Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fashion Circuses and Thoughts

Have you read the Suzy Menkes article that is circulating at the moment? She has written for the New York Times about the Circus of Fashion - the bloggers and street style stars and how the representation of fashion has changed in the last twenty years. She is a highly respected critic and she  raises a lot of valid points but the piece as a whole struck a bum note with me.

She starts the article by reminiscing about the glory days of the 90s, back when fashion editors were real fashion editors and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. Back then (apparently) fashion was exclusive and secretive - only available to those in the know and incomprehensible to mere mortals. Now everyone is going to shows! Bloggers with no journalistic background or training or qualifications beyond their popularity. And the street style extravaganza in front of the shows is getting as much attention as the shows themselves! And where once fashion was totally mediated by editors, we, the public, could only see what they showed us, now it is a free for all! Everyone has access to everything, there are no controls, anyone can watch live streams or look at runway shots moments after editors. The world has gone mad.

Despite clearly being unimpressed by most of the above I do think that Menkes makes some good points. Real criticism is valuable and skilful and deserves respect. I think the internet *cue rather sweeping generalisation* is quite averse to considered criticism. Hila has written a lot about this in other contexts. There is a 'if you haven't got anything nice/totally super upbeat to say, don't say anything at all' bent to the blogosphere whereby you have to be 100% positive all the time or you are accused of trolling. True criticism adds value and starts a discussion and can be beautiful. There are some wonderful book reviews out there - JJS's response to DFW's The Pale King (apologies for the abbreviations, so many barrels!) is an enthralling read on its own merits. It is a real skill that requires talent and practice. Everyone is entitled to their response but that does not make everyone a critic. OMG I LOVES THOSE SHOES I CAN'T WAIT TO BUY THEM is not criticism, no matter how heartfelt the sentiment. [Obviously that is not all fashion bloggers, there are people on the internetz responding to shows and designers in considered, thoughtful ways, with paragraphs and not just streams of images, but - and I think this is fair to say - those bloggers probably aren't getting many show invites. N.b. blog recommendations always welcome.]

Tommy Ton for

However, there is no reason we can't have both - the critic and the individual. One does not invalidate the other. There is no reason to be antagonistic. Similarly, street style + shows. I don't think it is unreasonable that we should want to see the clothes from shows styled and worn by real people in real life. Obviously, when it comes to the furore of fashion week the term 'real life' is being used with some flexibility but compared to the runway or a studio these are relatively uncontrolled environments. These women are not models or when they are they are not being photographed in a professional capacity. Designers may lend the big hitters pieces or outfits but they will add their personal taste and twists and this is why they're popular. The pleasure of street style is also that, aside from ADR et al, it will also capture and engage with anyone who looks interesting. If you flaunt yourself at fashion week, or even if you just happen to be walking past, and you look great, whether you're rich and famous or not, whether you're wearing designer or high street or vintage or handmade, you'll be photographed and you can inspire people. You don't need a golden ticket to interact with fashion. I think you can argue that the popularity of street style represents a democratisation of fashion - we are literally taking to the streets.

Tommy Ton for - still one of the best

She is right about payment and patronage being an issue with bloggers. Most bloggers start as true independents, blogging for nothing but the love of it, sharing their passions and opinions as a hobby. They (we) are amateurs in the best sense of the word - lovers. But when you start taking money/gifts/sponsorship that complicates your content. If a brand is paying your bills you can't be objective even with the best intentions. I've accepted some testers, books and one discount (off the top of my head) for this blog and clearly signposted those but I've never taken payment for content and I doubt I ever will. I'll probably never be reliant on CM, it's not going to keep a roof over my head, and I'm glad about that; for me, blogging is about writing what I want, when I want and that is compromised when money is involved. [The question of what is going to happen to the big bloggers and their readership as they cede the objective content that made them popular is a slightly different, very interesting kettle of fish - I'm looking forward to seeing how that plays out...] However, Menkes's implication that print media is a bastion of objectivity pissed me off. When was the last time you saw anything critical in a fashion magazine?? Never. Power bloggers might be answerable to the brands that employ them but magazines are clearly answerable to their advertisers. Any kind of commercial print media is making its money from advertising not readership and I've pretty much stopped reading the mainstream publications because their content so predictably mirrors their advertisers's budgets. Anything that is off brand message (including The Circus of Fashion) ends up online anway, alongside the scorned bloggers and street style stars. It is so hypocritical. The whole article is riddled with what seems to me like obvious false distinctions.

