Inside the Fascinating Life of a Fashion Critic
As someone with a long held interest in both fashion and writing, I’ve always been particularly enamored with fashion critics—characters who, to me, seem placed in a sweet spot between both worlds. While bloggers or celebrities pass by frequently at shows, it’s the critics who get the fan girl in me going. This very select group of people—and the wonderful way that they weave niche collections into a much larger picture with their reviews—is simply fascinating. What are they thinking while at the shows? How do they feel about the so-called circus that now comes with them? Where do their unexpected interpretations stem from? How’d they get their start, and—while we’re at it—SO fashion-smart?
Together, they’re a bit of an enigma, and, if my search was any indication, a relatively untouched topic. To remedy this, I decided to go straight to the source and scoop up some answers myself. Whether or not you, too, have grown up reading their colorful pieces, you’re bound to be surprised and inspired by the many revelations below.
Scroll down to meet the 6 major critics that I spoke to and find out what they had to say about everything from bloggers to the place of fashion criticism today!
Lynn Yaeger: I was working for a long time at The Village Voice—I had started in the advertising department but always liked to write so [eventually] I switched over to the editorial department. So I hadn’t gone to school for writing or anything. I was always obsessed with fashion and they had started a fashion page, so I began to write for that.
Alexandra Jacobs: When I was a little girl reading The New Yorker in my parents’ living room on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I always savored the pieces by Kennedy Fraser, and also a little column in the B-section of The New York Times called Patterns. I loved the idea that clothing, which I found so fascinating, could be treated as seriously as city politics or wheat futures. Some of my happiest memories are of being taken to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum to see what I didn’t find out until later was Diana Vreeland’s radical re-envisioning of exhibitions there; or to Saks Fifth Avenue—to look, not to buy—by my debonair father or his sister, my Aunt Frances, who remains the most glamorous woman in Philadelphia. Later I discovered historians such as Caroline Rennolds Milbank and Valerie Steele at F.I.T.
Vanessa Friedman: It was a complete fluke. I went to Princeton and studied History, European Cultural Studies and writing. I was always interested in magazines, but mostly culture. I went to Vanity Fair, then The New Yorker, and then Vogue—but I was a culture writer there, not a fashion writer, and then I went to Elle as a features writer. It wasn’t until I moved to the UK in 1996 that I even started writing about fashion—it was largely a mistake. I had sent a cold pitch to the editor, Lucia van der Post, of the How to Spend It section in The Financial Times and she assumed because I worked at Vogue that I wrote about fashion, so she said, “Do you want to write about boots?” And at that point I would’ve written about anything, so I said, “Sure!”
Eric Wilson: I studied journalism at NYU and had done some fashion internships while I was in college. [When I graduated] I worked for New York News Day for a couple of years doing general assignment reporting and then I took a job at a financial newsletter which I hated, so I kept harassing people at Women’s Wear Daily to hire me, and they did! After years there I went to The New York Times, where I picked up fashion criticism in addition to reporting.
Veronique Hyland: I never formally studied fashion or fashion history, but I always read anything I could find about it—primarily magazines. I would go to the library and read all the fashion magazines they [had]. Later on, spending four years at Women's Wear Daily felt like getting an advanced degree—being familiar with every part of the fashion ecosystem was a requirement. I did research for their milestone issues on Dior, Ralph Lauren, and many other major designers, so I was constantly in the archives, getting to see the chronology of these amazing careers. Now I draw on that to understand what someone's tendencies are, and what they're trying to say overall, not just that season.
Robin Givhan: When I finished grad school for journalism, my first job was at the Detroit Free Press in a department that was dominated by critics, or at least writers with really specific beats. I was the only one who didn’t have a beat so it was really difficult to get a foothold. It just so happened that the fashion editor at the time [was transitioning] to being a feature columnist, so the fashion beat opened up and I raised my hand—not because I had a particular interest in fashion but because I wanted an area of focus. I think that people who are particularly enamored with fashion tend to go into the fashion industry, whereas for critics the interest is first and foremost in journalism.
Alexandra Jacobs: After Kennedy Fraser I graduated to Holly Brubach, whose byline I still seek. The late Amy Spindler, who was at The New York Times for some years and counseled me while I was working for The New York Observer, is very much missed. There are too many nimble critics writing today to name.
