When Kim Kardashian wore a vintage cutaway dress by Thierry Mugler to the Hollywood Beauty Awards last month, it was swiftly duplicated and put to market the next day by ultrafast fashion brand Fashion Nova. The copy was decried, but Diet Prada, a popular fashion-focused Instagram account, went one step further: It highlighted the suspicious timing in the photo’s metadata that seemed to prove the product was shot four days before Kardashian wore the cutout dress in public and suggested that the copycat version was a result of collusion with someone who had insider knowledge.
Over the past few weeks Diet Prada has doggedly followed the social superstar’s every look-alike outfit and vintage-inspired fashion exploit, recently suggesting a lacy slip dress she wore was a near-copy of a 1996 Versace look.
I take issue with Diet Prada’s underlying ethos, that intellectual property rights could and should ever exist in fashion design or product packaging, for the unenforceable policing impracticality, for the burden to indie brands and for how it would fundamentally restrict designer ideas – but its criticisms are still valid. Creativity, after all, is arguably the reason we put such a premium on designer brands. The current culture especially prizes authenticity, so reproaching artistic directors who indulge in uncanny and unoriginal copycatting instead of innovation is fair and deserved; and that’s seldom done by fashion critics and mainstream media.
Vigilante social accounts exist for every industry. Whether it’s academia or activism, the creators of these accounts are ready to pounce with the righteous indignation, exposing insider info, public shaming, and even the cancellation culture that have all become standard practice. But the ones making waves lately operate anonymously from within the industries they monitor.
Such stealth accounts can engage with popular culture on a critical level and act as a vocal conscience in a focused way, especially since, similar to investigative reporting, they accept insider tips. But to be effective, anonymity, I think, is crucial.
In style circles, Diet Prada and Estée Laundry are watchdog culture’s current twin stars. The former patrols the runways and the latter inspects the contents of the bathroom cabinet, so to speak. Both frequently target issues such as misinformation, copycats and lack of sustainability through their extensive Instagram posts and stories, as well as calling out forms of oppression, clueless privilege and cultural appropriation.
When it started in late 2014, Diet Prada was anonymous and I was chagrined that its creators left enough of a trail of crumbs that they were outed, after much speculation, in 2017 by legal-focused style-coverage website The Fashion Law as Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler.
Can you have it both ways and not pull punches? I’m not so sure. There is a freedom in anonymity. The ecosystem these accounts operate in loves them (and sometimes loves to hate them), but the industry needs them, especially if you think of either sphere of fashion or beauty as being similar to an old-fashioned company town, where a dependent community shuns dissent. That’s when it helps to be invisible.
Plus, the account managers also post ads or sponsored content from fashion brands such as Tommy Hilfiger. While the still-anonymous Estée Laundry is “airing out the beauty industry’s dirty laundry,” its account managers steer clear of having their integrity questioned or having a vested interest, since they accept no advertising.
In an interview with Fashion magazine last year, the Estée Laundry collective said it was inspired by Banksy and Martin Margiela to promote honesty and transparency. They dish the dirt – from outlandish efficacy claims to prestige products that rely on inexpensive ingredients such as mineral oil as filler.
Recently, Estée Laundry took millennial-favourite skin-care brand Glossier to task after the brand launched its cosmetics line Glossier Play in March. It swiftly zeroed in on the company’s supposedly “feel-good” Glitter Gelée instructions: “To remove, use a cotton pad and Milky Oil [makeup remover]. Avoid washing off with water to prevent getting glitter into the waterways.” Forms of sustainable sparkle (such as mica) exist, but Glossier’s is a non-biodegradable, toxic microplastic, arriving at a time when a United Nations Environment Program report underscores the problem of global plastic pollution migrating from beauty products into our oceans.
The social-media account didn’t reveal anything that most makeup enthusiasts who read the fine print didn’t already know. But it is what influencers and editors who operate in the industry dare not say in public, for fear of loss of revenue advertising, loss of editorial access to launches, spokespeople and experts and press samples – all the elements that help create content. It took customers weighing in with dismay about the non-bio glitter, en masse, for Glossier Play to reply that it was actively working to reformulate the product.
Watchdog accounts force brands to tread carefully for fear of backlash. That’s not a bad thing. There’s a responsibility for due diligence to the audience, but also of fairness to the subjects these accounts are covering. Are their comments legitimately constructive? Often their ongoing Instagram stories and direct messages provide a valuable forum and safe space for sharing valuable insider intel.
Consider the toxicity of finger-wagging in public and the performative nature of the call-outs. It’s virtue signalling as entertainment. In his “A Note On Call-Out Culture” essay for Briarpatch magazine four years ago, Canadian writer Asam Ahmad rightly decried the practice when it’s performative and an end in itself. With global brands, however, the kinder, gentler, private alternative known as calling-in just doesn’t work.
The paradox of watchdog culture is the same as social justice intentions. What’s also important is the context. With good intentions and by championing accountability, the goal is to instigate change by holding people and brands accountable. Anonymity brings with it impunity – it’s easier to kill your darlings when you have none in the first place.