Notes to the caption: ENVELOPE PLEASE Fashion writers must be invited to a runway show.Dima Gavrysh/Associated Press
March 13, 2008
My Invitation Isn’t in the Mail
By CATHY HORYN
GIORGIO ARMANI does not want me at his fashion shows.
In a letter to my editor earlier this month, he cites my “unnecessarily sarcastic comments” about his friends and family in a review of his last couture show and notes that I have “rarely found positive remarks” to make about his ready-to-wear collections, and then surmises that I have “an embedded preconception.” He concludes: “Going forward therefore, I see no real merit in inviting Cathy Horyn to my women’s shows.”
The subject of banning journalists from fashion shows seems as quaint as the practice itself, neither a commendation to the industry nor a badge of honor to the critic. Indeed, fashion is the only creative field that attempts to bar the news media.
Drama and film critics are often baited and pressured by producers. When Frank Rich was the chief drama critic of The Times, the producer David Merrick tried, and failed, to place a pair of ads in the paper inviting pyromaniacs to the Times building. But those critics can always buy a ticket to a play or movie. A fashion writer must be invited to a runway show.
But of course that sounds ridiculous, as though I am wearing white gloves and a girdle to type on my I.B.M. ThinkPad. This is 2008. Two hours after a hot show like Prada or Balenciaga anyone, not just reporters, can pull up images on the Internet and post their opinions on blogs around the world. The wonder to me is not why a designer like Mr. Armani bans a journalist. Rather it is why he doesn’t use the power of digital technology to take his message directly to the public, effectively knocking out journalists who complain that his clothes are out of touch.
What being banned tells me is that fashion has entered a borderland between the old and the new. Practiced mainly by older designers, whose careers took flight in the 1980s, banning seems a reflexive action against a perceived threat to their power. After Hadley Freeman, the deputy fashion editor of The Guardian in London, gave an unflattering description of a Jean Paul Gaultier fur cape with flying carcass heads, in July 2006, she was informed by his press representative that she would be “banned for life.”
The ’80s was a creative period in fashion, the decade of nouveau-riche dressing and the invasion of the Japanese designers in Paris, but it was also an uncritical one. In the United States, except for a handful of writers, notably Kennedy Fraser of The New Yorker, there wasn’t much critical discussion of fashion. Women’s Wear Daily could be tough on designers, extracting loyalty and punishment with the glee of a small boy pulling the wings off a fly, and there was the paper’s famous feud with Geoffrey Beene.
More recently, Suzy Menkes, the fashion editor of The International Herald Tribune, has been temporarily banned by some houses (as was her predecessor, Hebe Dorsey, who took the matter lightly: She had her hair done and then wrote about it).
Until I got to The Times, in late 1998, I had written some fairly critical reviews and profiles of designers but had never been excluded from a show. The first designer to ban me was Helmut Lang — a perplexing turn, I felt, since one of Mr. Lang’s reasons for adopting New York as his home was that it is the news media center of the world. Later, there were bans from Carolina Herrera (recently lifted) and Dolce & Gabbana (still imposed).
I have no doubt, as Lynn Tesoro, a seasoned fashion publicist, says, that designers who take their works seriously also take harsh reviews personally. Yet it is clear to her that some designers don’t fully understand the different roles of the media — the magazine editors looking for beautiful clothes to photograph (and, with luck, an advertiser to satisfy in the process), the newspaper critic examining a creative change, and increasingly the amateur blogger. During the recent shows, Ms. Tesoro said, a client of hers complained about reader comments on a fashion blog, demanding to know how they could be controlled or excised.
Many consumers find Mr. Armani’s clothes very appealing, and certainly no one would bother denying that he had a huge impact on the way men and women looked in the ’80s and early ’90s. I loved attending his shows then. The half-lit beige amphitheater in his Milan palazzo, the knowing sense of taste, the glide of the models.
And if fashion writers might be suspect in appraising his influence, given the furriness of the prose and the amount he spends on advertising in magazines, there have been plenty of culture critics to explain it, not least the late Herbert Muschamp. In a dazzling review in this paper of the Armani exhibition at the Guggenheim in 2000, he identified an imaginative power that was equal to Cecil Beaton’s in the Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady.” But, as Muschamp pointed out, institutions like the Guggenheim, which was criticized for accepting perhaps as much as $15 million in donations from Mr. Armani, don’t do well when they import fashion-world values, like cronyism, delusion and sycophancy, into their decision-making process.
Well, fashion houses don’t do well with these values, either. On Feb. 17, when I learned in Milan that Mr. Armani was not inviting me to his fall 2008 women’s show, I ran into a number of my fashion sisters who darkly commiserated with me, as if we shared a secret. But just when did attending a fashion show cease to be a pleasure and become instead a chore? Or is the show and our almost compulsory attendance really about something else, about preserving distinct power bases in the face of their rapid erosion?
The system of inviting editors to see a new collection has been in place for decades and, despite the public access created by the Internet, has encouraged a kind of rigid caste system, with front-row chiefs, art directors, top photographers and, farther back, the stylists, junior editors and now bloggers.
It is not unusual to hear journalists complain that their seat assignment does not reflect their rank, or to hear a house publicist fret about it. Ms. Freeman of The Guardian said she and other British editors received a letter from Chanel apologizing that their seats at the recent show in Paris did not reflect the “hierarchical order” of the British contingent, which was apparently moved back a row or two to make room for some Chanel V.I.P.’s.
The pompous-sounding letter made Ms. Freeman laugh. “Aren’t we there to look at the clothes?” she asked rhetorically.
Yes — and no. If writers were there just to look at clothes and collect their thoughts for reviews and future articles, there would be no finicky emphasis on placement, as though we were guests at a private dinner party. And without the cozening emphasis on rank there would be no threat of demotion or outright banishment from the group. (Anyone who complains that fashion is like high school is quite correct.)
“The reason we go to fashion shows is to see other people and to see where they are in the industry based on where they are sitting,” Ms. Freeman said. “For shows that are so redolent of the ’80s, the only strength a designer has is his seating assignments.”
Marko Jenko, an art history student in Slovenia who is a regular on my blog, recently pointed out that perceptions are a form of public space, like the airwaves, and that designers can’t control them. Besides, Mr. Jenko said, Mr. Armani already profits handsomely from having his name blazed on television, billboards, in magazines, on scores of self-named products.
If the power of digital technology makes obsolete the practice of banning journalists, what remains of the old system but an empty seat? I can’t say yet whether I will write about Mr. Armani’s clothes by viewing them online. Frankly, I would be much more excited if he unburdened himself of the whole system, closed down the shows, stopped with the backstage stroking sessions, and went directly over the Internet to the public.
And if fashion writers don’t know what to do with themselves, if such a day ever comes, then that’s their problem.