Inspiration from Colin McDowell

Occasionally life is so absorbing that I do not have as much time as I would like to pause, reflect and write. Sometimes it can be good just to live; to experience life without analysing it too critically or filtering it into a piece of writing. However, for me, the freedom of writing expressively is synonymous with the pleasure of living curiously and creatively.

Earlier this week I was delighted to attend a fascinating talk by my personal favourite fashion writer and one the fashion industries most influential commentators, Colin McDowell. Reading much of his work for The Sunday Times Style magazine and more recently for The Business of Fashion, it was Colin McDowell’s discerning words which first ignited my interest in writing about fashion as a career. I am particularly looking forward to reading Colin’s new book ‘The Anatomy of Fashion’, to be published by Phaidon this year.

Image of Colin McDowell from 13/09/12

McDowell could have given us a boring lecture, but he didn't. As a speaker, he is highly charismatic and engaging, and without exception, the eclectic audience was compelled by his every word. There was no need for a PowerPoint or even any prompts, as by inviting questions from the audience, Colin encouraged us to generate the topics of discussion that we wanted to broach. Putting him on the spot, Colin illuminated every question with unprecedented insight and enthusiasm. It is fair to say that everyone left the talk informed, impressed and immensely inspired. ‘Wowed’.

Elaborating on everything from the ominous death of print publications to the exciting future of fashion in Asia, the interactive discussion commenced with a question relating to a topical debate; what is Colin's view on citizen journalism? This question reminded me of an article I read with interest posted in Colin's Column on The Business of Fashion at the end of July 2012 titled 'Does the Fashion Critic Matter Anymore?' At the time, reading this thought-provoking article and the mixed comments it evoked prompted me to question the future of fashion writing and its evolution in the digital age. As Colin pointed out, ‘technology has given everyone a voice’. How then, I wondered, can one establish a unique and informed voice that is heard above the yelling of the masses? I asked Colin this very question.

I had only a few precious minutes to speak to him in person, but his advice was clear; you’ve got to have an opinion and you’ve got to know what’s going on in the world, outside of fashion. Read about subjects such as sport and travel; see what’s being written about it and how it’s being written. Many fashion writers/critics and bloggers have now succumbed to pressures imposed on them by increasingly powerful PRs; they merely report and describe what they see, rather than analysing and interpreting what they really think. With extensive experience of the fashion industry as a designer, an illustrator, a publicist, an opinionated journalist of over twenty years and founder of the Fashion Fringe initiative, Colin has written over twenty books on fashion and he unaffectedly says what he thinks. This, I admire.

Recently I read another thought-provoking article, again on The Business of Fashion, in which Diane Pernet also reflects on the current state of fashion criticism. In this article Diane comments that ‘It takes a certain amount of curiosity and openness toward what is new, combined with a strong understanding of what went on in the past to be a really great critic.’ This, along with a freedom from commercial constraints allowing them to voice their own opinions, is what distinguishes experienced writers such as Colin McDowell, Suzy Menkes and Cathy Horyn from many other commentators and critics of fashion and why I believe their views are important. Their cultural, artistic, social, political and historical insight and understanding of the past frames fashion in context, enabling less experienced writers such as myself to gain the knowledge to understand and the confidence to decipher for ourselves.   

Colin is extremely approachable and keen to share his expertise. I was especially delighted when he complimented my outfit! After listening to Colin’s talk and meeting him in person I would argue that the judicious fashion critic with an objective opinion does matter. I do not limit ‘critic’ to the critiquing of designer collections on the runway. Fashion is a cultural barometer after all, and the most observant fashion critics use their knowledge and experience to comment on contentious issues in the fashion industry, exploring social, political and cultural implications in the wider world. I have my own opinion, but I am always keen to broaden my perspective and expand my knowledge in order to make my views more informed. We do not have to agree with fashion critics, but surely being open-minded to their astute perceptions can only help to shape our own individual judgements?

So where do citizen journalists fit in to all of this? Well, I believe that anyone with passion should  have the opportunity to write and express their views. However, I don’t believe that this diminishes the importance of established fashion writers; if anything it emphasises their credibility. Anyone who was lucky enough to attend the talk by Colin McDowell at NTU will have witnessed the way he engaged and enthused his inquisitive audience of fashion students and realised just how much we all appreciated and benefitted from his insightful expertise. More than ever, I am inspired to write. 

Thank you, Colin!

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