During fashion month, when every fashion site with a photo department publishes slideshow after slideshow of “street style,” in and around the tents, you pretty quickly note the recurring characters. There’s model-turned-blogger Hanneli Mustaparta, there’s accessory-obsessed Man Repeller, there’s Susie Bubble in artfully clashing everything and, of course, Bryan Boy. These and other superstar fashion bloggers are always outfitted in a morass of prints, wearing hot-off-the-runway statement shoes and toting the season’s most prominent It Bag. They always sit front row.
Although it’s pretty impressive when a blogger has much-coveted Alaia shoes or Margiela vests (especially when they haven’t even hit stores yet), what some readers may not realize is that the blogger in question probably didn’t pay for those things. Often times, gifts are sent personally by the design team, with a handwritten note.
Gifting, of course, is so common in fashion as to be part of the job (as Jennifer candidly and hilariously dissected recently). Still, sometimes the line between what’s a cool perk–free drinks at a glitzy event, goody bags, deep discounts–and what’s an integrity-polluting “gift” isn’t always clear. While many major online publications have simple rules in place to maintain the integrity of their editors (a common one is not to accept gifts worth more than $50), others consider these free-flowing samples as part of the salary.
Which brings us to our first point: the only high-profile person in the entire fashion industry with unimpeachable integrity, dignity, and decency is Bill Cunningham.
Our second point is that bigger sites usually have some regulatory apparatus in place to make sure editors aren’t just blogging about the brands that give them gifts.
…Our third point is that self-employed personal style bloggers have only themselves to regulate.
The initial problem presented by gifting is that it calls into question the (potentially stupid) nature of personal style blogging: is it really personal style you’re demonstrating, when covered in things you didn’t buy? Or find? Or choose? (Hence, “curated”) If the shoes are courtesy Alexander Wang, and the pajama pants courtesy Celine, and the top courtesy Miu Miu… how is a blogger any more than a paper doll with social media efficacy? (Sidenote: we propose a new name for the genre, “corporate style blogging”)
Next there’s the problem of wearing those clothes and speaking well of those brands in the hopes of keeping those freebies coming. The $2000 handbag is an obvious conflict of interest, but it gets even trickier when bloggers are then invited to the shows, ostensibly to review them. They are not critics, obviously, unless a critic’s job is to gush ad nauseum and a critic’s back is considered valuable ad space.
Which brings us to Robin Givhan, who dared to question industry titan Karl Lagerfeld in a piece on the Daily Beast entitled, “Is Chanel Designer Karl Lagerfeld Spread Too Thin?” (In our opinion, if the Fall 2012 show is to be believed: absolutely yes) Lagerfeld responded by saying he’s never heard of Givhan, which is fucking preposterous. The woman won a damn Pulitzer for her fashion writing. As a critic, Givhan is capable of providing genuine insight into the fashion industry, along with Cathy Horyn and Bridget Foley.
Unfortunately, even fashion critics must play an occasionally delicate game–unlike movie critics who can simply buy a ticket, fashion critics are at least somewhat beholden to the industry that (urgently) needs them: Givhan’s frank criticism of Lagerfeld cost her a front row seat at the Chanel show this past week in Paris. If Lagerfeld can’t handle criticism, that’s embarrassing for him, but this is nothing new: Cathy Horyn was also famously banned from Armani for “sarcastic” remarks, writing, “The subject of banning journalists from fashion shows seems as quaint as the practice itself, neither a commendation to the industry nor a badge of honor to the critic. Indeed, fashion is the only creative field that attempts to bar the news media.”
Which reminds us: maybe you remember when Lady Gaga, filing a piece for V, made a complete ass of herself by suggesting Cathy Horyn didn’t know what she was talking about? Gaga tried to say that Horyn was hardened in her opinions and content to be acerbic, implying that she’d become irrelevant in a post-Tavi fashion industry. Although we think Tavi is great, she’s no Cathy Horyn.
We’re certainly not in a line of work to assume that all bloggers are incapable of good fashion criticism, but we are in a place to question the integrity of so-called style experts whose opinions are padded with expensive bags. Moreover, we’re shocked by the amount of people who read these blogs and don’t operate on the assumption that placement has been paid for (in some capacity).
Givhan told the Toronto Star last week that bloggers “are too cozy with the designers on whom they report,” adding that the work of a critic is much more than simply loving or hating a collection: “You’ve got to explain your thinking–how you got there. Criticism is not personal opinion. At its best it’s opinion based on a set of facts that are set in context. I’ve seen shows that I’ve loved but I knew that critically they were not great. And vice versa.”
As far as labels are concerned, if critics can’t be expected to mindlessly praise a collection, then bloggers provide a unique loophole: their vestige of DIY credibility conceals the corporate hand at work. High profile bloggers are essentially covert advertising tools, which may have a lot to do with their sudden rise to prominence (and the internet is the wave of the future and all, etc). “It” bags and “it” shoes–oftentimes the bread and butter of a brand–can be created practically overnight if photographed on the right bloggers.
Although the insidious influence of gifting can be assuaged somewhat by transparency (a simple “skirt courtesy whoever” is common but not standard), style bloggers and designer labels have developed a grossly symbiotic relationship: the bloggers get free shit and front row seats at Altuzarra, for example, then gush about the experience and all the famous cheeks they kissed on their blogs… the fawning coverage ensures their placement at the following season’s show, which keeps their profile high and the traffic coming to their blogs. Is BryanBoy going to give Marc Jacobs a bad review if his front row seat and free namesake bags depend on it? Especially if his own status is, in turn, determined by that front row? The answer is of course not.
But! It’s obvious that most personal style bloggers have no integrity (and plenty of people besides Givhan have noticed). The real question here is: do you care? Does it affect your pageviews if all those neon belts and quilted bags are calculated placement? We know this fact still surprises people (while many commenters on these blogs remain blissfully unaware) but, we’re curious, does it matter at all?
Moreover: when legitimate magazine editors regularly tweet their appreciation for gifts, why call out bloggers for being that much more unapologetic about it? Isn’t criticizing the absence of ethics in the fashion industry comically pointless? Hasn’t street style eroded its own value by photographing the marginally famous regardless of what they’re wearing?
Join us next week, as we sort out all of these problems and resort to drinking.