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The Fashion Industry Says It’s More Open, But Is It Really?

  • Words: Christopher Morency

In this second instalment of Highsnobiety’s two-part FRONTPAGE on the changing nature of fashion gatekeeping, we speak with four industry insiders who (through clever analysis and an open dialogue) have built up fast-growing digital communities of their own, outside the traditional model of the elite fashion world.

Last week, we hosted an unfiltered conversation on fashion's gatekeeping issue. In it, we discussed how much the fashion establishment really cares about changing the structures that have kept the power in the hands of the same publications, brands, and fashion councils for so long. How much will it fall when those who are denied a seat at the table create a table of their own? Are most traditional luxury brands already playing catch-up with their younger counterparts? And (most importantly) — what needs to change?

“When you criticize stuff, there is so much more to take into consideration,” said Hanan Besovic, fashion commentator and the mind behind the fast-growing Instagram account @ideservecouture. “Before it was just clothes; now, we're critiquing the full company and the decisions that they make. I always say that if you make smart decisions, you’re not going to get criticized. It’s your fault if you fuck up.”

Speaking about fashion’s nepotistic reputation and its seemingly more open attitude to gatekeeping, writer and critic Louis Pisano said, “There's an extent to how much critique and how much of a voice you're allowed to have within the industry, especially for new voices. And when it loses that sort of funny viral entertainment value for the brand, it’s a no. And that gets you blacklisted. Brands don't like [when] they can't really control you.”

To continue the conversation, we welcome four new guests. This is what they had to say:

THE PANEL

Recho Omondi, Founder of The Cutting Room Floor Podcast | @omndi

“I went to Savannah College of Art and Design, I then moved to New York right away and started designing and pattern-making for other brands and later for my own brand. I started the podcast The Cutting Room Floor in 2018. It started as a way of me having conversations with industry friends. We would talk over drinks about what was really happening in the industry or our grievances, and I never saw them reflected in fashion media, never. It was always celebrity, or trend-driven, or product-driven, or red carpet or runaway. None of it was actually about what we are all living. And so I started the podcast as a cathartic vehicle to talk to people about the realities of the industry.”

Iolo Lewis Edwards, Director of High Fashion Talk | @iolsi

“I was kind of brought up in a very creative space, but not necessarily anything to do with fashion. Coming from North Wales, there was literally [little in] town, but when I was a young teen, I was reading GQ and Esquire religiously for a few years, and that kind of got me into it. The big thing for me was when things started to get going online like Style.com. I would stay up all night waiting for Tim Blanks’s videos to come up, and Fashion Network. Together with the High Fashion Talk Facebook group and Instagram, that was when things really kicked off.”

Odunayo Ojo, Journalist | @fashionroadman

“I stumbled across fashion by mistake. I learned everything about fashion at once during my first internship. My interest grew over time, then I started my YouTube channel because I found that conversations that were being had, especially on YouTube, which weren’t 'intelligent' discussions around fashion. It was about what you bought, or around something controversial that had happened, and not around the history or the inspirations behind a collection. I wanted to bring that to YouTube. Now, I also work at The Business of Fashion and I study fashion journalism.”

Sarah Osei, Journalist | @_sarahosei

“I was finishing my degree with job offers from law firms and organizations, but I knew that wasn’t for me – I knew I wanted to be a writer. I never had a Twitter presence or social media influence, I just went the traditional publishing route; print, online, freelancing, which got me to Interview Magazine in Berlin and then Highsnobiety. Being in the fashion industry, you quickly learn that it’s more flaws than glamor. That helped me step out of it and hone in on my voice. Now, I’m based in Accra, so I'm a bit more removed from it, and I can focus on writing about what I care about, which isn’t the mainstream fashion industry anymore.”

THE CHAT

Christopher Morency: I want us to look at the fashion media landscape today and think about what is antiquated. What shouldn’t exist anymore?

Recho Omondi: That's a really good question. For me, it's more about what doesn't interest me, and I'm not really interested in celebrities and how that intersects with fashion. I know it’s a huge driver of traffic for brands, but on a macro scale, it’s just very surface level. There’s a portrayal of lifestyle in fashion that’s perpetuated and it’s hard to live up to. That’s why I’ve always been more attracted to brands, designers, platforms, or journalists who can serve a much more intellectual audience. It's this super-polished aspect of fashion; as if every single person is aspiring to be (or is already) rich is just really uninspiring. Like Vogue doing a story on a princess in Ireland who has an incredible bathroom. What’s more interesting is reality as we're seeing it, things that are a little bit closer to the ground, and a little bit more flawed, and a bit more commonplace.

