The Future of Fashion: Cathy Horyn

On a recent midweek morning, I sat down with Cathy Horyn, the New York Times fashion critic, at the Dean & DeLuca coffee bar on the ground floor of the newspaper’s Renzo Piano-designed midtown office building. She said she was feeling the effects of a simmering cold, but it didn’t visibly affect her sharpness. Unlike many of her peers, Horyn has embraced the digital world, first through her blog, On the Runway, and more recently with her Twitter page. Her readers will know that she has been giving a great deal of thought to live streaming, shifts in manufacturing practices, and other contemporary developments. During our conversation, somewhat condensed here, she talked about the critic’s evolving role, her sense that leggings are the enemy of innovation, and her belief that, in design, technique matters now more than ever. (Note: This interview took place several days before we heard the awful news of Alexander McQueen’s death. Horyn clearly regarded the designer as a true innovator, and she said his Paris show was one of the only ones that you simply had to see each season. I have retained her references to him where I thought it made sense to do so.)

You tweeted for the first time from the Couture shows last month. Did you enjoy it?
I like the size of it. I like the limitation. I’m not sure I can really finesse or understand all the abbreviations that people use. By the time I’ve figured out the abbreviation, the event is finished. [ Laughs.] But I think I can contribute something interesting.

You’re tweeting. You’ve been blogging for several seasons now. Do those things affect the way you write your actual review?
The difficulty is what to put in the blog and what to put in the review. How to make them different. The tweet is a separate entity. I think of it as being my feeling or color or the atmosphere of the room. It could be something newsworthy. Tweeting would have been amazing when Marc Jacobs used to be horribly delayed starting his show. But with blogging, it’s very difficult when I love a show and then I come back to my room and blog about it, and then the next morning I have to get up very early to write the review for the paper, and I feel that I’ve said what I had to say and [conveyed] the enthusiasm. I don’t want to repeat myself even though they don’t always have the same readers.

Everything is so instant now. Do you ever wish as a critic that you had more time to think over your reaction to a show?
I’ve definitely felt when I go back to the blog the next day I can add more, change my opinion slightly. I don’t really have the need to say, “Boy, did I blow my judgment. Boy, was I wrong.” There was only one show that I felt I really, really got wrong, and I wrote about that…It was Stefano Pilati’s first YSL show. Blogging definitely allows you to elaborate, to return to the show, to think about it some more. I did it with a couple of Jil Sander women’s shows, where the show was in the evening and I didn’t have a lot of time [to write the review], and the next day I went to the showroom and touched all the things, and then in the blog I was able to say more. I love that combination. You don’t change your opinion but you expand on it, add more ammunition or more support for the argument that it was a great show or a bad show.

This is a little off topic, but talking about opinions changing or not, you’ve always been quite hard on Riccardo Tisci. I thought you might be warming to him because your review of the last Givenchy ready-to-wear show was quite positive, but then you didn’t like the Couture.
Yeah, I am quite hard on him. I question him a lot. It’s all over the place, really. I have a really good memory for a lot of the things that I’ve seen, and I wonder how you get from…I mean, I remember his own first collection for his Riccardo Tisci line. And then he showed in the house in Givenchy with the tableau vivant, a very chaotically managed show, and he had that gothic thing going and he had the very dramatic long silhouette with the fishtail bottom, and he had some other things that were really incredible, like these sort of ode-to-Givenchy shirts, the Bettina blouse—really amazing. The first time he had some things that were super-simple, like a white shirt and a black skirt, they were great. Then I think he really came under the influence of too many people. I wonder if he did, because he seemed to then go this way and then that way. There wasn’t any sort of consistency…What bothers me about Riccardo is he’s playing in the big leagues, but there’s a missing sophistication somehow. It’s all so cool, and it’s all so indie magazine, but it doesn’t lead you. It leads you at that level but not at an extra-high level. And I think it could. I hope it does. I’m hard on him because I think he could be better.

