The Three Most Unabashedly Honest Fashion Critics
A few weeks ago, Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes uploaded a couple Instagrams of the Balenciaga show, one of which garnered frenzied attention. The video in question did not appear to be unlike her others—that is, until your gaze fell on the caption: an unadorned, brusque, and unforgiving “no.” Beneath the harsh declaration, comments invariably unspooled, most praising Suzy for her unabashed candor. Suzy later amended the caption, claiming it was all a mistake and replacing it with “Balenciaga: by a techno glitch, my comment fell out!! Sorry all. I was not saying ‘no’ to Alexander Wang. You have to read my full review.” And though it may indeed have been a mistake — nothing more than a case of overeager, jittery thumbs — it did bring to mind the blunt and unsparing fashion critics below.
Cathy Horyn seems to understand that it’s not merely her job, but also her duty to speak frankly and with complete transparency about an industry she’s worked in for over 30 years. With great power comes great responsibility, and the same goes for prodigious experience, which Ms. Horyn certainly has. She began her career with stints at The Washington Post and Vanity Fair, eventually moving on to The New York Times, where she served as the Chief Fashion Critic for 15 years before stepping down in 2014. This year — or rather, this past season — she returned to her stomping grounds, taking up where she left off, this time around at New York Magazine’s The Cut as Critic-At-Large. Cathy is a fashion critic with a capital C, which of course means that she approaches fashion from an unceasingly critical and objective perspective. But more importantly, it means that she is wholly enamored with fashion.
“Critics are drawn to their medium,” she noted in an interview with System Magazine. And not merely the pretty and lauded parts either. “I love to see things that are really great — really great or really bad — that make you think, and I love going back and writing about them,” she told System. And it’s true: she talks about her favorite collections and her least favorite collections with the same sense of endearment. It’s this unshakable adoration for fashion that has built the foundation to her enduring career, and that has driven her to assess designers’ collections with such honesty and zeal. For isn’t it true that your biggest critics are often your biggest supporters?
Over the years, Horyn has remained loyal (and continues to remain loyal) to the title of “critic.” She knows, for instance, that to be a good fashion critic, you can’t truly be friends with designers. “I think you can hang out and have an affinity for certain designers, but I think that if you believe you are truly friends then you are in for trouble,” she told System. She also knows that as a fashion critic, she can’t be afraid to say what she thinks. This means effusively praising collections and designers that impress her most. It means saying of Jacquemus’ SS 16 collection, “The desire to escape the confines of fashion — to imply a feeling or attitude, rather than use literal references — is great.” And yet it also means voicing opinions that are sometimes hard for designers to hear. She wasn’t afraid to piss off Hedi Slimane, and I imagine, for instance, that Kanye was not feeling very Picasso-y when Horyn wrote that his spring 2016 collection “proved he can’t be taken seriously as a designer.” Her job isn’t to make friends.
Alexander Fury is the fashion editor of The Independent and, like Ms. Horyn, a dab hand at taking the piss out of fashion, as well as himself. Under an Instagram photo of a balloon designed to look like an eggplant, he wrote “Good food substitute for fashion week.” Under another photo of a look from Prada’s Spring 2009 show, he wrote, “A very inspirational Prada spring 2009 look I’ve seen a lot in New York. Mostly with other people’s labels sewn in.” Yet he too loves fashion with a fangirl intensity and, as such, believes that designers — everyone, even — have something to gain from a critical discussion of their clothes. It’s an opinion that is regrettably becoming less and less popular, and is regarded more and more as antagonistic.
In one recent piece, he alluded to the detrimental impact that critiquing a designer can have on the critic, citing Jeremy Scott and Dolce and Gabanna as two brands that did not invite him back to their shows this year because he had been critical of their clothes in the past. “It made me wonder when the notion of fashion criticism became quite so volatile,” he wrote. “I wonder when designers became quite so opposed to critical discussion of their clothes.” And yet, Fury’s devotion to remaining objective, in addition to his vast knowledge of fashion and the history of fashion, is what makes his insights so poignant. “Uncertain times, it seems, call for desperate measures. That’s why, perhaps, we’re seeing this ever-faster cycle of retro referencing,” he wrote. “As opposed to the 1990s – and entire decade dominated, by and large by 1970s revivalism – our current revivals don’t even seem to last a season.” It’s also the reason he’s able to maintain self-awareness. When speculating on Jeremy Scott’s decision, he said, “Maybe that’s the point: he thinks I’m irrelevant.” But, he adds, “I can’t help but wonder if they’re preaching to the converted.”
Honest critiques of fashion are not necessarily incendiary, and nowhere is this more evident than in Vanessa Friedman’s writing. The current Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic at The New York Times, Friedman is as much a master of the arts as she a master of writing, often summoning lyrical and poetic words to describe what to most people would appear to be nothing more than a beaded skirt. Of course she remains monastically critical too, and inevitably ruffles some appliquéd feathers. But nowhere are her critiques gratuitous — not even when she wrote that Alexander Wang’s SS 16 collection “bore an eerie resemblance (to those with the long memories uncommon in fashion these days) to a chunk of a spring collection from exactly 10 years ago by his predecessor, Nicolas Ghesquière;” nor when she steps outside the confines of the fashion industry to comment, for instance, on the significance behind Michelle Obama’s dress of choice during a trip to Japan.
Friedman is clearly proficient in not only fashion, but art, politics, and history. As such, she is able to connect a Ralph Lauren pantsuit to Hillary Clinton’s struggle to close the income gap. It’s hard not to imagine that Penny Martin (editor of The Gentlewoman) had Vanessa in mind when she said, “The most intelligent people you’re ever going to meet work in [the fashion] industry because everybody wants their jobs and they’ve got to be the best they can possibly be, otherwise they’d be out.”
Images via V Magazine, Showstudio, Milk, Wearona.