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Finally, an Unfiltered Conversation on Fashion's Gatekeeping Issue

  • Words: Christopher Morency

In this first installment of Highsnobiety’s two-part FRONTPAGE on the changing nature of fashion gatekeeping, we speak with three industry insiders who (through humor and an open dialogue) have built up fast-growing digital communities of their own, outside the traditional model of the elite fashion world.

Earlier this year, writer and Highsnobiety contributor Eugene Rabkin dissected what it’s really like to work in the fashion industry, the good and the bad. In the brutally honest essay Read This Before You Decide To Work in Fashion, he writes about the industry keeping its grip on its hierarchy as tightly as an aristocracy that knows its hegemony is temporary.

“Fashion has always been the great illusion maker. It ostensibly champions democratization while trading on exclusivity. It nods enthusiastically to demands for inclusivity with token gestures,” he writes. “Fashion gatekeepers keep the gates tightly shut, promulgating the you-can’t-sit-with-us mindset. It does its best to maintain the status quo.”

As Rabkin notes, however, a growing contingent of those entering the industry are realizing that they “cannot depend on the existing power structures of glossy magazines, fashion councils, and conglomerates, and have formed their own networks, at times with great success.”

Yet how much does the fashion establishment really care about changing the structures that have kept the power in the hands of the same people for so long? How much will it fall when those who are denied a seat at the table create a table of their own? Are most traditional luxury brands already playing catch-up with their younger counterparts? And, most importantly — what needs to change in terms of who is let into the room, and for whom it’s time to go? We dive into these layered topics in the discussion below:

THE PANEL

Louis Pisano, Writer and Critic | @louispisano

"I didn’t get into fashion media intentionally. It was around 2010, with the start of Twitter. I had just moved to Europe and I wanted to work in fashion. I was going to Milan all the time and seeing all these people, and I just started tweeting everything I was observing into the void of god knows who. As time went on, it turned into this space where people really wanted to be unfiltered and behind the scenes. People at different online magazines started to offer me to write pieces about what it was like to be behind the scenes; I just sort of fell into it."

Brenda Weischer, Founder of Disruptive Berlin | @brendahashtag

"I was in PR for a little bit. I worked for PR Consulting in New York and then decided instead of kissing the editors’ asses, how about I start writing? I applied to Central Saint Martin’s [in London] to do my Masters in journalism; [then] I realized you can't really make much money, so I wanted to stay freelance. I am now the founder of vintage archive Disruptive Berlin. I was never on Twitter; I was more of a Tumblr person. That switched over to Instagram at some point. I sell vintage clothing, so I'm a bit removed, but all of my friends work in fashion, so it was an everyday topic — what goes on behind the scenes. I'm frustrated that not many people are opinionated in the public eye, but are in their private life."

Hanan Besovic, Commentator | @ideservecouture

"I grew up in Croatia and studied management, small business, and hospitality. When I moved to the United States, I started working in a hotel. [Then] the pandemic hit, and I turned to Instagram and fashion. I started posting stuff on my personal account, [with followers like] my aunt who doesn't know what Givenchy is. So I'm like, 'Okay, this is a completely wrong demographic. I need to create something new.' That’s when I started @ideservecouture. I used memes as my main medium, just because I can reach more people with them. Plus, to be honest, I want to make people laugh, and I want to piss off a couple of people, also."

THE CHAT

Christopher Morency: Welcome all. To start, I want to hear how you see the fashion industry being reported on today, and what role fashion critique plays. Now that brands have decided to open their doors with livestreams, the audience can make up their minds on a collection immediately. do we still need traditional fashion commentating by big magazines and editors?

Brenda Weischer: I think, besides us, not everyone is as opinionated. People want to be told what to say. They want someone else's opinions to look up to and shape their own opinion. Even with TikTok, for example, the first thing I do is go to the comment section, to know what everyone else is thinking. So there's definitely a need for some kind of review. But I agree with you, Chris, I don't really read anything anymore, besides what my friends write. Then on TikTok, there are these 19-year-old fashion students who are doing these reviews, and I keep thinking, “What the fuck are you talking about?” But [on the flipside], you have these [traditional media] reviews where even I, with the same press release and professional knowledge, don’t know what they’re talking about; you’re made to feel stupid. Like, I don’t know this poem you’re referencing. And there’s not much in between — until the last six months. So I think the need for reviews is there, but what’s in mainstream media doesn’t feel authentic at all, especially when you know they’re talking about an advertiser.

