With the turmoil of 2020, some of us may not be feeling the same excitement surrounding fashion shows that we usually would come September. But George Serventi, a 2019 graduate of Central Saint Martins’ BA Fashion Journalism course and founder of Fashion Fight Club, devised a way to inject some fun back into fashion week whilst providing more honest coverage, unhindered by the traditional obligations of advertisers or sponsors that characterise mainstream fashion journalism.
Serventi describes his timely decision to give participants a FROW seat to the SS21 collections (no guest list, the game was open to anyone with an Instagram account), saying: “Coronavirus restrictions mean most are attending LFW digitally, following the collections from home – Fashion Fight Club is a way of getting the community spirit back into LFW. Just because we’re not physically together doesn’t mean we can’t interact and feel involved in the online events.”
On his inspiration, Serventi explained: “Footie die-hards get Fantasy Football, Fashion Fight Club works the same for fashion fanatics.” The project, executed through the Instagram handle @fashfightclub, went like this: in the lead-up to London Fashion Week (18th – 22nd September), fashion fans were encouraged to post their predictions for the best fashion show – or the “winner” – from the roster of each day’s showings. Then, on each day of shows, looks from the designers’ collections were posted and opened up to votes from online enthusiasts – i.e., anyone who wanted to take part. Once LFW had wrapped up, the votes had been counted and each day’s winning designer was announced, the players who had made the most correct predictions at the beginning of the week were congratulated.
Aside from the interactive game aspect, the account also offers fashion commentary, with compilations of fashion students and professionals sharing their predictions for the specific designer’s show in video form. This was accompanied by 100-word reviews from different participants after the collection went live. This community of fashion commentators is “London’s next generation of fashion writing talent, most of whom studied at Central Saint Martins and work in the publishing industry,” according to Serventi. He hopes to carry this initiative on through subsequent London Fashion Weeks.
The concept of an interactive game for LFW is new, but de-centralised fashion discourse is not. Many fashion fans have become disillusioned by the inability of traditional media and legacy titles to critique the industry rather than just market it. Social media has given an outlet to countless fashion professionals and fanatics who want to share their opinions – some even growing an audience from it, highlighting how hungry people are for fashion criticism that feels authentic. Serventi did not mince his words when asked about the state of current fashion journalism: “It’s not critical enough. You wouldn’t expect a film critique to read like a press release so why do show reviews blow so much smoke up designer’s arses?”
It’s understandable why journalists could be hesitant to write a scathingly honest review: they have to answer to editors who answer to management in a business model where advertising is the cornerstone of magazines. Causing a certain brand to withdraw their advertising would have a direct effect on the publication’s bottom line, meaning magazines are in a sense beholden to the brands who buy ads in their pages. Contrast this with fashion critics on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Youtube who are independent (sometimes even crowd-funded through sites like Patreon) and can essentially say whatever they want. This leads us to ask the question: is there an irreconcilable conflict between being a publication that both advertises and also critiques fashion?
The importance of fashion critique lies in the fact that journalists are mediators between consumers and this massive, complex industry. (Perhaps less so now, as the internet has made it possible for brands to communicate directly with their audience, though I believe there’s still a need for those who “decode” fashion for the public.) The average consumer may not have the time to be fully acquainted with the ins and outs of fashion, placing their trust instead in editors and writers who live and breathe the industry. This is true both in terms of collection reviews, where journalists provide context regarding the designer’s references and process as well as their informed opinions on the clothes, but more importantly with regards to exposing how the industry operates. Lots of shady practices are hidden behind fashion’s glamorous veneer, and sustainability “achievements” can be greatly over-inflated with greenwashing narratives.
Though being aspirational is in high fashion’s DNA, the lack of genuine criticism on the part of big fashion publishing players coupled with the already exclusive nature of luxury has created an increasingly out of touch industry. This chasm between the average fashion fanatic and legacy titles such as American Vogue was exacerbated by the pandemic, countless instances of police brutality and social unrest, as well as crises across the world. (Magazines cannot be fully blamed for this, bearing in mind the long lead-times of issues, but that in itself poses the question of whether the traditional magazine business model is relevant in a time where we consume media so immediately.)
