Tom, Azzedine, Ralph, Marc and Karl – such hints will surely ring familiar for those interested in fashion culture. And New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn dropped the names of these largely enigmatic designers without the slightest bit of pretension at a lecture last Friday hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Horyn spoke about the fashion industry as a whole, focusing on the work of Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo, whose work is currently on display at the museum.

Kelly Fraser

These designers are the characters in the narrative that this fashion insider weaves into her Times critiques and runway blog. To Horyn, though, they’re more than just characters – they’re artists. They’re real people and her close acquaintances. Nonetheless, neither friendship nor personal admiration factor into Horyn’s taste when it comes to a particular collection.

“Inevitably, you become friends with some designers and CEOs in the industry, but if the friendship is solid and open, I think criticism is less difficult for them. It becomes a problem when the designer perceives that a writer ‘likes’ them, based on only a few meetings or casual conversations,” Horyn said.

“In any case, I try to explain in the review why a collection wasn’t strong. I do the same if I think it was great – sometimes those are the more interesting reviews to write . I like to be square with people.”

With an English degree from Barnard College and a graduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University, Horyn entered the fashion realm with little experience. She got her start at The Detroit News 20 years ago when she answered an ad looking for a fashion writer: “No experience necessary.”

While Detroit might not seem like the ideal place to start a career in fashion, Horyn took on the challenge and sought to not only write about global style in Detroit but also to find fashion within the city itself. In Birmingham, Mich., she came across the avant-garde couture-clothing boutique Linda Dresner – a minimalist, uncluttered space that creates an “environment in which one can truly appreciate the clothes.” It was also in Detroit that Horyn first met the late American sportswear icon Bill Blass. The two maintained a close friendship until his death in 2002, and Horyn even edited his memoir Bare Blass.

Horyn later moved on to The Washington Post and then Vanity Fair as a fashion and Hollywood correspondent. But she’s best known for her work at the Times, where she’s worked since 1999. These 20 years have provided her with great insight and familiarity with the industry as she watched the trends change over time and can now better predict what the future of fashion might hold. She’s seen first-hand how classic designers like Karl Lagerfeld (who’s been around since the 1950s) have reinvented their designs and image, while others fade into vintage obscurity. She’s seen the vision of young designers like Marc Jacobs call out self-awareness and spectacle, taking fashion into a world of playful showmanship combined with a sexy, stripped-down style – the true future of fashion, according to Horyn.

Her frankness can be intimidating, but there’s something in Horyn’s speech and writing that commands your attention. She’s able to deconstruct the evasive world of fashion to make it more accessible, without minimizing the industry’s elusive air of luxury. Her runway blog in particular creates a forum for immediate discussion and interaction. Through her posts, she takes readers backstage to intimate moments between a designer and his models or reproduces the musings of a crowd. While Horyn insists that blogging hasn’t changed her writing style, she does believe the blog has broadened her audience to a younger, more international readership. Just as regular readers will become familiar with Horyn’s style and taste, Horyn has become familiar with many of the habitual posters whom she knows by username.

“I do read all the comments. Generally I make notes of the points that interest me or will be interesting for a bigger discussion, and then I post on that. There’s a definite connection with the regulars,” Horyn said.

Never catty, her blog has a dignity that fits the sophistication of the fashion industry. Whether quoting Emerson or admiring Amy Winehouse’s signature, Horyn fuses high and low culture in her work.

And perhaps most importantly, the blog provides immediate feedback. Fashion enthusiasts don’t turn to newspapers for their fashion news anymore. They go directly to Style.com instead and look at the images just moments after a show has ended. Horyn’s readers will begin commenting on her blog two hours later, wanting to discuss a collection and her comments. It creates a forum for public discussion where as many as 80 comments provide discussion and debate based on the merits of a particular show.

Horyn asks, however, what this immediate accessibility does to the fashion world and the luxury goods industry. Is it luxury if everyone can have it? Fashion is constantly hovering between the public and private spheres. In her writing, Horyn tries to maintain a balance between the two. She believes it’s most important in her line of work to understand all aspects of the industry – including the financial and business sides – to gain a more comprehensive view.

“(Fashion is a) bitchy, tough business, full of smart people,” she said. And it’s important to know what you’re talking about.

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