fashion press are vassals who are obligated to express their liege lord’s message on a regular and continuous basis, lest they be expelled from the artificial realm of fashion world privilege. Of the writers on the royal dole, the one who perfectly illustrates the artificial intelligence loop of fashion is Tim Blanks. His 2013 CFDA Eugenia Sheppard Media Award is, in NOT VOGUE’s view, a well-deserved public recognition of his acceptance of, and obedience to, his industrial role as a brand confidante and ally (as opposed to an independent columnist). There is one writer who does stand out from the pack, and that is Lynn Yaeger. In every article she writes, she diverges from her professional peers. She accepts that fashion operates apart from the social fabric, and is itself a fabrication.

The whole spectacle plays out like a royal court, with only the most obedient writers gaining a continuous audience with the overlords (the brand owners), the lords (the brand managers), and the anointed (the designers). You can argue that the organisation of fashion in our era is a mirror of court symmetry. The answer to why there is no critical history – or no contemporary support to develop true critics – is, as you rightly pointed out within your question, that the fashion-industrial complex is not a democratic institution. It is an aristocratic state that mirrors a monarchy. No one wants to upset the hierarchy of the court because no one wants to be expelled from the castle. The front-row seats, the champagne receptions, the paparazzi’s attention – who wants to lose these special privileges, hard-won as they are by years of obedience?

According to its dictionary definition, criticism is based on disapproval, analysis and the revelation of faults. There exist a multitude of interesting editorial pathways to review and reveal the seen (scene) and unseen machinations of the fashion-industrial players and processes. The current writers and editorial platforms seem to accept the fact that they are just corporate tools. As a result, the fashion world has the air of a children’s birthday party – and the designers, models, stylists, editors, and various corporate apparatchiks all appear to have eaten too much cake and ice cream. The giddiness of it all has the appearance of a sugar high – an artificially-induced state. And when I say that the fashion world has been organised as one continuous party, I mean that in both the social sense (i.e., a celebration) and the political sense (i.e., a hierarchical organisation).

Recently, the overlords of the fashion conglomerates have used their egos and massive financial resources to grab the leading power positions in the contemporary art world. As a result, the art world is slowly losing its independence – not to mention its role as a voice of social criticism. The need of the fashion-industrial complex to take control of the world’s selfhood on a global scale is truly pathological. Can anyone with a sense of intellectual independence view Art Basel Miami Beach and now the globally expanding Frieze Art Fair brands and not be sceptical of all this marketing, merchandising and high-society celebrating? They call it a cultural expression, but let’s just call it what it is: a mind-grab. Brainwashing. Identity theft of the world’s youth – and the youth of the emerging markets. The recent global spectacle of “cultural news” structured by Louis Vuitton using the work of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama was intellectually criminal – a fraudulent cultural construct. The art world and the fashion world have merged into the identity control agency of our era. One can legitimately ask at this point: are any of the arts free of fashion-industrial influence and control? In both Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent advertising campaigns (Beck, etc.) and the promotional performance “art” by Jay Z that was organized by art dealer Jeanne Greenberg, we have prime examples of a lost cultural critical independence from which we can construct a J.G. Ballard-penned scenario of cultural dystopia. My attempt at a possible title for that Ballardian tale would be “Why I Want To Fuck Bernard Arnault.” We know that every move a consumer makes is now digitally observed, and collated into fashion-industrial intel. Time to turn off this computer and move to a new location.











JR: Space and money seem to be vital issues in this discussion of control and lack of criticism. Most printed matter relies on advertising to pay for printing and distribution but also to make money, which automatically gives the control to the advertisers, however much the editors declare independence. At Address, we operate with not-for-profit ideology. This means that we can embrace a certain type of freedom but it also requires a very different approach in order for us to exist sustainably and to have that independence. The internet has changed a lot of this as it allows new forms of criticism to emerge where money is less of an issue, so long as someone is willing to dedicate time and energy for the right use of it. Internet seems vital to your existence. It provides the material for your critical practice and a platform for the distribution of it. But how do you view the internet as a platform? Is this the only place where criticism can independently exist now? And is there a way that criticism and commerce can co-exist where the discipline of criticism can remain financially sustainable and healthy, or is this just a paradox? 