Hanan Besovic: Brenda, you’re completely right about the two extremes of reviews. What I’m missing is the critical part. What I’ve learned since doing this is that fashion is very much oriented. It’s okay to praise, but it’s never okay to criticize. And that’s just wrong. When I criticize, I never try to be mean about it. It’s just my opinion. If you're going to get offended by an opinion, that’s 100 percent on you. For example, the other day there was one designer who's been following me for a while; I reviewed his show and I was super positive, but I said he needed to edit, as it looked too busy. The next thing I knew, he unfollowed me. I think the honest criticism [today] is on social media. The praise is on Vogue Runway, because at the end of the day, that’s what [the brands] are paying for. I also think this certain generation of fashion journalists take themselves too seriously.

People want to be told what to say. They want someone else’s opinions to look up to and shape their own opinion.

Brenda Weischer

Weischer: It’s so highbrow now. There’s no fun in anything.

Besovic: Exactly. That’s why I like what’s happening on Instagram with people that do the same kind of thing we do. Let’s just have fun. I know it sounds infantile, but at the end of the day, it’s just clothes.

Louis Pisano: People are going to either buy it or not. They’re not going to not buy it because we made a meme about it or because we said we didn’t like this or that piece.

Morency: Does fashion critique even matter today, regardless of whether it’s written by editors or reviewers on Instagram and TikTok?

Besovic: It depends on who you ask. I think the stupidest thing a designer can do is surround themselves with “yes” people. And that's why, at the core of fashion, you can’t say you don’t like something or something isn’t good. That just doesn’t fly very well. As long as you’re making money, who cares? Have fun with it. You should be happy that people are talking about you. I secretly feel that [Dior’s] Maria Grazia Chiuri loves it when we talk shit about her.

Weischer: Louis, you were very humble to say it doesn't really make a difference to their pay check, but I think it does, at least for my audience. If I really were to continuously talk about someone, it does make a difference, because a lot of people want to be told what's cool and what isn't. There are opinions of taste-makers that at some point do trickle either up or down.

It’s okay to praise, but it’s never okay to criticize. And that’s just wrong. When I criticize, I never try to be mean about it. It’s just my opinion.

Hanan Besovic

Morency: So, what’s changed? Why is this clash between old and new critiquing happening?

Besovic: When you criticize stuff, there is so much more to take into consideration. Before it was just clothes; now, we're critiquing the full company and the decisions that they make. I always say that if you make smart decisions, you’re not going to get criticized. It’s your fault if you fuck up. For example, when it came to Chanel and the Michel Gaubert thing happened with “Wuhan girls,” the brand said they accepted his apology — it’s not your apology to accept.

Morency: I’ve written a bit about brand universes, and how these days it’s about everything from the soundtrack to who is at an event or show to what’s happening outside. Not just the clothing. Brands are still getting used to being critiqued about these other things, outside of fashion. Do you think they want to genuinely listen and evolve when it comes to these things?

Besovic: I really do think as “the chosen,” they cannot shape the narrative that they want, because there's so many other people talking about it all the time. But the scandals change things.

Weischer: Yeah. It's either if their money is at risk, or if there’s public pressure. I don't think there's anything else. Change from within — I don't think that's possible, at this point. I mean, maybe I'm too negative, but I really think these kinds of scandals have a huge effect.

Pisano: I agree. Public perception turns into money.

There’s an extent to how much critique and how much of a voice you’re allowed to have within the industry, especially for new voices.

Louis Pisano

Morency: So, who can still shift the public perception of brands? Is it still the legacy titles, critics, and editors? Or is it the digitally native generation of commentators and writers, who are a lot more honest and open towards each other’s presence? Or is it even the general public?

