Critiquing Fashion

“There’s a scale. One nod is good, two nods is very good. There’s only be one actual smile on record and that was Tom Ford in 2001. If she doesn’t like it she shakes her head. Then of course there’s the pursing of the lips…which means Catastrophe.” This iconic scene from the ‘Devil Wears Prada’, where Nigel narrated the power fashion critics could have on the success of a designer’s collection, perfectly portrays a time when fashion writers were to be feared. They were the first people to see the designs and a bad review was the final nail in the coffin that would burry a designer’s collection. They bulldozed through Fashion Week, only giving praise where due, and were just as harsh when a designer was off their game. The current crop of front row fashion writers don’t seem to possess the same qualities.

New York Fashion Week Fall '15 Front Row (Photo: Reuters)

New York Fashion Week Fall ’15 Front Row (Photo: Reuters)

Fashion writer and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Robin Givhan, believes it’s because fashion bloggers just aren’t qualified enough in skill or experience to give the much needed insight into the fashion industry. “It’s got to be more than just ‘I loved it or I hated it”. Criticism is not personal opinion, you’ve got to explain your thinking — how you got there… At its best it’s opinion based on a set of facts that are set in context.”

[bctt tweet=”Criticism is not personal opinion, you’ve got to explain your thinking” username=”FashionKE”]

One of the few authoritative voices in the fashion industry remains Cathy Horyn. Her absence was felt in 2014 when she decided to step down from her position at New York Times. She was more than welcomed back into the critics chair for the New York Times Magazine’s lively online fashion platform, The Cut, when she decided to make a comeback. Thirty years in her magazine and newspaper career has given her the ability to cut (no pun intended) through industry’s smoke and mirrors to give a stimulating, and at times diverging, critique of the fashion industry. In a Business of Fashion Exclusive, Horyn credits her authoritative critiquing skills to learning to create distance from things in the industry that may influence her thoughts. She’s been known to ruffle the feathers of notable designers such as Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta, who at the time didn’t see eye to eye with Horyn but later thanked her for her frankness.

“It is about mood boards and we all know that the mood board is a substitute for not knowing how to make something…. And the proof of that can be seen on the catwalks of famous young designers, with monotonous regularity every season.” Michael Roberts

Another writer that keeps the designers in check is the former Vanity Fair Fashion Director and silver-tongued commentator, Michael Roberts. Considered a member of the fashion world’s aristocrats, he has a deep understanding of fashion going as deep as fashion education in clothes construction to what’s happening in European, British or American fashion at all times. In an interview with Business of Fashion, he expressed that the new designers’ lack of technical know-how is part of the problem with the industry, “It is about mood boards and we all know that the mood board is a substitute for not knowing how to make something…. And the proof of that can be seen on the catwalks of famous young designers, with monotonous regularity every season.” He’s not just forthright with the young designers, but with established designers too. For example he’s called out Raf Simons decision to take the Creative Director job at Dior, which in his opinion stopped a promising fashion designer from achieving his full potential. But it’s not all harsh words from Roberts, “The problem with clothes for clothes’ sake is that I might like them, but the translation from a good idea into something to wear is often forgotten. YSL did that so well: extraordinary on the catwalk, also extraordinary and beguiling on the person. A woman in his clothes never looked as if she was dressed in an experiment. His creativity was a circular movement, especially at the beginning. He got it from the street, changed it, sent it out on the catwalk, and then it went back on the street.”

Saint Laurent Fall 2010 Collection. (Photo: Marcio Madeira /

Saint Laurent Fall 2010 Collection. (Photo: Marcio Madeira /

Roberts and Horyn have a hand up on many bloggers in the industry right now; experience and longevity. So how do you step up your fashion critiquing skills when you just started getting your footing in the industry last year? Diana Chan of the AMD Law Group suggests doing your homework on the fashion industry. Just like food critiquing, you can’t base your assessments solely on its appearance. Critically analyse the work that went into fashion project or collection. Has there been growth since the last collection or are they playing it safe? What colours, cuts, dimensions, inspirations, shapes or placements did the designer use? There tends to be a specific purpose and thought process behind those decisions. For example their inspiration could be rooted in politics, art, self-expression or history and this kind of information is crucial in creating an unbiased verdict.

Just like food critiquing, you can’t base your assessments [of fashion] solely on its appearance.

Scared to rock the boat and be excluded from the tight-knit fashion clique? Maybe you need to go the Tim Gunn route. On the popular TV show, Project Runway, he critiques fashion designer hopefuls hoping to get their big break in the fashion industry. Through watching the show, you’ll notice Gunn gently guides the designers to understand the importance of grasping the reasons why a design didn’t work. He’ll often try to find out what the designer is aiming to accomplish to get a sense of what the objective was. He does this in order to determine if they first of all had a vision, secondly, if they are on the right track and lastly getting them back on course to ‘Make it Work’ if they’re a little lost.



Gunn may have his own style aesthetics but he doesn’t try to impose this on the designer, but instead uses some universal principles in taste to help them sharpen their own styles. And when in doubt he actually admits he doesn’t understand where a design is heading, showing that as a critic you do have limitations too.

The fashion industry is shifting into a fast-fashion model that could be partly to blame for the lack of fashion critiques. With fashion writers choosing to focus on what will sell, trend or keep relationships intact, the power of writing seems stuck in the proverbial shoe-box. While doing the research for this article I was unable to find any Kenyan fashion bloggers that have taken up the task of being the local fashion designers keeper; despite the fact that all innovative undertakings need critical criticism to aid their progress.  Roberts, with over 30 years in the fashion industry, challenged the current fashion writers to take up the button and keep the industry on its toes,  “One doesn’t wish to be a voice crying in the wilderness, but, certainly, one wishes to be a voice that makes a difference: some reparation to get the flow going in a different direction.”


%d bloggers like this: