It’s the Matinée Fashion Ready-To-Wear spring ’98 extravaganza at The Docks. The event has attracted most of the local fashion reporters, who have been assigned seats in the front row; they wear sunglasses because of the bright lights. Alicia Kay, host of CFTO’s By Design, sits next to Stephanie Black, host of Global Television Network’s Style File, two down from Deborah Weiss of FLARETV and Chris Chilco of CBC Newsworld’s Fashion File, and three down from Jeanne Beker of Citytv’s Fashion Television.
After 45 minutes of extravagant lighting effects, barbaric techno-dance music and skinny models parading colourful, jungle-motif clothing, the house lights come up. With only 20 minutes until the next show, all the TV fashion reporters crowd toward the catwalk for an interview with designer Simon Chang. In Europe, fistfights sometimes break out as crews, editors and reporters jockey for exclusive interviews. Here, the Matinée PR reps have told each of the TV crews who to follow in the interview line up and everyone has obligingly filed into place, awaiting his or her few minutes with Chang, who stands on the catwalk as the models for the next show practice behind him. When it’s her turn, Kay who has quickly discussed the shots with her cameraman, approaches Chang. “Very risqué, Simon, what happened to you?” He laughs. “I know. But that’s in this spring. I guess I just got a little crazy this season.” After a few more general questions and a couple of good sound bites, the camera light is flicked off. Later that evening, on CFTO News at 6 p.m., Kay quotes three unnamed sources who promote Canadian Fashion Week, does a stand-up, shows a few models parading down the runway and, within 90 seconds, has presented an admiring story of Chang’s collection to close to a million viewers. It’s more promo than journalism and while this type of simple, uncritical report may have been appropriate for a brief item on the evening news, it also represents the standard in fashion journalism on television.
Fashion journalism on television isn’t journalism at all-it’s mostly over-appreciative reporting on the latest couture shows and helpful tips for consumers. Often, TV fashion shows appear to be providing a free PR service for the fashion industry. The ethical values which govern most journalism (accuracy, fairness, thoroughness and the ability to check biases at the door) are almost entirely absent, even though many issues associated with the international, billion-dollar-a-year fashion industry are worthy of scrutiny.
Barbara Freeman, a media historian who teaches a course on gender and the journalist at Carleton University’s journalism school, compares TV fashion shows to infomercials, and says their focus is on the designers and what the designers think of their own work. She says many of the people featured are artistic and talented, but these shows often depict a group of people who are in their own little world most of the time. “I find that approach rather shallow, to say the least. It’s a kind of popular culture version of an academic conference where academics get together and talk the same language and have their little tiffs-but in this case, you don’t see the tiffs surfacing, or at least not in public.”
Some TV fashion reporters present reports at the end of daily newscasts or during scheduled time slots. Alicia Kay’s By Design, on CFTO consists of 90-second to three minute daily reports, and Style File on Global is two minutes long. The reporters and producers face crippling time constraints and limited access to international fashion stories. Two Canadian shows target niche markets. Ooh La La, Citytv’s hip, funky fashion and style show, presents an anti-celebrity attitude geared to young, street-smart viewers. Because Ooh La La focuses on alternative styles and doesn’t require access to haute couture designers and international shows, host Laurie Pike brings a refreshing impertinence to her reporting. FLARETV, an offshoot of the national fashion magazine, caters to the average Canadian woman’s fashion needs. Now in its second season, this service-oriented show features beauty and wardrobe tips and a guide to bargain shopping.
But by far the most influential programs are Fashion Television, Citytv’s most widely syndicated show, with viewers across Canada and in over 100 countries around the world, and Fashion File, an independently produced show that airs on CBC Newsworld, E! Network in the U.S. and in approximately 25 other countries. Both shows have developed a specific formula: half an hour of glitzy runway footage of European fashion shows, heavy on attitude and ample glimpses of bare breasts and buttocks, interspersed with the obligatory sound bites from designers (saying how fabulous their new collections are), models who look as if they have barely reached puberty gushing about how wonderful a designer’s clothes are to wear (Model Lauren: “I love the clothes-just wearing Gilles Rosier’s clothes makes you feel really sexy”), plus an observation by a celebrity personally invited to attend the show by the designer (MTV’s former VJ Julie Brown: “The woman is just amazing-the show’s not complete without Betsey Johnson coming out and doing a cartwheel showing her purple knickers”) or a “critic”, usually a writer for a glossy magazine (Ingrid Sischy at Interview: “They’ve been (designers Dolce and Gabbana) so influential today, especially to kids, (through) their constant evoking of sex and sexuality”). It’s a variation on celebrity journalism, which advertisers love, but it seldom scratches the surface of a story.
