Purple Magazine
— The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

cathy horyn

Cathy Horyn walking the summer 2024 Balenciaga show in Paris. Photo Balenciaga





Fashion journalist Cathy Horyn has been reporting for the American daily press from the front row since the 1980s. Her critical eye on fashion makes her one of the most respected voices today. For her, what truly matters is fashion design. The rest is business.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start with fashion, your domain of excellence. You’ve been writing about fashion for more than 35 years.

CATHY HORYN — Yes, since 1986.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a long path. Purple was created in 1992, so it’s a similar time course. You’ve witnessed a major transformation of the fashion world and the fashion industry in that time. How would you describe it from the late ’90s to now?

CATHY HORYN — It feels like the biggest change is the dominance of corporate groups like LVMH, Kering, and Richemont. Yes, there were changes between 1990 and 2015, but now those changes have really accelerated. It started before the pandemic, and it has really accelerated since — to where the industry doesn’t feel recognizable anymore.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s exponential growth.

CATHY HORYN — I think it’s an exponential change in what’s important and what the priority is in fashion. If we look back at the late 1990s or the early 2000s, if we think of the years of Tom Ford at Gucci, he officially ends his relationship with Gucci in 2003, and he leaves in the spring of 2004. Nicolas Ghesquière is at Balenciaga doing really exciting things. Alexander McQueen is doing exciting things in London and in Paris with his brand. We can keep going down the list. Raf Simons hasn’t even arrived at Jil Sander yet. He arrives in 2005, I think. Everybody is riveted with Prada. I’ve only given you a few names, but I could mention more. The industry before 2010 still felt pretty much the same as it did in the 1990s. So, it seems that some of these changes have been more about these big companies and big houses becoming bigger, in terms of revenue, and the role of merchandising and marketing taking on a bigger role than creativity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — At the same time — I don’t know if you share this observation — social media has given the possibility for a lot of young, small brands to emerge and create their own community with very little money, which wasn’t the case in the beginning of the 2000s. I see so many young designers, and sometimes they are more interesting than the big brands. It’s a surprising contrast, don’t you think?

CATHY HORYN — Yeah. I think we’re still seeing whether some of them will be a success down the road. It’s interesting because there are some that have managed to really thrive by being connected to social media. Jacquemus is a good example. I think that they do pretty well. But when you talk to other designers, if they’re still part of that system of the past of selling their clothes wholesale and relying on boutiques and department stores, they’re all struggling. The opportunities for people who are young, depending on what their expectations are, can be really good if they’re not trying to be the biggest and if they’re really talking to their community. If they’re not attempting to be the biggest, they can be OK.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Perhaps it’s also that they don’t have the same ambition, and they like the idea of keeping fashion and their collections part of a smaller community, which isn’t bad.

CATHY HORYN — Yes, I think it’s good. It can work if you’re not overly ambitious with the finances of it. I think it’s still a challenge, but there’s potential there. I don’t know what a young designer can do except create their own community. With the big brands, we’ve seen Gucci hire Sabato De Sarno from Valentino as its new creative director. Chloé just hired Chemena Kamali, who worked at Saint Laurent. These designers were already in the industry. You don’t see brands taking a risk on daring young talent, as Dior once did with John Galliano and Louis Vuitton with Marc Jacobs. Those houses are too big now to hire like that. So, if you’re coming out of Central Saint Martins or the Royal Academy in Antwerp, or if you only have a few years in the industry, you’re probably better off building your own community and building your own business. It’s still difficult to do that, but it might be your best option.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Absolutely. And as an observer and critic of this fashion system, what do you still find amazing about the fashion world today?

CATHY HORYN — Honestly, what’s amazing is when you see a new talent or something that you’ve never seen before. Usually, it takes a couple of years before this happens. I think of Demna at Balenciaga. That’s been really exciting. You and I have seen so many talented people come out of nowhere, and some of them are really lucky to survive and thrive.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your point of view on Rick Owens?
CATHY HORYN — Rick Owens is the best example of having your own aesthetic that’s distinctive — and you create something, and you stick with it. Then you come to Paris and develop those ideas. I don’t know if you remember his first collections in Paris. They were a bit contrived, but he was experimenting. And then, after a bit, he got his motor. He got his energy, and he got into it. Of course, I love Rick’s collections and the way he thinks. He has the basic elements of the Rick Owens look that he always has in the stores. And he has his followers and his great partner in production in Italy. I think he’s a wonderful example. I was also thinking of Alber Elbaz. He was working at Guy Laroche, and then he went to Saint Laurent for maybe three seasons, and everybody was saying: “Oh, it’s so bad. This isn’t Saint Laurent.” A lot of people had that opinion, including me. Then Tom Ford comes in, becomes creative director of Saint Laurent, and Alber loses his job. But where does he end up? He lands at Lanvin, and we see this amazing transformation. You couldn’t get into the boutique on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré because everybody was in there trying to buy something. We see this transformation. We’ve seen it with Phoebe Philo at Celine. It’s a long, long list.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You mentioned Demna at Balenciaga. He’s a very good example of a young designer who really transformed a brand, while at the same time being faithful to its history. That wouldn’t have been possible with someone from the industry. Demna was an outsider, and big brands still need an outsider like that, don’t you think?