Veronique Hyland: One person that I've been revisiting a lot lately is Kennedy Fraser, who wrote a column for The New Yorker in the '70s. She wrote an essay effectively predicting e-commerce decades before it came about, and she would talk about fashion in a down-to-earth and kind of wry way. Also, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I've been drawn to theorists whose work touches on fashion and consumerism, like Veblen, Barthes, and Baudrillard—sometimes it helps to read someone like that when you're trying to understand these larger social phenomena. And when I want to really geek out about fashion, I go straight to Alex Fury's Tumblr.
Lynn Yaeger: I look for some kind of emotional response, that isn’t even about the technical skill. I'm always going to these young designers hoping that I have a sort of connection with [their collections]. I don’t go in with any particular playbook. But, of course, you try to be much more generous when somebody’s new. I never want anybody’s first review to be a bad review, I’d rather just not mention it—you don’t want to break these little hearts, I mean unless they’re really arrogant or something. It’s a tough business—in fact, it’s kind of a nightmare business for designers!
[Choosing which shows to go to] is always a problem. You try to mix it up a little bit, but it’s sort of a crapshoot. And of course there’s always one you miss that everybody says, “Oh it was the most incredible thing ever! Why didn’t you go to so-and-so?”
Alexandra Jacobs: It depends on whether I’m reviewing or reporting; sometimes I’m patrolling the front row for celebrity burps or trailing a profile subject, and in that case my attention is divided between personalities and clothes. Even if I’m reviewing, I try to take the atmosphere of the show into account, because our readers respond powerfully to the sensation of “being there;” as the frenzied retweeting of even crummy iPhone photos proves. Except when instructed by certain avant-garde designers, the models tend to go by so fast that you’re often left with blurs and illegible scribbles and have to go on “resees,” pre-sees or—if on deadline—squint at online thumbnail photos to fact-check. For scrutiny of actual garments, I find presentations vastly preferable and certainly more civilized.
Robin Givhan: Unless there is an overarching news story that we’re in the midst of, such that I’m looking for a particular answer to a question, I go in without any preconceived ideas about what a collection might be. Certainly if it’s a house like Chanel or Valentino—a house that has a long history—I go into it with an understanding of what’s come before, and with a big brand like that, where the designer has every advantage, you expect a certain standard of quality and skill and craftsmanship. With brands like that I’m looking to see the way in which they engage with their past and also connect with the present. If it’s a designer that I’ve never heard of, or it’s a very young line, I’m just looking to see: Where are you going to take me? How have you progressed? [But] I think that the most interesting collections take some time to fully reveal all their nuances.
Vanessa Friedman: I go in with a sense of what the brand has done before, and what it’s continuum and narrative is, because when you’re judging a collection I think you have to judge it within it’s whole, as a step in an evolution. But beyond that I try not to have any preconceptions.
I try to go to as many shows as I can, and I feel very guilty when I don’t go to things. Part of it is your job as a critic, but it’s also educational for you to see what everyone is doing, whether or not you’re actually writing about it. The more you see, the better sense you have of what’s going on in the whole mosaic of the fashion world.
Eric Wilson: The fashion industry and the way fashion is presented is constantly changing so you have to be open and adapt to whatever comes at you. You can’t really go in with an outline [of what to look for] set in your mind because, inevitably, it will be something different and you’ll have to start again. You should always look at collections with fresh eyes.
Often you’re handed talking points from designer’s press teams where they share their vision for the collection and they kind of push that narrative out there, so you have to have the self-confidence to stand up and [voice] your point of view, rather than be pressured by friendships or wanting to please people. I think the biggest challenge for any critic is to turn off that sense of empathy and just be honest. [But] it’s not about taking pot shots—“this is bad, this is terrible”—you need to explain what your rationale is and make a case for your argument, instead of just being dismissive.
Veronique Hyland: I just try to stay open-minded, to go to as many things as possible and to investigate as many new designers as I can, time permitting. There tends to be a herd mentality where everyone gets excited about one "buzzy" person a season. I try to separate myself from that a bit and follow my instincts about what feels interesting. I usually like to get there early and absorb the scene. The people watching at a Jeremy Scott show, or at a Carolina Herrera show, is fascinating to me and might play in to something I write. Everything, from the attendees to the model casting to the music, is potentially part of the story—especially when I'm writing about something like the Yeezy Season 1 show this season or Chanel's fashion protest last season.
Lynn Yaeger: I don’t particularly want the bloggers in the front row, but I do think they should be there. I love the open community where everybody has a place to [voice] their opinion—I’m not an elitist at all, I’m sort of the opposite, so I like everybody chiming in! The celebrities can be annoying. You’re not sure how interested they really are in fashion and they leech a lot of attention away from the shows sometimes.
