Fashion's Symbolic Gesture of Power: Brands Banning Journalists

Fashion brands banning individuals and publications from their shows is hardly a myth. Hedi Slimane, Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta, and Versace, among others, have banned critics in seasons past. And as of Spring/Summer 2019, the practice is alive and well (err, maybe not well), something veteran journalist Christina Binkley recently attested to on Twitter. The former WSJ mainstay-turned-freelance figure, Ms. Binkley tweeted earlier this month, “I’m banned from Chanel this season in Paris. The PR are still upset I mentioned the Wertheimer family [which owns Chanel] in this 2015 story for the WSJ.”

Binkley elaborated, “Precisely, [they said] their show in the Grand Palais is ‘fully at capacity.’” For those who are unfamiliar, the Grand Palais is a 775,000 square foot exhibition hall and museum located in the 8th arrondissement of Paris; it has the capacity to seat thousands of people.

This is neither Chanel nor Binkley’s first brush with fashion’s pattern of critic ousting. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Robin Givhan of the Washington Post was banished from her usual front row seat at Chanel several years ago after penning a lengthy piece for Newsweek, entitled, “Is Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld spread too thin?” The Paris-based brand was none too pleased with the article, despite its balanced and well-researched and sourced tone and assertions; Ms. Givhan’s seat-swap was proof of that.

As for Binkley, she told Glossy that she has been banned by other brands, as well. Take “Balenciaga when Nicolas Ghesquiere was the designer,” for example. She “used the word ‘ugly’ to describe a sweatshirt he had designed for a collection,” and noted, “I don’t know exactly if [that’s what did it], but I was banned for years until Alexander Wang came in and started designing.” 

This is the never-ending plight of the fashion press: criticize the work of certain designers, and you can forget about getting access to it. Despite the seeming cattiness and utter outdatedness of this practice, particularly since we live in an inherently-connected, digital era, it is still intrinsically woven into the workings of the fashion industry.

Need more examples? Consider Cathy Horyn – the former long-time New York Times fashion critic and beacon of objective, fear-no-brand criticism – who was banned from Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent debut. She explained the backstory in her “On the Runway” column for the New York Times in 2012, writing: "Despite positive reviews of his early YSL [i.e., in the mid-1990s] and Dior collections, as well as a profile, Mr. Slimane objected bitterly to a review I wrote in 2004 — not about him but Raf Simons. Essentially I wrote that without Mr. Simons’s template of slim tailoring and street casting, there would not have been a Hedi Slimane." 

A banned-Horyn says she raised the issue with Francois-Henri Pinault, the chairman of Kering (or what was back then still PPR), the conglomerate that owns Saint Laurent. "Mr. Pinault expressed dismay,” according to Horyn. “'That’s ridiculous,' he said. 'Journalists should be invited to shows.'”

Meanwhile, going on in the background of the Slimane v. Horyn feud, the Times – one of the very few publications (mostly newspapers) that still produces bona-fide runway show reviews, as opposed to Instagram-oriented coverage or descriptive rundowns that are markedly devoid of any real commentary – was on the opposite end of at least one other ban. This time from Dolce & Gabbana. 

In tweeting the Times’ review of Dolce & Gabbana’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection, the publication’s Elizabeth Paton tweeted: “When Dolce & Gabbana ban the New York Times from their show, but Vanessa Friedman reviews it anyway.” Turns out, the Times was still on the Italian brand’s blacklist following a less-than-glowing (but still very fair) review penned some 10 years prior by Guy Trebay.

The New York Times is not alone in ruffling the feathers of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. In fact, the brand’s founders have notoriously banned many people over the years, including individuals from Vogue Runway, Women’s Wear Daily, W magazine, and a few big name bloggers, among others. All of the individuals that have been banned by D&G have one thing in common: they have produced what Dolce and Gabbana feel are “unfairly harsh” reviews of their collections.

But the definition of “unfair reviews” seems tedious at best in many cases and more accurately, part of a larger practice of brands attempting to dictate the narrative that surrounds their collections by punishing those that actually endeavor to put forth critiques (as distinct from gushing praise or at the very least, truly neutral, non-confrontational sentiments). It is usually a quiet effort (since brands stand nothing to gain from press attention to this type of behavior); it is also a largely symbolic tactic considering that the internet has made in-person presence at a runway show almost completely obsolete.

While fashion is hardly the only industry to operate at the whims of ill-behaved creatives (and money-wielding giants), it sure does seem largely unable to escape with these forces. As Horyn wrote in 2008, after being banned (again) from a Giorgio Armani show, "Fashion is the only creative field that attempts to bar the news media.” Fashion journalist/critic Alexander Fury echoed this in 2015, writing, “I wonder when designers became quite so opposed to critical discussion of their clothes. You don't get this so often in other realms, such as cinema or art.”

Still yet, Binkley said just this week, “You don’t see this with many other industries. With General Electric, [for example,] you don’t see journalists being banned from reviewing a washing machine.”

Yet, in fashion, journalists are routinely banned from shows. This “leaves a lot of reporters and editors to go soft or tread carefully if they feel losing access would be problematic for their careers,” says Binkley. And that does not even begin to take into account how brands wield their advertising dollars to affect reporting (or lack thereof) by publications, which is a whole other force working against objectivity.  

Regardless, the message from brands is clear: play the game, or you will have to stay home.