CATHY HORYN — I agree. I remember saying this to Demna in the very beginning, when he did the so-called European Parliament show, which I thought was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I was sitting next to Juergen Teller during the show, and we kept laughing at the sight of all these models who looked like bureaucrats going around that blue room. I also thought of how Demna is one of the rare successful designers to come out of a former Soviet state. He grew up under Communism, generally deprived of Western consumer products and Western ideas. I think that because he came from a part of the world that didn’t produce any designers for decades and decades, he saw something that people in the West did not see. He had an experience that was completely different. So, I agree, he’s an outsider. He also had the double advantage of working at Margiela, so he was influenced by Martin’s history and ideas, and then he went to work for Marc at Louis Vuitton, so he has that experience. And then he starts Vetements and comes to the attention of Kering because he’s doing his independent label Vetements. Demna is an interesting story because you get to see the evolution of his own ideas at Balenciaga, and how his first couture show in July 2021 blended with the ideals of Cristóbal Balenciaga. So, I still believe those gifted people will always come along. You might have to wait two or three years before you get one, but those people are out there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When I listen to you, I get the feeling that you strongly believe in the creative and intellectual originality of real designers, as opposed to creative directors. Is this what you’re looking for in fashion?

CATHY HORYN — Very much so. You asked me what I find amazing and what I find sad about fashion. What I find sad is that it feels like we do have a shortage of risk-taking designers and creativity in major brands. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a pattern or a condition.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it that the big houses are too protective of their heritage? They constantly want to reinforce their heritage and leave innovation and newness to the younger generation of designers. Because they believe that heritage means luxury, right?

CATHY HORYN — Yeah. That’s the biggest mistake of all right there. I think that a company, no matter how big and prestigious it is, can afford to stand for fashion that is exciting. Clearly, these big companies are very protective of their heritage, and they do find it successful to sell that heritage and create stories around it. But in the long run, that’s a mistake. It doesn’t keep you new or modern. You can get stuck in the past and the heritage. If you think of Hermès, they are certainly a house with heritage, but they have been very careful to not get stuck in the past.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What you say makes me understand the soundtrack of the last Balenciaga show, which was about savoir faire or the making of a jacket, read by Isabelle Huppert. The soundtrack got crazier and more authoritative as it went on. Did you understand it as a critique of this obsession with savoir faire and heritage?

CATHY HORYN — I heard the soundtrack so many times because I was there for the rehearsal. I loved the soundtrack, Huppert’s voice, and the rising tempo. I think most of what Loïk Gomez [BFRND] does with the music for Balenciaga is remarkable. It was so moving to listen to that because it’s open to interpretation. It starts out, as you said, with instructions for how to make a jacket, and then it becomes overwhelming. It becomes something of a nightmare — like, “What have we created?”

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, what is fashion for you? Is it all about change, not heritage?

CATHY HORYN — I think it’s a really interesting time in the sense that these heritage companies are not going to go away. They are important. But it requires a different understanding about how to approach their heritage. I think that what they’re offering is starting to become predictable, repetitive, and static. And that is not fashion. Fashion is something that changes. When Hedi Slimane came to Saint Laurent, everybody, including me, was like, “Oh, my God, this is so not Saint Laurent.” But he was right. He found a period in Saint Laurent’s history that was really interesting — the mid and late ’60s — and he interpreted it and made it new for a different generation. You look at what Nicolas [Ghesquière] did at Balenciaga back in the day and what Demna has done in current times. Or what Tom Ford did at Gucci. It takes a revolutionary approach to interpret heritage brands. I would also mention Margiela at Hermès, one of the greatest interpretations of a house’s style.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Or even Miuccia Prada choosing Raf Simons as a codesigner to evolve the brand. It’s never been done before. Two designers, a duo, running a company with the founder. It’s unique in history.

