The life of a fashion journalist during the collections is an exhausting one. They travel from New York to London to Milan to Paris, bouncing between showroom appointments, runway shows, dinners, and parties. They see around fifty shows, staying up late into the night to fire off reviews or plan their trend reports and fashion shoots for the next six months. They chase designers for quotes, press officers for the loan of a must-have dress to shoot, and big advertisers to secure their favor.
How much they become caught up in it all is testified by a tale a veteran fashion editor tells of renowned catwalk critic Suzy Menkes, then of the International Herald Tribune. “I walked through our hotel lobby and saw Suzy sobbing down the phone,” says Elizabeth Walker in a 2015 interview, who covered the shows from the late 1970s onward for Harpers & Queen and Marie Claire. “I thought something terrible had happened to her family, but it turned out that the 1991 Gulf War was on and her copy had been dropped from the Herald Tribune. I mean, the Gulf War! But she was terribly let down.”
An extreme reaction, perhaps, but fashion and fashion shows had assumed unprecedented prominence in the press and popular culture at large. The shows had begun earlier in the twentieth century as sedate turns around a couturier’s salon to a restricted audience of editors, private customers, and buyers. Grace Coddington of Vogue recalls stately models “walking very, very slowly, leaving enough time halfway to execute plenty of twirls so the audience could absorb all the details.” Editors were banned from making sketches or releasing photographs according to a strict embargo, for fear that manufacturers would copy the designs.
However, the 1960s and 1970s saw a dramatic shift in how, where, and for whom fashion was developed and presented. The “youthquake” of the 1960s saw attention shift away from Paris fashion houses to the streets and boutiques of London. Ready-to-wear came into its own, with Italy and New York the powerhouses. International fashion weeks began to attract thousands of journalists, photographers, and broadcasters, as well as corporate buyers and celebrities. By 2000, journalist Colin McDowell could remark, “For the first time in history, fashion is perceived as central to the existence by vast numbers of people of all ages and social backgrounds … Fashion is now at the heart of global culture.”
The fashion press had been pivotal in this cultural shift, in ways that will be explored later in this article. But its role was already under threat. The year 2000 saw the first livestream of a Victoria’s Secret catwalk show, something Alexander McQueen repeated in 2009 to bypass the media and turn the shows into “global entertainment.” Bloggers were invited onto the front rows, and instant comments and photographs could be uploaded onto social media. No longer were journalists the privileged insiders and commentators of the fashion system and, in hindsight, the late twentieth century might well go down as the golden age of fashion journalism at the shows.
Fashion journalism is an amorphous term, and not everybody does the same job at the collections. The prime role of magazine editors, for example, is to be a visible presence at their advertisers’ shows.
A magazine’s fashion directors and editors are there to spot themes for the forthcoming season. Furiously sketching, snapping, and taking notes, they plan trend roundups and fashion stories in their heads and identify which pieces they want to borrow for shoots. “I draw at the shows and put asterisks next to the things that fit the patterns I’ve identified—orange, or frills, or whatever. You’re mentally editing the magazine as you go along,” says Marie Claire’s Elizabeth Walker.
Meanwhile, fashion critics like Menkes are there to write instant reviews of the collections. They paint a picture with words of a show—the production, the styling, the atmosphere—and try to assess its relevance and success. They then rattle out their reports between shows or late at night before sending them across to their editors at home.
Journalists don’t come to their own opinions in a vacuum—they will often seek an interview with the designer before the show or backstage afterward. Designers like Tom Ford might talk a group of journalists through a collection ahead of time. Members of the press also get to see collections close-up in a showroom, and are invited to parties, trips, and events staged by the big fashion houses.
Exhausting it may be, but fashion editors stress the necessity of going to the shows in person rather than looking at photographs. “You have to get an idea of what a Valentino or Lanvin actually look likes and see the fabric close-up,” says Elizabeth Walker. “You also have to experience the music and the atmosphere, see the celebrities, meet people and be seen.”
It should already be clear how closely journalists have been bound up with the fashion system. Because they organize collections into recognizable and named trends, because they style and photograph them in ways designed to appeal to their target audiences, and because they personalize fashion brands through the figure of the designer, some theorists credit them with being the principal agent of fashion. “A fashion magazine helps form a collective concept of what ‘fashion’ is … they legitimate fashion and the fashion world in cultural terms,” writes social anthropologist Brian Moeran.
While few journalists would claim that kind of influence, they are mindful of their role as a bridge between a designer’s vision and the consumer. “You have to help people interpret the strange ceremonial oddness of fashion shows into something that has a relevance to their lives,” explains journalist Luke Leitch.
And they are well aware of the visibility their pages confer. President of Condé Nast International, Nicholas Coleridge, wrote in 1989 that its editors were guaranteed a front-row seat at shows because “Every fashion house that wants to play in the big league—in the big American market—must appear in American Vogue.” While they spend a fortune on advertising, it is editorial coverage—that is to say appearing in a journalist’s story or shoot—that gives a brand credibility with buyers and the public.
