- Today, social networks are putting pressure on fashion media to support more critical perspectives.
- Vogue.com’s show reviews read more like press releases than they do honest interpretations of the catwalk, and it’s rare to find any critical fashion journalism on the pages of popular magazines.
- It’s not only publications that are losing their edge in the age of sponsored content. In fact, it’s in the interest of brands themselves to lead the shift toward more critical coverage of their legacy.
I’m not the most optimistic person when it comes to cultural production in the click-centric present. A lot of my writing has to do with the chokehold that social media has on creativity, whether that be the monotony of fashion collections as the result of attention-based algorithms, or the tired trends that proliferate thanks to our subconscious desires to fit in with online crowds. But lately, I've been hopeful about one thing: the pressure that social networks are putting on fashion media to support more critical perspectives.
Most mainstream fashion publications are reliant on funding from advertisers, and subsequently pander to their needs. That’s why vogue.com’s show reviews read more like press releases than they do honest interpretations of the catwalk, and why it’s rare to find any critical fashion journalism on the pages of popular magazines. But with the rise of armchair critics on platforms like Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, and now TikTok and Substack, it’s no longer only advertisers and editors dictating the discourse around today’s trends. With tastemakers learning to rely on TikTok patronage and Substack subscriptions instead of paychecks from publications, fashion criticism is back in style.
Menswear magazines like Highsnobiety and GQ already appear to be more liberal when it comes to criticism (this is likely because they are less reliant on traditional high fashion advertisers, and more on ubiquitous brands like Nike), while smaller independently-funded publications like Vestoj and Viscose offer an unfiltered academic perspective on the industry as a whole (though they tend to pay poorly, if at all). Mainstream magazine editors know this, yet many seem to be doubling-down on their position. Not only do the biggest fashion publications continue to push tepid profiles and overzealous show reviews, but they’ve also begun pandering to the past to obfuscate their waning power in the present. For example, Vogue’s lauded In Vogue podcast highlights the storied history of the magazine at the expense of a more critical interpretation of fashion phenomena in the early aughts (the first season In the 90s, was more informative).
But highlighting one’s past cultural relevance isn’t enough to bolster one’s influence in the present, particularly at a time when novice fashion historians on platforms like TikTok provide evermore accessible content. What’s more, it’s not only publications that are losing their edge in the age of sponsored content. In fact, it’s in the interest of brands themselves to lead the shift toward more critical coverage of their legacy. That’s why Gucci has bankrolled a film that dives into the house’s troubled past, and why fashion nerds are so into Balenciaga’s tongue-in-cheek marketing. In an era when fashion has become a form of entertainment not unlike sports, consumers are not only invested in trends, but also how they reflect the cultural landscape, past and present. Put simply: shoppers want stories, and in the age of social media—when outrage equals attention, brands are expected to broadcast their highs and lows, otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant.
Of course, this also creates a conundrum for cultural critics like me. When pettiness promotes posts, there’s pressure to acquiesce to performative outrage. This is best demonstrated by unknowing TikTokers who bemoan Balenciaga’s weird Instagram posts and Fortnite collaborations while bolstering the brand’s influence. But it’s also proliferated by more established critics, who know that angry pull quotes can earn them more attention, more followers, and thus more jobs. In the end, it’s the platforms that win (the more clicks, the more advertiser money), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for more nuanced forms of cultural criticism in the future.
Recently, I was hired to write a few sponsored articles. The editors who commissioned me were interested in my work, and the reactions that it generates, yet the sponsors were unwilling to accommodate a critical lens (post-edit the texts were stripped of any discursive elements). What this tells me is that there's a desire for more discourse within paid content, but brands and ad executives are leery of change. Unfortunately for them, cultural production is no longer solely reliant on traditional corporate sponsors, so while brands bicker over coverage, creators will continue to monetize their work on other platforms—leaving corporations to play catch-up.