When fashion blogging first became a thing back in the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, it was mostly the product of passionate fashion enthusiasts whose distance from the industry allowed them to write about it from a fresh perspective. But now, as bloggers are increasingly bestowed with the prestige and perks that accompany insider status, can we trust them to stay honest?
Well, yes and no. In an article on The Cut, fashion critic Robin Givhan reflects on the "golden age" of fashion blogging, a time of immense change in which enthusiastic outsiders broke into the walled-off world of fashion. And, by sharing their intimate access with their thousands of followers, said outsiders threatened the traditional industry hierarchy — before the Age of Blog, Givhan notes, "Information was embargoed. Shows were not live-streamed. Access was given grudgingly." With the rise of the blogger came the dissolution of that barrier: anyone following Tavi or Bryanboy or Tommy Ton could (sort of) share that front-row access, via liveblog. Peeking behind the curtain was finally a possibility for the every(wo)man.
And that was a big deal. The traditional exclusivity of the fashion industry has made fashion criticism unlike any other type of art criticism — as Jenna Sauers once told Fiona Duncan at Bullett, "In order to criticize you have to be there, and in order to be there you have to be in." Not just anyone can experience fashion firsthand; thus, not just anyone can have an informed opinion on this season's collections. In Duncan's words: "Anyone can go to the museum, walk into a gallery, buy a movie ticket. Fashion shows are invite only. Fashion's exclusivity is self-reinforcing, hegemonic." And such staunchly-enforced exclusivity can breed a co-dependent relationship between critics and fashion houses — or at least a dynamic in which designers feel they have the right to punish critics who judge their work too harshly. In the spring of 2012, for example, Givhan dared wonder if Karl Lagerfeld was spreading himself too thin and was given a bad seat at the Chanel show in retribution; the following season, Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn was barred from Hedi Slimane's debut YSL show because he disliked a review she wrote in 2004. Only once you're "in" can you criticize — criticize too liberally, though, and you're back out again.
It's even worse with fashion publications, which depend on ad sales from the brands they should be critiquing. At Business of Fashion, Diane Pernet points out that
It is... no secret that for more than the past decade, editorials have been ruled by advertisers. You place an ad, you get an editorial page, and if the advertiser does not get proper coverage, they pick up the phone and demand editorial coverage or they will pull their money. So, can you really expect a critic for a publication that thrives on that ad money to say that the Chanel or the Louis Vuitton show was crap? Not likely.
"Over the past decade," she argues, "the major change has been that businessmen rule the fashion industry and creativity has taken a backseat to advertising budgets and communication." In 2012, Givhan told the Toronto Star, "The rule of thumb at magazines is that if they don't like something it will be omitted. So it's up to the savvy reader to see what's missing — who didn't get on the cover." That's not good. Abiding by the rule of "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" is a lovely way to live one's life, but it's a pretty counter-productive way to engage in thoughtful and candid critiques.
At first, the first big-name fashion bloggers — "fashion's once-dazzling revolutionaries," as Givhan calls them — offered a welcome disruption of that model. They weren't beholden to advertising dollars. And, as industry outsiders, they didn't have to fear dismissal from the upper echelons of the Fashion Luminaries. But as the fashion establishment embraced them, it disarmed them (being an insider means that you must play by the same rules as everyone else in the industry, after all). Menswear blog Put This On notes that the perks of being a respected blogger — "affiliate links, referral links, free products, and cozy relationships between bloggers and brands" — are similar to big brands' need for advertorial revenue, but on a smaller scale. Such coziness between critic and creator ruins "the ability to produce independent, honest critiques." And thus, it would seem, the revolutionary was absorbed into the status quo.
But the relationship between blogger and insider is not as one-sided as all of this would make it seem; it's not as though Alexander Wang was like, "Here, blog-writer, have a gift bag" and then everything immediately reverted to ultra-exclusive business as usual. This is something Givhan notes at The Cut, but not something she necessarily celebrates:
Slowly, the legacy media fought back. Editors went on the offensive. Glamour editor Cindi Leive, Lucky's Eva Chen, Joe Zee (formerly of Elle), Nina Garcia of Marie Claire — the very people who once were envied for their front-row view of fashion week — were now tapping out quips and bon mots to all who would listen. Legacy editors began watching the runway from the backside of their iPhone cameras as they shared their up-close views with the virtual world. Critics, instead of reserving their droll commentary for post-show dinner patter, now spewed it fast and succinctly on Twitter.
Yes, successful bloggers have been swallowed whole by the fashion industry; many of them have been given enough perks that they're content to parrot press releases and bite their tongues when they see something they dislike. But we should keep in mind that there are plenty of insightful, thoughtful, really intelligent fashion blogs and magazines out there (i.e., Worn Journal, DIS, AnOther and, of course, The Cut). Furthermore, to emphasize the way in which independent writers have been declawed by the industry is to overlook the ways they've altered its structure: taking photos at runway shows used to be unthinkable; now, anyone can eavesdrop on the show via Instagram as it's happening. Bloggers didn't just become more like insiders — insiders became more blogger-esque as well. And it's a big deal that we're now all given access to the droll commentary of the critics and editors even though we're not all invited to the post-show dinner.
Image via Getty.