Odunayo Ojo: The first time I really saw genuine discussions around fashion was on Facebook. One thing I hate about fashion media is the lack of integrity. It's this whole thing where, "Prada has five million in advertisement revenue in my magazine, so I can't say anything negative. So even though I didn't like the collection, I'm just going to talk about how the cotton that they used in the collection was absolutely amazing.” What I really liked about the Facebook groups was it was just genuine people with genuine opinions. Even when I write about something now, I think about what could affect how I write about it.

Omondi: I agree. The very glaring conflict of interest between publications and advertisers is something that I've always wondered about. The industry is also so reactive and not proactive, [which] is really frustrating. Reasons why I love writers like Cathy Horyn, Sarah Mower, or Eugene Rabkin is because they have a cultural point of view of their own. Sometimes it’s not a popular opinion, and that’s okay. If everyone on Twitter hates something, then people think they [need to] hate it. The readers and the journalists themselves are very impressionable.

I’m going to go to Twitter first, because maybe there’s something that the editor over there missed around the people who this speaks to, or the people who this was taken from.

Sarah Osei

Morency: So how do you all deal with that within your communities? To what extent do you allow your audience to take part in the conversation you’re having?

Iolo Lewis Edwards: I think we're quite different from a lot of other platforms; we're more so hosting a conversation rather than presenting information. We try to not steer in terms of opinion, even though I will have an opinion on it. But in general, it's more about hosting a conversation where different people can give different insights. I feel like some of the people that we sometimes accredit original thoughts to, they won’t have developed them in a completely isolated silo. So even though they’re not losing their integrity by doing it, it shapes their thoughts. I don’t know how many content creators would really go out there and say something that's completely opposed to what their community and audience thinks.

Ojo: I do read the comment section and take opinions onboard, but I try to stick to people who I think have a very educated opinion on things.

Morency: So where do you still get your fashion news and insight? Is it still from the traditional media players, on social media? What influences you and why?

Sarah Osei: It's changed. I came into the fashion industry as a fan of those structures that existed, a fan of print magazines like Vogue, and that cliché. But the more I've gotten into it, now when a publication says something, I'm going to go to Twitter first, because maybe there's something that the editor over there missed around the people who this speaks to, or the people who this was taken from. So now it’s more social media, that's where you get more voices. So instead of a [brand or media publication] saying, "Wow, they had plus size models," what are plus size people saying? Is this even inclusive? It’s no longer even about people within the fashion space. It's about the people on the outside, and their voices on fashion matter more to me now than the establishment itself.

Omondi: I agree with everything Sarah said. I get fashion news from places that have factual reporting and not a lot of fluff. But in terms of cultural pieces, I find that I follow writers more than I'm actually following specific publications, because I trust these writers. And that's why the idea of a newsletter is really interesting, because there are people whose writing I've followed long enough to know that if they have a concept they're writing about, I want to know how they filtered it through their brain. For the [glossy] magazines, I don’t really read any of them, because there’s so much they can’t say. And one of the biggest killers of creativity in the fashion industry are celebrities. People really miss the mark by being attracted to people simply because they have a huge following.

So [brands] are trying to invite people into the room, but they’re inviting the wrong people.

Lewis Edwards

Morency: When we look at the fashion industry at large, have we seen more openness to who is allowed into the room in recent years?

Edwards: There's been an effort to be more open, but the fashion industry has been playing catch up for so long and sort of missed that opportunity of Instagram at the start. Now they're panicking and they don't want to miss out on TikTok, or whatever. So they're trying to invite people into the room, but they're inviting the wrong people. It's always the good-looking, model-kind of TikTok creators who will be getting the brand deals, rather than the people making interesting or analytical content, which is always the frustration with social media.

Osei: I mean, there has been a huge change. Whether it's genuine, that's what I'm questioning, because I'm part of the machine that tells people, "This is cool," or "This is groundbreaking." And as someone of color, as someone from Africa, when I report about something being diverse, it used to come from a naïve place of just being happy to see inclusion. But the longer I've been behind the scenes, I'm realizing that a lot of it is virtue-signaling. Even someone like Virgil Abloh being the head of Louis Vuitton menswear, it was such a big moment, it was such an emotional moment to see that first runway. But also as a Ghanaian, seeing one Black person who's very visual within a very white space... it's not really as positive as we want it to be.