Moreover, it has been journalists who have turned designers into personalities by focusing on them as much as their collections. This has proved crucial to the branding of many fashion houses and has given certain designers extra currency within the industry; John Galliano and McQueen were taken on by Givenchy in the 1990s as much for their talent for grabbing headlines as their creativity.
One way that fashion houses can guarantee an editorial presence is to advertise in the fashion press. Fashion magazines, in particular, simply could not survive without advertising revenue. As a result, the ties that bind both sides are tight. Monthly and biannual magazines are structured around the rhythms of the twice-yearly shows. Their fashion editors hold meetings directly afterward to discuss the shape of their coverage for the next six months based on the collections, and their March and September issues are largely devoted to promoting them as they land in shops.
Of course, like any close relationship, there are tiffs. Fashion and journalism are two different industries, each with a different ethos, and there is tension over whether journalists are at the collections to celebrate or criticize. This erupts into open conflict at times—journalists like Menkes have been banned from shows after critical reviews, while fashion houses can also threaten to pull advertising.
This kind of spat tends to happen between fashion houses and newspapers or Web sites, who are less dependent on their advertising and so less easily managed. Magazines simply cannot step out of line; instead they “comment by omission,” says Elizabeth Walker. “If one show is dreadful, you might just use one picture in your roundup.”
Nevertheless, the tone of fashion show reports has overwhelmingly been upbeat, something for which the fashion press has been castigated. Colin McDowell, himself a fashion journalist, laments the lack of outspoken critics: “Whereas most art forms are kept on their toes by informed commentary, the fashion world has virtually none.”
As the nature of catwalk shows changed over the latter half of the twentieth century, so inevitably did the role of the journalist. When the collections were confined to Paris couture, and audiences were wealthy women ready to follow their diktat, reports were technical and specific. An American Vogue report of September 1948 measures skirt length—fourteen inches from the floor—in two pages of densely detailed copy.
But when mass production and ready-to-wear meant less rigid rules and far more choice, fashion journalists had a different role to play for their more youthful and budget-conscious audiences. The tone became far less bossy and more about education and choice. “On these 14 pages, the differences to look for in fashion now,” ran an American Vogue report in February 1980, alongside an extended shoot of a variety of looks. “A different set of options: there are new ways to be ‘dressed’ for day, new choices at night.”
By the 1980s, and into the 1990s, the press had turned fashion into a “story,” complete with the personalities, drama, glamour, and entertainment that a good media story entails. From the industry side, the fashion show became divorced from its commercial imperative as more and more sales were made in the showroom beforehand. Collections could become a lot more dramatic and production a lot more lavish with the backing of ever growing conglomerates.
Unsurprisingly, many fashion journalists cite the pulse-quickening shows of the 1990s as the highlights of their career. “Everyone would be gagging to have a Gucci ticket during the Tom Ford era,” says Elizabeth Walker. “Meanwhile the McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier shows were amazing. They were pure theater. Some people couldn’t get over the fact that a model had birds on her head or bandages on her face, but if you stripped all that away the actual clothes themselves were divine.”
Press coverage became much more personality-driven, exploring a designer’s creative vision, political ideas, and state of mind more than the clothes themselves. Writing about McQueen’s fall 2002 presentation in Paris, American Vogue’s André Leon Talley described not the looks but the dungeons, the eerie lighting, the wolves led by the models. He ended with the designer: “McQueen showed off his own lipo-relieved silhouette in a double-breasted suit and goatee—a very bespoke, confident look.”
As fashion became part of the global entertainment industry, it suited both the media and the fashion industry to promote the supermodels of the 1980s, the “enfants terribles” of British design in the 1990s, and the celebrities who thronged the front rows in the noughties. As a result, catwalk reports began to read and look more like accounts of a social event or spectacle, scattered with photographs of models and designers backstage as well as glamorous members of the audience.
If journalists could have frozen the fashion industry in time at the turn of the new millennium, they might well have chosen to do so. Fashion continued to grow as a global spectacle, but the press was in danger of being left behind. Designers could create their own personal brands via social media. Runway shows were as lavish as ever, but their target was the global consumer watching on the Web rather than the press. More people read comments by front-row bloggers or celebrities than journalists’ coverage of shows. Meanwhile, recession and plummeting sales and advertising revenue meant fewer journalists were being sent to cover the collections.
“Critics like Cathy Horyn or Suzy Menkes are still revered, but they’re also less important because there are so many critics out there,” says fashion journalist Melanie Rickey. Fashion editors countered that they were needed more than ever to cut through the noise, but it was clear that journalism had to find a new role within fashion—as indeed within other spheres of public interest—as the new millennium progressed.
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