Angelo Flaccavento: Honest fashion criticism will save us all
Angelo Flaccavento is a man who doesn’t need an introduction. Over the past two decades, the fashion critic has been making both friends and enemies with his sharp pen and lyrical wit. Trotting around the globe, rarely skipping a fashion week (he has yet to miss a Yohji Yamamoto show), Angelo is as passionate about the traditional as he is about the unconventional. In between journeys, he routinely takes refuge in his hometown in Sicily, solidifying his status as the outside observer.
This article originally appeared in 1 Granary Issue 6
Since the start of his career at Dutch magazine, he has experienced the industry changing drastically through the digital age and the rise of the influencer. Though today’s industry might appear borderless, Angelo paradoxically observes an eradication of the unexpected. As the fashion industry turns into a globalised system of spectacle, there is less space for the misunderstood, the subversive, the counter-cultural-in short, all the things that make fashion so exciting.
The ever-increasing speed of our profit-driven industry has often been lamented, but Angelo has observed first-hand how it impacts the creative process of design studios. There simply isn’t the time for in-depth research and inspirational journeys abroad, and so our catwalks are filled with watered-down versions of copies of duplicates of echoes we’ve heard a thousand times before. Simply calling out the copies, however, is a catty response to the problem, not the solution. The Italian writer hopes an alternative fashion system might rise, and that open-minded, honest criticism will save us all.
“If I can spot a reference, it’s a problem. It means that the process has not been digestive enough in order to create something new.”
How important is a designer’s process to you as a journalist?
I completely adhere to the Marshall McLuhan school of thinking. To me, the process is the product. The process is vital. Of course, as a critic, I mostly judge things at fashion shows, so I see the final result. But, if the process is long, creative, and explorative enough, that will be visible in the product at the end. The creative process is one that takes time. If I can spot a reference, it’s a problem. It means that the process has not been digestive enough in order to create something new.
Fashion is an industry with very strict deadlines, which force the creative to deliver the idea they have in mind. Deadlines are vital to the process. One of the problems with the system of today is that these deadlines are getting shorter and shorter, so the creative process gets shorter. It’s not the case anymore that designers design two collections per year, taking research trips abroad. I think that now, the creative process has been flattened to a visit to the vintage store and a bit of research online – but seeing things on the web and seeing them in real life is very different.
The increasing speed of the industry must impact your job as well. Have you found that over the course of your career, there is less time to appreciate a collection, or analyse it properly?
Absolutely! I’m exposed to more and more collections every year. Each collection is created faster. I don’t have the time to appreciate something. Many things just pass before my eyes without me being able to take them in fully. I live between Milan and Sicily, and when I come back to Sicily, I speak to my friends who are involved in other jobs, who ask me: “What did you see?” And I notice– because I try to see as much as possible–that I have a hard time explaining what I’ve seen, because it’s a blur. I just remember a few things, a few designers I really like: Rick Owens, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, maybe some new designers. Some shows are just half an hour of sitting and waiting, and the next day it’s as if nothing happened. This is very hard for me to admit, but it’s also the way the system works today. There is too much going on, and what really matters is often put in second place. From all the shows I’ve seen during the month of May, it’s more likely that I’ll remember the far-flung destination or the setting, rather than the clothing. Which is not good, because everything should revolve around the clothing. Our time requires something highly visible, because the goal is for it to be shared on social media, but I would like the spectacle to be something that highlights the clothes, rather than making you forget about them.
“There is too much going on, and what really matters is often put in second place.”
You’re saying the creative process is becoming secondary to the spectacle?
Yes. I recently went to the exhibition Backside, in the Musée Bourdelle in Paris, which I highly recommend. It is an exhibition created by Alexandre Samson on the backside of clothing: trains, bows, plunging necklines, etc. It made me think about the way fashion is broadcasted nowadays, and the constraints that this type of broadcasting imposes on designers. We only see pictures from the front of garments, so designers don’t pay any attention to the back. We forget that garments are three-dimensional, because we only consume images that are two-dimensional, so everything is flat and everything is made to be instantly recognisable. Clothing involves another dimension, which is movement.