Another guy you can be quite hard on—and he’s someone who I think brings a lot of energy to the New York scene—is Alexander Wang.
Yeah, I am hard on him too, although I think I’m wearing a Wang T-shirt today. [ Laughs.] I also have to say this about Givenchy: I totally appreciate what they do commercially. This is a Givenchy sweater. I’m a little ticked that I spent €600 for it and it’s made in China, but I like a lot of what Givenchy does at retail. I like the quality. I like the fit. I see more of it in Paris than I see here. I love going into the Paris store. And the same thing with Wang. His T-shirt thing has been very cool. I mean God bless him for coming up with the T-shirt thing and doing it. Don’t we have enough T-shirts? Well, no, [someone] can always do something that feels right, and the price is right. And I like some of his shows. I remember his very first baby steps; they were not much, some jeans, T-shirts, a lot of styling effort and not a lot of design effort. I suppose what bothers me now is that it can look too much like other people’s work.

The sweater cost €600?
Yeah, I was kind of bummed about that.

That sounds like a lot but I’m sure they would tell you they can only do it at that price if they make it in China.
It’s so they can keep their profit margin. That’s what that’s about. I don’t in principle have a problem with anything that’s made in China. The quality of the sweater is very good…What if the sweater had been €300, which is probably a fairer price? I might have questioned it. What’s a €300 sweater doing in Givenchy? I would love to know the economics of the pricing of that sweater. I’m sure a lot of consumers would, too. [ Editor’s note: An informative take on China’s ever growing role in clothes manufacturing can be found on Horyn’s blog.]

When you think about changes in manufacturing, you think about the rise of fast fashion. How has that affected the picture?
The whole notion of fit, which again is engineering of clothes, most people have no idea. I suppose men buy suits and invest a little bit of money in their suits, and they’ve been to a tailor and they know how things should fit, but a lot of fashion today is—this is what fast fashion has done—there’s a lot of stretch in things. There are a lot of things you don’t really need to know. Pop it on, wear leggings. So you have a lot of people who don’t particularly care or put a premium on really beautiful things. They want things that are simple enough that they can wear during the day and to dinner with their husband. They want maybe a good handbag, we know all that, or they want a beautiful coat. But most of those things are not good for design; those desires, those basic desires, are not really great for innovation. They kind of go against it…Then the companies who do innovation, like Balenciaga or Prada, let’s say, Topshop or somebody else can copy, reproduce what they’re doing in about six weeks to two months, runway to store.

Is that killing high fashion?
I think what’s killing things, now that the economy has hurt so much, is that a lot of people are saying, “I don’t need this.” I think it’s a lot of analysis required. “I don’t have the money. I don’t want it. I don’t need it. I don’t want to look like that. I don’t want to spend that much money.”

Is that a temporary hangover from the recession or is that a fundamental shift in consumer behavior?
I think that for certain there will be another period of people living high on the hog, spending crazily, whether for real estate or vacations or clothing or bags. I think the prices where they are right now are still sufficiently high and people’s concerns about their family economic security are still so high that there’s not much temptation in those prices. Bernard Arnault, I don’t know where I read this, he was saying a year ago that it would take till the end of 2010 for the luxury market to really come back, and I think that’s still really reasonable. I read something today in Women’s Wear [ Daily], people saying, “Oh, people feel better.” I think they feel a little bit [better] because they love seeing spring clothes in the windows, or pre-season, but I don’t think they’re suddenly going to start spending a lot of money on things. Yes, makeup, maybe some jewelry, hair treatments, things like that, but not the big bucks. But I do think eventually, yeah, sure. You have another Rome every ten years, you know, why not?

Do you see anything positive in the rise of fast fashion?
Um. [ Long pause.] I’m trying really hard. Probably it does provide jobs for people in many countries. Many of those workers are probably women. Obviously it adds a lot of stress on the planet, a lot of consumption in terms of raw materials, natural resources, the pollution. Fashion is a huge polluter. All the treatment of stuff, all these fabrics with different [materials] to make them stretch, smell good, to make them warm—all of that pressure is very hard on the environment and potentially hard on your body. We’re talking about plastic bottles and being concerned about that, but what about all these fabrics with chemicals in them to make you feel cooler or warmer? Your body is absorbing those chemicals. I don’t think we’ve read about that yet. I think you have to weigh the availability of fashion, so you can participate in it at all levels, against the horrible consumption aspects of it.

Are you a fan of any of the high-low collaborations?
I think for the young designers, it’s probably good to help them get their name out there. Surely it’s helped Mizrahi in a very strange period in his career. There are the Target collaborations, most recently the Rodarte girls. But I don’t know, I think Target is sort of special, H&M is sort of special, but how many of those can you chase before you cannibalize yourself? I think it’s a reality of the contemporary world, all these business collaborations to help you bring some revenue into your business. But you can’t lose sight of [the fact] there’s an opposite reaction, a basic law of physics, so if you put your name next to Target, then you are changing your values in some ways, and you have to accept that.