TV fashion reporters almost always hesitate when controversy arises in the fashion industry. Issues such as the exploitation of Third World garment workers, drug use by models, the pollution that cotton processing creates or the psychological and physical damage sustained by young women trying to achieve a fashion model’s perfect body are seldom investigated. Neither is there much effort to provide any serious analysis of the sociocultural aspects of fashion, a missed opportunity to give viewers a few insights into one of the important symbols of contemporary life. Jeanne Beker, host of Fashion Television, whose background is in music and entertainment reporting for MuchMusic’s The NewMusic and Rockflash segments, says FT is entertainment-driven and only covers stories that are already big in the mainstream news. “We’re not doing 60 Minutes here.”
Twelve-year-old FT is a show primarily about tits-and-ass for the fellas. It covers the mainstream upscale fashion industry (including occasional items on art, design and photography) as well as segments consisting of ad campaigns and one-sided, PR-pumped fluff stories that are designed to please advertisers, leaving it up to viewers to figure out what is blatant PR and what is a story that really deserves to be told. For instance, when Beker did a story featuring Nolan Miller, the designer for the popular 1980s show Dynasty, she reminded viewers of Dynasty‘s popularity and how Miller dresses glamorous stars. On another segment about flash and glam, Beker profiled designer Fiorucci’s New York City store. While trying on numerous outfits herself, Beker talked about how the store is a place where trendsetters shop (including celebrities Brook Shields and Madonna). It’s unlikely Fiorucci’s own PR rep could have produced a more favourable spin.
Like their colleagues in the entertainment industry, TV fashion reporters must deal with a layer of forceful PR reps that surrounds the stars, ensuring that brief, tightly controlled interviews produce sound bites, not substance. Furthermore, reliable sources are hard to find because so many potential sources are tied up tightly in the industry’s PR machine, where few are willing to speak candidly about anyone or anything.
When FT occasionally covers controversial issues, producer and founder Jay Levine says the show chooses appropriate sources to supply critical commentary. André Leon Talley, European editor of Vanity Fair, is a recurring FT source because he can be counted on for off-the-cuff criticisms of issues and designers. With his outrageous clothes and flamboyant personality, Talley can get away with shooting his mouth off even if his criticisms aren’t well backed up, which gives the show the appearance of hard journalism without providing any in depth analysis. Talley is often quoted in FT segments, whether he adores a designer’s recent collection or despises it. In one segment featuring Alek Wek, a Sudan refugee turned high fashion model, Talley, who is black, noted that the rising number of black models on the runways is just a fad and not a lasting change in attitudes. He said that the world is still prejudiced against unique, ethnic-looking models and that this trend will probably never change, although he provided no specific examples. For her part, Beker moved on to the next glamorous European fashion show featuring predominately white models-she didn’t touch on the issue of model rivalries between black and white models, differences in pay or the fact that designers still favour using the all-American white girl-next-door in shows versus models of colour.
Last season, when Beker did a short segment on the heroin chic phenomenon, she spoke to fashion photographer David Lorrente, who said that heroin chic was being replaced by a new “happy look.” Rather than pursue Lorrente on the reasons behind the heroin chic look, or explore the well-documented use of drugs by models and other players in the fashion industry, FT aired various magazine spreads and advertisements depicting the heroin chic look and ran a clip of U.S. President Bill Clinton commenting on its potential danger to youth by encouraging drug use. Beker ended the item by speaking to model Bijou Phillips, who admitted she had done drugs in the past, adding that all agents do drugs with their models. Faced with the opportunity to probe deeper, Beker instead backed off, closing with the qualifier: “Well, not all agents.” The heroin chic fashion trend reflected a dark side of the business-the use of drugs in the glamourous, jet-setting world of international high fashion-but that was apparently too controversial for FT.
