Fans or Critics: What Is The True State of Fashion Criticism Today?

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Fashion month came and passed, showing us nothing will ever be the same. Our Smartphone screens literally caught fire as we tried to adjust to the new reality that everyone’s invited in the digital front row-thus everyone is entitled to an opinion based on infomation previously accessed only by the fashion nomenclature. In this new all-access fashion reality, information on collections and trends is not preserved for buyers and high-ranking editors. Everyone can have access to the industry’s utmost secrets, and thus, everyone can have an opinion. Everyone? This much-welcomed digital democratization had created a monster.

This is not a post-Covid phenomenon though. As fashion houses adapted to accommodate the digital sphere, increasing consumers’ access to fashion shows, the role of a fashion critic has inevitably changed. No longer the industry’s secrets gatekeeper, the critic had to redefine its role. Enter social media. The decline of print magazines gave birth to a brand new kind of fashion criticism prospering in the digital sphere, that of fashion bloggers and social media aficionados. With the rise and vast popularity of social media, fashion criticism found its place on Instagram, Twitter Tik Tok, and Facebook groups.

In fact, social media and blogging turned a whole generation into amateur critics with the kind of memes, Tweets, Instagram stories, Youtube videos, and TikTok clips. For the newest formed class on on-line critics, watching and evaluating fashion through screens became their modus operandi. “I think there’s certainly a whole new category of people chronicling the fashion industry, and I would say that is the impact of influencers. I think there’s certainly a difference between influencers and critics, even though both of them might use social media or Instagram as the way in which they get their point across,” commented Robin Givhan, senior critic-at-large for The Washington Post in an interview for Wallet magazine and to its EIC Elise By Olsen. She was right.

“Reviewing collections online? No problem, easy peasy,” Luke Meagher, a 23-year-old trend vlogger tells Business of Fashion in an article titled “The New Wave Of Fashion Criticism”. With no relevant studies but a whopping following of thousands, he roasts the industry’s sacred cows, much to the delight of his followers. And he is only one of many. Those new on-line trend commentators have distinctive characteristics and a rather idiosyncratic approach to fashion phenomena eager to appeal to a much younger and perhaps more progressive audience.

Still, how much in-depth analysis can in fact exist in those made-to-be-short social media formats? , Is this so-called New Wave of fashion criticism (Instagram, Clubhouse, Youtube) true fashion criticism?

Eugene Rabkin is the founder of stylezeitgeist.com, has contributed articles on fashion and culture to The Business of Fashion, Vogue Russia, Buro247, and taught critical writing and fashion writing courses at Parsons the New School for Design. For him, the medium matters less; it’s all about the knowledge of the subject. “Sure, I cringe every time I see an 18-yr-old mispronounce designer names or getting the basic facts wrong, but perhaps they’ll grow into a real critic eventually” Asked about the crucial difference between fashion criticism in the pre-social media era and now, he points on information overload. “The main difference was that it wasn’t drowned in so much informational noise. Now, no one really can hold people’s attention for long. No one cares by now that Bottega deleted its Instagram account, for example.” he notes

For Francesca Granata, Parsons Professor and author of Fashion Criticism,An Anthology this shift to digital and social media can be clearly observed in the way critics cover fashion shows. “The fashion shows have increasingly transformed into media events for the Internet—first for blogs and then social media. This change has affected the way the shows are covered, as their performative qualities are discussed at length alongside the actual garment. The progressive lack of attention to the materiality of clothes in contemporary fashion criticism can also be tied to the speed of fashion dissemination through social media and digital media more generally—modes of circulation that are ill-fitted to the extensive material analysis of clothes, which was the cornerstone of earlier fashion criticism.” It appears true criticism takes its time to digest.

According to Diane Pernet, pioneering fashion blogger and founder of the international ASVOFF festival it’s all whether critics are actually free to express their views. “Prior to social media fashion journalists were traditionally educated examples: Suzy Menkes, Vanessa Friedman, Cathy Horyn, Tim Blanks, Robin Givhan, and Valerie Steele. Critics attached to newspapers are able to express themselves without fear of advertisers pulling out, totally different stories in magazines that are dependent on advertisers. Few fashion journalists are actually critics, a few examples are Angelo Flaccavento at BOF, Eugene Rabkin at StyleZeitgeist.” As for bloggers? “Initially bloggers were free spirits, basically fashion-obsessed consumers and honestly expressed themselves because they were not initially invited to shows so they could say what they thought without worrying that they wouldn’t receive invitations if they gave a bad review. As they grew followers, they became brand ambassadors and started having the same limitations expressing any not-so-great comments on the collections.”

If this was the state of fashion in the post-digital era, has coronavirus pandemic further affected fashion criticism? “Because of Covid, the fashion shows have now completely morphed into media events—a process which was already underway. And as the format of the show changes (i.e., shows are replaced by films, etc.) the way they are covered also does.” notes Francesca Granata. “This process started prior to COVID, of course, but has been intensified by the way COVID has laid bare society (at least US society) profound inequalities” she concludes.

For Diane Pernet, those new developments have seriously democratized fashion and even benefited new designers. “Back in the early ’90s, there was a scene in Robert Altman’s Pret a Porter where Julia Roberts plays a fashion editor but instead of sitting front row she was watching the collections on CNN and writing them up as if she was there. With COVID everyone is watching shows on their computer screens. It is very democratic; we all can access as many collections as interest us and in fact, when the collections are physical that is absolutely not possible. Also, emerging designers have as much visibility as big brands and often are far more creative with their presentations. It is all about creativity and on the part of the fashion critics, curiosity.”

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