Different topic: Are fashion shows still valid?
I think so, yeah. I think in a funny way everybody was, like, predicting their demise. Nick Knight and I had a very interesting conversation around Christmastime about fashions shows, magazines, the future of a lot of things, and he was saying that it’s a medium; the way of people showing their clothes, it’s still the best way of doing it. We would all like to think that Alexander McQueen, or Giorgio Armani if he wanted to, any big name, could beam their show directly onto the Internet. They’re already doing that, and do what McQueen did [at his Spring 2010 ready-to-wear show], which is create something truly special for the Internet. So you can have this really incredible thing, something that feels that it’s just for people on the Web, and it kind of bypasses the professionals. There’s that feeling that that’s coming. A lot of the bloggers are being accepted now, with Tavi getting the attention she’s had. People who are outsiders, quote unquote, or non-professionals, can participate. But I think that in actuality what happens is—and Nick was saying this, too—the technology of all this, the real-time element, it makes, for better or worse, a lot of the fashion people, the front-row people, become like pundits now. They get on TV. It becomes like a sports thing, like Monday Night Football. That takes some getting used to. It takes some feeling your way around with that…But then I think of Marc Jacobs’ shows. The way that he sort of exploded New York fashion on a bigger stage, that’s like perfect. The way he collaborated with different artists, and the music. Those couple of seasons that that happened, probably three or four seasons, that was really amazing to me. Then the recession hit and slowed it down, but that’s the potential. If you can do fashion shows at that level, at that creative level, like McQueen doing it with Nick for the Web, it’s big.

But could a film replace the live experience completely?
It could, but there’s something about the personalities of models, the personalities of editors, and the spectacle of it and the groupies…There’s something about the girls being made up, the humanness of all that. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, and most of the films that people have done, they are so low value, so low budget. I can’t remember one that I thought was good.

Is part of the problem that there are just too many shows on the schedule?
You have to be selective. I keep thinking about this, and I’m not sure how I’d do it, but it would be amazing to cover the Paris and Milan ready-to-wear by showroom.

Skip the runway and write the reviews based on what you see in the showroom?
I would do one or two shows, where there’s a reason to be at the show. But there’s no reason to be at many of the shows, and I usually go to showroom appointments anyway afterwards. I do Comme des Garçons, Balenciaga sometimes, Jil Sander, sometimes I do Prada, and I’m thinking to myself, this is so much more interesting, to write about clothes away from [the runway]…New York is impossible to do like that. There’s something to do with the daily deadline here that would make it really hard, but in Paris where we don’t have to file every day? It would be a way of focusing on the things that are interesting and seeing them in a way that the show would never allow you to see it.

Do you think you’ll ever really do that?
I don’t know. Stay tuned.

Has the role of the critic changed in the last few years?
I think the role of the critic is fundamentally the same as it’s been. I think back to Kennedy Fraser at The New Yorker. Kennedy may not have done as many shows, and I don’t know what the lag time was, but I think it’s still about looking at things and evaluating them and trying to get the context of the thing. My own personal choices have changed. I think that you need to have clarity, a lot of clarity. I don’t think you can linger around the story too much. You have to be sharper. You have to get it out quicker, is I guess how you would say it. I thought three or four years ago that if I wanted my writing to change, to adjust, it needed to be sharper and clearer. I couldn’t do the dagger dance with the writing as much. I think that was another time where it was very style-driven…But if you’ve covered fashion for 20 years and you’ve been exposed at least half that time through The New York Times to some really incredible individuals in the fashion business, incredible companies, then you better bring that knowledge to the criticism. Right now we have a lot of people who are coming at it from left field, and they can have some really wonderful insights into fashion and they can see it from their generation, which is fantastic, and they can be quite funny about it, too. But then there’s also just the question of the knowledge about it, the span of time, so you can make judgments and conclusions that reflect the sense of history…There’s an amazing thing about the real-time element. The Balenciaga show being a prime example. Balenciaga’s over at 11 o’clock Paris time and I go back to my hotel, and I have people on the blog, regular guys, who somehow by 1 p.m. Paris time have seen the Balenciaga show, or portions of it. They’ve seen it because of cell phones or somebody’s got something out there; they haven’t seen the whole thing. I swear there’s one guy on my blog, he does it just to bug me. “Oh, I’ve seen it and I’m ready to comment.” Before I get a chance to sit down and write!…But the critic’s ability is clearly not diminished by the real time [element]. It just moves into another [phase] and you have to understand how it’s changed. You just have to know what to do with it. That’s what I think.