On another episode, FT‘s Beker spoke to New York designer Isaac Mizrahi about his recently published three-volume comic book series; The Adventures of Sandee, The Supermodel or Yvesaac’s Model Diaries. In this spoof of the fashion world’s players and problems, the main character, the naive Sandee, eventually turns into a typical high fashion model, who is said to be a composite of famous supermodels the designer knows. As the story unfolds, she faces weight gain, age discrimination and drug use in the fashion world. The second volume addresses eating disorders (“to any other up-and-coming supermodel, an eating disorder would be a sign of health”), plastic surgery (“new nose, new teeth, new boobs, new trainer…it’s to the point where the surgeon general is ready to issue a warning on her packaging”) and corrupt fashion people. At the end of the segment, Beker did not challenge Mizrahi with any smart questions about his portrayal of an industry apparently awash and filled with ethical issues and dominated by obnoxious, self-absorbed people; instead, she jumped from the press conference in New York to the designer’s spring/summer 1998 collection in Paris.
These days, Beker saves her challenging questions for people who are not in the limelight of the fashion world. For instance, FT aired a segment on pornography stars turned models for a fashion spread in the magazine Black Book. Beker asked three “adult entertainers” pointed questions about their controversial line of work and explained to viewers that runway shows and ad campaigns are becoming more sexually provocative, blurring the line between porn and fashion.
She hasn’t always played softball with the big fashion sources. In 1986, Beker did an item on Klein’s fragrance, Obsession, just launched with a controversial ad campaign. During the report, two of the contentious commercials were shown. Klein talked about why the ads consisted primarily of beautiful models acting out a series of passion-filled and sensual fantasies (including one model slapping another in the face over fear of losing her man), ending with such catch phrases as: “There may be many loves, but only one Obsession.” Beker also showed a commercial for Calvin Klein jeans, in which a young model is lying down, laughs and says: “When you lose your mind, its great to have a body to fall back on.” Her questions about the ads led to a serious discussion about pornography activist groups and a defensive response from Klein: “Women against porn groups have had a good time with me for many years. I don’t want to offend anyone. I do want to provoke thought and sometimes we do step over the boundaries of good taste.” Finally, Beker tries to delve deeper into Klein’s marketing tactics by asking when his sexual perspectives on things first developed.
The top fashion writers (such as Hilary Alexander of The Daily Telegraph, Suzy Menkes of International Herald Tribune and Amy Spindler of the The New York Times) can afford to be more critical in their articles because their livelihood depends less on access to the designers-they don’t need interviews on camera. TV fashion reporters, on the other hand, are fearful of jeopardizing their VIP passes to fashion events. Beker stresses that access to the big shows is crucial and TV fashion reporters are at the mercy of the fashion houses. Criticism is unwelcome in the fashion business and TV reporters may not be invited back if a designer’s collection is unfavorably reviewed. In her coverage of the spring/summer 1998 Vivienne Westwood show, Beker thanked the designer on air. “To a large degree, we have to be politicking a lot, and we have to be diplomatic,” she explains. “There’s a certain amount of schmoozing that is inherent in the scene.”
Unlike FT, which originated in-house at City, 10-year-old Fashion File is self-funded, surviving on commercial and international sales revenues. Réjean Beaudin, executive in charge of production at Fashion File, says his show is more news-oriented than FT, largely because the CBC expects the show to contain at least some journalistic elements to justify carrying it on Newsworld. “We always push the envelope to try to get that extra bit of news information, that extra little piece of something that makes our show a little smarter. I don’t believe in hiding the issues.”
