What's Up With All These 'Open Letters' from Designers to Critics?

The latest in a string of "designers fighting back" memos has emerged. This time around, Jean Paul Gaultier has shamed Style.com critic Tim Blanks for giving the French designer's widely panned couture show a negative review, telling the CFDA Eugenia Sheppard Media Award winner that he needs to "brush up on his fashion history." As nasty and hurtful as Gaultier's words may be, he's certainly not embarking on new territory. Over the past year, designers have steadily criticized their critics.
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The latest in a string of "designers fighting back" memos has emerged. This time around, Jean Paul Gaultier has shamed Style.com critic Tim Blanks for giving the French designer's widely panned couture show a negative review, telling the CFDA Eugenia Sheppard Media Award winner that he needs to "brush up on his fashion history." As nasty and hurtful as Gaultier's words may be, he's certainly not embarking on new territory. Over the past year, designers have steadily criticized their critics.
Tim Blanks and Cathy Horyn. Photo: Getty

Tim Blanks and Cathy Horyn. Photo: Getty

The latest in a string of "designers fighting back" memos has emerged. This time around, Jean Paul Gaultier has shamed Style.com critic Tim Blanks for giving the French designer's widely panned couture show a negative review, telling the CFDA Eugenia Sheppard Media Award winner that he needs to "brush up on his fashion history."

As nasty and hurtful as Gaultier's words may be, he's certainly not embarking on new territory. Over the past year, designers have steadily criticized their critics, namely Cathy Horyn, who received belligerent open letters from both Oscar de la Renta and Saint Laurent Paris' Hedi Slimane. In the case of de la Renta, the designer misinterpreted a 1950s reference ("hot dog," meaning "someone showing off tricks, like a surfer") as a remark about his physical appearance. In retaliation, the designer called Horyn a "three-day old stale hamburger." (They've since made amends.) Slimane, who continues to hold a grudge against Horyn, called her a "schoolyard bully" and banned her from his shows.

Designer-critic feuds are nothing new, and are often seen as a sort of "badge of honor" amongst fashion journalists. Horyn was famously banned from Giorgio Armani's show in 2008 after writing a review that Mr. Armani felt emphasized the celeb-heavy front row over the clothes. And John Fairchild, the longtime editor and publisher of both Women's Wear Daily and W, was frequently banned from fashion shows in the thirty-plus years he dominated fashion journalism. In 1986, after publishing a story about the "fall" of Azzedine Alaia, Fairchild and WWD were no longer welcomed into the designer's atelier. "I hate the way they work," Alaia said of WWD in a 1987 New York Times profile of Fairchild. "Say you don't like the collection, but don't be gratuitously destructive. I like taking risks. I don't give a damn. I am not frightened of Mr. Fairchild."

But unlike most of his successors, Fairchild also did quite a bit of excommunicating himself. "In extreme cases, the designers' names have been banned from the paper," wrote the Times. Those names included Geoffrey Beene, Hubert de Givenchy, and Cristobal Balenciaga. Of course, Fairchild didn't have the internet and couldn't write an instant review from the photos that streamed in as Horyn now can.

What was true then, and what is true now, is that a designer gets more-than-a-little touchy when it seems that the review was somehow a personal affront. De la Renta was angrier that Horyn had seemingly commented on his personal appearance than her critique of the clothes themselves, and Gaultier literally says that the Blanks' "attacks are more personal than proffesional [sic]." And that's why it's so tricky. As Yves Saint Laurent's longtime partner Pierre Bergé said of Fairchild more 26 years ago, "He goes into your private life. He is half friend, half journalist. What part comes to the show? If it's the journalist, O.K. If as a friend, it is very difficult. To fight is always to fail. I'm very sad about that. Not about business, but because I lost a friend."

To be sure, Gaultier’s statement isn't last of these outcries. Indeed, it seems that designers are finally learning to harness the power of the internet. After all, when was the last time Gaultier got this much press over the course of five days?