In the March 13 New York Times, fashion critic Cathy Horyn wrote an essay called “My Invitation Isn’t in the Mail.” The designer, Giorgio Armani, had notified Horyn’s editor that she would no longer be invited to attend his fashion shows. In the letter, quoted in her piece, the designer wrote that Horyn made “unnecessarily sarcastic comments” about his friends, and otherwise was, in his view, close-minded about his shows. Therefore, as far as he was concerned, she didn’t need to be there anymore.
Another journalist might have gotten on the phone and screamed at the PR person, or fired back in the press, and it seemed at first that Horyn might be going down the “how dare you” road. But she didn’t; instead, she used the Armani letter as a reason to rummage around in much more revolutionary ideas. First: at a time when runway shows are viewable moments after they’ve been created, how necessary is it to selectively assemble several hundred people from around the globe to witness them in real time? So much about the twice-yearly, month-long, New York-London-Milan-Paris progression runs contrary to sense: the rigid seating hierarchies, the crowded, often uncomfortable locations, the huddle of waiting cars burning through fossile fuel so that they’re warm when the editors, retailers, and models pour out of one show and rush to the next. Making it all less insane is not such a crazy notion. Why not let the Internet’s instantaneousness be a virtue, a good new business practice? Why can’t editors, retailers, and critics watch the shows on their own time, from the comfort of their Wi-Fi-enabled couches? End the celebrity scrum, the painfully long waits, the jet lag, and the excessive carbon footprint.
But then, Horyn took her thinking one extreme step further. The critic, whose online blog at the New York Times has its own cabal of loyal and articulate posters/followers, declared her own job unnecessary. After suggesting Armani (and by inference, other designers) go “directly over the Internet to the public,” she concluded, “And if fashion writers don’t know what to do with themselves, if such a day ever comes, then that’s their problem.”
Essentially firing yourself is rather unusual behavior for someone who is in the position of being the most powerful anything. “We all have to look at how we do things, how we cover this business,” she told me after the story came out. “We have to adapt. We complain about the system, about going to fashion shows, about the hierarchy, but we can make a choice. There are other ways of doing it.”
Including dumping the critics? Democratization of fashion via the Internet is something she embraces, in part because her blog posters, she says, “have very astute, sharply critical comments. I’ve been persuaded by some people on my blog, posting two hours after a show, and they manage to see an awful lot. Do they see everything? No. But there’s quite good intelligence there.” And what should the designers do with their empty runway spaces? As Horyn said in her story, and repeated to me later, these are great creative minds with resources galore at their fingertips; there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t make remarkable online experiences that would seduce millions, instead of the few hundred currently so privileged.
What might an online-only season look like? Last season, Hussein Chalayan, one of the most technologically adventurous designers working today, shot a video of his collection (it’s on his Website, husseinchalayan.com). The ten-minute video is elegant and artful. Models walk to the center of the screen and stand still; the cameras circle them, zooming in on details that in a real runway situation, would only be palpable to the first couple of rows. A slight breeze blows from a fan off-camera, making the fabrics flutter or not, which gives a very physical sense of weight and density. Cut, color, detail, proportion, dimensionality; it’s all in Chalayan’s video, which is, as an online fashion experience, very satisfying.
And lonely. While I admire Horyn’s democratic spirit (and selfless offer to kick herself off the island), I felt she neglected a crucial point. As I watched the Chalayan video, I wanted to feel that breeze. I wanted to hear the music of the show from a stack of speakers, not my computer’s cheesy amplifier. Because the shows are more than just model, model, model. Because an online video, no matter how beautiful and artful, doesn’t do justice to something as excruciatingly beautiful and thoughtfully assembled as Rodarte’s fall collection, with the cobwebby lace tights and Kabuki references. Because the moment the lights go down, and the stage crew pulls the protective plastic off the runway, there’s a potential for magic. Because yes, I have welled up at a fashion show (Gaultier couture), felt goose bumps at a fashion show (Alexander McQueen), seen the entire world of style shift in twelve minutes at a fashion show (Nicolas Ghesquière). Fashion is contagious, and the purpose of shows is to infect the select audience so they can pass it on to the broader one.
The buzz off a great show is fashion’s single greatest selling tool, says Natalie Massenet, founder of the high-end shopping site Net-a-porter, who would seem to have a stake in the Web’s ascendance. “When a show is amazing, and fashion is moving forward, and the experience is inspiring, I always think, God, if we could bottle this.”
Horyn doesn’t disagree. “It’s a great experience to go to a really great show, where there’s a combination of great clothes and staging,” she says, citing Marc Jacobs’s recent use of sets by Stefan Beckman. “It makes a substantial difference in how his clothes are projected. Dior, Yves Saint Laurent—these are breathtaking experiences.”
As for critics and editors, well. Are they really necessary? In the increasingly democratic domain that is fashion now, why shouldn’t readers wiki their way through the shows, clicking and saving and making their own idea of fall? Of course, the Web is a wonderful tool for fashion. Except that, as anyone who’s ever tried to clean out a closet knows, choice is exhausting, and even the most fanatical don’t have the time, the patience, and the necessary mental filters to pluck from a sea of black dresses the four or five that are perfect. That’s why editors and critics are still necessary. “The consumers can make their own decisions, but there’s so much to wade through,” says Massenet. “At a certain point, she’ll say, ‘Guide me.’ We have to acknowledge now that we’re not telling the consumer anything new; she’s seen it. What we have to tell her is, why this one is better than that one.”