A Critical Profile, runway Sept. 2010.
I’ll never forget the first time I read the fresh, and at times pugnacious, work of Cathy Horyn. I was a freshman in high school. Horyn had just won the 2002 Eugenia Sheppard Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) for an article in which she fearlessly exposed the business dealings of the untouchable Anna Wintour, Editor in Chief at Vogue USA. As a devoted member of the Vogue audience, I was appalled– and impressed. Horyn taught me, at fifteen, to look deeper. This moment spawned a love affair with the “Sunday Styles” section in the The New York Times, and a close read of Horyn’s “On the Runway” column every week. I didn’t always agree with her analysis, but she taught me use her column as a way of analyzing my own response.
As the in-house fashion critic at the Times since 1998, Horyn has provided an uncompromised voice for her readers, as she isn’t afraid of the influential fashion magazines or of powerful designers. She is both accessible and smart, even though her fearlessness often incites backlash from the fashion industry. Her coverage of this year’s Spring 2011 New York and Paris Fashion Weeks was consistent with her outspoken style, as she continued to position herself somewhere in between the old-guard high-fashion fashion and the business and technology-driven, increasingly attainable new face of the industry. She channels this conflict through her writing in both content and style, placing the concrete world of fashion into a broader context, and reminding us that fashion depicts the times we live in. She expects that in a recession the styles are often practical and modest, and as the industry becomes more money-driven and not creativity-based, Horyn guides us through the change but is not afraid to condemn it.
While many fashion critics get carried away with the technical, Horyn focuses instead on vivid description of the garments, shows and personalities. She is in love with clothes and with craft, but she maintains a certain distance, especially with her critiques of collections. In her column, she reveals her personality with anecdotes and colloquial language more often, appearing as one of fashion’s biggest fans, writing from within the audience. She manages to keep her authority while being immersed in the fashion world effortlessly through her language: never condescending to the audience, though sometimes to her subject. She never loses her personal voice, whether the review is praise or a takedown, Cathy speaks as Cathy, and the reader gets to know her well.
The “On the Runway” column is a good example of how Horyn presents her persona. She speaks in the first person and conversationally. When referring to the lack of spring clothing in the spring collections, she casually says, “I bet we’ve seen more leather motorcycle jackets than bikinis. (In fact, where are those bathing suits and caftans?)” Her form of criticism here, as we see often, is to position herself on the same level as her reader, as if they were chatting about the collection in person. Though in a very different context, we see critics like John Berger do this very thing. In “The Hals Mystery,” Berger looks his reader in the eye, and helps explain his argument: “I am aware that I am failing to describe properly the desperation of the painting.” Similarly, Horyn frequently answers directly to her readers on her blog, making them feel like they are part of the conversation. Both critics for brief moments turn their attention directly to the audience. Horyn makes us feel comfortable and not as though she is writing from an elitist perspective that is often associated with high-fashion, but the confidence with which she writes makes us trust her authority.
When speaking of Horyn’s distinctive style, Berger again comes to mind. Their use of short but extremely descriptive sentences gives their arguments more weight, showing how simple writing and accessible language can evoke a clear visual. When Berger describes a painting, as he does beautifully in “The Hals Mystery,” he explains the visual in loving detail. Under Hals’ model, writes Berger, “There is no pillow. Her head, turned so as to watch the painter, is pillowed on her own two hands.” These short sentences and the word “pillowed” vividly sketch the figure in the mind of the reader. Horyn illustrates clothes with a similar precision. “Although Mr. Owens began his career making long skirts, and didn’t care if they dragged in the dirt,” she writes of designer Rick Owens’ spring collection, “his most interesting designs were short dresses or tunics with the hems folded under, pillow-style, and perhaps a similar fold or two at the back. He also made one-shoulder tunics the color of bleached bones, with pleats spilling across the front and an air of mastery.” The first part of this description, the image of skirts “dragging in dirt” and a designer who didn’t care, present the man as an effortless and casual craftsman, and her obligatory detailing of the construction of the clothes is scrupulous in creating a mental snapshot for her reader.
However, there are aspects of Horyn’s writing that one cannot compare with John Berger. She, at a certain point, is more current and controversial. This is the woman who dared to write an exposé on Wintour, and criticizes the all-powerful Vogue relentlessly. She called the influential magazine “stale and predictable” and labeled how the magazine dealt with the recession as “embarrassing” in an article in the Times last year. For her writing, Horyn has been banned from several designer shows, most notably Georgio Armani’s Fall 2009 show in Milan that she chronicled in her column. She is one of the most polarizing names in fashion journalism, and her takedowns are legendary. For the most part, Horyn thought this year’s New York Fashion Week (and largely Paris and Milan) to be either boring, unoriginal, or an excuse for young designers to “self-importantly present the trends– transparency, punk, bold stripes– while making overloaded assertions about the modern woman.” To say she was unmoved this season is also to say that the classic Cathy Horyn jabs at designers were fewer than normal, if you don’t consider boring to be a jab.
But then there was Alexander Wang. Wang was symbolically and artistically butchered in the review of his spring collection. To Horyn, Wang embodies all that is wrong with the new fashion world: the abandonment of creativity for sell-ability and even worse: lack of courage. To begin her siege, she states, “Even the most talented, surprising postmodernist designer can seem to have his feet planted in concrete compared to the weightlessness of Alexander Wang.” Ouch. She continues: “Mr. Wang doesn’t really have courage in the traditional sense of trying something new and difficult, but he does have China.” This is a direct criticism not just of Wang’s talent and originality, but also of the current trend in fashion where couture is devalued in the name of mass production. Her attack brings to mind art critic Robert Hughes’ attack on Basquiat shortly after the graffiti artist’s death.
