Yves Saint Laurent's treatment of the press under new creative director Hedi Slimane has been perhaps the most talked-about event of this fashion season. It's a perfect case study in how not to do public relations — but it's also an illustration of the broader problems that dog fashion, a field of endeavor that is structured in such a way that reporters must depend on the luxury companies they cover for "access."
Yves Saint Laurent has been undergoing a reorganization, relocation, and rebranding under the direction of Slimane, the acclaimed men's wear designer turned photographer. The brand has flubbed virtually every opportunity to explain these changes to the media and the fashion buying public in an accurate and sympathetic way: the sudden announcement that the brand name would be changing to "Saint Laurent Paris" drew immediate flak on social media and snark in the fashion blogosphere, as did the news that Slimane was moving the company headquarters from Paris to that renowned fashion center Los Angeles. Subsequent announcements that the logo would remain "YSL," and then that the brand name would remain Yves Saint Laurent for accessories and beauty products, and, furthermore, the announcement that the women's clothing collection itself would be officially named Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane, only served to further confuse the 50-year-old company's fans. Then, at the label's Paris show, YSL (or Saint Laurent, or Saint Laurent Paris, or whatever) attempted to set restrictions on what reporters could and could not write about, and even blacklisted several high-profile critics — the Times fashion writer Cathy Horyn among them — without any public explanation. And all hell broke loose.
Horyn, in her review of the YSL collection, mentioned that Slimane had banned her over a single line of copy in an obscure eight-year-old review of the Paris shows. Horyn had partially credited designer Raf Simons with making possible the ultra-tailored look Slimane revolutionized and popularized in his then position at Dior Homme, and though Horyn had also called Slimane's collection "one of the cornerstones" of that season, Slimane's disagreement with her characterization was strong enough to ensure that, all these years later, Horyn was not invited to his first outing at Yves Saint Laurent.
After Horyn's review of Slimane's new women's wear collection for YSL was published, the designer posted a bizarre and embittered "open letter" to the Times writer on his Twitter. He headlined the letter "My Own Times" — written in a Gothic, New York Times-esque font. The designer referred to Horyn dismissively as "Miss Cathy" and "Miss Horyn," and called her "a schoolyard bully" and an "average writer." Slimane also insulted her personal style and her journalistic objectivity, accusing her essentially of being in the tank for Simons, who is now the creative director of Christian Dior. (Simons and Slimane were rivals when they both designed men's wear, and the fashion press — most notably the American trade paper Women's Wear Daily — has played up their purported rivalry now that each is at the helm of an iconic French women's wear brand.) Slimane called Horyn "a publicist in disguise" and concluded, "as far as I'm concerned, she will never get a seat at Saint Laurent but might get a 2 for 1 at Dior."
Horyn, when asked for comment by Women's Wear Daily, called the open letter, "just silly nonsense." Slimane responded overnight with yet another Twitter rant: "What is a ' silly nonsense ' to me is Catty Horyn [sic] still singing her tired bias [sic] tune for the nyt [sic]. This is an embarrassment for the newspaper." It went on.
Meanwhile, Horyn's colleague Eric Wilson, who was invited to YSL, was given a set of instructions by the house about how he could and could not report on it:
THE phone calls came late Monday morning, on the day of the Saint Laurent show. In turn, reporters and critics from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Style.com, WWD and other publications were each presented with what amounted to ground rules for covering the collection, which is highly unusual.
There would be no backstage access before the show, they were told. Afterward, they were welcome to talk to Mr. Slimane, but they were not allowed to ask him questions, or use anything he might say in their coverage.
The Times of London's Laura Craik wrote a kind of open letter of her own to Slimane in her review of the YSL collection:
I don't know if it was intentional, but you didn't make journalists feel very welcome at your show. Some, you didn't invite at all. Others had to stand, or were given seats so bad they could only see the top half of the models, which made it tricky to report on the clothes. Nobody minded sitting behind Azzedine Alaïa, but that all those glum-looking indie kids in black drainpipes got to see the clothes from the front row seemed a little insulting. I respect that you value your friends so highly, but I don't respect some of the people on the YSL payroll who were unnecessarily rude...You're Hedi Slimane. All the things you seem to love and value — music, fun, sexiness — require freedom. You have yours. I have mine. Without it, we are nothing. So please, don't ban me from your next show, because I really want to see it. We all do. We like you, even though you treat us like a bitch.
The Telegraph's Lisa Armstrong concluded her YSL review — one of the many that were lukewarm — with this line: "the man has taste. I would love to be able to watch his evolution at this house. Judging by his apparent fear of any kind of objective criticism, however, I fear I won't be allowed back."
It is unseemly for fashion reporters to publicly gripe about seating assignments and invitations, and most do it only very unwillingly. It may not seem this way to the general public, conditioned by reality television and celebrity magazines to think of fashion shows as some kind of exciting cross between a picnic with Ryan Lochte and a cocaine party with Kate Moss, but going to shows is not actually something most of us would do if it wasn't a responsibility dictated by our profession. Fashion week is mostly a series of long queues and much sunk time spent waiting to plead your case to people whose first, second, and third instincts are to regard you with great skepticism — like the D.M.V. but with more people dressed in event black. Fashion writers just want to go see the clothes; they are there in service of the interests of their readers, who sometimes buy clothes, and who are interested in fashion as a cultural form. Giving people a hard time at the door and playing favorites with the invitation list is just petty.