While Fashion File, like FT, isn’t above showing flashes of bare breasts and buttocks and can scarcely be described as investigative, there is a greater journalistic component. Fashion File‘s host, Tim Blanks, contributing editor to Toronto Life Fashion magazine, is disinclined to let an issue pass without at least remarking upon it. Blanks, who resides in London and whose journalism background includes current affairs and political reporting, believes fashion journalism isn’t an oxymoron. “What I’m always trying to do is have a conversation with the viewer that’s a little more interesting than just what colours, fabrics and hemlines are all about.” For instance, while reporting on the spring 1997 collections, Blanks made a point of commenting on the youth of the models, most of whom were wearing skimpy clothing-underwear visible beneath see-through frocks, bathrobes revealing cleavage and baby-doll dresses. (“Meet Corina, she’s done Paris and Milan, and she’s only thirteen”, Blanks said in a disapproving tone. “Meet Jenny Knight from Utah. It’s her second season in Paris and she’s only 15.”) During the segment Blanks spoke to Kevyn Aucoin, world famous makeup artist to the stars, who agreed that most of the models today are too young to be presented as sex objects. “I’d prefer to work on a 21-year-old face than a 14-year-old face. I think 30 is the age girls should start modeling.” On a previous segment, Blanks raised the issue again as young male models were backstage getting ready for Hugo Boss’s fall 1997 show, he observed: “Is this yet another exercise of modern fashion irony? As the market matures, the models grow younger.”
And when reporting on designer John Galliano’s spring 1997 collection in Paris, centred around a circus theme-complete with a Gypsy camp outside an old warehouse and circus acts inside-models dressed in full skirts, head wraps and long earrings danced around the circus ring. Blanks hinted that these clothes were not made for the average woman looking for something to wear to her next party. “Galliano transported the crowd into a magic place where glamourously otherworldly women showed off clothes meant for a charmed life.” He then posed this question to his viewers: “The realistic question still remains, do these clothes sell?” No. These clothes are not really fashions, they’re costumes produced by designers who put on a show for entertainment. It is not surprising, then, that most TV fashion programs won’t spend time on shows that are not entertaining for their viewers.
In television, “editing by omission” is a common practice. Producers won’t spend four and a half minutes on a collection they hate because there are so many other events to cover. Blanks said Fashion File wouldn’t do a story if the show was bad-he would rather accentuate the positive by covering the good shows. However, the problem isn’t always that there are not enough negative comments-it’s often simply the difference between a journalistic approach and a “story” that sounds more like an ad. For instance, reporters could cover the evolution of designers and their collections by presenting an honest look at their designs to date, including their own critique as well as analysis from fashion experts or critics. But Tim Blanks, notable because he tries to cover stories in a more thought-provoking manner, isn’t sure about the practicality of more in depth reporting. Only if he had the time-and it was the show’s mandate-would he travel the world, interview all of the key players and do a comprehensive story on some of the darker elements of the business, he says. This is puzzling considering daily newscasts manage to air well researched and comprehensive stories despite time constraints and limited resources.
In a November 1996 Harper’s Bazaar article, “Why Doesn’t Fashion Work on TV?” Julia Szabo argued that TV treats fashion as just another form of celebrity watching. Blanks agrees. In a Fashion File item on a Dolce and Gabbana show, Blanks commented that the designers had become “the coveted label for the hip celebrity set.” Blanks spoke to Hal Rubenstein of In Style Magazine who said: “They’re (Dolce and Gabbana) star struck and their relationship with Madonna and other celebrities has helped fuel the connection between celebrities, designers, film and models. Everything has now become a part of entertainment.” On a recent FT segment, Beker spoke to American fashion illustrator Gladys Perrint Palmer about the fashion world’s fascination with Hollywood. Palmer told Beker a humourous story about Demi Moore, Jessica Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, Tom Hanks’s wife Rita Wilson and Mimi Rogers, ex-wife of Tom Cruise, sitting side by side in the front row at a Gianni Versace show, scoping out each other’s breasts in a competition of cleavages. Quid pro quo is part of the deal: celebrities are there to attract the photographers to the show and afterwards the designers provide the stars with a few dresses to wear to star-studded events. As Blanks has noted, fashion is becoming a branch of Hollywood-the “new show business with its own set of stars and its own glamour.” And in Hollywood, people like happy endings.