by Suzy Menkes
We were once described as “black crows” — us fashion folk gathered outside an abandoned, crumbling downtown building in a uniform of Comme des Garçons or Yohji Yamamoto. “Whose funeral is it?” passers-by would whisper with a mix of hushed caring and ghoulish inquiry, as we lined up for the hip, underground presentations back in the 1990s.
Today, the people outside fashion shows are more like peacocks than crows. They pose and preen, in their multipatterned dresses, spidery legs balanced on club-sandwich platform shoes, or in thigh-high boots under sculptured coats blooming with flat flowers.
There is likely to be a public stir when a group of young Japanese women spot their idol on parade: the Italian clothes peg Anna Dello Russo. Tall, slim, with a toned and tanned body, the designer and fashion editor is a walking display for designer goods: The wider the belt, the shorter and puffier the skirt, the more outré the shoes, the better. The crowd around her tweets madly: Who is she wearing? Has she changed her outfit since the last show? When will she wear her own H&M collection? Who gave her those mile-high shoes?!
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.
Having lived through the era of punk and those underground clubs in London’s East End, where the individuality and imagination of the outfits were fascinating, I can’t help feeling how different things were when cool kids loved to dress up for one another — or maybe just for themselves.
There is a genuine difference between the stylish and the showoffs — and that is the current dilemma. If fashion is for everyone, is it fashion? The answer goes far beyond the collections and relates to the speed of fast fashion. There is no longer a time gap between when a small segment of fashion-conscious people pick up a trend and when it is all over the sidewalks.
Now that women and men (think of the über-stylish Filipino blogger Bryanboy, whose real name is Bryan Grey Yambao) are used to promote the brands that have been wily enough to align themselves with people power, even those with so-called street style have lost their individuality.
Smartphones are so fabulous in so many ways that it seems daft to be nostalgic about the days when an image did not go round the world in a nanosecond. In the mid-1990s, when I stopped having to run from the shows to the film developing lab and first saw digital images, I blessed technology and was convinced that my working life was changing for the better. I had no inkling of the role that images would play, pitting fashion’s professionals — looking at shows for their own purposes of buying or reporting — against an online judge and jury. While fashion pros tend to have personal agendas related to their work, bloggers start a critical conversation that can spread virally.
Many of these changes have been exhilarating. It is great to see the commentaries from smart bloggers — especially those in countries like China or Russia, where there was, in the past, little possibility of sharing fashion thoughts and dreams — although I am leery about the idea that anyone can be a critic, passing judgment after seeing a show (from the front only and in distorted color) on Style.com or NowFashion. But two things have worked to turn fashion shows into a zoo: the cattle market of showoff people waiting to be chosen or rejected by the photographers, and the way that smart brands, in an attempt to claw back control lost to multimedia, have come in on the act. Marc Jacobs was the first designer to sense the power of multimedia. When he named a bag after Bryanboy in 2008, he made the blogger’s name, and turned on an apparently unending shower of designer gifts, which are warmly welcomed at bryanboy.com.
Many bloggers are — or were — perceptive and succinct in their comments. But with the aim now to receive trophy gifts and paid-for trips to the next round of shows, only the rarest of bloggers could be seen as a critic in its original meaning of a visual and cultural arbiter.
Adhering to the time-honored journalistic rule that reporters don’t take gifts (read: bribes), I am stunned at the open way bloggers announce which designer has given them what. There is something ridiculous about the self-aggrandizement of some online arbiters who go against the mantra that I was taught in my earliest days as a fashion journalist: “It isn’t good because you like it; you like it because it’s good.” Slim chance of that idea catching on among the fashion bloggers. Whether it is the sharp Susie Bubble or the bright Tavi Gevinson, judging fashion has become all about me: Look at me wearing the dress! Look at these shoes I have found! Look at me loving this outfit in 15 different images!
Fashion has to some extent become mob rule — or, at least, a survival of the most popular in a melee of crowdsourcing. The original “Project Runway,” a television show that chose participants with at least a basic knowledge of fashion, has been followed worldwide by “American Idol”-style initiatives, in which a public vote selects the fashion winner. Who needs to graduate from Central Saint Martins in London or New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology when a homemade outfit can go viral on YouTube with millions of hits?
Playing King Canute and trying to hold back the wave of digital fashion stuff is doomed for failure. But something has been lost in a world where the survival of the gaudiest is a new kind of dress parade. Perhaps the perfect answer would be to let the public preening go on out front, while the show moves, stealthily, to a different and secret venue, with the audience just a group of dedicated pros — dressed head to toe in black, of course.