But that's not the only way YSL and Slimane have been fighting the press. Back during the brouhaha over the YSL name change, the blog the Business of Fashion, which specializes in the kind of detailed business reporting on the fashion industry that is time-consuming and expensive to produce, saw an opportunity for a story: just what was up with the changing of the brand name, what was YSL's rationale for it, how successfully had other companies negotiated similar changes, and what did experts think about YSL's strategy? The resulting piece, reported with extensive new information on background from YSL, clarified and explained the name change in a way that the company alone could (or would) not. It was widely regarded as definitive. It was picked up by numerous other fashion news sources, including this blog, because it did what good reporting does: it answered questions previously unanswered. After the story was published, much of the criticism of the YSL/Saint Laurent Paris name change abated.
One would think that YSL would be pleased. One would be wrong. Writes Business of Fashion editor Imran Amed, the brand had been testy about the piece throughout the reporting — and afterwards:
[S]hortly after publication, we received yet another email from the company, this time from YSL's New York press office, asking us to revise our piece without specifying what they thought was incorrect. A follow up email from our team asking for clarification was met with silence.
Still apparently hung up on the name thing, YSL sent another email shortly thereafter to prep reporters on how to refer to Slimane's collection and the show, which Business of Fashion has excerpted. It was apparently intended as a clarification:
"The House is referred to as ‘Yves Saint Laurent.' The ready-to-wear collection by Hedi Slimane is correctly referred to as ‘Saint Laurent'. (‘Saint Laurent Paris' is used in the logo but not when spoken/written about the collection). Collection credits, should you photograph any items, is [sic] correctly written ‘Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane.'"
Another mass email soon followed, saying that the previous email was "not for official use or for lifting quotes."
YSL's P.R. team later contacted Business of Fashion to complain that a Tweet the site had sent had referred incorrectly to the company brand name. YSL demanded that the Tweet be "edited." (It is, as anyone who has ever used Twitter would know, impossible to "edit" a Tweet after publication; Business of Fashion, perhaps eager to placate a powerful brand even though the company was being unreasonable, deleted it instead.) And then, YSL's P.R. team complained about a line in a column published on Business of Fashion by the fashion writer Colin McDowell, who was for many years the chief fashion critic at the Sunday Times. McDowell's sin in the eyes of YSL? He had written that not every single collection Slimane designed for Dior Homme was a thumping commercial success. The same is true of every designer. YSL wanted the line removed. When Business of Fashion declined, YSL wrote back:
Don't correct, fare [sic] enough, we won't collaborate on any kind of project in the future.
That is exactly what it's like to report on fashion: first, you try to do your job. And then you get an angry email from someone who doesn't even know how to spell "fair."
Business of Fashion was not invited to the YSL show.
When you write about fashion, your ability to report on the industry accurately and with a timeliness that serves the interests of your readers is directly related to — even defined by — the quality of your "relationships" with various P.R. companies. You cannot buy a ticket to a fashion show in order to review it the way you could buy a copy of an album, were you a music critic, or buy a ticket to a movie, were you a film critic. You cannot walk into a fashion show the way you can an art opening. In fashion, P.R.'s determine your "access." And access determines your ability to do your job. The luxury brands that dominate the industry hold all the cards: they have the money, they have the power, and — with the news media increasingly fragmented and no single venue holding anything like the impact it used to — they know they can bestow and revoke the promise of "access" among members of the press like a stern, withholding father deciding which child he loves the most.
There are doubtless other industries where vast pools of (mostly) privately held capital are concentrated in the hands of a few high-strung (mostly) white men, making, in particular, accurate financial reporting very difficult and rendering the ability to write about what goes on dependent at least in part on one's willingness to glad-hand and trade favors. (Tech comes to mind. So does professional sports.) But some fashion brands seem to have particularly unrealistic expectations of the press — and, judging by their behavior and that of their P.R. teams, some serious misunderstandings about the press's very role in a free society. (Hint: it's not to write nice things about your company simply because you extended us the great privilege and favor that is a seat at your fashion show.) I'm not sure if brands realize that to be a fashion writer is to be perpetually conscious of your own abject position. Brands use their influence over reporters every day in ways big and small — from attempting to insist upon abstruse and clumsy wordings in final copy ("Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane"), to embargoing information, to playing favorites with exclusives and scoops, to withholding participation in stories altogether.
Whenever I am writing something about fashion — no matter how anodyne — and I find I must talk to somebody's public relations representative, I am inevitably asked if the story I'm working on will be "positive" or not. I never know how to respond: I tend to think of stories as merely true or untrue. I am, or at least I try very hard to be, a good-faith critic and reporter.
More than anything else, what YSL and Hedi Slimane's actions seem to betray is a fundamental insecurity about the quality of their work. What designer, artist, director, or musician who is confident in his or her gifts fears an honest, informed critic, or a reporter armed only with questions? Hedi Slimane should worry about doing good work. That's his job, and his responsibility to the global luxury conglomerate for which he works and its shareholders. He should worry less about trying to prevent members of the press from doing theirs so that we can meet our responsibilities to our readers.