I’m old enough to have seen a different type of catwalk show. Models used to take off pieces of clothing, like jackets or coats, on the catwalk to reveal what was underneath. Now, stylists will stitch the closure of a coat, because the silhouette should look exactly as it was photographed during the fittings. One designer told me a stylist added stitches to the back of a shirt because he wanted the collar to stay still the entire time. To me, that is not a good thing. Movement can make things even more exciting. Everything today is very static and one-dimensional, both literally and metaphorically. Have a look at the Instagram account @unforgettable_runway. Nowadays, models are rushing from one place to the next–there is no connection to the audience. Back then, models made eye contact with the public. Sometimes, models would take off their jacket, just to show that the designer put a very dark lining inside a light jacket. But we would never see that today. Everything is so controlled–too controlled.
It is interesting that during this time of flatness, the topic of originality has become more important than ever.
I think that the issue of copying in fashion has always existed, just like in any art. One designer leads the game, and others follow him. But nowadays it is particularly rampant. The industry has gotten bigger, gone global, and the creative process is so fast that it becomes more difficult to distinguish between homage, copying, and inspiration. You can find literal copies of things around the catwalk.
“I notice designers quoting work from three seasons before because people don’t even have the time to research their copies.”
Where lies the difference between a copy and a homage?
When Phoebe Philo for Celine in 2013 did a homage to Geoffrey Beene with that grey coat, it was literally taken from the book. But obviously, because it’s in the context of a Celine catwalk–which is highbrow and intellectual, very fashion-forward–you think it’s something more. We were invited to interpret it as a homage. For me, that was actually a copy, because for something to be a homage, you should take something and interpret it. Meanwhile, the copy is taken exactly as it is–and in that case, the coat was taken as it was. So that is not a homage.
But it’s not you finding inspiration in another designer that makes something a copy. The creative process has to start somewhere. For some people, it’s a concept–for others, it’s another designer’s style, or a vintage piece that they found. I’m perfectly fine with that. In art, every artist starts by being the pupil of another artist, so their first paintings are copies from the maestro, and then they progress and develop their own style. The point of departure might be in one place, but the point of arrival should be in a completely different place for the creative process to be truly meaningful.
Is that what you meant by the importance of not recognising the references?
Yes. But there are many shades to everything. Sometimes you recognise a reference because it’s a homage. If you take that to a new place, it’s okay. But nowadays, the attention span is very short, and I notice designers quoting work from three seasons before because people don’t even have the time to research their copies.
“As a critic, I have no influence over the taste of those who buy.”
I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but are authenticity and originality truly important? One could argue that the taste of the consumer is all that matters.
As a critic, I think that authenticity and originality are vital. But as a critic, I have no influence over the taste of those who buy. Of course, whether we like it or not, fashion has become a finance-driven industry, so as long as people like it and buy it, the designer has done their job. But I do think that fashion has an emotional function as well, and you need originality to stimulate that. The problem is that originality has turned into a formula. I was in Milan in 2015 when Alessandro Michele presented his first show for Gucci. You could see there were many references, but all digested in a personal way. Everybody recognised that it was very different from the high-octane sexuality that Frida Giannini presented before that. But nobody could have predicted that it would become so successful. Of course, there has been a lot of merchandising behind the success, a lot of hammering to the press, but for one reason or another, that product hit a nerve with the public. The problem then is that, when a designer creates such a huge success for a brand, he or she traps themselves in it. Because management wants the sales to stay on top as long as possible. To them, profit is vital. But designers can have contrary minds – one season they might want to take away all decoration. I don’t think Alessandro can do that right now, because what management needs from him is something else. We think that designers have all the freedom they want, but I think that the real stars of the fashion world are the CEOs. They rule the game, not designers.
