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Do we need to foster a safer environment for feedback in Fashion? My NZ Fashion Week Experience

Do we feel safe to have our own opinions about things without the fear of being cancelled or torn down for it? This year I had the honour of attending New Zealand Fashion Week as delegate for feimso. I'm no fashion guru, but a huge fan of this world of textiles, colour and the language of clothing. I loved some of what I saw like the modern fusion with Māori Design, the storytelling, but then felt less than impressed by other elements. I'm definitely a part of the fashion industry, and spend most of my time talking to designers, products, brands, models, students and more, but does that give me the ‘credentials’ or ‘authority’ to speak? Not sure. Who decides?

New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria - Storytelling and Modern cultural blends on the Catwalk at Auckland Viaduct Events Centre.

Seeing some publications respond to what they deemed 'unconstructive' feedback in ways that could be seen as unconstructive themselves to one of the only op-eds that wasn’t a glowing review, I briefly felt scared to share my own opinion and was almost grateful I was delayed with my own blog. I felt the urge to reassess and try to adapt my own personal experience and opinion, for fear of being potentially torn down myself. Catching my behaviour, I stopped, looked at the situation, cleared the page and wrote this piece instead.

The situation begs the question: Should platforms and publications with presence (even if it's limited) perhaps be more mindful in fostering and supporting a community with a safe space to give feedback? Of course many do and that hasn’t gone unnoticed, but there is a very empty void of anything other than glowing reviews for the first Fashion Week back after the three year hiatus, which personally, I felt had a lot of room for improvement. Many of the shows were full of energy and visually stunning, but there were a lot of things lacking which I couldn’t shake or ignore. Worse yet, feeling that way, I felt bothered by the ‘risk’ that if I do anything other than agree with the collective, I might be 'cancelled' or exiled from future involvement in projects. And if I’m feeling this way, are others feeling unable to give their objective opinions for fear of the same? Are we missing a large pool of valid feedback because people are just too scared to give it? Worse yet, is this happening everywhere else in the world too?

Creased clothing live on the catwalk at New Zealand Fashion Week 2023

Of course there's a difference between constructive and unsconstructive feedback, but there seems to be some confusion nowadays that anything that isn't a positive review is somehow unconstructive, and it's most definitely at times ill-received. Are unironed clothes covered with extremely visible creases acceptable on the runway like one show had? Is pointing out the volume of empty seats in most shows an issue? Or does it simply point out that better marketing or lead up might be useful next year? For designers whose work may be amazing, to be more diligent and pay attention to the details to help their brand image? Surely this creates more credibility and a more seamless show that we know they already worked really hard on?

What about the purpose of Fashion Week? Do designers spend thousands of dollars – yes, it’s their cost – just to be celebrated? Are they wanting to find buyers to stock their range and convert sales? I’ve personally spoken to some of the designers who have been a part of Fashion Week and have never sold their designs from it. This is of course years past, but a fact nonetheless and yes, they were upset and frustrated by that. What and whose expectations are attempting to be met?

I personally had the privilege of unknowingly conversing with and sitting next to one of the two new Directors of NZFW and shared my constructive criticism about these matters, along with my comparison of some other International Fashion Weeks I’d followed even during Covid. Do you know what his response was? He nodded enthusiastically, took out his phone and took notes. I felt heard and validated, none of which I needed mind you but this was the right approach. He listened. And he took what part he felt was useful. He could have taken nothing and that would have been ok too, but he took the time to hear from me, a random stranger and even thanked me for my feedback. This is why I think that the next year will indeed be better and NZFW will go from strength to strength.

Creative and fun designs wow the crowd at New Zealand Fashion Week

Allowing safe sharing leads to a healthy ecosystem, a more accurate forum for feedback and, at the end of the day, isn't everyone simply entitled to their opinion? In a TikTok and YouTube age where anyone can have a platform and everyday people are more accepted for their values and opinions, haven’t we learned that it’s ‘us’ that drive these powerhouses with our decisions and purchasing power so our opinions matter too?

Bottom line, if all we ever do is applaud (which we did as well of course because, pulling off a show is hard work), what will ever change and how can anyone ever grow? We should be prompted to think and use 'constructive criticism' as an opportunity to improve or rework current processes, not seek to drag down those who are providing the feedback when it’s serving to prompt growth and thought. I personally believe community is about listening to all members, not just to those that someone, somewhere deems to have the right. What do you think?

Written by Erin Sokolowsky

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