Serventi believes legacy titles are out of touch “because they’re being hijacked by a handful of fashion victims whose only way to retain authority and control over their little piece of the fashion industry is by making sure no one else gets a shot at it. It’s not in their best interests to hire talented up and comers or write about initiatives that are different and new because the industry is so competitive and small there’s just not enough room for everyone.” (Though there is perhaps not enough room in the shrinking magazine realm, Serventi and others appear to be carving out a new avenue of fashion commentary for themselves via social media.)
Another example of fashion week coverage outside of the traditional realm of fashion publishing were the Rave Digital Twitch streams on Friday 18th and Monday 21st September, coinciding with London’s showings and still available to watch. The two rounds of 2-hour streams were hosted by fashion journalist Jessica Bumpus and Ravensbourne University lecturer Adam Andrascik, featuring designer Adam Jones alongside Ravensbourne Fashion and Promotion students. They noted that Burberry was the first major fashion brand to host their latest collection on the live streaming service Twitch, which is already a popular platform amongst the gaming community, though the fashion set has been slow in taking to it. Rave Digital’s premiere broadcast – featuring fashion students’ designs in a video game setting – was streamed to Twitch in July, highlighting that innovation in fashion often comes from outside the main structures of the industry.
Bumpus, having had extensive experience in the industry – including an 8-year stint at Condé Nast – has a more pragmatic and less cynical view when it comes to the relationship between editorial and advertising, pointing out that “it is an ecosystem at the end of the day, and I think everyone knows that in some respect… without the advertising there isn’t a magazine.” However, like Serventi, she understands the importance of opening the fashion conversation up to new voices. She said: “I think it’s great to get the point of view of the students because fashion’s an industry that’s all about forward-thinking and the future and we always talk about the future talent and the students and how important they are. So I think it’s really good to see what they think, it gives them that spotlight and also it’s really refreshing to hear what they say and the fact that in some ways they’re quite unfiltered and can say “I don’t like that.”” That’s why the recent Rave Digital Twitch streams felt authentic, with the panelists sharing their opinions on the fashion shows, the students with their fresh points of view and the industry professionals with their wealth of experience, creating what Bumpus called “an exchange of ideas.”
In our conversation, Bumpus described how much fashion journalism has changed since she graduated from London College of Fashion in 2006 with a Fashion Journalism degree. Being the former fashion features editor for Vogue.co.uk, she noted how they were one of the first to do fashion news online, at a time where websites for magazines weren’t very highly thought of and “people thought they were kind of magazine counterpart sites where you just get the subscriptions and sign up and they didn’t realise there was actually content.” She went on to explain: “When I started we used to write short news pieces because you used to sit at a PC so you didn’t want anything that you’d have to scroll down because that’s not how it was done, whereas now you can sit on a bus or train or whatever and you scroll on your phone or tablet device and – because of Instagram – you’re used to the idea of scrolling forever, so you’re happy to read 2000-word-and-beyond features on your phone, which you’d never do before.”
So yes, fashion media has certainly changed, but Bumpus believes that it’s really the medium that changes, whilst at its core fashion journalism is about what it’s always been about: “I’m a true believer in good writing, because ultimately it’s just the device that changes.” On his hope for the future of the industry, Serventi told me: “More inclusion, less deifying of industry titans.” De-centralised fashion discourse should certainly help with this, since traditionally – fashion being the “ecosystem” that it is – “industry titans” like LVMH would get the most coverage from legacy titles seeing as they had the most spending power when it came to ads. One can hope that with the growth of online fashion commentators – facilitated by platforms like YouTube, Twitch, Twitter or Instagram – who don’t have much of an obligation to any brand, the focus can be primarily on talent and creativity.
By Anastasia Vartanian