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Authenticity Disclaimers: Fashion Journalism Negotiates Ethics

Authenticity Disclaimer: Fashion Journalism Negotiates Ethics

Originally published in Vestoj issue 8

 

Imagine my surprise today when my @YSL seat arrived from Paris! 

(Thanks, Hedi, but ethics require me to return it.)

On the 21st March 2016, Christina Binkley, at the time afashion journalist for The Wall Street Journal, announced the arrival of a gift. Having attended fashion designer Hedi Slimane’s final fashion show for the house of Saint Laurent a few weeks earlier, the journalist received a chair with a gilded plate bearing her name – the very chair she sat on during the presentation in Paris, delivered to her home in Los Angeles.As is customary at fashion shows, the seats are allocated in advance to guests based on their status in the hierarchy of fashion. Usually this is communicated via elaborately inscribed paper place cards positioned on chairs or on invitations sent to guests in advance. In an industry that is all about flair and showmanship, the press team at Saint Laurentdecided on taking it one step further by customising the chairs with guests’ names. Whilst this would have otherwise rendered the chairs useless after the fashion show that was likely to have lasted mere minutes, they were instead sent as elaborate gifts. No doubt, Binkley was not the only one to receive her seat in the post as an expression of gratitude and alliance by the brand. 

Fashion brands maintain relationships with fashion media through extravagant, no-expenses-spared gifting usually in the form of clothing, bags, cosmetics, often flowers and at times bonkers items such as show chairs. It is just one of the ways, along with all-expenses-paid press trips and extravagant parties to name a few examples, that journalists are coached into writing positive copy. It was therefore not a surprise that Christina Binkley received the chair in the post, nor was it unexpected that she chose to write about it on Twitter. Instead, what might have raised an eyebrow or two was her announcement that she planned to return the gift in a public display of her journalistic ethics in a tweet that was, in fact, meant for two different audiences. On the surface, it was addressed to the designer with whom she is seemingly on a first name basis, whilst at the same time humblebragging about her insider status within the fashion industry, performed as an expression of legitimacy to her readers. Yet simultaneously, Binkley was declaring her distancefrom the very industry she reports onas a serious, uncorrupt journalist, thus assuring readers of her authenticity. 

*

Since the arrival of the Internet, post the Leveson inquiry in Britain and after the spread of the concept of ‘fake news’ that has been used in American politics as a slogan to dismiss media, the notion of authenticity that Binkley was appealing to with her tweet has been hot currency in media.Using existentialist thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger as his starting point, professor John C. Merrill has made a case for ‘authentic journalism’[1], as a ‘rejection of the demands of conformism and compromise of personal convictions that many journalists face.’[2] According to him, journalists should strive to become authentic by taking responsibility for the choices they make and by developing strong personal ethical and moral principles that simultaneously guide their personal and professional life. Whilst Merrill was focused on the individual approach to determine what’s right and what’s good, the profession of journalism at large has its ethical principles placed at the heart of the discipline, outlined by organizations such as the National Union of Journalists[3] in the UK and the American Press Associations.[4] Because journalism is based on trust, the code of conduct emphasises aspects such as verification of information, truthfulness when it comes to facts as well as fairness and balance of coverage. According to the guidelines, journalistsmust maintain allegiance to citizens[5] and they should also ‘not by way of statement, voice or appearance endorse by advertisement any commercial product or service.’[6] With her tweet, Binkley was addressing these very values that are central to her profession as authentic and transparent journalist, undermined by the specific environment in which she work in. 

According to Merrill, authenticity can only exist if journalist rejects the corporate, economic and operational structures around which journalism operates.[7] In fashion, where media and businesspossess an intimate symbiotic relationship that is marked by uneven power relations, following the journalistic path to authenticity is constantly contested, making Binkley an exception rather than the rule. Whilst most fashion houses have their own publishing channels such as printed magazines, blogs, online publications and social media accounts now, they still also rely on being affiliated with fashion magazines for prestige. In return, fashion magazines rely on fashion brands as a source of advertising revenue. The resulting dynamic works in favour of brands that have a financial stronghold over magazines. Thus, fashion journalism is often seen as having a purely commercial purpose, an extension to fashion brands’ marketing departments, controlled via advertising and therefore ethically corrupt.[8] At the time celebrated as the largest issue to date with 840 pages, the September 2012 issue of Vogue US that was also the subject of a documentary film, included 658 pages of advertising. With this mind, as sociologist Angela McRobbie notes, the job of fashion editors is arguably to ‘provide the advertisers with an appropriate visual environment’[9]rendering magazines into mere shopping catalogues that are in most part taken over by adverts.

