Who Are Fashion Critics' Reviews Actually Meant for?

Chanel’s offerings were decidedly lackluster this season, as set forth by those bold enough to write honest reviews, at least. One of fashion’s most trusted critics, Cathy Horyn took on the collection in a single paragraph for The Cut, which told a reader everything he/she needed to know, sans any of the fluffy language employed by reviewers aiming to remain on Uncle Karl’s good list and keep the Chanel massive advertising checks coming in the mail.

The Chanel-dedicated section of Ms. Horyn’s latest review reads as follows: “Chanel’s shows don’t seem very modern, although there were new fringed bouclé suits and minidresses, along with lovely, oversize blouses and a group of breezy, tie-dyed evening looks, in Karl Lagerfeld’s collection. The show has become so much about the theatrical setting (this time a waterfall-drenched gorge), and the apparent need to fill the runway with nearly 100 looks, that the designs feel, well, drowned. In any case, you don’t really connect to the fashion. And this season, there was the extra obstacle of clear plastic hats, coats, and boots.”

The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan walked away with something of a similar take. This week she wrote: “The clothes may or may not be wonderful.” But, she writes, “the grand setting argues that the brand is important, therefore it’s products must be, too. And important clothes are worn by important people.”

She further noted, “This collection was not one of Chanel’s bests. It had some winning looks and some clunkers, too — especially the distressed and lace embroidered denim.”

Ms. Givhan’s review was particularly striking, though, as she – again – hit the nail on the head, so to speak, in a later paragraph: “That extra embellishing was probably unnecessary. Many Chanel customers, the ones with the dough at least, are a bit like Deadheads in their obsessive loyalty." The most well-off will continue to buy garments and accessories. Others will spend on Chanel-branded cosmetics and eyewear for their high fashion fix - both groups largely (if not entirely) unaffected by the artistic merit of the runway.

"It doesn’t matter," per Givhan, "if the style doesn’t really change from one season to the next, or if a season isn’t particularly inspired. It’s the back catalogue and the conviviality that they love and desire.”

A Consumer’s Review? A Reviewer’s Review?

Both women put forth thought-provoking reviews, ones that are becoming – or better yet, have already become – increasingly hard to find in the modern-day landscape of fashion with its all-powerful advertising entities and business savvy editors, who understand the need to please those that are endlessly shelling out to keep print publications alive.

With that in mind, it is a wonder who, exactly, they are writing for. If Ms. Givhan is right – and it seems she absolutely is – die-hard Chanel fans (or rabid Vuitton or Dior clients, etc.) are not swayed by reviews. As Givhan stated, “Fashion customers are as susceptible to ‘irrational exuberance’ as stock market speculators. So, it’s no wonder that the largest fashion companies here use their financial heft and cultural clout to finesse settings that leave guests open-mouthed with amazement and desire.”

Web-viewers similarly take in shows regardless of reviews and oftentimes before such reviews are published. For instance, despite the all-around not-so-stunning reviews from Horyn and Givhan, Chanel’s show landed quite favorably on Vogue Runway’s “The Top 10 Most Viewed Spring 2018 Collections” list, which tallies the number of views per show (and runway images) on its own site.

Dior, which was similarly uninspired this season – the New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman took on Maria Grazia Chiuri’s unending dedication to feminism via wildly expensive slogan sees, writing, “Single-minded dedication to a cause can be admirable, but it can also be blinding and lack subtlety — in fashion, as in life.” – also topped Vogue’s list of the most-viewed shows.

It likely is not a stretch to posit that many millennial and Gen-Z fashion fans do not give two darns about a fashion critic’s review. Such reports are not posted on Snapchat, after all. They do not come in video form or in 140 – err 280 characters.

It is worth arguing that Horyn’s reviews – which since she left the Times and then joined New York Magazine’s The Cut blog in 2015, are posted on the “blog’s” website, among a wide range of articles about fashion, style, and cultural topics none of which are behind paywalls (unlike the Times, WSJ, and Washington Post after enough clicks per month) – might be the most millennial-centric purely due to where they live.

Nonetheless, the question becomes: Who are these reviews meant for? In writing critically of such shows, who are fashion’s most esteemed voices writing for? It is no secret that the rise of social media, in particular, has changed the way fashion is approached and digested. Consumers no longer need to wait for reviews or magazines to see show images.

As such, relying on critics to tell us what garments and accessories are standout pieces in any given collection is a bit outdated when young fashion fans can simply look at photos or videos posted by influencers.Consumers no longer need critics to act as an interpreter of runway looks; there is, of course, the argument that the even the most enthusiastic fashion fan might lack the historical references to put any collection in a contemporary context.

But alas, Instagram is not the best place to make points about why a specific collection matters, why the designs are technically impressive and/or why last season’s collection was more appealing, for instance.

That does not, however, mean that fashion critics like Robin Givhan, Cathy Horyn and Vanessa Friedman, do not possess a wealth of powerful and useful (even in 2017) knowledge that adds value and legitimacy to the industry.

If Fabrice Léonard, the fashion journalist of Le Point, is right, there is still, in fact, a demand for criticism of this kind. He told writer/editor Jessica Michault not too long ago, “I think we need to continue the reviews because I think that the customers liked to stay informed. Even if the clothing arrives in the stores right away, people are still going to want to know the opinion of a professional.”

And with the rise of fake news – of the politically motivated kind – and of the just-plain-inaccurate iteration which inundates nearly every inch of the web, paired with the sheer insane amount of content that is available in fashion and beyond, I, for one, would argue that the work of more traditionally-minded critics (as distinct from the advertising-dictating, free-trip-taking kind) is actually more valuable than ever ... if you still read, that is.