What constitutes a good and bad fashion collection? Isn’t fashion subjective? Why is one person’s opinion worth more than another’s? These are all simple questions with complex answers. A “good” fashion collection can come down to a number of factors: technique, colour, consistency of ideas, and, perhaps most important of all, whether it has potential in a retail environment. A “bad” fashion collection, it appears, is one in which the construction looks poor, the materials cheap, the styling sloppy. The most telling sign that a collection is bad is if the designer’s luxury version looks alarmingly similar to something that can be found on the racks at Topshop or H&M. The industry gave a collective side-eye to Hedi Slimane when he presented his debut collection for Saint Laurent last year.
As my WordPress readers are aware, every season I do short runway reviews of all the major collections from New York, London, Milan and Paris, including menswear and haute couture collections. I harbour a lot of frustration and grief over the direction that some designers have chosen to take, and as someone who expresses himself best in writing, there is something so cathartic about being able to insult designers on your own blog. Nonetheless, this season I decided that my energy and time could be better spent on more substantial posts (but it was fun while it lasted). I won’t pretend that I’m the next Tim Blanks or Cathy Horyn—my reviews are scant and superficial in comparison—but through reading others’ reviews I have developed a keener understanding of good taste and bad taste.
With any kind of criticism there’s an element of bias that must be considered. Cathy Horyn appreciates comfort over artistic concept; Tim Blanks has a penchant for looking at the cultural layers within a collection; others, like buyers for Saks and Barneys, take a more pragmatic approach and think of the clothes in numerical terms. How many times have you looked at a collection and fallen in love, only to witness a critic calling it trash later on? If you’re anything like me (who happens to hate just about everything), the reverse scenario is far more likely: you see a collection that looks like it was designed by a 3-year-old, styled by a monkey, yet somehow has everyone gushing about how “powerful” and “directional” it was.
But taste is more than just a matter of preference among scattered individuals. Fashion is a world of reflection and imitation, and taste is fashion’s primary currency. Anna Wintour promises her readers good taste in exchange for their paying subscriptions to Vogue; designers, in exchange for buying $4000 beaded cocktail dresses over something from Target, and so on. It’s a struggle for control and authority, and fashion critics strategise in order to prove why their opinion is worth more than yours—the consumer. A fashion critic, by virtue of working in such an exclusive world with an all-access pass to beautiful clothes and decadent parties, supposedly has good taste. You rely on their expertise to tell you what looks good. Fashion magazine editors are so confident in their taste that they will invent trends in order to compel you to spend, typically presented in a price spectrum that caters to the tasteless masses: “from luxe to less.”
The sociology of taste can be traced back to Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, originally published in French in 1979. In his seminal work Bourdieu attempted to expose the social logic of taste, encouraging us to look beyond simple circles of rich and poor to the everyday symbols that reinforce class: education, physical appearance, appreciation for cuisine, art, music, literature, and (surprise, surprise) fashion. He developed the theory of cultural capital, an umbrella term that describes the non-financial resources we employ to exert power and command in society. You only need to watch one episode of Gossip Girl to understand what I’m talking about. Focus specifically on how Dan Humphrey, the underdog from Brooklyn, uses education as a weapon, in the same way that his sister, Jenny, uses her social alliances to steal the throne from Queen Bee, Blair Waldorf. (Yes, that’s how the characters speak on the show.)
If you subscribe to Bourdieu’s theory of taste arising from our ability to mobilise cultural capital, you will see that the fashion industry already offers a number of interesting examples. In regard to whitewashed runways, André Leon Talley stated last year that designers can’t be racist because they are “world class, sophisticated people,” implying that racism (even in its most insidious forms) is a mark of those without class, without culture, without taste. In The September Issue, Anna Wintour famously said that people deride fashion because it makes them feel “nervous,” “excluded,” or “not part of the cool group,” suggesting that a certain level of taste is required in order to comprehend fashion in all its glory. Last year, Tim Blanks unsettled Jean Paul Gaultier when he called the designer’s decision to cast reality TV star Nabilla Benattia in his Fall 2013 couture show “down-market.” Miuccia Prada, universally lauded for her uber-intelligent, “ugly-chic” designs, has worked season after season to dispel the industry’s aversion to kitsch—who knew that flames and muscle cars and monkeys and bananas could have a place at Milan Fashion Week? And let’s not forget this whole drama surrounding Kim Kardashian’s rumoured Vogue cover. Anna Wintour’s decision to put Kardashian, a reality TV star, on the cover reminds me of a similar incident in 2006 when Paris Hilton landed the cover of Vogue Paris. People stormed the Internet to condemn Carine Roitfeld and vowed to boycott her magazine. It was madness.
Attempting to deconstruct hierarchies of taste in the fashion industry reminds people of the precariousness of their position. Fashion’s power figures enjoy being arbiters of style and taste, and fear that we—the unwashed masses—may wake up one day and be able to determine for ourselves what looks good. Still, I don’t necessarily think that fashion criticism is a bad thing in itself because I value the historical knowledge that writers bring into the conversation, even if I don’t agree with their overall observation. But now that I am aware of the social logic behind taste, and how closely taste is linked to cultural capital, I no longer have to wonder why these critics’ opinions differ so greatly from my own.
The next time you read a fashion review and find yourself disagreeing with the writer, just remember that their opinion is simply a projection of taste (if an “opinion” in the true sense of the word is still discernible once an article is processed through the editorial carwash). Knowledge and experience aside, a large part of fashion journalism is about influencing patterns of taste. There’s a certain cachet in saying that you work in fashion, and those who find themselves working in a superior industry try to justify it by pretending they are also superior in spirit. We all know by now that this is a hideous lie rooted in self-preservation, and Pierre Bourdieu spent much of his life trying to unmask the pretentions of the elite.
And you know what? I might just do that, too. It sounds like a lot of fun.