the true fashion feud – words vs. images

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.

9 thoughts on “the true fashion feud – words vs. images”

  1. Great post. It also captures one of the main reasons I love your blog – you’re incredibly articulate and I’m jealous of how well you verbalize your ideas! Very few people in fashion can do it well, and you seriously do. You’d be an excellent fashion writer who could appeal to a much higher caliber of people and elevate the discourse quite a bit.

    I relate to this post because I studied literature in college and later went to fashion school, and because I’m much more comfortable with words, I’ve often felt I’m at a disadvantage in the fashion world. I am a very visual person as well, but as you said, it’s near impossible to be great at both, and I almost wonder if I need to let go a little bit of my love for words to advance my visual literacy. What do you think?

  2. Hi Sarah, thanks for the comment, I’m honoured that you love my blog! It often seems like people who think in pictures and people who think in words are often at an impasse when it comes to making conversation. I think it’s best to try and develop both types of intelligence, and to try and have some empathy for those who think differently than you do, and why sometimes they behave in ways that you don’t understand.

    As someone who thinks in words, I sometimes find it a bit strange that my career should be so visual – but in a way, it makes sense that monetizing images in fashion is far easier to do than monetizing words. For example, one of the reasons my business is successful (such as it is) is because I have such a word-heavy website that ranks so highly for so many search terms.

    I don’t think you have to – or can – choose visual or verbal intelligence – to a large extent, you just have whatever fate gave you. However, having a rare skill with words in a visual industry can be a significant career advantage, especially as we all live under lord Google now.

  3. I was coming here to leave a comment that echoes exactly what Sarah said! I love this post Danielle, as it touches on what I’ve come to realize as I move through fashion school. My background is in journalism — hard news, breaking down facts and data. I did that for pretty much a decade before I enrolled in graduate school. Now I’m in my second year, and as I watch my friends discover their individual aesthetics, I wonder if my visual intelligence is up to par. My strength so far (I believe) has been communication — connecting people, describing ideas, retaining and relating information — but how much does that help when you’re trying to develop images, you know?

    I love coming to your blog and seeing that you’ve written about things that have been bouncing through my mind. I think the key is just what you said to Sarah, trying to develop whatever fate gave you. I’m both excited and terrified to see what awaits me when I actually start working in the industry.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Danielle. Veronica, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone! 🙂

    It’s frustrating when one’s passions and natural abilities don’t fully line up. Given my natural abilities, I know that I can only push so far, but I still don’t know if I have enough aptitude with images for it be more fulfilling to keep going down that road, or if I should accept that I’m better with words and switch to that. I feel torn either way, and so at the moment I’m kind of going down both paths until I figure out which one is best for me. Not an ideal solution, but it feels defeatist to just throw my hands up to fate rather than try and make my own.

    It’s a hard pill for me to swallow to hear that you can’t do much to change what you were born with. I don’t want to accept that, but maybe I should b/c my life would be a lot easier for it. Then again, Pressfield’s “War of Art” is coming to mind now, which says to keep pursuing what scares the shit out of you most, b/c according to him, that’s where your true calling lies. If you’ve read that book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Sorry didn’t mean to turn this into a therapy session 🙂

  5. Sorry for the slow reply!

    Veronica – thanks for your comment!

    Sarah – I’m not totally on board with what Pressfield says… I think perhaps in terms of content, it makes sense to approach what strikes some fear into you, because that’s where the real heartfelt truth lies. But in terms of delivery – pictures or words or music or whatever, I think you just need to use whatever tools come naturally and feel good to use – play to your strengths so you can deliver your story with as much sophistication and grace as you possibly can.

    Put energy into whatever it is that you already do well and enjoy, and you’ll do incredible genius expert things! Put energy into a medium that you struggle with and find discouraging, and you’ll only achieve competence, at best.

    That last thought owes a hat tip to Danielle LaPorte:

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