HORYN AWARD OUTCRY AS DESIGNERS ASK: DOES NYT HATE FASHION?
Byline: Bridget Foley
NEW YORK — “These meetings are supposed to be secret. But let’s face it, everybody talks to someone.” So said one of the participants of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s very long board meeting on Monday.
So it was inevitable that details of the boisterous powwow would leak, and by now just about everyone in the industry knows that the afternoon was anything but smooth. The topic of controversy: The New York Times’ Cathy Horyn.
After balloting by more than half of the 241 eligible CFDA members and 173 retailers, stylists and editors, she had won the Eugenia Sheppard Award for Fashion Journalism, no question. Except that there was a question, voiced by a number of the 21 board members gathered to ratify results. The question, quite simply, is this, does Cathy Horyn like fashion? Many designers, not only those at the meeting but other Americans and Europeans as well, say the answer is an obvious no, and that goes for the paper she works for, too.
That attitude led to a dramatic split among board members. A canvas of numerous people present at the meeting reveals far-flung interpretations on the nature of the discourse — hostility or healthy debate — and on the final outcome. Did integrity or cowardice win the day? Most of those interviewed for this story said that in the end, integrity and democracy ruled, and that the dialogue proved the CFDA is a vibrant, passionate body once again. Although all admitted that the talk got heated, none would go anti-Cathy on the record except for Oscar de la Renta. “That’s what’s so cool about Oscar. He says what’s on his mind,” said Calvin Klein, in a state of newfound glee over his recent return to the bosom of the board.
No other journalist in recent memory has stirred emotion like Horyn. Supporters say that, taken in aggregate, her writing offers a brilliant take on the essence of fashion — its people, its social significance — while detractors question why she would choose to write about a field she seems to despise. Critiques of Horyn’s work, heard anecdotally again and again from designers and others in the industry are twofold: First, that she seems to dislike fashion generally, and second, that she gets far too personal in her criticism. “Cathy Horyn is not one who loves fashion or enhances fashion in any manner,” De la Renta told WWD. “Then sometimes, there are personal commentaries and digs, not only about the designers, but about people who attend the shows, which I consider unnecessary and unprofessional in reviewing a collection. Believe me, many other people agreed. But I’ll say it. I’m not a coward.”
Certainly Horyn has hurled some memorable zingers. At Donatella Versace: “She is herself too much. The blond hair. The ack-ack voice.” At Tom Ford: “His Gucci show on Tuesday night was not just truly ugly, but also seemed completely at odds with his reputation as a designer who loves women.” At several people: “It has been fondled by Tom Ford, turned over and admired by Miuccia Prada, and now — it was bound to happen given all the routine encounters — this writer’s little black bag has been copied by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuttion.”
Layered onto that view is the increasing perception among some in the industry that Times reporter Ginia Bellafante is trying to follow in Horyn’s footsteps. In February, Bellafante chastised Marc Jacobs for showing at the New York State Armory on Lexington Avenue, the locale “that served as a point of congregation for the families of the missing just after Sept. 11. But Mr. Jacobs has never been a designer whose style incorporates great displays of sentiment or feeling.” (Jacobs has shown at the Armory for several years.) Earlier, while covering the spring 2001 men’s collections in Milan, Bellafante chose not to write a word about Giorgio Armani’s collection.
All of which begs the two-part question: Does the New York Times hate fashion or are the complaining designers merely paranoid? In truth, there’s little about the harried world of fashion that doesn’t foster paranoia, and most designers are probably afflicted to some degree. Those spoken to for this story had only high praise for Horyn’s writing, and stressed that their grievances have nothing to do with the usual good review-bad review course of events. In fact, when discussing her work, many designers cite what they consider unfair or below-the-belt references in reviews of colleagues’ collections.
In an interview on Wednesday, Horyn said she was unaware of the controversy surrounding her award, and sounded surprised that she or her paper could be accused of loathing fashion. “I don’t think I have to defend my work.
“You think about how much space we devote to fashion, The Magazine, Sunday Styles, Tuesday, plus business,” she continued. “For Howell Raines, it’s a top priority; he wants us all to be more competitive.”
Still, she called the matter of the Times’ take on fashion “a chain-of-command” inquiry, one more appropriately posed to executive editor Howell Raines and her direct editor, Trip Gabriel. On Thursday, Raines was in Washington, D.C, to accept an award, and did not return phone calls.