Vanessa Friedman: I think everyone has their place. Fashion is a big tent industry, and it should be—everyone wears clothes, and they're relevant to every part of life. That’s what’s great about it and why it’s such a great subject to write about: it’s one of the few universal topics. I don’t care who you are, even if you’re a nudist, you’ve thought about clothes! [Fashion is] great, it’s fun, it makes people think differently, and it challenges you. So I think that all the different responses to fashion that exist now—whether it’s blogging or traditional criticism or Instagramming—simply allow for different voices [to be out there], which is a good thing.
Robin Givhan: I don’t think you can lump all bloggers into the same category. Some of them are thoughtful and some of them are not. Do I think we all have the same goal when we go into a show? No. I think their coverage is different than that of editors at magazines and newspapers, but I don’t think that necessarily means better or worse. If designers knowingly put a scene-magnet like Kim Kardashian in their front row… they’ve [decided] that that’s what they want people to pay attention to. I think the fashion industry has made a pact with celebrities that has really cranked up the spotlight on the industry and attracted a lot of eyeballs to fashion coverage, but [it can be] a pact with the devil because the celebrities are covered and the clothes are ignored. So who’s wearing the clothes has taken precedent over the craftsmanship of the clothes—it’s a trade-off. You have to be really careful about how much glitzy celebrity attention you want your business to attract. It adds to the glamour and allure of the fashion industry, but there [should be] consideration of how much you [involve] it and whether or not the celebrity that’s in your front row makes sense with your brand.
Eric Wilson: Celebrities have always had a huge presence at the shows, at least [while I've been] covering them, and bloggers are just another form of journalists. I don’t think there’s any real differentiation. What has changed is the need for audience members to become brands in their own right [so that they] can get enough attention to gain access to the shows. The downside is that now people are judged far more mercilessly on their social media presence and the number of followers they have, as opposed to on their voice and what they’re saying. [So] it’s intriguing that there are now all these young people who have the means to create content, but the question is, is their integrity compromised when they have relationships with the house and are wearing their clothes? I think you see very quickly that it doesn’t go very far just to be nice to [a brand] and wear their clothes—it’s ultimately going to come down to substance and maintaining an audience.
Sure, there are a lot more people trying to get through the door than there were 15 years ago, but it’s always been very crowded. And arguing that it’s out of hand implies that you expect someone to clamp down, to restrict people, and that’s not what fashion’s about. It should be about everyone—engagement and inclusion. To always think somebody is better than somebody else is an unacceptable approach to fashion.
Vanessa Friedman: We’re all friendly! I’m very happy when I see them. I think there’s a kind of sisters-in-arms atmosphere amongst anybody who goes through the ringer of fashion month, and particularly [with us] because we end up sitting on benches together for a very long time.
Lynn Yaeger: Some critics are more circumspect than others, like after a show they won’t really want to talk about what they’re going to write. But it’s pretty collegial [between us]. There’s not that many of us and we’re thrown together for like a month at a time. Of course there’s people you like and don’t like but I don’t think there’s any professional jealousy—maybe I’m naïve!
Eric Wilson: Everyone that I’ve worked with has been very cordial and friendly—we’re all pretty easygoing people. We’ve all talked casually to each other about what we thought of certain collections.
Alexandra Jacobs: I would say brands more attempt to stack the deck before a story is written, by promising “exclusive” (I hate that word, it’s meaningless) access. I have not yet been banished from a show, though I’m often seated behind my esteemed colleague Vanessa Friedman, our fashion director, staring into her French chignon like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo." We don’t accept discounts or gifts at The New York Times, and I try not to attend parties and dinners unless they are relevant to a story. Bill Cunningham won't even take a glass of water; that's a good standard.
Lynn Yaeger: Sometimes you don’t get invited to a show and you never know if they just didn’t think you were important enough or they didn’t have enough seats, or [if it was] that they didn’t like something you wrote. You’d like to think it was something you wrote, but maybe they didn’t even notice you. [As for special treatment] I work with Vogue and I’m always sitting in their section, so I get special treatment in that I get a [good] seat—and in Europe especially there’s a lot of pressure on those seats. Designers will send you stuff, and when I was at The Village Voice we weren’t allowed to take anything which kind of broke my heart—newspapers won’t take gifts but at magazines we do receive nice things that we get to wear around. You hope that it doesn’t influence you professionally.
Vanessa Friedman: I never get negative treatment but occasionally people query me about what I've written, which is absolutely fair. Sometimes they want to sit down and talk to me about it to try to understand [my review] more, or to try and change my mind, but I think that’s their right. As for special treatment, clearly The New York Times matters to brands, so they’re respectful of the newspaper, but it’s not about me.