Pisano: It’s whoever can make the biggest mess for a brand.

Weischer: I agree – whoever creates the biggest mess. And not in a vicious way, just whoever has a platform and is willing to speak out. But then there are a lot of people with a platform who still have to make money from brands. I find it sad when you speak out about something and the people in your DMs agree, yet they’re still posting [positive] images of them being at the show. That’s frustrating.

Pisano: I can attend a show and just be there and not really post an opinion or anything if the brand wants to invite me. [Now] if you want to pay me for something, we're going to discuss how I'm going to be my authentic self and still partner with you. But I'm not going to publicly praise a brand and then privately [talk negatively about it].

Morency: When it comes to brands opening their door more, to not just invite editors and buyers, do you see more openness in the industry? Or does it keep its nepotistic and gatekeeping reputation?

Pisano: I think it’s a marketing toy. I'm just looking at it as a whole; allowing you to have a voice and work with you only goes so far. There's an extent to how much critique and how much of a voice you're allowed to have within the industry, especially for new voices. I'm the only one out of all of you that Valentino doesn't work with, for example, as I’ve criticized a lot of decisions that Valentino has made, before it was cool and trendy to be diverse. I think the way you do it [Hanan] is genius, because it’s funny and not too vicious. But I can only go so far with humor until I’m genuinely pissed off. And when it loses that sort of funny viral entertainment value for the brand, it’s a no. And that gets you blacklisted. Brands don't like [when] they can't really control you.

I’m aware that we’re slowly closing the doors on ourselves when we criticize somebody, and I think that we’re fine with that, because all of us here want the best for fashion and its future.

Hanan Besovic

Besovic: I 100 percent get what you’re saying, Louis. I hope that my message still gets across with humor, and that people start to talk about [issues]. I’m aware that we’re slowly closing the doors on ourselves when we criticize somebody, and I think that we’re fine with that, because all of us here want the best for fashion and its future.

Morency: In my opinion, the fashion industry still loves the traditional system of building up certain people by allowing the chosen ones into this traditional sequence of gatekeeping steps. The lucky few go to a prestigious fashion school, you get big internships, you get scouted, you enter these incubator programs after which you get the same press coverage, the same stores buy your clothes, and you are the new fashion darling until the next one comes around. What challenges do you see with that system?

Besovic: I will never praise and acknowledge someone who came up through nepotism. I will never praise these people the same way that I am praising, let’s say, a Thebe Magugu, who I think is amazing because he gives me a story, trauma, and beauty, which he puts into the clothes. Your work should speak for itself.

I’m more excited that the voices are changing. I’m excited to see other people’s opinions and not always having the same people in the room.

Brenda Weischer

Morency: But what’s going to shift the industry’s mindset to start thinking this way?

Pisano: Maybe it sounds too pessimistic, but I don’t think that it’s going to change, because we live in such a celebrity-driven culture where fashion has become pay-to-play. Regardless if we think someone like Lila Moss is an adequate model, she still has the last name that will draw in that star power, regardless of whether she executes the walking part of the assignment — she executes the celebrity part of the assignment.

Weischer: Yes, and a magazine no longer sells without a celebrity on the cover. And, to touch back on the university thing — whenever I tell an editor where I study, within a second I get the nod of approval, which is insane, as I don’t know anyone there anymore and was at [Central Saint Martins] for like a year. I remember when people from LVMH came to visit the design studios and would be like, “Okay, we want you for this brand, you for that brand.” Same with magazines. You didn’t even have to apply anywhere.

Morency: To round things off, what brands do it well and do things differently? Who do you get excited about?

Pisano: Telfar, 100 percent. I’m so disappointed that the Telfar x Gap collection didn’t pan out. Then also LaQuan Smith; I’m waiting for him to have that big house moment, because he deserves it.

Besovic: Thebe [Magugu] steals my heart. I’m always excited about Peter Do, because it’s interesting and new. And Schiaparelli.

Weischer: I’m more excited that the voices are changing. I’m excited to see other people’s opinions and not always having the same people in the room. I’m generally excited for anything that’s changing.

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