Cathy Horyn Doesn't Care If She's Controversial

Fashion's feistiest critic opened up about her media journey and why "good journalism is generally contentious."
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Fashion's feistiest critic opened up about her media journey and why "good journalism is generally contentious."
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Cathy Horyn speaking at Fashionista's “How To Make It In Fashion” conference. Photo: Arnold Soshkin/Fashionista

Cathy Horyn is one of the most important fashion critics of our day, with a resume that includes The New York Times, The Washington Post and her current critic-at-large position at The Cut, but she claims she didn't care about clothes when she started writing. "I didn't give a crap what the trends were; I didn't understand it," she said at our "How to Make It in Fashion" conference on Friday, where she spoke with Deputy Editor Tyler McCall. "I still don't."

What initially drew her to fashion writing was that she was interested in having a beat — and there was that opportunity in front of her. "I could see the plot in fashion" she said. "I could see what happened in the 1920s and how it affected the 1930s and the '50s and the '60s, all the way to the year that I was living in." When she saw an ad for a fashion writer position that said "no experience necessary," Horyn applied and eventually accepted the job that led her to The Detroit News.

It was there that she began developing her voice as a critic, and that her work first caught the eye of The Washington Post. "They contacted me in 1983 out of the blue and said, 'We've been watching your stuff,'" Horyn explained. "They asked, 'Would you come to Washington and do an interview?' After the interview, their administrative editor said, 'We don't have a job for you, but at some point we will want to hire you. It may be seven years.' And it was seven years to the day, almost."

Part of what Horyn appreciated most about her time at the Post was that it pushed her to have a distinct point of view. "They wanted you to have an opinion and to write in a very strong voice," she explained. "It gave me the encouragement to let it rip."

Her sharp and provocative opinions are what she's now known for, especially as they've resulted in her getting banned from shows like Armani and Hedi Slimane's Yves Saint Laurent. Rather than being cowed by those "banishments," she sees them as part of being an honest critic. "The newspaper world didn't have a great affection for PR people. You weren't supposed to toe the line with those houses at all; you were supposed to speak your mind and be independent," she said. "I have worked for newspapers where there is a very sacrosanct separation between editorial and advertising. You don't think about it; you write what you want to write. If a company pulls their ads, you usually don’t even hear about it. It goes through the publisher, and they might tell you at some point but you might never know."

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Fashionista Deputy Editor Tyler McCall and Cathy Horyn. Photo: Arnold Soshkin/Fashionista

While she said that has been her experience at many of the major papers for which she's written, Horyn also acknowledged that the changing state of media is making it more difficult to find that kind of honesty. "I think there is a change today because of the economics of journalism," she noted. "There is pressure that companies, websites or magazines or newspapers will lose revenue."

Still, she believes that there will always be a place for controversial viewpoints, and praises social media for its ability to facilitate that kind of dialogue. "Twitter is very contentious," she said. "And I like that — good journalism is generally contentious. Criticism is, too."

What advice would she offer to young journalists interested in offering honest criticism while still trying to make it in a rapidly changing media landscape?

"I'd say the most important thing is to build your relationships with people," she said in response to an audience member's question. "If you have a choice of two jobs, choose the people first. I once made the mistake of choosing a title that was more well-known when another editor I really liked wanted me to write for her. Choose the people first and then the rest will follow — because you'll get more opportunity; you'll be in sync with them. As it turned out, I didn't get that many opportunities with the well-known title. Relationships matter more."

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