Eric Wilson: The reaction you get from companies covers a wide range, from people you’ve written something very critical about who couldn’t be more pleased, to those who you write something very positive about who take it in a way that wasn’t intended. You always hear from the people you write about, and that’s true of any fashion coverage, because a lot of [our subjects] are invested in their image. I’ve never felt that I was treated unfairly by anyone, and I’ve always gone at this with a lot of respect for the subjects that I’ve covered. Sometimes I’ve had challenges to get access, but I’ve never taken it personally.
Robin Givhan: I’ve gotten flowers and thank you notes, which is always lovely. I’ve also gotten notes from designers when they felt like a review really "got" what they were trying to do, and I’ve gotten notes from designers when they didn’t like my review, or phone calls from their publicists, telling me the designer wants to have a conversation about the review. And I welcome those phone calls because I love nothing better than when a designer says to me, “You didn’t get it, and I want to tell you what my goal was.” I try very hard, even if I just hate something, to never make it personal—to make it always about the work. I always say, don’t stew or build a voodoo doll of me—let’s talk.
Veronique Hyland: Fashion criticism comes in so many forms these days—which I happen to think is great, that everyone can establish their own critical perch—but that doesn't diminish the appeal of reading a really good critic. There is so much going on and so many dizzying moving parts that I think there's a real hunger for someone who can unpack and explain what we're seeing and how that is actually going to impact how the world around us is going to look.
Eric Wilson: Fashion criticism is always changing, so it’s hard to compare it to “what it used to be” because it’s been ten different things. Today, 90% of what’s written is being done within an hour [of the show]. The more reflective pieces often come from magazines that take the time to digest and relay the information in a new way later on. But in the immediate moment... it all gets transformed into soundbites. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s how people consume information [now], and we’re not writing [those quick pieces] for designers—we’re writing them for the audience at home who wants to know what’s happening. I think that has opened [us up] to many more voices, and it’s interesting to me to see how people stand out in that crowd. [For example] we have more access to writers around the world, so now people like Alexander Fury have a much bigger place in the conversation. A lot of times we’re even reviewing collections on social media with a short verse about [a certain] look, and that starts a debate going between readers, so you get a new perspective on things. We have more of a 360 degree view of things, too, because there’s someone tweeting from backstage and somebody putting up Instagram pictures before the show even begins, so we have far greater knowledge about what’s happening at a runway show than we ever would’ve had in the past.
Alexandra Jacobs: There is such an overwhelming profusion of images on the Internet and so-called social media, which actually is very isolating, that I think a considered, panoramic view is needed now more than ever before. Narrative is reassuring in the face of chaos.
Vanessa Friedman: I think criticism is important to designers and I think it should be. If you’re doing your job well, you’re helping designers understand how their clothes are seen, and how their clothes fit in or don’t fit in to the world. For readers or consumers, the place of traditional criticism is, as it always has been, a kind of filter or explainer between the designer and what they see in stores. So I think there is a place for it today. I distinguish between traditional criticism and what a lot of bloggers do, because what they do is a much more visceral, personal reaction to a collection, which has a lot of value for their readers who identify with them. That doesn’t really come into what I write—how I feel personally about a collection—it’s much more about the collection’s place in the world.
Lynn Yaeger: There have always only been a handful of fashion critics, but I do think that today you’re fearful [of your place]. It’s kind of a tightrope.
Robin Givhan: I think every creative industry has changed—they’ve all experienced a different manner of distribution and a kind of growth in which new players enter the game and creativity comes from previously nonexistent venues, but I don’t see people questioning the role of other critics just because their industry is evolving. There’s still a desire to see how a work fits into a broader culture and to read about those connections that might not be immediately evident. And in the same way that there are fashion bloggers, there are countless bloggers [focusing on other creative mediums]. So I don’t know that what’s necessarily being questioned is the role of the critic as much as the way in which we view fashion. The interest in fashion right now is extraordinarily high, but I think that our relationship to fashion is strained and complicated because it’s an industry seen as one for the consumption of women. No one ever gets riled up over the cost of a Lamborghini, it’s existence doesn’t insult your Ford Focus, [yet] people will look at a couture dress and somehow get themselves into this insulted tizzy, as if the existence of a $25,000 gown is somehow an affront to civilization. I think there’s an element of sexism there.
Did any of these answers really surprise you? Let us know in the comments, and stay tuned for Part Two later this week!