“Fashion has become a finance-driven industry, so as long as people like it and buy it, the designer has done their job.”
Does it still happen to you that you see something that surprises you, that feels new to you?
Absolutely, all the time. I’m not so blasé that I’ve seen everything and nothing excites me anymore. A Comme show, a Rick Owens show… everything can really surprise me. I go to every show–and I’ve done this throughout my career–expecting the best possible outcome. For example, I didn’t like the first season of Alyx, but I went there again this season thinking, “maybe I’ll be surprised today”–and in fact, I was. It was a very good show. There was something there that was moving in another direction. I think that every show can really surprise you. I’ve been to every possible Yohji Yamamoto show in my career. You know you can always expect a lot of black, maybe one red dress, and some white. You have that, but it’s still exciting. It’s very difficult to put into words, but there is still an element of emotion. I’m rarely excited by big brands. Louis Vuitton or Dior cannot take my heart in any way. Because you can see that there is the pressure of marketing, the grandeur of showing off all the money they put into the production, into treating you in a certain way. I look at the show and its much ado about very little.
I will always give new designers a try. I’ll go at least three seasons, which is my personal rule. If I’m still disappointed after the third season, I give up. To me, the excitement of the job is that you’re constantly exposed to new ideas, new viewpoints. The problem is that sometimes ideas can be hyped because the designer gets good press or has good connections. Then the designer is forced to keep up with the hype, and sometimes it’s just too much for a young designer.
“Calling out a copy is a very static action. You pointed it out. It would be interesting to see those images accompanied by an argument, or some thinking that can bring the conversation forward.”
Back to the theme of copying. What marks this period, more specifically, is the advent of callout culture through social media. How do you think this impacts the general public’s understanding of what design is?
Callout culture is a way of dealing with things in a manner that comes from the gut, not from the brain. It’s very instinctual. It’s primeval, in a way. To me, calling out the copy isn’t a solution to the problem. I’m more interested in the reason why. I’m talking about designers here. High street chains copying independent designers is another issue–it’s always great when that’s pointed out. Calling out a copy is a very static action. You pointed it out. It would be interesting to see those images accompanied by an argument, or some thinking that can bring the conversation forward. And that is why criticism today is vital, because it is a way to address what is not working in the system. We need to find new ways to stimulate creativity in this fast-paced rhythm. We cannot slow down the system, but we have to find a way to make the creative process authentic and productive again. Callout culture also gives people a distorted idea of what happens in a design studio. We need more nuance, not just a post on Instagram, to really deconstruct what is going on here. Callout culture is simply about choosing one single culprit. “You did this.” That’s it. Once you’re on the post, you’re already dead, you’re condemned. But we need to know the backstory. We need to be in trial, not just in front of the final judgement.
Talking about the democratisation of fashion journalism and criticism through online media – how do you think this impacts the industry?
Today, everybody can have a voice, because we can always self-publish and find an audience, one way or another. That is perfectly fine, but it has led to a lack of interest in professionalism. As a professional, you tend to be perceived as a privileged individual. But I think that being a professional doesn’t just mean experience–it also means having the historic knowledge to put things into perspective. Self-publishing can turn into global ranting, with no real purpose.
Another thing that is important to me: journalism is not about ME being the critic. It’s not about my personality. I am at the service of what I’m writing. Bloggers make a product of themselves; they are promoting themselves. There is an element of narcissism that can be exploited. Journalists always work within a frame, and you disappear within the magazine you work for. I am who I am, but BoF is bigger than who I am. It has allowed me to share my vision, but really, it’s about the platform, not about me.
I do understand why young influencers are so easily seduced. For anyone in fashion, that particular type of fame and attention isn’t easy to resist.
Absolutely–but once you start giving into that seduction, the trouble starts. When you start to believe your own fame, you start to think about fame first and your work second. And so, you start compromising. I hope to stay uncompromised as long as possible.
