Essay: The Cold War of Fashion

by Anders Christian Madsen on 15 November 2012

In the wake of a season where relations between press and PRs stole the show, Anders Christian Madsen unpicks the public relations power maze.

In the wake of a season where relations between press and PRs stole the show, Anders Christian Madsen unpicks the public relations power maze.

When the womenswear collections of Spring/Summer 2013 go down in the annals of fashion it will be as The Beautiful Fall 2.0: the digital drama edition. Like a salacious reboot of the intrigue of days gone by, two old houses and their media-proclaimed designer rivals supposedly went head-to-head in a ready-to-wear show-off of proportions that put Project Runway to shame. And in the vein of all other contemporary reboots, this one was loaded with a different level of sensationalism, which only the collision between the two most defensively well-oiled machines in fashion could orchestrate: the press and the PRs. What began as a highly anticipated season, which would see Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane re-invent Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent respectively, ended in a digital feud between Slimane and The New York Times’ Cathy Horyn, a wave of attacks on the YSL PR team, and an industry discussion about the role of public relations in fashion.

Perhaps we should have acknowledged an early omen of this full moon of fashion when French stylist Jennifer Eymere bitch-slapped HL Group cofounder Lynn Tesoro at the Zac Posen show in New York, because Tesoro couldn’t find Eymere’s mother a seat. 'Now you know you don't fuck with French people,' Eymere commented to WWD in a candid interview, which will hardly serve to her advantage in Tesoro’s impending $1-million-dollar lawsuit against her for ‘assault, battery, emotional distress, slander and/or libel’. But in the cold war between press and PR – which some would argue has been looming for years – the dispute between Eymere and Tesoro seemed like a silly fight in the sandbox compared to what ensued on the continent, even if Slimane’s public exchanges with Horyn and the exposé-style columns and open letters aimed at the YSL PR team that followed the Saint Laurent show were merely wars of words.

Fashion houses have been navigating the PR maze since the dawn of time. For decades, houses and their PRs have denied collection-slanting critics and other misbehaving members of the press access to their shows and collections, while the press has retaliated with either critique by exclusion or further literary criticism. In 2008, Hadley Freeman wrote about the industry’s banning system in a story for The Guardian, which revealed how Cathy Horyn had been banned from shows by Dolce & Gabbana, Helmut Lang, Carolina Herrera, and Armani as a result of snarky reviews. The latter banned Colin McDowell, who has previously admitted to suffering the same fate at Balenciaga – the house that also briefly banned Charlie Porter during his time at The Guardian. Suzy Menkes suffered a multiple-season Versace ban as well as a daylong stamp of critic non grata at all LVMH shows, while Freeman herself was banned from Paul Smith and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Sensitive designers and protective PRs have been around for as long as the mischievous critics they’ve so valiantly tried to silence. And while bans and power battles have been recurring features in the daily run of the industry, there seems to have existed an unwritten law in the past that the juicy details of these sorts of matters remained between the PR and the journalist involved. But with the sweeping invasion of independent websites and social media, houses are now faced with a somewhat paradoxical predicament. In a world where gloves are off and old codes of conducts are ignored, a private disagreement between a member of the press and a PR – the initial foundation of which was to prevent bad press – can now be turned into digital front page news, should the reporter choose to expose it online. And because nature has instilled the basic instinct in PRs to always protect their clients from looming danger, it is now the designers who are confronted with a question as crucial to their reputations as the consistent quality of their collections: how controlling do you want your PR to be?

A fashion writer should always fly the flag of freedom of thought. But you can’t pull the journalistic integrity card one day, and ask for free shoes the next.

Not unlike certain larger-than-life performers, outside the runway designers have never shied away from using cleverly orchestrated PR to stage themselves as intriguing characters. From those who rarely give interviews – Ralph Lauren, Miuccia Prada, Sarah Burton, Tomas Maier and the like – to a designer like Martin Margiela, who never showed his face while creative director at his Maison and employed an email-interviews-only policy where questions were answered in ‘we’, a little reticence goes a long way in the mystery and hype departments. In the later stages of his life, Yves Saint Laurent would do interviews via fax machine, complete with handwritten answers. Similarly, it’s thought that the current master of his house, Hedi Slimane, will mainly be doing his via email in the future. While this kind of limited access to designers is the source of endless deep breaths for most features editors in the world, it’s probably a blessing in disguise for an industry that quickly – and frequently – ODs on itself.

On the other hand, the need for PRs to control interviews often seems a little overdramatic, if not entirely pointless. The intention may be to uphold a designer’s image, but if you’ve made it as far as being face-to-face with him in an interview, he can probably fend for himself. And regardless, as much as we try, fashion journalism is hardly the hard-hitting, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, CNN-style reportage it’s made out to be. In other words, few of us are out to get the designers, and – bar a few agitators – most of us just want to get a quote that’s not the same old media-trained yip-yap that’s already been reeled off in fifty other interviews. If a member of the press is treated with just the slightest inch of trust, chances are the end result will be a lot more praising of the designer altogether. This, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for a dig at the PRs in the industry, who are only doing their jobs. Rather, it is an olive branch of sorts to the designers of the world, who hold the key to directing the degree of control employed by their PRs.

From observing independent houses such as Dries Van Noten where a kind but firm type of PR is practised to perfection, it’s evident just how painless it is to create a positive balance in the game of give and take between press and PR. You would have to search long for a piece of negative press about Dries Van Noten, but that doesn’t mean the house doesn’t still hold the same kind of exclusivity as its peers. Sadly, Dries Van Noten is a rare example of sanity in the exclusivity circus of fashion. For every season that passes, it appears the level of exclusivity can’t seem to get high enough. If houses keep inviting fewer guests to the shows and putting them in seats they aren’t used to whilst maintaining a controlling approach to PR in general, tension will inevitably arise. Because when all is said and done, exclusivity makes people nervous, and nervous press usually equals nasty press.

In a fashion world controlled by PR, it is up to the individual editor how much or how little control they’re willing to let the designers have over their work. If the media in which you publish your work allows it, a fashion writer should always fly the flag of freedom of thought. But you can’t pull the journalistic integrity card one day, and ask for free shoes the next. The idea of the fashion critic as an almighty force of judgment, who waltzes in to a show and gives a sweeping verdict that determines the designer’s future forever after is no longer a reality, nor is it a particularly supportive contribution to our industry on the whole. And before the press acknowledges this fact, we can’t really expect our PR colleagues to do so. By continuing the rope-pulling contest of power with the PR machine and relentlessly riding our high horse of press prominence, the press is adding water to a mud fight that’ll only keep getting messier.



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