Also, ELITIST. And bitter. "If fashion is for everyone, is it fashion?" That sentence makes me want to punch something. What is that supposed to mean!? Who is it aimed at? Bloggers? Surely not her own readers? It feels personal - I am not worthy of fashion. Well, screw you. Whatever your pedigree, you don't own fashion, woman! Jeez... Menkes's views also seem outdated and conservative to me. Yes, the way the public interacts with fashion is changing but change is inevitable and isn't automatically bad. Every creative industry is struggling with the impact of the internet but sitting back and whining isn't going to change anything. This brave new world offers lots of amazing opportunities and a chance to rethink our relationship with fashion/writing/music. It is going to be difficult as we work things out and readjust to a new horizon but sneering and rehashing your personal glory days seems impressively counterproductive.

None of these are new thoughts or issues. They have been swirling around my head for weeks/months/years and Suzy just happened to trigger this outpouring. It's not even particularly topical because Menkes's opinions are pretty old hat but there you go. I don't have any conclusions. What do you think about anything/everything?

Chuck x


  1. I wasn't that impressed with her article either... Fashion should always be for everyone, no hierarchy needed. I sort of see the point too, where a FROW can involve "proper" journalists and buyers, yet also some blogger who may have 15,000 followers to her name but doesn't dress particularly interestingly and has no talents besides her popularity. and of course any one of us could throw on a seriously wacky outfit and hover around the cobbles of Somerset House, what does it bring though? self-validation? Menke's views are outdated though, she's still trying to claw on to the 90s when things were definitely more elitest.. x

  2. Chuck, I completely agree with what you discussed in the second half of your post. Fashion magazines as critical pieces? The best example of this is the mediocre Power issue of Vogue that came out for March 2013. Beyonce on the front cover? Oh yeah, that's real 'cutting-edge' and fashion forward.

  3. @rooth unfortunately though having a black woman on the cover of Vogue is still 'cutting edge' in that it rarely happens. It's pretty fucking ridiculous but true.

    I think the whole problem really comes back to the fact that fashion is a war between art (or at least creativity) and commerce/business and those things are completely jarring. So we all want interesting clothes and beautiful things to look at but to do that magazines need to be bank rolled by the bigger (sometimes blander) brands, the problem is they sometimes forget to do the first thing.

    Blogging is the same. The things you have to do or say to be a "popular" fashion blogger to me make a pretty boring ass blog. Like Fashion Toast? Never got it. Someone wearing free clothes or lots of expensive/bland clothes is not interesting to me, it doesn't drive fashion forward & it's basically not saying anything. Because these are the popular blogs they are the ones with the most invites, like you say, but when the occasional amazingly articulate and unique blogger breaks through like Tavi or Susie Bubble it's kind of awash with the same "oh you don't know what you're talking about" schtick that allows people like Suzy Menkes to write these kind of articles.

    But basically she's pissed because she's spent years in a particular type of "fashion world" where she learnt from the top down (couture, Paris) & nowadays most of us learn from the bottom up, we style stuff from the high street & then learn brands from the internet when we see things we like; and she sees her way as better, more authentic or something. I don't know if one is better than the other, but I do know a "fashion world" where American Vogue can stay that fucking dull & still be considered one of the most important fashion publications, or where being rich is more important than being talented, is not fair. But neither is one where you spew "Oh my god that SKIRT is AMA-Zing@! follow me:)!" just to hit 1000 followers.

    It comes back to the fact that designers need to sell clothes. & whether that's through a magazine or on the back of someone who's going to circulate round the interent a million times they're going to do it. Imagine if the readers of those blogs and magazines realised that they're the ones who give them the influence, then they could actually dictate what they wanted to see & what they didn't. Unfortunately (in my opinion) at the moment it's American Vogue and Fashion Toast.