Ojo: One frustration I've always had goes back to this system where designers like to act like everything is them, when it's not. And that's something I didn't realize until I started working in fashion. As a creative director, you had a lot of assistants who brought you those ideas. And by the time the final product was made, you probably have a 5 percent input, but they take all the credit, and they have this mystique around them. And what adds to the mystique is things like when brands will only give show notes to the press to sort of create this exclusivity when consumers want to know what the inspiration behind the collection is. I think it would be in the brand's favor if all this information was public knowledge.

Morency: In the ideal world, if there would be a publication (or social media outlet), in which fashion reporting is done, what would the way fashion is covered look like?

Omondi: I've been thinking about this so much. Two things I think would help a lot are: one, slower media. We don’t have to post all the time, and we need to give people a chance to digest things, but everyone's scared to do that. And two, the type of advertisers. Often we're advertising with the brands, and I don't know if that's totally necessary.

Osei: There are a lot of things that we feel like we have to respect or pay homage to that are very outdated. During Fashion Week it's like, "Okay, what are we going to cover? Who's going to cover what?" A lot of times there'll be an editor who's like, "Oh, I'm passionate about this and this brand. I know a lot about Japanese streetwear. I want to write about that," which is great. [But] other times within the fashion landscape, we have to be competitive, and we have to write about these names. But why would we even waste our words on things that don’t inspire us?

One frustration I’ve always had goes back to this system where designers like to act like everything is them, when it’s not.

Odunayo Ojo

Edwards: To some extent, you have to consider that any journalist, or any media, is working for their audience as well. And the audience, as much as we love or hate it, wants to hear about Balenciaga or whoever is trending, and whatever it is they’re doing.

Ojo: Recho said something similar to what I was thinking; it's all about money at the end of the day, so you have to create an ecosystem where you don't rely on other fashion brands who could cancel paying your bills. And once you're in that position, you have a free voice. There's other brands, car brands, beauty brands. I don't write about them, so if they advertise in my magazine, it's not really a conflict of interest. And that way, if I do say something negative about Prada, I'm not going to be canceled or lose my house because of it. Once you take the power away from the brands, that's when fashion could be more objective.

Omondi: I did an episode [of The Cutting Room Floor] with this kid named Luke Meagher, he's on YouTube called HauteLeMode, and he has some videos that have over a million views. The kids listen and pay attention to him. He's self-taught. He came from outside of the establishment. And if you look at Luke's Instagram account, he's just now at a place where brands are starting to recognize who he is. And even still, not really. They think it's lowbrow, or they think it's not chic enough, or polished enough for them, even though his audience is the exact audience they want to reach. That is something that I hope changes in terms of what they think the benchmark of success is.

Morency: What's something that brands need to understand about the way we’re coming into fashion and that they're getting wrong?

Ojo: I can talk about this, because I'm someone who has suffered severely from this. I was actually working in a job where my boss told me, "Ayo, you are definitely overqualified for this job, but the reason why you probably won't get a position that you probably deserve is because you didn't go to Central Saint Martins," which is actually one of the reasons I went [to the school now]. And it's a big shame. The industry is not looking for talent. They're looking for this polished person who went to the right schools, and went to the right place, and all that sort of stuff. And if you're looking for inspiration, that's not where they should be looking. They should be looking at the candidate for what they're good at, and what they bring to the table. The way they evaluate talent is a bit flawed.

Osei: I want brands to stay in their lane. If you have to force it to reach an audience, that's not your audience. Don't do it. There are a lot of brands who maybe try to market to Black teenagers now, because they know they're the taste-makers, and they finally realized that. But when they do the marketing, you realize there aren't really people from that demographic behind it. So if that's not your demographic, then continue marketing to skinny Caucasian women, because that's your demographic. If you're trying to market to Gen Z, and you're trying to do TikToks and they're not working, it's because you probably don't have Gen Z behind you within your company. You don't have those voices. If you're trying to market to disabled people, you probably should have disabled people in your company. If you're a Parisian couture brand, you don't have to market to skateboarders in Brazil. Just stay in your lane.

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