Has Fashion Killed The Critic? Angelo Flaccavento Investigates
I recently read an interview with Italian reporter Andrea Cuomo. Talking about the little pamphlet he has written about the “bubble” of haute cuisine and the general craze for gourmet everything, Cuomo lamented the lack of space left for true gastronomy critics.
Basically, Cuomo thinks that the whole gourmet world works in such a way that critics are being more or less silenced, generally by being lured and seduced by chefs and their cohorts into penning nice reviews. Think lavish meals flooded with the best wines and hosted in wonderful hidden places and you get the picture. The observation rang a bell and somehow relieved me: at least it’s not only the fashion world that increasingly tucks away true critical voices. Not that sharing the problem with other creative areas diminishes the horror in any way.
I built my path into the system with the fierce persuasion that there was some space for honest and thoughtful writing based on sharp opinions. I was probably wrong. The more I move ahead, in fact, and the more the system evolves, the less I read – and write – something that is not praise, or consent, in independent and mainstream publications alike. There are just very few wordsmiths who tell it as it is, and editors who allow them to do so, mostly old guard. Which makes the future of fashion criticism a bit risqué.
Why did all this happen? There are many contributing factors working at once. For a start, there are politics. Fashion houses and the corporations that own them have gained immense power in the market and over the press. As glamorous Goliaths, they like flexing their muscles, and we, the critics, are constantly reminded of that – by our publishers, editors and the many PRs and assorted gatekeepers who rule the game in glamorously insidious ways. Fashion, as an industry, survives on commerce. Careful media exposure is crucial: the more things shine, the more they ignite desire. Everything that slows down the game or reveals its tricks and flaws, true criticism in primis, is seen as danger – a threat to avoid at all costs. In order to adapt, fashion reporters have become masters of insinuation and understatement. Subtle and sometimes pointy critiques manage to materialise on the pages, but in such ways that they sound like nothing but a passing frisson or a forgettable little burst.
Truth be told, PRs and the designers they work for – both deadly dangerous species, believe me – like honest opinions, just as long as honesty targets others. Otherwise, there are unspoken but tangible limits we, as writers, have to accept in order to avoid hassle. The wrong words might in fact upset and therefore sour the gracious relations built with a fashion house. As a result, access – to a show or a designer – would be denied, and that would have an effect on the quality of a writer’s work. Sure, there are ways to express a pointy opinion in a gentle way, but it’s always risky, because not everybody has the intelligence to accept criticism as a stimulus instead of taking it as brutal backstabbing. In my career, I have met many designers who have openly and willingly accepted a bad review, just as I have met many – both big and up-and-coming ones – who took a good review for granted. Recently, for instance, a relevant Italian house banned me because of my suspect lack of praise for a collection, despite my best efforts not to sound harsh. I can cope with it, but it hurts a bit.
The core of the problem, however, is not political but substantial. It’s the poisonous intertwining of commerce and freedom that characterises the contemporary fashion industry – just as in all other creative industries, art included. The migration of both writers and stylists between supposedly free publications and fashion houses is constant. Most of us are freelance, and hey, we have to survive! How to keep the ethical level high within this blurry frame is another problem altogether.
Good newspaper writing sometimes opens the door to the odd, well-paid bit of corporate text, or maybe grants a commission for the writing of the press release of the very same show one is supposed to freely review. Likewise, stylists and fashion editors often consult for fashion houses in more or less transparent ways. Editors know when to look away, and the result is that commerce insinuates everywhere, making everything acceptable and accepted, as long as it is paid. We, as professionals, do our best to walk the thin line between integrity and selling out, but the truth is we are all guilty, one way or another, because we all enjoy being spoiled by designers and fashion houses. It’s human nature.
Then there are the press trips to far-flung and exotic locations to attend special events. Invitees get five-star treatment, from business-class tickets to swanky hotels, and with that the promise of a continued membership to fashion’s hyper- exclusive clique. Not being invited to one of these trips, I can tell you, makes one feel second class, or rather irrelevant, which is just another form of elegant control. Being hosted like princes, in fact, makes the honesty of the review a bit harder, especially for newspaper writers like myself. There is nothing Machiavellian going on here: again, it’s just human nature.
Fashion, you know, is seductive. By mere admission to the inner circle, it can instantly turn enemies, or potential enemies, into allies. Just think of the way bloggers, in the past few years, have passed from being free critical voices to trumpets of the most blatant and banal product placement. Yet the closer and more friendly writers and brands get, the more difficult it becomes to dish out an honest commentary. It is always possible, of course, to play the insinuation game or turn bad into good, but not everybody succeeds and the result is apparent.
Let’s be real. Today, fashion journalism is merely a decorative act, or a tiny bit more. It’s because of the way the system works but also because of the way our egos are constantly lured, pampered and pumped. Ethical boundaries keep being trespassed, if not erased altogether. Promoted by the ubiquitous street-style photographers, a few writers and stylists have turned into contemporary celebrities, leaving their behind-the-scenes status. The astute ones, with several-k followers, are often approached, or even paid, by fashion houses to wear their stuff, which is nothing less than advertising. Readers are aware of this and, as a result, their confidence in free thinking – what makes a journalist, well, a journalist – is eroded, just like progress within the industry at large is put under constant threat by such poisonous and pervasive complacency.
The scouting for new talents is another problem, as hammering tam tam can turn a talentless designer into a star. We, the critics, find it easy to fall in love with a new vision, but we are also human, in the sense that we can make mistakes. Sometimes the big exposure of a name in a publication is the studious equivalent of well-paid advertising pages, sometimes it is just the result of a silly or not-so-silly fascination. There are many designers out there hailed as geniuses whose careers have been built on connecting, on carefully constructed cool-factor stories, while there are others who struggle endlessly in spite of an enormous talent.
As an industry, we are all responsible for this. Criticism, in fact, would ideally mean the possibility of questioning everything, finding out what’s really new and progressive directly at its source, not through the filter of powerful PR agencies or cliques of self- proclaimed tastemakers.
The cumulative result of these minor, or not so minor, disasters is a cultural wasteland. Communication and entertainment are central acts to the system nowadays. Fashion right now is all about the glitz, the hype and the marketing. Authentic design innovation has been replaced by a postmodern pillage of old ideas, and by a general stress on styling and postproduction as ways to market as new what actually is not. That’s where criticism should really be helpful. True fashion criticism is not about the personality of the writer, even though that is instrumental to the message and the shape it gets. True fashion criticism is an indispensable tool of progress, because it’s only through questioning and debating that new solutions and new scenarios are created and movement is ignited. But this aspect is constantly at risk of being silenced: with big dictatorial moves or with subtler ones.
Criticism, however, is a profoundly positive act and an opportunity for any industry to survive and evolve. Ignoring the doom that lurks under the glittery surface and pretending that all is really rosy while everything stinks will only help accelerate a massive deterioration. Which, actually, is not even that bad. The empire should probably fall and crumble to allow a global restart. As I wait, I’ll still be hopping here and there, following the fashion circus, doing my best to keep being part of the clique. There’s no escape, otherwise even these rants will only sound like the desperate bark of a loser.
Text by Angelo Flaccavento
Illustration by Charles Jeffrey
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Men, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…