SO: You are correct in stating that the Internet platform is integral to the existence of NOT VOGUE. The central structural aspect is the ability to find all of the images through a search mode. It also provides a structural conversation while organising both the images and the text. The ability to create an endless flow of text-to-image cultural algorithms is intrinsic to the speed of web platform publishing. The fashion websites that are currently referred to as the arbiter sites are elemental in construction. The editors of these sites (e.g., The Sartorialist) are either uninterested in – or have no intellectual motivation to explore – the infinite combinations that are made possible by this web-based process.

After a few thousand hours online, fashion occupies a very low trajectory of purpose. It is devoted to navel-gazing. It is stating the obvious that fashion uses the infinite power of the web in the most simplistic manner possible. It is only a mirror. Fashion has a unique ability to explore life on the simplest (consumerist) terms. The industry publishes hundreds of magazines each month filled with tens of thousands of fashion editorial pages, and, in a state best described as delusional, believes that it is creating art. The whole monthly ritual is pathological. The September issue is not a yearly cultural benchmark; it is a symptom of a deeply-rooted societal identity imbalance. The amount of advertising pages in the September issue denotes a distinct cultural algorithm by equalling how little editorial control the magazine actually has. The manner in which the number of pages is announced and discussed, illustrates the triumph of the brands in controlling the magazines. This reality relegates all of the major publications – Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar etc. – to overproduced monthly press releases and consumer catalogues.

The fashion magazine system exists in the past tense now that the web has fully embraced the fashion spectacle system. The web is always publishing yesterday’s fashion images. Beyond the collection, runway or presentation spectacle, all fashion news is dated. That is one of the operational insights of the NOT VOGUE project. The way to capture fashion is through critique, not another layer of presentation. Fashion’s system of extending the spectacle is to move forward into an already experienced past – i.e., the fashion magazine editorials and the fashion brand advertisements, which now include fashion films. All transform a lived visual moment into an infinitely expandable visual death. Each consumer season is a death ritual. In terms of fashion, being on-trend really means that you are proudly reliving a moment that has been dead for months. The consumer is trapped in both a habitual and instinctive process of glorifying a dead visual concept. What makes this even more removed from a clear place of balanced, controlled selfhood is that the collections themselves are based on another layer of already-lived visual imagery.

Fashion viewed in this manner – with no self-reflection or critical mechanism – is an endless procession of past tenses promoted as future tenses. NOT VOGUE believes that the true nature of fashion is buried within the critical discourse. With all the various digital tools and platforms now available to the visual intellectual, a whole generation – and hopefully successive generations – of visual questioning and critique will begin. To directly answer your question, it is unlikely that the fashion-industrial-media complex will amount to anything but a highly-produced press release given its financial dependence on ads. This is also why the design process is so compromised. Through its attachment to publicly-traded corporations and global conglomerates, the system of fashion is on a quarterly profit cycle. That a layer of independent criticism can exist alongside the current fashion identity control network is doubtful. The editorial team at the new publication System have a stance of independence. Do your research, and you’ll see that they are all on the fashion dole. They are socially-connected fashion insiders that the brands support (consultants) and publicise (social news) as beacons of visual intelligence and superior taste. Can the writers at a journal like System sit in the front rows, attend all the various fashion spectacles, be paid as fashion brand consultants, advertise their loyalty to various brands through fashion news platforms, and then write that a particular collection was intellectually bereft? Here it comes: Doubtful.

NOT VOGUE believes that the system of fashion is dead. It is irrelevant. No More Fashion Narrative. Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent is the new Ralph Lauren. He is a cultural vampire, dependent on a cultural narrative that has already been lived. For a perfect example of a court-approved press agent for Saint Laurent, I’ll refer once again to Tim Blanks, whose re-narrative of Hedi’s re-narrative of a moment once lived leads Grace Coddington to create another re-narrative of a moment once lived, sampled by Slimane and then textualised by Blanks, to be once again re-textualised by Coddington – which amounts to another re-narrative of Slimane re-textualising the photographic narrative of another lived moment by photographing once-lived artistic tropes. The true art form of fashion in the 21st century will be independent web-based critique. The visual possibility for radical self-determined identity and self-determined expression is infinite. They need you. You do not need them.

Turn on your mind.

Tune in your identity.

Drop out of fashion.

You now have the algorithm to live with NO MORE VOGUE.


The full interview can be found in Address – journal for fashion criticism issue two. You can buy issue two from our online magazine shop.