CATHY HORYN — Yes, it is unique. And it should be an example to other houses to start thinking about their future. The Prada collections are better than ever. We all know situations where designers have stayed in their position for a very long time. So, the fact that Miuccia was willing to bring in somebody she admired and with whom she had an intellectual rapport has been really interesting. It transformed Prada in a very good way.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see the role of the press — newspapers and magazines — in fashion?

CATHY HORYN — I started covering fashion in 1986, and there were so many journalists from American newspapers at the shows. There must have been 20 American newspapers that sent fashion writers to the shows when I started — papers from Kansas City, Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Washington, D.C. They all sent journalists to cover the Milan and Paris shows. When I got to Milan in 1986, I felt like I was in high school again because there were all these girls who’d been covering fashion. And I’m not even talking about Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue and The New York Times. I’m talking about all the regional newspapers. It just told you how big fashion was as a business, and these newspapers depended on all that fashion advertising. When I started covering fashion, it was the era of Jean Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana, and the Japanese revolution. There were the established brands like Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, and Versace. And you had the Belgian avant-garde. So, you had a lot of people you could write about. And I’ve been really influenced by the young designers who came along, whether Galliano or McQueen or Hussein Chalayan. There were a lot of things I didn’t understand, like Margiela’s early collections. But you had an avant-garde that you could call an avantgarde. Also, I might add that the New York fashion scene was really strong at that point. Calvin Klein was still working then, and Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Donna Karan. So, I grew up covering the business under those terms.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You are one of the rare journalists with authority, an eye, a sensibility, and a medium. It seems like fashion journalism and fashion criticism have been eliminated. There’s no real point of view on the industry anymore. Or very little, don’t you think? Is that part of the problem?

CATHY HORYN — It could be. I started working in Detroit, and then I went to the Washington Post, followed by Vanity Fair and The New York Times. So, it’s like you’re going on stepping stones. But all those regional papers don’t have fashion coverage anymore, so there’s no training ground for daily journalism. There’s some, but it’s not like the old system of learning how to do it on deadline and learning how to be a critic. You wonder, “Where do people learn?” Well, that’s kind of gone away. But at the same time, I think of Rachel Tashjian, who’s now at the Washington Post. She used to be at American GQ covering menswear. She has a really interesting voice in fashion. And it takes a while to develop those voices. Vanessa Friedman at The New York Times knows what she’s talking about, and she also has a sense of the business, which you need as a daily newspaper reporter. But I think the other thing is, you’ve got all these people who are influencers, and that didn’t exist before. The influencers get more attention sometimes because they serve a completely different purpose. They’re not going to be critical. I think that’s why it seems like criticism is fading. There are probably more influencers than critics.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see the fashion magazine world? Is it important for fashion?

CATHY HORYN — Well, I think that magazines like Purple, Self Service, System, and Dazed have always been different. They perform a different function than Vogue, Bazaar, and the dailies. The best place for criticism is still in a newspaper because they don’t care about the advertising. The New York Times has never cared. When we would lose advertising over a negative review, the publisher or the editor-in-chief of the Times would never tell me. They didn’t want me to know that. They wanted me to be free to write what I wanted to write. Bill Cunningham told me a long time ago, “Just remember, they need the Times more than you need them.” And that’s true. If a company pulled their advertising, they kept it out for maybe a season or two. And then they came back in. So, I think that newspapers are still the best place for criticism. I wish that some young, bright writer would come along and create a blog or a Substack, and be a good investigative reporter and develop sources and report things that are what we call scoops. There’s a real opportunity for someone to do that kind of reporting. Like, what’s going on inside Louis Vuitton and Dior? And not to feel like you have to be invited to the show or the travel shows. There is space for that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, I think Beka Gvishiani’s Style Not Com is a little bit of that — finding a new format for factual information and insider coverage.

CATHY HORYN — I look at that from time to time because he can be quite funny and on point about things. But I’m thinking about something that’s more indepth, something that you want to read at length. Something that is solid and factual, and you go there to get scoops. There’s this whole other world of smaller brands that you can find on Instagram or by word-of-mouth. Somebody at a larger newspaper could be reporting on that instead of mostly reporting on big brands.

OLIVIER ZAHM — My feeling is that fashion is a bit of a victim of its own success. Fashion is everywhere, and it’s permeating a lot of domains. So, how much can the fashion industry grow without losing its identity or its specificity? You have the point of view of an expert who can tell us the limit of this growth — the boundaries of fashion, if there are any?