It would be easy to think that fashion journalists working for newspapers have more independence than their counterparts in fashion magazines. Indeed, the financial model of broadsheets has traditionally been based on subscriptions and newsstand sales, and whilst advertising subsidises the deficit resulting from the competition posed by free news available online, advertising departments in newspapers often operate separately to the editorial floor unlike in fashion and other consumer publications. Yet, it is impossible to draw clear boundaries around practices between these different types of publications, particularly as fashion journalists frequently work flexibly across media, contributing to both broadsheets and glossies. They also work for fashion brands, often with bias results. Stylists contracted to work on catwalk shows rarely fail to exclude the brands they work with when it comes to photo-shoots, whilst journalist paid to write press releases and books for brands are likely to review kindly. The growing importance of the weekend supplements, such as How to Spend Itby The Financial Times and T Magazine byThe New York Times also blur these distinctions. They pander to fashion brands to acquire finances through advertising, which in turn funds the bigger organizations goals of supporting ‘serious’ journalism (i.e. not fashion journalism).

Another way that the fashion media is closely tied with the fashion business is through access. Whilst fashion brands rely on fashion journalists as a source of validation and visibility, fashion journalists depend heavily on the fashion industry as the primary source for content.[10] Yet, brands largely control this access. The likes of Christina Binkley need an invitation to attend a fashion show and it is well-known in the industry that the consequence of penning negative reviews frequently result in the offending journalist being banned from future presentations.[11] Instead of upsetting sensitive designers and risk of loosing access, self-censorship is a common malaise that manifests in niceties and silence. In an industry where superlatives litter the copy, it is telling that the accolade of ‘honest’ or ‘authentic’ journalism, is unusually given to those who dare to make explicitly negative comments about designers or their collections.[12]

All of this means that, whilst on one hand fashion journalists are trying to demonstrate their loyalties to their readers through reporting and commenting on fashion, they are at the same time addressing their industry peers who mediate access and control finances. The presence of this double readership manifests in explicit disclaimers where journalists aim to demonstrate how they navigate the tricky business of adhering to ethics in an industry where the boundaries between the church and state are foggy at best. Binkley’s tweet is a good example of this. The occasional negative reviews also act as visible repudiations of lack of independence, such as the one[13] written by The New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn about Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent collection that resulted in a public spat between the two[14]. In interviews, few fashion journalist who actively perform the role of transparent and ethically minded journalist make a point of emphasising notions such as responsibility[15] and impartiality[16] as a reminder of the boundaries that exist around their work. However, ethical disclaimers manifest in less vocal ways as well.

*

Dressed in a slouchy oversized crimson fur coat decorated with bows, black high-wasted ankle length tuxedo trousers, a white shirt with a black ribbon tie and jewel encrusted ottoman-style slippers, Jo Ellison, who covers fashion for The Financial Times and who previously worked as the features director at British Vogue, modelled look 7 on the Dolce & Gabbana Autumn/Winter 2017 ready-to-wear show in Milan. A few days later, in her articlefor the paper,[17] Ellison waxed lyrical about the diversity of the show casting whilst giving a gonzo-style first person account of her day modelling for the brand that has in the past been accused of racism.[18] ‘If anyone ever doubts that Dolce is inclusive, I say to them“Look at me!”’ she declared as a sign of her approval, validated with her own appearance on the catwalk. Jo Ellison’s readers of course benefited from the unique behind-the-scenes insight gained by the journalist partaking in the show, but her copy was clearly directed at Dolce & Gabbana as a sign of her allegiance, as was her acceptance of the invitation to model in the first place. The Society of Professional Journalists suggests that for the sake of integrity, journalists should report the story and not become part of it.[19] Contrary to this principle, whilst some fashion journalists like Ellison openly declare their association with brands, practice that is not too dissimilar to journalist who get paid to write press releases (usually unmentioned and only known by industry insiders), other journalists are disclaiming their impartiality in subtle ways through dress. 

For obvious reasons, dress politics are at the centre of tensions around autonomy in fashion. Despite the fact that the job of a fashion journalist is to write about fashion, they also tend to have an uneasy relationship with their subject. Unlike any other journalistic genre, fashion journalists know the power of dress and use it strategically to draw boundaries, communicate distance and loyaltyas well as to express ethics. The question is not so much ‘what to wear’ but ‘who not to wear’. The level of effort is also subject of some consideration since dressing up too much has for long been seen as ethically and morally suspicious, even for those within the fashion industry. 

The recent roots of journalistic dress politics on and off the catwalk are in the seminal rant by then-International Herald Tribune journalist, now Vogue editor Suzy Menkes titled ‘The Circus of Fashion’ that gives an insight into this issue.[20] In her piece, Menkes put forward a strongly worded effort to draw a distinction between frivolous bloggers and ethically conscious journalists. Bloggers, according to her, show off outside fashion shows, are hungry for fame and thus wear attention-grabbing clothes. ‘Serious’ journalists, on the other hand, don’t care much for their appearance. If they do, they wear mostly black uniforms ‘of Comme des Garçons or Yohji Yamamoto’ who have both been credited as being intellectual in their approach to design, fitting for the intellectual activity of writing. Similarity, without a hint of irony, her current colleagues at Vogue US dismissed bloggers who dress up (paid or not) to be street style photographed, in a blog-style post on the Vogue Runway website that actively promotes street style photography.[21]   

