ARCHIVE: Why is Fashion Almost Completely Devoid of Objectivity?

Writing for the Financial Times last year, Jo Ellison took a look at the integration of Style.com under the umbrella of Vogue, in an article entitled, “Vogue Goes Viral.” In what was an all-around excellent read, one passage, in particular, stood out. Speaking quite tellingly to the status of modern fashion journalism (and nearly all journalism, in fact), Ellison wrote the following ...

The internet needs obsessive, opinionated voices that can stand out in the cacophony. “If you don’t have a take, you get hosed,” says Abby Aguirre, the culture editor and a former features editor at the New York Times, who arrived last year. But how independent can they really be within an editorial environment that has traditionally been overseen by Wintour’s all-commanding editorial rule?

Ellison is alluding to the fact that Vogue, like all publications and all companies in the world, are dictated by the voice at the top. This is not a novel concept, and in fact, there doesn’t seem to be much wrong with this – in theory – when it comes to journalism. A lack of editorial direction would be hugely problematic for any publication. The result would be a messy, inconsistent read that would likely crash and burn and ultimately, fail. 

Her passage got me thinking about something else, though; the fact that fashion magazines (and really all magazines and other forms of media, for that matter) survive primarily based on advertising revenues. With this in mind, these publications are not just merely controlled by the editorial vision at the top, but heavily dictated by the interests of their highest-spending advertisers. This is how the world works. It is how politics and legislation works, albeit in a slightly different manner.

But we are not here to dissect and discuss the inner-workings of the U.S. political system and the resulting legislation. Instead, we are here to think about how what we read and see (and more interestingly, what we don’t read or see) is largely affected by ad dollars.

Let me distinguish this from paid-for editorial placements. This is something journalist Dylan Jones noted in an article he penned for the Guardian in 2003, writing: “Luxury brand advertisers (Versace, say, or Armani, Boss, Paul Smith, take your pick) use advertising pages as leverage for editorial credits, ie, if the fashion editors of, oh, Harpers & Queen don't feature a certain designer's clothes often enough then the designer will threaten to pull their advertising from the magazine.”

He continues: “As the editor of a glossy magazine [he’s referring to GQ], I feel as much of a sense of duty to my advertisers as I do to my readers. If a client decides to give us an ad, I think it's only natural that we should, at some point, acknowledge them editorially.”

The practice of which Jones speaks is an example of what I am NOT taking issue with – because, this practice, in my opinion, not the most problematic. Consider the fact that fashion magazines are in the business of featuring garments and accessories in editorials. Some of these garments and accessories come from brands that advertise in said magazine. This is almost inevitable because most big fashion brands advertise. Some of these garments and accessories come from brands that don’t advertise in said magazine. It seems to even out to some extent, and even if it doesn’t, this is probably small change when it comes to pointing fingers at questionable journalistic integrity.

Instead, my issue is when brands use advertising dollars to affect otherwise somewhat objective reporting by publications (and the publications go for it!). As Cathy Horyn wrote in 2008, after being banned from Armani shows, "Fashion is the only creative field that attempts to bar the news media," and she might just be right. 

The Business of Fashion and the Fight Against Objectivity

Fashion has developed significantly over the past several decades. It has become an enormous business; one that is truly international in nature and that thrives on an ecosystem of sorts based on the interconnectedness among the various fashion capitals around the world and the individuals at the heads and helms of the brands in those various locales. What were once fashion companies are now conglomerates. Fashion labels have become houses – mega-houses, in more cases than one.

Brands have grown in terms of revenues and in terms of influence and reach. They have greater revenues than ever before and with that comes power. Such power exerts itself in a number of ways. Critics, for instance, face a predicament, particularly when ad revenues and fashion show invitations are at stake. Writing for Racked, Chavie Lieber took on the latter aspect of this predicament: “Former New York Times critic Cathy Horyn was banned from Carolina Herrera and Dolce & Gabbana fashion shows because her criticism was found ‘slanderous.’ Robin Givhan, the Washington Post's fashion critic, lost her front row seat at Chanel after criticizing Karl Lagerfeld.”

And, I think it is safe to assume that we all know Horyn’s tale with Hedi Slimane – the fact that she was banned from Slimane’s Saint Laurent debut, the nasty open letter the designer wrote to her, etc. So, in addition to holding advertising revenue over the heads of journalists’ bosses (who then shut down stories or issue guidance regarding acceptable “reporting”), fashion industry big guns also use retaliation to ward off bad reviews and bad press.

Interestingly, the aforementioned writers all pen their work for newspapers, which have been considered the optimal space for fashion critique because they provide a greater freedom of expression compared to fashion magazines, whose editors have to adapt their considerations to the pressures of big advertisers (read: big fashion brands). As such, magazines generally keep it very clean. As fashion writer Amy Odell states in her new book, Tales From the Back Row, “Vogue hardly ever writes anything bad about designers (or anyone else, for that matter). This also helps with advertising, allowing Anna Wintour to beef up her prized September issue with ad pages.”

Stylist Sally Lyndley similarly nails my point when it comes to magazines. Speaking to Fashionista a few years back, she took on the topic of why “no one tells the truth in fashion.” Her thoughts: “Well, most of the people in fashion are unlikely to say or critique any celebrity wearing a big name brand, or any runway show they didn't like because designers threaten to pull advertising if they get bad reviews. And also because celebrities won't agree to be on the magazine covers if the magazine says bad things about them. So in a way, the magazines and newspapers can't be honest.”