CATHY HORYN — It’s an important question because I think growth is almost hurting a lot of companies. Of course, growth and profit are necessary, but brands almost have to become average in order to reach a global customer. And being “average” — all things to all people — is not good for brands that aim to be distinctive and sell quality. I think that in the next few years, we’re going to see a pushback, a rejection of that much growth. Or at least I hope so. I always think of something that Lee [Alexander] McQueen said to me. I remember him standing in his office in London — this was maybe three or four years before he died — and he said, “Give me time, and I’ll give you a revolution.” I think the lack of time — and freedom — is the killer right now. Because if you have good designers who can take time to create interesting things, you will see great design. And I just wonder if that’s partly why the industry is seeing their sales numbers flatten out. It was just reported that companies are not getting the revenue increases they previously enjoyed. Maybe people are cautious about spending their money, or maybe they’re just not seeing exciting things. Maybe they haven’t seen a new handbag or a clothing design where they go like, “Wow.” But I know that there are things in the pipeline that will surprise people when they come out. I think that’s what Demna has been about. Even if you have a big design studio, you still need people with ideas, and not merchandising people telling you to do the same thing that has been selling. So, I think growth is really hurting the industry in a lot of ways because we’re not seeing enough innovative, creative products.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Listening to what you’re saying, I think that maybe the problem is globalism. Is fashion becoming too big?

CATHY HORYN — It’s possible. In some way, these things are exciting to watch because you see the industry evolving in ways that you would never dream of. But at the same time, what could happen is that you get a handful of big houses that become so big that they operate on a global scale, and they infiltrate all these other domains, like you said. Maybe we see them separately from how we see a smaller brand that has more individuality and creativity. Do you remember back in the mid-’90s when Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford took over Gucci, and one of the problems with Gucci was that it had licenses everywhere? This was a problem with Pierre Cardin, Saint Laurent, and Valentino as well. Everybody had licenses across the world for non- fashion products, like cigarettes and toilet-seat covers. Then they decided to bring it all back in-house, or anyway most of it, because they realized they were losing their quality and cachet. That’s the problem. You start to become so global that you don’t have the status you used to have. It’s diminished.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s very strong today is the connection between art and fashion. It’s become a marketing tool. What’s your point of view?

CATHY HORYN — I think if Warhol were alive, given what he was already doing in the 1960s and ’70s, making movies and a magazine, he would probably be collaborating with Chanel and doing interesting things that might surprise us. I think for certain artists, those collaborations can work. We saw it with what Marc Jacobs did with Takashi Murakami. I do think it feels very strange when there’s no visible connection between the brand and the artist. When you think of Marc Jacobs and his collaboration with Karole Armitage at the Armory in New York just before the pandemic, or when you think of Nicolas Ghesquière’s Vuitton show where he had the historical characters in the background performing a tableau vivant, it was all integrated into the collection. That was an amazing show, in March 2020. So, there’s always potential for an artist and a designer to put their heads together to create this extraordinary way of looking at the world and at the past. I don’t want to say no to it because I think it’s an opportunity to expand our minds.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially in the context of this unique moment or experience — the fashion show — which is a form of art in itself. The collaboration with artists can be incredible there.

CATHY HORYN — Well, again, think of Marc Jacobs’s collaboration with Karole Armitage. If you ask me what my favorite runway show of all time is, that’s it. He transformed the runway and made you feel like you were in the middle of New York City with people going back and forth. He really got inside your head. I wish I had stayed for the second performance. It was so good. And what’s so amazing about it is that it’s relatively easy to do. You work with the choreographer, you work with the models and the dancers, and voilà. Art, dance, and music can all combine with fashion. But at the end of the day, you still need the great mind of a fashion designer to make all of that come together.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And not a marketing team.

CATHY HORYN — Exactly. You look at the red carpet show that Demna did with The Simpsons and the way the whole thing was staged. I’ve never, ever laughed so hard at a fashion show. So, yeah, I think things can happen with the right minds.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was incredible to see you walking in the Summer 2024 Balenciaga show, in this theatrical context. To me, Demna recognized the importance of the fashion critic in a context that is increasingly digital and about immediate information, and less about point of view.

CATHY HORYN — I have to say I had a good time. Walking the show was cool, but when you’re in the audience, you get to actually see a show better. On the runway, walking, you don’t really see what’s going on; you have no sense of it. You don’t hear anything, and you don’t see anything because of the lights. It’s better for a journalist like myself to be out in the audience!


[Table of contents]

The Essence of Fashion Issue #41 S/S 2024

Table of contents

Subscribe to our newsletter