Fisticuffs in the High Fashion Society

Hugo JACOMET

Fisticuffs in the High Fashion Society

Gentlemen,

despite the insolent (bordering gasping for breath) health of the men’s fashion industry these days, particularly considering economically troubled times, the general mood isn’t exactly serene in the hushed world of fashion’s greatest commentators.

Fashion editorialists Suzy Menkes and Colin McDowell expound on the nervous mood with some grace – struggling to come to terms with the ground-moving intrusion of the blogosphere, whose blogs have been clearing a path straight into their (until-then) private hunting grounds.  These journalists have been giving their columns names peppered with a hint of nostalgia, such as « The Fourth Estate », which at one time reigned supreme in the fashion industry, with an almost-unfathomable sphere of influence — sometimes reaching beyond the scope of reason.

The brilliant McDowell puts it very eloquently:

And it makes me wonder about the fashion journalists’ attitude to bloggers. We are all aware that some fear that the barbarians are no longer at the gates, but in the citadel and often sitting in the front row. But should print journalists fret? This year’s barbarians are next year’s savants — in theory at least.

If a designer feels that a fourteen-year-old is more likely to understand the show than a forty-year-old, he has a right to give the prime position to that person. And he could be right. With the average age of the fashionista dropping all the time, who is more likely to have the pulse of the moment, someone at college, blogging to friends, or someone over fifty or even in their sixties possibly disenchanted by what they see? But being young is not enough to empower any more than being old is to disenfranchise.

Fashion is part of popular culture and can only be assessed as such. Whether we like it or not, the likes of Tom Ford and Dolce & Gabbana have become wealthy by realising that sex for the young is mostly very different from what it was in the days when their grandmothers were young — and they package their wares accordingly, with as little understatement and taste as possible.

Many great writers / observers seem to agree that the High Fashion Society, the once impregnable fortress that has been as prestigious as the big names that support it (The Sunday Times for McDowell, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times for Menkes) might be on the verge of destruction, by the hand of the repeated assaults of the ever-increasing blogger population, who, despite not being outstanding authors for the most part, turned out to be quite well-versed in social media strategy.

The latter (bloggers) it would seem, again according to many observers of what we may call « traditional press », have reached a very desirable position of influence, the scope of which is often inversely proportional to their written prowesses. We might be indeed witnessing the rise of another state within a state.

Suzy Menkes on her end, wrote an inquisitive article adequately named « The Circus of Fashion », in which she condemns the « circus » of street photographers and fashion bloggers gathering on the fringe of major « official » fashion events (including Pitti Uomo for the men’s industry.)

The fuss around the shows now seems as important as what goes on inside the carefully guarded tents. It is as difficult to get in as it always was, when passionate fashion devotees used to appear stealthily from every corner hoping to sneak in to a Jean Paul Gaultier collection in the 1980s. But the difference is that now the action is outside the show, as a figure in a velvet shoulder cape and shorts struts his stuff, competing for attention with a woman in a big-sleeved blouse and supertight pants.

You can hardly get up the steps at Lincoln Center, in New York, or walk along the Tuileries Garden path in Paris because of all the photographers snapping at the poseurs. Cameras point as wildly at their prey as those original paparazzi in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” But now subjects are ready and willing to be objects, not so much hunted down by the paparazzi as gagging for their attention.

Ah, fame! Or, more accurately in the fashion world, the celebrity circus of people who are famous for being famous. They are known mainly by their Facebook pages, their blogs and the fact that the street photographer Scott Schuman has immortalized them on his Sartorialist Web site. This photographer of “real people” has spawned legions of imitators, just as the editors who dress for attention are now challenged by bloggers who dress for attention.

Of course, many « green-eyed bloggers » wanting to overthrow the king (queen) would see in those lines that are undeniably tinted with a true sense of nostalgia, the last breath of a dying breed of authors that, although still very respected today, were literally revered yesterday, trying to protect what remains of their supremacy and their small corporation from the swarming legion of brainless and ostentatious bloggers.

Others could see a conspiracy à la Game of Thrones from some of these great authors, that despite everything, still enjoy (paradoxically and thanks to the internet and a select few bloggers) a worldwide audience– and above all a true credibility, in their effort to reinstate their own fabled Iron Throne that is surely coveted by many an almost-famous blogger.

Others, yours truly included, see great contributions by first-rate personalities, curators, and above all, authors, who keep on challenging the industry on its choices, contextualizing the content for the public and questioning the norm.

It’s a shame then, that their analysis on the total blogosphere should be so poor and inaccurate, dumbing down the whole phenomenon to the facebook pages of some ephemeral trend-setters, and 14 years old bloggers barely literate enough to actually write intelligibly.

This regret aside, we can only sit back and take in all in with a bit of (well-earned) satisifaction, when an excessively pissed Colin McDowell strikes the coup de grâce in a particularly enjoyable finale that you’ll find here below :

So, although many view their advertising campaigns as little more than soft porn, many do not and, judging by sales, enough customers actually find that these campaigns speak to them sufficiently strongly to make them buy.

And let’s never forget the major change that has occurred in fashion merchandising in our times. The actual clothes often have less power than the ad campaigns and brand stories. What’s more, the ad campaigns are so crucial to the wealth of magazine publishing that no editor will risk losing advertisers by allowing any critical commentary on the shows or the frequently bizarre behaviour of top designers.

Thus another channel of legitimate commentary has gone and journalists are rewarded with treats. It is no accident that the press was once called the Fourth Estate. It was seen as something of value because it checked other forms of power, but that check goes when a journalist spends a weekend on a yacht whether it belongs to Sir Philip Green, Dolce & Gabbana or Diego Della Valle.

The journalists are not there as friends — in fact, in most cases, the host hardly knows who they are — but because the owner’s PR has decided they are the ones from whom something can be obtained as payment for a free holiday. Nowhere is the old adage that there is no such thing as a free drink — or handbag, or dinner — more true than in fashion. And that also applies to the customer who is indirectly footing the bill for the largess, the gifts and the trips by paying grotesquely inflated prices for the merchandise.

Even more so, it is a bill paid in far too many cases by the people who work to make the clothes, always with low wages and sometimes in appalling conditions about which every fashion insider is well aware, but is reluctant to comment, preferring the fluffy dream world of films like The Great Gatsby.

In case you are not aware, this is an excerpt from Colin’s passionate review of Lhurmann ‘s « Great Gatsby », which gets thoroughly torn to pieces by the way, along with Fitzgerald for that matter, as one would expect from an article titled The Great Gatsby and the Epidemic of Pornography Masquerading as Style.

But I must admit that despite the respect I have for the two fashion authorities mentioned here (especially to the beautifully sharp and impertinent McDowell), I still find it regrettable that they would thusly denigrate our world, and even by means of an extension of our work, although it is likely that their lack of knowledge of the internet world could be a result of their limited vision of the subject.

Indeed, it is possible to find very good writers on the internet as well as very sharp observers and critics of the fashion world, both feminine or masculine (we prefer to stand under the « style » banner, but that’s beside the point), just as much as you can find, in the printed media, mediocre journalists, tasteless commentators and highfalutin writers.

As for the « debate » on the so-called « lack » of quality content on the internet compared to the content of traditional press (the eternal question of legitimacy), we have one simple proposal :

Let the public decide.

Cheers, HUGO