By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Fashion magazines prostitute themselves to advertisers every month, but in their bloated September issues, the whoredom is at its most dramatic. No matter how dull or dreary clothing designers, manufacturers, retailers, or cosmetic companies may be, the sycophantic fashion press pumps them up with fluttery prose, all the while ogling their fat advertising budgets. Critics in fields like film and theater, art and music, are free to praise or pan, but the scriveners who toil in the halls of women's magazines understand that "fashion journalism" is for the most part a sad oxymoron.
The relationship between advertisers and magazines, greased with lavish parties, freebies, junkets, and other such bribes, bears a chilling similarity to the payola scandal, wherein DJs were excoriated for taking money for pushing records. The process may be more subtle and insidious in the fashion industry, but the results are the same. The line between fashion editorial and advertising isn't just blurred--it doesn't exist.
The lack of even a shred of editorial independence is apparently nothing anyone is ashamed of. Harper's Bazaar touts one of its own employees, an editor who also happens to sideline as a stylist and "muse" for designer Helmut Lang, in a column entitled "In Her Closet"; in the very same issue there's a slavishly deferential article about Lang himself. A soporific entitled "Estée's Heirs," devoted to the descendants of the heavily advertising Lauder company (it also owns Aramis, Clinique, Prescriptives, Origins, and MAC), reads like it was written by a member of that illustrious clan, and takes up fully seven pages; Lauder granddaughter Aerin pops up yet again in an article about the "truly chic" called "The American Comfort Class."
Sometimes advertisers themselves are the ones to disguise product promotion as reportage. A whopping 24 pages of Bazaar, devoted to extensive ephemera regarding the Ferragamo company, is art-directed to look exactly like Bazaar edit; it takes Hercule Poirot to track down the tiny "Special Promotional Section" buried in the margins.
Over at Vogue, a full-page ad from Fendi wishes Anna Wintour a happy 10th anniversary as editor in chief at that magazine and offers an affectionate caricature of the great lady. Several hundred pages later (these are big books), elaborate fashion spreads are besmirched by idiotic "Beauty Notes" ("Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Firm Body Lift tones and refines skin"), littering what are supposed to be strictly editorial pages, and implying that a dab of the cited elixir will make the reader resemble the 14-year-old models in the photos.
W's Men's Portfolio, included with the September issue, isn't embarrassed to confess, in an article called "Diary of a Liposuction," which contains suspiciously flattering descriptions of various plastic surgeons: "All of the doctors . . . agreed to waive or reduce some fees for this article, and the magazine picked up the final tab." (The reporter goes on to describe his excruciating, if gratis, surgery in lurid detail.)
No stone is left unturned in the quest to flatter advertisers. Every new idea, no matter how lame, is greeted with wild enthusiasm. So poor Liz Tilberis, in her Bazaar Editor's Note, writes of this season's ankle-length skirts: "I didn't know how I'd handle fall's long skirts... until today, when I saw a rack of Ralph Lauren's clothes..." And Elle finds itself suggesting, apropos a Hervé Leger gown, "Even a bustled ball skirt can have a '90s aggro urbanity to it if rendered in sweater-soft navy cashmere."
Instead of devoting the empty space around the ads to sharp reviews, pointed critiques, exposés, or other fun stuff, the magazines offer a surfeit of pap and puffery: drooling celebrity profiles, elaborate astrology columns (Elle has two--one devoted to numerology), salacious "health" Q and A's ("Whenever I perform oral sex on my boyfriend, I seem to get strep throat afterward. Why?" queries a young lady in Mademoiselle), and Travis Bickelish letters from readers ("If I could be friends with anyone famous, I would choose Sandra Bullock, or Sandy, as I like to call her," a reader confides in Vogue).
Sometimes a story, though inane, seems faintly controversial, but, as in the dark days of Stalinist Russia, the author never ends up straying from the party line. W's "Will Women Wear Hats?" doesn't stand a chance of answering no; Marie Claire's "Can You Judge a Woman by the Shoes She Wears?" isn't going to say anything bad about footwear, no matter how crippling or hideous; and you can bet Glamour's "Pencil or Liquid--Fall's Big Eyeliner Question" won't take a stand on this eternal conundrum.
At least Paper magazine, whose September cover line is "The Truth About Fashion," (alas, if only... ) is willing to print the plaintive reminiscences of Met Costume Institute curator Richard Martin, longing for the halcyon days of the old Details magazine, circa 1989, when Bill Cunningham would "skewer Claude Montana and Hubert de Givenchy" and even slam Martin's own bailiwick, claiming that "the golden age of fashion exhibition that bloomed under the genius of Diana Vreeland suffered its own Black Monday plunge at the December 7th Costume Institute gala... The extremely bland, third-rate design installation kills off the Vreeland legacy..."
But, sadly, even Paper, with its Downtown credentials and patented quirkiness, is not immune to the virus that infects the fashion business. In a column by one of its regular contributors, the poet/Gap mouthpiece Max Blagg, the author confesses, "I've been instructed to think about fashion... and not to slag off any of our advertisers."