The sun rises in Paris at 8:30am this time of year, but yesterday morning Jenny and I were up a couple of hours earlier to go for a walk. Not just any walk, mind you, but a stroll around Le Marais with Sir Paul Smith. The powers that be had invited Jenny and myself on this walk to spend a bit of time with the 69 year old designer/entrepreneur, and to shoot some Instagram photos in the process — Sir Paul’s an active user — and when he bounded into the office with all the enthusiasm of Storm Jonas, I concluded that the singing and dancing party at the end of his Paris Fashion Week shows is simply his typical state of being.
He’d stopped at a spot along Rue des Archives to take a photo of a little red heart on a wall, when I took the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions: Do you get nervous before your fashion shows? “I used to, but not anymore. They’re a necessary part of the job of being a fashion designer, but they’re not my favorite things. But they are the best way of achieving what they achieve.”
(His book Paul Smith A to Z expands, “No one has found a replacement for this ritual that serves brands so well. The show is the final ingredient of a recipe that’s been on the stove for six months.”)
Do you read the reviews? “No. There’s no point. By the time the show is finished, all the orders have already been placed by the retailers, so it doesn’t make any difference either way.”
I found that very interesting. It reminded me of what the New Zealand rapper David Dallas said when I asked him the same question back in 2012 (and I’m paraphrasing): “They’re not creating music so what do they know about this process? I respect the judgment of other musicians and artists, not somebody with a laptop and an opinion.”
And yesterday, backstage at the Balmain show, Olivier Rousteing went even further on the subject of critics: “I can understand if you don’t like my aesthetic: But don’t try to push me down. I am working so hard and my business is growing . . . I don’t understand when people say Balmain is not about reality—it might not be your reality, but it is a reality of today. And in London some shops are already 99 percent sold out — I have the numbers. So at least if you don’t respect my aesthetic, respect that I am a businessman.”
This whole trip I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the critic in this business, especially now that every human being with wifi access can see photos of the collections within 15 minutes of the shows being over; and most people are more interested in an Instagram photograph than the opinion of a credible writer.
The designers these critics are typically toughest on are the ones who are the most commercially successful. Remember how many writers slammed Hedi Slimane’s luxury take on everyday pieces that people actually want to wear? Almost all of them. Did it hurt the bottom dollar? Saint Laurent’s sales grew triple digits (aka hundreds of percent points), so you do the math.
Don’t get me wrong, as a fashion fan I do understand the importance of an expert writer putting a designer’s collection into a specific cultural context. But as someone who used to make his entire (albeit meagre) living as a writer, only to be forced to transform himself into a personal style blogger in order to actually grow a viable business, I feel confused about the current state of affairs, where people who take pretty Instagram photographs have more influence than journalists with decades of experience; and where these journalists cling so tightly to their narrow opinions of a designer’s ability that they pan collections that sell out the moment they hit retail floors.
You know what I mean? It’s a head-scratcher.
Special thanks to the team from Paul Smith who invited me and Jenny on that walk, and I’ll leave you with a quote from Sir Paul that ties in quite nicely to this conversation about people who create and the critics themselves: “I don’t think of my work as art, and I am often disappointed by art and the conceit and arrogance of many artists. They take themselves too seriously and develop their own language to feel important. Fortunately, no one understands what these people are saying.”
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