Essay - Hywel Davies
The Politics of Fashion Journalism
In the ten years I have been working as a fashion journalist I have written a lot of rubbish. Opinions, it seems, aren’t always required in fashion journalism.
While all magazines editors claim to publish smart, provocative writing, it is well known that successful fashion magazines are driven by advertisers. In a highly competitive marketplace it is accepted that editorial is created to endorse the advertisers’ products.
Magazines that have a contentious point of view are increasingly sparse. The ‘there is always something to like,’ mentality and the current popularity of visually-led magazines, has placed the written opinion out of sync with the current zeitgeist.
Looking at the current crop of successful monthly and biannual fashion magazines, many resemble advertising catalogues (or 'magalogues'). Fashion shoots increasingly depict tip-to-toe looks from designers that are presented in orderly fashion on their own page. Are all consumers aware of this swindle, or is it just an accepted structure of a carefully constructed industry?
In my career there have been a few defining moments that have clarified my perceptions of the industry's need for reciprocal appreciation.
Working for Sleazenation magazine created a platform for ranting and forming opinions on the escalating power of advertising in fashion magazines. For the September 2001 issue a “100 Pages of Hypes And Lies” tag line straddled the cover, and was a stab at the bland cheerleading antics of other fashion glossies.
A pedigree PR commented: “beautiful image on the cover”; our swipe at the industry's preoccupation with hype clearly hadn't penetrated the PR's consciousness. The focus of this PR's delight was instead the irreverent perfume credit on the cover, which she gleefully read as positive appraisal of her client. The implication of this misinterpretation was clear: non-stick, opinion-free, glossy images are appropriate for an industry that is content to ignore judgements and instead focus on praise and mutual gratification. Unfortunately, advertisers who got the jibe stayed anyway and the magazine eventually folded.
Working for opinionated independent magazines invariably means little cash so the call from the mainstream is seductive. However, working in the commercial arena brings a whole different set of constraints.
I was commissioned to write a piece for a London-based women’s monthly glossy magazine on Amnesty International’s collaboration with Rankin, which was promoting their human rights campaign. My brief for the article was to avoid any politics and focus on the atmosphere of the shoot and document any gossip being traded between models. It was my last job for the magazine.
“You make the designer sound very dry, serious and quite political,” another fashion features director reprimanded me on a profile I had written for a future issue. The fact that the designer was brilliantly opinionated on contemporary issues did not fit with the mood of the new spring issue. My piece was cut to 200 words.
Thankfully then, there are newspaper journalists that, devoid of advertisers' influence, can write what they want, opinion and all. Or are there? Regrettably, the days of journalists being banned from shows for panning designers and their collections are, more or less, relegated to fashion history. Cathy Horyn of the New York Times recently highlighted instances of designers being so protective of their brand that they will, in extreme circumstances, give opinionated journalists the cold shoulder.
In fact, the hierarchical nature of fashion journalism does nothing to encourage free thinking. Journalists who are invited to shows are made to feel worthy of being part of the performance. Front row politics ensures writers are kept strictly in their (very visible) place. Those who brave honest reviews are often demoted to the cheap seats or, heaven forbid, are banned.
So who is to blame for the fashion media’s apparent lack of opinion? Is it the advertisers, the designers or the magazine editors themselves? Or is it us, the consumers that buy into it all? Fashion is a fascinating and luminous industry that thrives on new ideas. The communication of this revolutionary business should be matched in all its varied discussions. Fashion journalism shouldn't be about cheerleading. Surely vigorous, balanced debate can add another dimension to the surface gloss that currently exists?