A question I have been grappling for a couple of years now, is why we’re so afraid of talking about fashion. If something as fundamental as dressing oneself each morning can bring us close to being fashion-conscious, then the idea of having an individualistic opinion on it should also exist.
Fashion, among many other co-functioning avenues such as film, sculpture, literature, music, photography and even new media today, is part of a network that helps to explore opinions at the same time, accrue capital. For instance, artist-brand collaborations and the rise of fashion film speaks a lot about how we are on our way to exploring thoughts and being influential.
The industry has evolved from being dominated by pre-eminent designers to being a democratic one where everyone has access to fashionable clothes while having an opinion on it too. In more ways than one, this has led to the rise of fashion criticism.
Who Is A Fashion Critic? What Do They Do?
Think Suzy Menkes, Cathy Horyn, Tim Blanks or Robin Givhan – Big names in the world of opinions, these critics are shaping the global fashion scenario.
In a nutshell, the role of a fashion critic is to act as an interpreter between the designer and the end consumer. Fashion critics are arbiters of the industry, helping consumers understand how to respond to what they are being offered in the market. They are incredibly informed, balanced and carry a knack for meticulous judgment; having helped the industry to give birth to what we now commonly refer to as ‘fashion vocabulary’.
Subliminally, critique has always had its place in the industry, whether it comes from a consumer or in the form of a critical perspective. However now, the worrying question is the changing face of fashion criticism. Does it really matter? And to whom? Who are these reviews meant for?
The industry has witnessed a paradigm shift with the entire ‘see now, buy now’ phenomenon, the blurring of gender lines and the rising impact of Instagram, to name a few. Amidst all this havoc, sits a fashion critic. Since everything gets immediately consumed and exposed, a fashion critic is responsible for explaining why they deserve a front row seat at a fashion presentation. This explanation is becoming rather difficult due to the brutality of their job. In an interview with Stanford News, former New York Times journalist Cathy Horyn admitted, “Fashion criticism is a relatively new area of criticism. It doesn’t get a lot of respect”. This paradigm shift has led to a lack of dependency on critique in general and questioning the integrity of the reviews. It is no secret that new media has changed the way fashion is being experienced and digested. People no longer feel the need to wait to see a collection. The need for interpretation of runway looks and its historical references has subsided.
Additionally, the nature of criticism has also changed. A great example of this would be Style.com reviews ten years ago when they were predominantly descriptive, however, with the recent surge of individual opinions, the nature of expressing evaluations has changed to being self-assessed.
Nowadays reviews have started to read like summaries as opposed to well thought out critical pieces carrying the context of a collection and its relevance in the industry. Only a seasoned critic will be able to answer questions related to the cohesiveness of a collection or if the designer is bringing anything new to the fashion conversation. In 2012, New York Magazine suitably remarked, “Criticize a designer’s work, and you can forget about an invitation to the next show. Gush about it, and lose your integrity.” Criticism is not only for consumers but also for designers to help them understand their audience better.
This overall rise and fall of fashion criticism is also partly due to the onslaught of globalization and the audience having a more critical eye. They expect a sense of selection and answers to questions like “Why is this relevant to me?” The disappearance of critics is more noticeable now than ever before.
Nonetheless, India has been facing a dearth of fashion critics since the very beginning. This is largely due to lack of deep-rooted knowledge and influential minds that have a strong fashion base. Additionally, most collections presented here do not follow a dictated season flow as opposed to international critics who can make or break a designer’s collection with their reports.
Fashion criticism is not one of India’s strongest suits, majorly because the writers are not seasoned or informed enough to command people’s attention and influence their choices. The lesser-known criticism that exists in the fashion industry comes from the religious, cultural and political ideologies of India and not entirely drawn from fashion itself.
Fashion critiquing was never considered as a momentous profession in India. It all began with fashion-beat reporters covering socialite parties and reporting trends from runway presentations. The voice of reason to decode runway looks, break down a collection to its symbolism and analyze the market did not exist. Similarly today, influencers and Instagrammers command the Indian fashion market and control the voice that shapes the audience’s minds.
The upswing in the number of fashion bloggers has also contributed to the ebbs of fashion criticism as a career. This is primarily because we fail to acknowledge the difference between experienced critique and consumer journalism.
However, fashion critiquing is not headed to a path of extinction yet. It is still a viable career choice for those who are willing to study the nitty-gritties of the fashion industry and stand up to brands/designers with realistic reports that carry a framework of verifiable perspective.
For those looking for a career in this field, a good head start will be acquiring a degree in fashion media and criticism and having a background in journalism would help. The key is to be more meticulous, more observant. The industry needs more independent, unafraid and informed voices that can shape young minds and help them choose better.