The Spring 2013 season skidded to an awkward finish with a bitter aftertaste. The breathless anticipation suffocating the collections at Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior ensured that whatever walked down the runway was bound to disappoint. There’s no way the designers could satisfy our collective imaginations with mere clothes. The louder the hype, the fainter the hope.
In the end, both Simons and Slimane delivered what they were hired to deliver, as best they could in high pressure corporate environments. Two professional, polished, on-point, collections. No rough edges, no surprises.
The notorious feud between New York Times critic Cathy Horyn and Hedi Slimane that ensued, to me, wasn’t just a spat; it was indicative of fashion’s ongoing tensions with the world of words.
The axis of images and words is of particular interest to me as an illustrator who loves to write. Images are the id; words are the ego. Fashion is a visual world – images always come first, and they’re always stronger. Words are an upstart force in fashion – but they have their own pugnacious power that cannot be denied. Especially now that the discourse of fashion takes place online, words matter more than ever before.
Fashion designers have to have tremendous visual intelligence to do their job well. They process their world in pictures; they produce appearances, not analysis. If you’ve ever seen an interview with a fashion designer, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re not as smart or interesting as you thought they were. The truth is, most designers don’t thrive in vocabulary-demanding environments like panel discussions. They’re not usually very articulate people. But that doesn’t mean they’re not smart – fashion design is too difficult, you need be a near-genius polymath just to keep your head above water in that business. Literary abilities aren’t necessarily a requirement, however.
The rare fashion designers that do have a way with words possess a kind of superpower as brand builders. Coco Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, and Tom Ford are the outliers – fashion designers that can turn a phrase as deftly as they can turn heads can consistently deflect their critics. The rest of them, when they’re confronted with the written word, are operating at a significant handicap.
Fashion criticism is a recent development – Horyn herself dates its genesis to the 1990s. It was that decade when fashion started to get intellectual – for the first time fashion was deemed worthy of academic study and critical analysis, and fashion writing became something more than elevated ad copy. Up until that point, fashion designers almost never had to deal with any kind of intelligent discussion of their work – that’s why most of the fashion designers who balk at being written about – Armani and De La Renta come to mind – belong to an older generation. But even for younger designers, the sense of entitlement to keep the power of their images from being trivialized by mere words runs deep.
When Slimane chose to confront Horyn’s dismissal of his collection on her terms, he was stepping well out of his comfort zone. It’s even symbolic that he chose to format his defence as an image rather than text – subconsciously he must have understood that he was fighting a losing battle on uneven ground. In the word-dominant domain of blogs and social networks, it seemed unanimous that the ‘winner’ of this lost-in-translation bitchfest was clearly Cathy Horyn.
And yet, it seems that Slimane will win the war. Image is always far more indelible than words. Far more universal, too – unlimited by language barriers or differences in education. The relative influence of a New York Times column is minor compared to an expensive international onslaught of advertising. Horyn’s words might mean something within the fashion bubble for a week or so, but just one month later, the persuasive vision of Slimane’s dark Californian dream that is oh-so potent right now (it belongs to the same trend as pop phenomenon Lana Del Rey), is what the rest of the world is left with. Fashion criticism has no afterlife in our culture. The clothes – and the images – will echo through the collective consciousness long after the feud is forgotten.