UNDERSTATEMENT | Fashion writing lessons from 2014


UNDERSTATEMENT | Fashion writing lessons from 2014

Yesterday, the theme on a WhatsApp group I am on with my school mates was to write about things we would like to do in 2015. I quickly typed out my top ten including I will “try to write the most meaningful fashion stories next year”. My post went up, but I suddenly wasn’t so sure of my confidence on fashion writing. Fact is that at a personal level, I am navigating a delicate space of questioning the influences that make and sustain a fashion journalist and critic.

Here are my constant guidelines and guard lines. There is no substitute to objectivity in journalism. Question: But can one really be objective? Answer: Yes. How: Blind yourself to personal allegiances if any and do your job. Next question: Do you even know your job? Answer: Maybe some, but never shortchange your homework, constantly read fashion history, update yourself on events, news, celebrity dressing, trends, silhouettes, forecasts, present contexts, see fashion collections in the light of India here and now, look at fabrics and materials from a creative, commercial and economic point of view, see fashion weeks as packages instead of fiefdoms of fashion politics, ask about inspirations, double check yet again, send that “please check your quotes” mail yet again, ask, ask, ask. Be original. Form an opinion. Stand up and voice it. A usual checklist I would say. Most of us in the trade follow this de rigueur.

Could you still get it wrong? Of course. Who can get it right all the time anyway? But can you avoid and diminish errors? Oh yes. Can you cultivate the art of review? Oh yes. Will you end up offending those you critique? That’s an unfortunate outcome. You can’t cloud your work or your observations because of that.

Some months back, when a researcher called Meher Varma interviewed me on aspects of the Indian fashion industry for her project on Ogaan completing 25 years, what I pointed out was that a critic—fashion or otherwise—is not a self-created institution and should never be a self-serving diva. She must have worked long and well enough for a publication to publish her. Editors of powered publications don’t just allow any hack to review or demolish anyone for the heck of it. You become a reviewer because of the body of work you do. It must include reportage from the field, cultivation of networks and sources, an eye on emerging trends, society, culture, textile history, economic policies, interviews and essays on socio-political threads of fashion. Only then a writer gathers the bandwidth to write a review and the publication allows you to do so.

Ironically, one of the questions I am most frequently asked by younger fashion journalists including those working on applications to fashion schools abroad is: Why is there no culture of critiques in the industry? Let me admit I have become defensive enough to sniff some background noise as I wonder why are they asking me this? Am I supposed to say…but Mint Lounge does do reviews so why are you asking me this? Or, am I supposed to say it is indeed difficult to be candid because the fashion industry can cut you off if it wants and if you are younger, impressionable, addicted to the air kissing camaraderie of parties, favours and gifts and not supported by an organization, it could mean living with the fact that some people professionally dislike you. But my by now rehearsed answer is: this is work, not personal. So let’s treat it like that and do our best.

Last year, Aishwarya Subramanyam, editor of Elle India invited me to write a piece in Elle’s anniversary issue on why fashion magazines don’t do fashion journalism. Why the industry is incestuous in some way. I was delighted with the opportunity Aishwarya gave me and wrote that as long as fashion magazines are on the same side of the fence as advertisers there can be no journalism. Newspapers have an advantage there. Also, while some designers do turn away and snap connections after a not-so-glowing review, eventually they might still respect independent, unbiased opinion. Many, in fact, do pick up the phone and thrash it out, disagree strongly, talk and finish it. Best way. Like Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango did after my review of his debut collection at Lakme Fashion Week earlier this year. We ended up talking about his collection in great detail. It was a very educative conversation for me. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my writing. Why should they and what about the highs of idea democracy that I thrive on.

Some do get miffed. And stay miffed. When people stay miffed for a long time or only expect what the industry calls “support”, then journalists like me miss out on some stories and possibly some great interviews. That’s my loss. For instance, I can no longer reach Manish Malhotra and Sabyasachi Mukherjee. They have become inaccessible to me. I have tried to get on with my next story but my messages to them, respectively, have remained unanswered. They must have their own reasons. Sure. But presumptive as this may sound, I think Sabyasachi is a good interview subject at this point of his career on the punctuations becoming evident in his fashion and design philosophy. I wish I can do that interview. His Delhi-based PR Pareina Thapar, a former journalist herself, often says that she can easily get me “quotes from him on email” for any story that I wish. I say I know Sabyasachi doesn’t write emails himself and my stories don’t sparkle with parroted quotes, they need intense conversations. While Malhotra’s PR, the Mumbai-based Srimoyi Bhattacharya says this is such an important year for her client, and she will soon tell me more. These are extremely articulate women, professional to a fault. I know exactly what they mean. They know exactly what I mean. Sabyasachi and Malhotra know exactly what they mean and life goes on. A journalist loses stories. Bad idea. A designer loses a reviewer. Good idea or bad? You say.

My biggest fashion lesson at the end of 2014 is this then: Keep at it. Polish your writing and do more reportage. Try not to make close friends in the industry so that you don’t lose sight of objectivity. At the same time, accept that all of us journalists have biases; what’s a journalist without a bias, as my former boss the editorial director of Outlook Group Vinod Mehta used to say? Only, learn to wear those biases in a loose fit. Most of all, remember that you are only a small part of a publication. So you must work hard every day to earn the power to upset some people. Hello 2015.