“The problem today is that there is no clear distinction between commercial and editorial content. This is the result of blogger culture, of outside voices being brought back into the system through gifts.”
Those fashion perks come in many forms–it’s fame, but also luxury (first-class flights and nice hotels). Was that ever difficult to resist and navigate?
Yes, it was very difficult to find a balance. Especially because it’s a matter of being polite to people. Personally, I think that getting a bouquet of flowers as a thank you for an article is fine. Getting presents is more complicated. As a journalist, you should never receive presents. In the heydays, packages would actually be sent back to the sender. Nowadays, sending back presents would be perceived as more rude, offensive even. My personal solution is that every present I receive, I hand it on to relatives and friends. I never keep anything. That is what I do.
But then there is the other seduction, because when we go to destination shows, like Dior in Marrakech, we are flown in business class and put in the best hotels. That puts you in a difficult position to write, because you basically are brought there by the house. You are treated like an A-lister. You start thinking: “If I write what I really think about this, will I be invited again? And if I am not invited, will I still be perceived as an A-lister? Or will I automatically become B-list?” My thinking has always been to not pay attention to any of those thoughts, and write what I feel I have to write. Whatever happens next year will happen–at least I have been truthful to my vision. The problem today is that there is no clear distinction between commercial and editorial content. This is the result of blogger culture, of outside voices being brought back into the system through gifts. You never know when something is paid content or not. When are you brought somewhere because the magazine is publishing your article with the financial support of the brand? Everything is very messy.
This is something that always shocks me in fashion. Many professionals, even in powerful positions, are afraid to be rejected, to find themselves on the outside. Everyone is fragile in fashion, much more than in another industry.
That is the cruel part of this industry. I started writing in 2001. It’s been 18 years now, so I’ve had my ups and downs. You can be considered relevant one day and be outside of the system the next. It’s very cruel. People who treat you with extreme respect, almost like a god, can turn their backs on you in a second. I’ve always been aware of this, because I had my very first lesson early on in my career. At the time it was very hard for me, but in hindsight, it’s good that it happened so early. I started my career as an Italian correspondent for Dutch magazine, which at the time was a very influential publication. I was there for a year and a half, when the magazine suddenly folded over summer. So, in September I found myself trying to get invitations for Milan Fashion Week. Everyone was very polite of course, but I couldn’t get a single ticket, not even standing. Simply because I had lost my status as an editor. That was a very harsh, cruel lesson. Everyone might act very friendly, but that doesn’t mean there are real friends in this industry.
“When you start to believe your own fame, you start to think about fame first and your work second. And so, you start compromising. I hope to stay uncompromised as long as possible.”
Do you believe fashion has the potential to shape culture, or merely to mirror it?
Fashion might not shape culture, but it can predict it. It is always slightly ahead of the curve. The question of gender, for example, was picked up by fashion and heavily discussed right before it became a mainstream, pop culture phenomenon.
In our issue, we have aimed to question the concept of ‘genius’. Is there anyone in this industry you would personally consider ‘a genius’?
Personally, I do not adhere to the term ‘genius’. I think flattery is often used in this industry as a way to gain social capital. It comes back to the theme of the hierarchy. Very often, in a public setting, people from the industry will come to me with the most flattering words, but they do it to advance themselves. I do not trust it. Similarly, the term genius is overused. At the end of the day, there are only very few designers that I would dare to call genius.
This is something young designers especially need to be careful of. It is very easy to get caught up in your own hype. I’ll give you an example. During the last New York Fashion Week, there was a new designer that was being talked about by everyone. The young prodigy. What I noticed, upon further inspection, was that it was actually the stylist he was working with, who wanted to position herself as a “supporter of new talent.” It was a very famous stylist, and the entire show was basically a PR stunt for her. The designer then needed to deal with all the attention, but they didn’t have the capacity or experience to handle it.
Would you say creative genius is a talent (something one is born with) or a skill (something that is learned)?
It’s both. There is an element of talent, but what you do with it at the end of the day is what matters.