“It was a tale of a small untrained talent caught in the buzz saw of art-world promotion, absurdly overrated by dealers, collectors, critics and, not least, himself,” says Hughes. Hughes’ dismissive and at times scathing portrayal of Basquiat echoes Horyn; he is making a statement about the wider culture that would embrace an artist as Wang or Basquiat. “In a saner culture than this,” asserts Hughes, “the twenty-year-old Basquiat might have gone off to four years of boot camp in art school, learned some real drawing abilities (as distinct from the pseudo-convulsive notation that was his trademark) and, in general, acquired some of the disciplines and skills without which good art cannot be made. But these were the eighties; instead he became a star.” Wang is weightless, Basquiat is pseudo-convulsive; both men are of small talent and supremely overrated by the culture. “But don’t fret for the 26-year-old Mr. Wang,” concludes Horyn, “the combined whiplash of globalization and the Internet all but guarantees that these clothes will look new to someone.” Both critics end their sweeping attacks with thinly veiled sarcasm and snark; a final twist of the knife. It is in this setting that she uses her most authoritarian voice. The merits of Wang and his clothing are not in up for debate; they are universally bad.
With these eloquent diatribes, we see what is important to a critic, and what they do want from their subjects. This season, while Horyn wasn’t enamored with very many collections, she was bored to tears by many, offended by the default tackiness and lack of vision of some and pleased with the crisp and calm consistency of others. It was during the end of Paris Fashion Week, the last of the shows in the west, where she found something she could connect with: risk, color and camp. The European shows, to Horyn, were like a “decent enough party that suddenly got better when a couple of drag queens crashed it.” She was referring specifically to the shows of Miu Miu and Luis Vuitton, headed by Miuccia Prada and Marc Jacobs, both known in the fashion world for indulging the cult of celebrity, which Horyn normally abhors. “The kind of artificiality in taste and self-presentation that Susan Sontag described nearly 50 years ago in ‘Notes on Camp,’” writes Horyn, “gave the collections a last-minute jolt of adrenaline.” She clarifies why this was so refreshing. To her, the campiness of Vuitton and Miu Miu were needed in a season that took no risks. In her critique of Valentino we see her aversion to cautiousness: “too proper and self-conscious of their presence in fashion magazines to risk freaking anyone out.” Horyn wants to be freaked out now and then, to see something different, to see someone celebrate their craft, not simply to go through the motions.
Miu Miu especially excited Horyn. We understand exactly what she means when she said that Prada “sees what we see when we watch the reality-and talent-show stars, the game gate-crashers. She feels our pain – and celebrates it.” To Horyn, this paints a better picture of the times we live in than trying to show the economy of clothes that are still out of reach of even the more-than-well-off consumer. Prada took the opportunity to “seize on a noisiness that has been tugging at the margins.” With words like “freak out” and “noise,” Horyn is trying to tell us something that since the 1960s, and often before, cultural critics tried to get across in their work. They wanted to extract feelings, enthusiasm and life from the art. In the beginning of “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Pauline Kael tries to explain why she loves the cinema. “A good movie makes you feel alive again,” she says. Greil Marcus writes about the freedom in the sound of Sly Stone in “Sly Stone: The Myth of Staggerlee”: “it was complex, because freedom is complex; wild and anarchic, like the wish for freedom; sympathetic, affectionate, and coherent, like the reality of freedom. And it was all celebration, all affirmation, a music of endless humor and delight, like a fantasy of freedom.” The many different feelings that Marcus finds in Stone’s music is what Kael looks for in movies and what Horyn looks for in garments. The art makes you talk (according to Kael, about the bad more than the good) and connect with others. These critics are fans. They feel the art that they write about and want to be challenged by it.
For Horyn, this year seemed to be about something bigger. Fashion Week in New York moved from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center, but the move was mainly symbolic. The industry, though one of constant flux, is undergoing a more massive transformation brought about largely by the Internet and online shopping, the mass production of goods and a priority placed on business over experience. The Lincoln Center tents had a Starbucks café and a blogging station. There were large monitors that checked in guests electronically– a far cry from the handwritten invitations of the past– that brought to mind an airport. “There’s a real sense of displacement,” writes an anxious Horyn, “but that seems to go with the new territory of fashion.” Her skepticism of the corporate takeover and popularization of high fashion has nothing to do with elitism. For Horyn, it compromises the things that make her love fashion: the craft, the beauty and the feeling one gets when one sees something totally new. She has also been very vocal about her disapproval of Fashion’s Night Out, a big money maker for magazines but not for designers. She is fashion’s biggest fan, a champion of the art form, even if she can’t stand half of what she sees.
Good criticism speaks to the broader story, and the changing landscape of fashion has been Horyn’s chief concern since she started at the Times. At fifteen, Horyn taught me to make my own arguments, and though of course I was excited to read her banishment of Alexander Wang into the middlebrow, I know that if I disagreed it would start an inner discussion about why I felt this way. Her gift as a critic is that she is approachable, even in an industry focused on exclusivity. To be sure, her exposé on Anna Wintour and her all-consuming influence on the direction of the industry (it was her idea to move to Lincoln Center) did nothing to change the pace of the transformation. What it did do, however, was to make her audience of devotees and detractors alike question what it is they love about fashion.