So, it seems that while we do not have to remove websites and magazines in their entirety from the realm of fashion-objective reads, we need to adjust our expectations. Take for example Condé Nast’s Vanity Fair, which reportedly planned to run a feature on Dolce and Gabbana’s tax evasion lawsuits in 2014. According to Page Six, designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana threatened to pull all of their brand’s advertising from all Condé Nast’s titles, which include GQ, Allure, Glamour, Lucky and W, if the feature is printed. Per Page 6: “When Dolce and Gabbana got wind of VF’s in-the-works piece, they called Vogue Editor-in Chief and Condé Nast artistic director Wintour to get it killed.”

It was reported at the time that Dolce & Gabbana’s fashion and beauty advertising deals could be worth up to $20 million between all the titles. An article about the famous duo’s tax trials was never published in Vanity Fair. The magazine has denied such controversy; suggesting that the article never came into fruition for other, unrelated reasons.

Can we blame Dolce & Gabbana in that scenario? Yes and no. If the industry chatter is true, then we can conclude that the brand certainly conducted itself in a less than flattering manner. Threats? Seems a bit childish, no? However, to play the other hand, what is a good advertising/PR strategy if it does not pull out all the stops to prevent reputation-harming information from getting out? That’s the job of the brand’s PR. That is arguably expected. They are not here for the purpose of objective coverage or journalism. This is how designers hold sway over coverage: they threaten to ban outlets from their shows and pull advertising if outlets displease them. Magazines becoming amenable to such scare tactics and allowing objectivity to take a backseat? Now that is an arguably questionable move.

Is that a lack of journalistic integrity on Condé Nast’s part or just good business? ($20 million is a lot of advertising revenue!) Or is it just utterly absurd behavior on the part of Mr. Dolce and Mr. Gabbana? It is likely a bit of both. But instead of getting bogged down in trying to figure out who to blame, what is probably more important is what that instance suggests about the fashion industry and journalism in fashion (yes, this type of non-sense occurs in other industries, but we are focusing on just one right now: fashion) in general. Has objectivity become second string to appeasing big advertisers? It seems so.

And before we move forward, it is imperative that we note that my point is not to vilify Condé Nast. Such stories are not in any way limited to big publications like Vanity Fair; the Dolce and Gabbana debacle just happens to be one of the most notorious in the recent past. In fact, these instances have permeated the entire industry for the most part.

Consider a much smaller website with which I came in contact recently. They informed me (in a manner that was slightly hesitant) that they cannot publish any specific brand names in their articles – none – because that is in violation of agreements they have with their advertisers. Yes, that actually happens. Advertisers have now managed to censor journalists and there are publications that go right along with it. That is indicative of the state of quite a bit of mainstream fashion journalism.

How Do We Proceed?

With all of that out of the way, we have to ask: What does this mean and just how biased is fashion journalism? While it may seem as though real, honest observations are difficult to come by when considering some of the biggest publications (both in print and online), and I would argue that they are, all hope is not lost. Yes, despite the relatively harsh statements that preceded this, the state of fashion journalism is not dead. Good old-fashioned journalism that you can trust is not dead.

As the New York Times’ fashion director Vanessa Friedman noted, “There still are critics: at the Washington Post, the LA Times, the London Times, the London Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent, the Evening Standard, the Wall Street Journal. The rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.” There are still greats like Cathy Horyn, Robin Givhan, and Friedman, herself, amongst us.

These women have proven and continue to prove their worth by way of their objectivity. They don’t waste space describing the scenery or the music in an effort to appease designers. They don’t merely describe the looks without providing either an opinion or conclusion as to what worked and what didn’t in an effort to appease designers. They don’t give Balmain good reviews when Balmain does not deserve them. No, they write the sometimes-unpopular opinions each season, the ones that, as indicated above, have gotten them banned from runway shows. This should allow you to breathe a sigh of relief. Not all hope is lost.

Moreover, the problem does not seem quite so problematic if we dissect it a bit. What seems to be the issue – from what I can tell – is that much of what we read is not necessarily purporting to be objective criticism. The majority of famous bloggers are not holding themselves out as old school fashion critics or fashion critics at all. If you think about it, the distinction is somewhat obvious.

These big name bloggers (think: Chiara Ferragni, Kristina Bazan, the Man Repeller, etc.) accept free clothes, free bags, free trips – these are things an old school critic or even a new school critic (yes, there are some of those, too) simply wouldn’t touch. And that is ok because they serve a different role. Instead of representing a point of journalistic objectivity in the blogosphere, they serve more as walking editorials or advertisements – ones that do not necessarily need to be objective (as long as they are disclosing their endorsement ties in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines). That’s not their job. Their job is to sell clothes or accessories by way of their blog posts. This is different from the job of a fashion critic or journalist.

Without such a blogger vs. journalist distinction, things can theoretically get messy. As so-called fashion “journalism” becomes an increasingly larger pool, the reader is forced to take on some sense of responsibility. It is our responsibility to gauge objectivity, to question what we read, and to analyze for ourselves.

As Friedman noted, “It's every person's responsibility to maintain their own integrity, and in a sense, there's an onus on the reader to have a healthy dose of skepticism when they're coming at any of us.” If you ask yourself, which brands fund this publication’s ads, what companies have invested in or own this website, is this person holding herself out as an objective fashion journalist or a fashion blogger, such answers can be quite telling. They will certainly help you identify where his or her allegiances lie.

But maybe we knew that already and I’m just fighting an age-old system. 

* This article was initially published in January 2015.