So Trip, does the Times hate fashion? “Not at all,” he said. “I think the Times is passionate about fashion, but perhaps in a different way than most of the fashion press. My sense is that most of the fashion press is in the business of promoting fashion. We perceive our mission differently. We don’t seek to promote fashion any more than we seek to promote a presidential administration or the mayor of the city of New York. We cover fashion from cultural, sociological, anthropological angles.”
And reporters and critics are given a great deal of leeway to write about people, issues, collections and events as they wish. Or not. Take that season when Bellafante ignored Armani. “I don’t recall the specifics of why the show wasn’t covered,” Gabriel said. “I assume Ginia went to the show and from her critic’s point of view, it didn’t merit a great deal of attention. We don’t feel any obligation to cover everything on the runway. Critics make critical judgements and distinctions in terms of what merits coverage…we look at fashion the way movie reviewers review movies, sociologically, and in that particular case, the reviewer felt there wasn’t enough going on.” He noted that: “I don’t think our readers have an encyclopedic interest in fashion shows.” Collections that did merit coverage that week: D Squared and Exte, as well as the usual suspects, Versace, Gucci, Fendi and the like.
What about those personal digs — another frequent criticism of the Times — especially those snappy Horyn zingers? Gabriel claims that designers who market their personas along with their merch can’t have it both ways, and whine when the critics take note. “Cathy is an exuberant critic, a passionate critic,” he said. “I know her well and have read every word she’s written for this paper. These are not personal attacks. Perhaps it’s that the personalities of creative people are part of the product. They market the persona and we write about it. Donatella’s persona is, in a way, larger than her runway. And that helps sell the clothes.” And across its cultural coverage, the Times looks at both art and artist. “Authors get it all the time now,” Gabriel said.
Style editor for the New York Times Magazine, Amy Spindler, maintains that, ironically, it is the Times’ elevation of fashion “to the same level of scrutiny” as other cultural disciplines that can put artistic noses out of joint. “Does the New York Times hate theater, film, music, restaurants?” she posed. “The Times is a tough critic on any subject.” Starting with Claudia Payne, the paper has “felt that fashion should be looked at as art in a social, anthropological context. Cathy is an informed critic with the highest standards.
“She once said to me, “‘Does anyone say that Maureen Dowd hates politics?’ Cathy’s role model is our best political columnists.”
While she declined to speak for the paper, Horyn discussed her own views on covering fashion in depth, and with no outward signs of defensiveness. “Not supportive enough? We don’t run a support group,” she said. “Our job is to be critics. No, our job is to be reporters one, and second to be critics. When I covered fashion for the Washington Post and left to go to Vanity Fair and then came to the Times, it was because I realized you can’t be just a critic in the conventional sense. You have to be a reporter. We just have a slightly different agenda from some publications.”
Horyn noted the difference between writing for a general audience and writing for the trade, and cited her piece that ran in Tuesday Times that clearly indicated Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquiere had knocked off- and not credited little-known designer Kaisik Wong. “That piece wasn’t there to hurt Nicolas’ career or to boost anyone else’s, but to look at this postmodern referencing. All I’m saying is, if you’re going to use someone’s work in that way, credit the person.”
“I love clothes and I love fashion,” she continued. “I absolutely love going to the shows. People think I’m square, but I do. I never get bored. I love American clothes and the story of American fashion. Eugenia Sheppard started in 1956 with a column about fashion, society and people. The people, that’s what fascinates me. It’s not necessarily the clothes. My focus is the people behind the fashion, their creativity, their eccentricities, their silliness.”
As for her disputed award, Horyn said that “anything that’s not a clear consensus is fun.” And although she admitted to having declared at least a few times in the past that were the Eugenia to come her way she wouldn’t accept it, she’s actually tickled: “I said that partly in jest.” Because contrary to one observer’s claim that Horyn’s writing “is all about her,” she argued that, in good old journalist form, she would rather report the story than be the story. “Sometimes you’d just like to go about your own job, just keep doing your own thing, and it doesn’t matter if rewards come your way. I have tons of respect for Eugenia Shepard, who in my book exemplified fashion writing at its best and liveliest. One could make a mountain out of a molehill. I’m happy doing what I do. I love my job. I love the beat. So in that respect, an award is immaterial. But I’m thrilled to get this one.” And she is planning for her big night. Fresh off completion of the Bill Blass biography, she thought a Blass frock might be in order, especially when someone told her of a vintage gem he just got his hands on in blue ombred chiffon. “I called Mr. Blass and asked his opinion,” she reported. “He knew just the dress I was talking about, and said, ‘Oh, no. That neckline’s all wrong for you.”
Horyn took his advice and will keep looking — just like any fashion-loving girl would do for her big night out.