Fashion critics defend their craft

At a panel Tuesday night, three noted journalists spoke to the importance of covering the fashion industry

Fashion critics encounter naysayers about their beat in every direction. It’s not serious; it’s elitist; it’s a fluffy, feminine topic.

“In many ways, [this attitude has] to do with the history of the way that fashion was covered,” said Robin Givhan—the only fashion critic who has ever won a Pulitzer Prize for her work. “It’s considered something that’s for and about women” and therefore unimportant, she continued, adding that the conflation of fashion and celebrity in recent years has added to this perception. “I think all of those things kind of conspired to keep fashion from being given the same kind of respect.”

Even so, Givhan, along with Stefano Tonchi and Guy Trebay, maintained that the fashion world is an important industry to cover. They spoke to a like-minded crowd at The New School on Tuesday night on a panel marking the new issue of Fashion Projects. The magazine, edited by Parson’s professor Francesca Granata, covers the discipline, accessibly, from an academic perspective. (It’s available for purchase on its website.)

Trebay, of The New York Times, said he did not set out to cover fashion and still considers himself an urban ethnographer, one who grew fascinated by fashion as a subculture in the days before most couture was owned by conglomerates. Now, he said, fashion is “super-corporate,” and much of the creativity is dictated top-down, so “you lose some of the pleasure of observing the process.”

Tonchi, the editor in chief of W magazine, said something similar: “It’s a business, but it’s also a cultural phenomenon, and the two things don’t always go together.” Covering the business of fashion is little different than covering the car industry, he said (both of those businesses also buy lucrative print ads in the publications covering them). Coverage focusing on the artistic parts of fashion tend to leave out the business bits, so “fashion” coverage ends up scattered throughout newspapers’ sections rather than painting a cohesive picture of a major industry.

Givhan said that the shift from bottom-up creation to a well-controlled fashion business paired with professional stylists is just a new kind of story, one that journalists should continue covering.

The media, she added, should attempt “to hold the fashion industry accountable for its choices and for what it says, and to recognize that it’s big. It’s not a club anymore.” This is true both in that most fashion houses are owned by one of three companies and in the fact that chain retailers like Forever 21 and H&M make runway looks widely accessible.

Fashion’s expansion includes the growing legions of fashion bloggers, those controversial turf stompers whom, Trebay said, are mostly writing to further the goal of designing their own looks. This results in poorer quality fashion writing, the panelists said, not because Internet content is inherently bad but because the stakes, and the barrier to entry, are so low.

Bloggers “have to step up their game, writingwise,” he said. “Just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean it’s writing.”

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: , ,