This is a story about the power of prose and Cathy Horyn, the fashion critic for The New York Times who wielded her mighty pen in 2012 and caused a series of mini-fashion wars.
But before we go there, let’s start here: a brisk Saturday afternoon in Milan. The date is October 1, 1994 and the place is an airy studio, currently bustling with activity. As a diverse group assembles in front of the camera, the venerable Richard Avedon steps behind it. What was he thinking as he stared at the scene?
One can only imagine.
Seated before him are a group of iconic fashion journalists. On sheer talent alone, they’ve each emerged as rock stars in the publishing world, twenty years before Twitter and blogs became the playbook for ambitious editors. They included Suzy Menkes, Franca Sozzani, John Fairchild, Joan Juliet Buck, Marina Schiano, Grace Coddington, Polly Mellen, André Leon Talley and the late Amy Spindler, Anna Piaggi and Liz Tilberis. They have gathered for a seminal portrait titled “The Style Council,” to be featured in The New Yorker. Each, with the exception of an absentee Fairchild who was stuck in traffic, is draped in luxe, sumptuous pieces, creating an effect so chic it’s difficult to believe there were no stylists on set. But of course, none were needed. This peerless group not only knew how to educate their audiences on style—they effortlessly embodied it.
Having reached high-ranking positions at publications like Vogue, The International Herald Tribune and Women’s Wear Daily, each had a lot to celebrate. But one had particular reason to be proud: Amy Spindler. The striking brunette, who’d worked her way from writing press releases at Condé Nast’s Brides magazine to The New York Times style desk, had recently received some good news. That year, she’d been announced as the first fashion critic in the history of the Times.
If her title was glamorous, the directive wasn’t: winning over an audience more comfortable with the politics of Washington than the politics of style. Spindler approached this challenge with her usual brilliance. Under her watch, she elevated fashion criticism, infusing reviews with an honesty and objectivity that rocked a field accustomed to fawning critiques.
By 1998 when Spindler was announced as the Style Editor for the New York Times magazine, her legacy was already cemented. She transformed the pages of the publication into a haven for fashion insiders and fans alike. She built its foundation as a trusted source for designers interested in a fair analysis of their collection. And ultimately—by her cancer-induced retirement in 2003—she’d created the ideal environment for her successor, Cathy Horyn.
The transition was seamless. And why wouldn’t it be? After all, both Horyn and Spindler shared the same essence: Midwestern girls with a passion for plain talk and propensity for powerful writing. Horyn confirmed their simpatico in the Times obituary she wrote for Spindler. In it, she highlights qualities that distinguished her former editor. Yet line for line, Horyn could have easily been speaking of herself. “In an industry more accustomed to flattery and sympathetic reviews, [Spindler] possessed a rare nerve, upbraiding fashion executives when she thought they were dissembling and beseeching designers to be better than they were.”
Upon Spindler’s tragic passing at age 40 in 2004, Horyn was promoted to become the second fashion critic in the Times’ history. Besides her similarities to Spindler, Horyn had education and experience to recommend her for this. The Ohio native came to the Times a graduate of Barnard Women’s college and Northwestern’s acclaimed Medill School of Journalism masters program. Post graduation, Horyn held a brief stint with the Associated Press in Chicago before moving on to the Virginia-Pilot where she covered every beat from courts to education. But her fashion reporting career began in earnest at The Detroit News in 1986 where she was hired to write about style in the city and region. Next up was the Washington Post in 1996, where she stayed until 1998 when Vanity Fair came calling. By the end of that year, she’d landed at the Times, beginning her long running reign at the publication which continues to this day. When reached by SCENE for an interview, Horyn responded by email: “I have to pass on your request for an interview, because of my work load and because some of the issues you might raise are ones that I may at some stage want to write about in the Times.”
With her promotion to fashion critic, Horyn took her seat at the table of noted journalists as Spindler had before her. Now, Horyn could count a new generation of star critics as colleagues. These included the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robin Givhan of Newsweek and Hilary Alexander of The Daily Telegraph in London. All were equally revered for blunt and honest reviews, but there was something different about Horyn.
Where her peers gave firm nudges, Horyn delivered a hard slap. Where they subdued with a stern tone, Horyn demolished with straight talk. And where others played objective while playing nice, Horyn seemed uninterested in games and unapologetic for her harshness. Perhaps this could account for the lukewarm reaction from some members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America when they honored Horyn with the Eugenia Sheppard Award in 2002. An article in WWD announcing this featured a less-than-effusive quote from Oscar de la Renta. “Cathy Horyn is not one who loves fashion or enhances fashion in any manner,” he said. “There are personal commentaries and digs, not only about the designers, but about people who attend the shows, which I consider unnecessary and unprofessional in reviewing a collection… I’ll say it. I’m not a coward.”
He’s also not alone.