There is truth to Menkes’ statement about the approach that journalists adopt to dress. Demonstrating impartiality depends on being able to evidence ‘balance,’ that is to prove the absence of bias.[22] As a journalist, drawing attention to one’s clothing could be seen as ethically problematic that hinders the authenticity of the voice. It is perhaps because of this that the likes of Christina Binkley,Cathy Horyn, Robin Givhan and Vanessa Friedman who declared that‘I wear pretty much the same thing every single season,’[23] are often seen in clothing that metaphorically act as a disguise. Everything is indeed mostly black, the colour that, more than any other, communicates an absence of frivolity. Through dress, these journalists seem to announce their impartiality as independent observers, drawing attention away from themselves whilst declaring their objectivity to brands. Against the backdrop of celebrities who are paid to wear brands’ clothes and editors/stylists/others who make similar declarations of loyalty with their clothing choices, this makes a subtly striking disclosure at fashion shows. 

*

Fashion is seen as a frivolous topic and sacrificing integrity in this realm is seen as less of a problem than doing so in other areas of culture or news reporting. Off the catwalk and away from the front rows, transparency is often a mere fashion trend that manifests in see-through fabrics and clear plastic accessories. In fashion media, transparency rarely exists outside the scatted journalistic disclaimers of impartiality. According to Merrill’s concept of ‘authentic journalism’, it is down to the individual to uphold their moral and ethical standpoint against the operations of the large framework in which they operate. By adapting implicit and explicit practices that enforce impartiality against a system eager to control, whilst attempting to maintain the insider status that grants them access and information, fashion journalists face the tricky business of navigating unpredictable currents of the fashion industry whilst maintaining their individual authenticity, regardless of the type of publication they work for. In an age when this authenticity seems to be one of the most valued quality amongst the readers and viewers, fashion has failed to realise that providing a framework for more open and rigorous discourse around the discipline to emerge, where disclaimers are either standard practice or even better, unnecessary, might just result in an industry that is little closer to be seen as having integrity.  

 

Footnotes

[1] J C Merrill, Existential Journalism, Hastings House, 1977

[2] K Holt, ‘Authentic Journalism? A Critical Discussion about Existential Authenticity in Journalism Ethics’ in Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 27:2–14, 2012, p.2

[3] National Union of Journalist Code of Conduct - https://www.nuj.org.uk/about/nuj-code/

[4] American Press Association Principles of journalism - http://americanpressassociation.com/principles-of-journalism/

[5] https://www.nuj.org.uk/about/nuj-code/

[6] ibid

[7] J C Merrill, The Dialectic in Journalism: Toward a Responsible Use of Press Freedom, Louisiana State University Press. p. 19, 1989

[8] A McRobbie, British Fashion Design – Rag Trade or Image Industry, Routledge, 1998

[9] A McRobbie, British Fashion Design – Rag Trade or Image Industry, Routledge.  p.172, 1998

[10] M Titton, ‘Fashion Criticism Unravelled: A Sociological Critique of Criticism in Fashion Media’in International Journal of Fashion Studies, Volume 3 Number 2. Intellect.p.213, 2016

[11] C Horyn, My Invitation Isn’t in the Mail’ in The New York Times. Published: 13.03.2008 

[12] See for instance: J Michault, The Extinction of the Fashion Critic’ in Antidote, published 10.04.2016 or D Graham, ‘Fashion Week: The Beleaguered Art of Fashion Criticism’ in The Star, published: 07.03.2012

[13] C Horyn, ‘Saint Laurent: Back at the Chateau Marmont’ in The New York Times. Published: 02.10.2012

[14] M Socha, ‘War of Words Erupts Between Hedi Slimane, Cathy Horyn’ in WWD. Published: 03.10.2012

[15] C Lieber, ‘NYT's Vanessa Friedman on Why Fashion Criticism Isn't Dead’ in Racked. Published: 25.08.2014

[16]J Seabrooke, ‘A Samurai in Paris: Suzy Menkes’ in The New Yorker. Published: 17.03.2001

[17]J Ellison, ‘The Day I Became a Dolce Model’ in The Financial Times. Published: 27.02.2017

[18] J Wilson, ‘Dolce & Gabbana Black Figurine Earrings and Dress, Are they racists?’ in Huffington Post. Published: 26.09.2012  

[19] Anon. ‘SPJ cautions journalists: Report the story, don’t become part of it’ in Society of Professional Journalist News. Published: 22.01.201

[20] S Menkes, ’The Circus of Fashion’ in T magazine by The New York Times. Published 10.02.2013

[21] S Singer et al, ‘Ciao, Milano! Vogue.com’s Editors Discuss the Week That Was’ in Vogue Runway, published 25.09.2016

[22] G Starkey, Balance and Bias in Journalism: Representation, Regulation and Democracy, Palgrave MacMillan p.xix, 2007

[23] S Lehman, ‘Podcast: Inside Fashion Week’ in The New York Times, published: 22.022016