Does it ever get in the way when a critic becomes part of the story? You’re known for strong opinions, so that attracts attention. And even the way you dress gets commented on.
It happens. It’s fashion. People want to comment about everything. I think it’s totally different than if you were a chief television critic, obviously. You know you’re out there. I’m not sure that the world knows when a television critic is going to watch a television show or when Ben Brantley is going to a Broadway show or Sam Sifton is at a restaurant. But I’m not worried about it. I just go and do my job.

Designers face so many demands today, commercial demands, all the different seasons they have to design. Is it possible to work under that pressure?
It can be. Look at Lagerfeld. He has lots of pressure and I think his Couture collection was amazing, the most recent one. It was at that level. There was something distinctively, plainly different about it…But there are so many brands today, designer brands, you wonder how they all can survive? How much business can they do? You go into Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s and you think, “Oh my God, there’s so much to get through here”…I think that some of the older brands for a variety of reasons have struggled. They lost their way or they didn’t adapt or they got stodgy or they got lazy or they had the wrong partners. But you see other brands coming along, other labels, like Alexander Wang, that’s got something that you want to see. I like this cute little label Wayne. You see Joseph Altuzarra.

Do you see any of them growing into mega-brands? Or are we in a different era now, a more fragmented era?
I don’t see how they can. They’ll grow into decent-sized companies and they’ll do sunglasses, perfume. But do they grow into that multi-tier lifestyle brand? No. But that’s fine with me. The real question is, some of these older companies, they should die in a way to create some room in the field. They’re like dead wood in the middle of the forest…The people running those old labels didn’t do a good enough job of managing and taking it to a younger generation. Chanel has been really good with that. Vuitton, Prada, Hermès. But there’s a lot of people of whom that isn’t true…The one that will be interesting is Rodarte. Whether that can be more? Maybe it’ll just be one of the quirky companies that will last about ten years. It’ll have its place in the annals of American fashion. Two sisters from Pasadena, doing their handcrafted clothes. The way that they marketed themselves rather brilliantly. All of that will be observed. But for Rodarte to be much more? It could be an incredible pair of jeans at some point, but is it going to be a sportswear company? Is it going to be sweatshirts? Is it going to be perfume?

Is there a different example for these younger designers to follow? A more independent path?
You can’t do it in half measures. You have to make the clothes at a really high level. And I think a lot of designers now, they’re not committed to it. If you want to be an [Azzedine] Alaïa, you have to stay really committed to it and not spread out.

[Barneys fashion director] Julie Gilhart told me that Alaïa sold all through the recession; he’s selling now. He wasn’t affected by the ups and downs.
He’s [always] sold. When I went to see him in ’99, he was having difficulty. But Barneys still would buy and Browns and a few other stores. And he still delivered, delivered late but delivered. He didn’t have a big name, the shoe business was a little dormant at that point, but Alaïa kept designing clothes. He kept designing things that nobody else was making. And that’s why Norma Kamali deserves support. She keeps designing things that are interesting. Sure, she does the bathing suits and the parkas, but she does other things, too. She keeps moving. And Azzedine is still working every night until three in the morning making something interesting. And I think the basis for it is a technique. It’s not a pretty dress. It’s a technique that interests Azzedine. He can figure out how to industrialize ruching or industrialize something else, so people who say technique is irrelevant are wrong. It isn’t. It motivates most of the serious designers. It motivates craftsmen. It was what motivated the most recent Jil Sander collection. It was what motivated Martin Margiela when he was first coming along. It’s funny, I saw Karl Lagerfeld during Couture and we were talking about these jackets and dresses he did that he said were seamless. They weren’t seamless, but they kind of look it. It’s really interesting how he did it. I said, how long have you been working on that? He said, well, we’ve been trying to do it for a while but I wasn’t happy with the results. He said, you know I don’t take vacations, I work all the time. That’s Karl’s spiel but it’s true. He and Azzedine, they don’t like each other, but they’re identical when it comes to the fact that they work all the time. And the proof is in the clothes. They come up with things that nobody else can.

Illustration: Joe Eula