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Has the Proliferation of Watchdog Accounts Bred a 'Good Samaritan' Culture in Fashion?

It's falling on individuals to take the oft-problematic industry to task.
fashion watchdogs

"Seinfeld"'s final episodes are centered around a fictitious "Good Samaritan law" that obliges private citizens to intervene if they witness a crime. The online fashion community, it seems, is increasingly governed by that same law, with individuals taking up the mantle of holding brands and individuals who work in the industry accountable for their actions. While fashion criticism has traditionally revolved around aesthetics, this new breed of criticism hinges on evaluations of originality and ethics. The Diet Prada model has shown time and time again that call-outs have an uncanny ability to go viral. Is that why we're seeing the proliferation of watchdog critics online? Are all of these fashion mercenaries just hungry for fame and likes and retweets?

Not necessarily. The rise of these individual watchdogs — good samaritans intent on making the fashion industry a healthier, more wholesome space — owes a lot to the increased democratization of fashion and the erosion of the barrier to entry; those who had long been excluded are now able to have their voices heard.

Plagiarism, surely, is what most think of when they think of fashion's call-out culture. Diet Prada is partially to thank, but it's always been the accusations — and proof — of copying that have garnered the most attention.

Julie Zerbo founded The Fashion Law in 2012, when she was still a law student, because she felt that the topic of fashion law was underreported. In 2013, TFL went viral for the first time. Zerbo had written about Chanel's Fall 2012 bracelets that seemed to be replicas of independent designer Pamela Love's creations. More mainstream publications started talking about it, citing TFL and linking back, which helped build both the blog's readership and its reputation. Lawsuits and tax evasion, damning as they may be for a company's bottom line, don't draw the same attention as a high-profile brand caught copying.

Still, Zerbo and the fashion industry's other watchdogs appear intent on covering more than just the theft of intellectual property. They're also focused on calling out cultural appropriation, racism, bad business practices, misleading advertisements, bootlegs — bad behavior writ large.

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Give Credit is one such example; it's "an educational platform that raises awareness about the fashion industry's sources of inspiration," explains its founder Andreea Tanasescu. Unlike, say, Diet Prada, Give Credit is less concerned about intra-fashion plagiarism, choosing to instead focus on instances where fashion appropriates traditional garments without acknowledging or outsourcing to the artisans that have spent generations creating the aesthetics now being profited from.

Tanasescu was inspired to start Give Credit after a pair of major fashion labels, Tory Burch and Dior, copied traditional Romanian designs in June of 2017. "To my astonishment, [the Tory Burch coat] was described as being of African inspiration," Tanasescu said, but it was "a copy of a Romanian Coat from Oltenia region." That was followed by Dior, which "copied a traditional Romanian sheepskin vest from Bihor county [but] presented it as a 'Bohemian Vest', [and] the company made no mention of its source of inspiration."

These watchdog accounts are becoming increasingly niche, too. Take StockXBusta: It's an Instagram account that exists solely to catalog crowdsourced examples of purported corporate delinquency by StockX, the Detroit-based "stock market of things" known best for its streetwear and sneaker marketplace. The type of behavior StockXBusta reports on ranges from the platform not properly vetting the condition of sneakers to potential instances of market manipulation by displaying inflated sale prices.

But, it comes with a caveat: "No stories confirmed true," warns the page's description.

When contacted by Fashionista, the page's administrator was initially willing to answer questions, so long as their identity remained concealed. However, they eventually declined to answer our questions, including whether they had any ties to StockX or its competitors.

It's indicative of the fine line that pages like StockXBusta must toe. For all of the light shed on potential misdeed, there remain questions about just how objective StockXBusta and other mercenary watchdogs can be. Despite promises of objectivity, there's no stopping them from posting so-called kill pieces that seek to disparage brands and companies because of some personal or corporate vendetta, or from being kinder to companies they work with or have some sort of allegiance to.

"These sites are completely unregulated," says Vanessa Gerrie, a Ph.D. candidate at Massey University in New Zealand, who has researched the rise of call-out culture in the fashion space and has authored a forthcoming paper on the subject. "There is a fine line between holding a designer or brand accountable for blatant copying, appropriation, or bigotry before it devolves into cancel culture."

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Of course, it's that lack of regulation and independence that makes mercenary watchdogs like Diet Prada and The Fashion Law so influential. They don't answer to advertisers or brands or even editors, thanks to the advent of self-publishing and social media. "Because anyone can speak her or his mind and does not need a boss or a board to approve every move and action makes this type of activism more flexible and authentic," Tanasescu tells Fashionista. And, according to Gerrie, that's central to the success of accounts and sites like Diet Prada and TFL: "The fashion industry was hermetically-sealed within a hierarchical homogenous system and now through social media and call-out culture, access has really opened up and people are empowered to challenge these big businesses in a meaningful way."

Diet Prada's exponential growth, in particular, is a testament to the thirst for this brand of independent criticism and commentary. "It's really refreshing and has an aura of authenticity, which is something consumers and practitioners are looking for," Gerrie tells Fashionista. And that stands in stark contrast to what's happening with the industry publications that should be tasked with doing the type of work these independent watchdogs are. In Gerrie's eyes, "traditional media outlets are losing credibility due to the fact they are often beholden to advertising money from large brands."

What's ironic, is that with the explosive growth of fashion's call out movement, the growing pains for these mercenary accounts have come quick — and fatigue has set in relatively quickly, too. It's a bit of an ouroboros, really.

Diet Prada — the star pupil of the movement, if you will — is a polarizing name in the fashion industry. "There are merits to some of what Diet Prada [does]," one employee from a major luxury retailer told Fashionista, "but a lot of the commentary seems biased." When Diet Prada first burst onto the scene, it was run anonymously and supported by merchandise sales. But, as soon as Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler revealed themselves, it opened them up to accusations of bias and conflicts of interest.

Of course, working with Gucci and being handsomely compensated for it didn't help. Questions also arose when they accused bourgeoning British designer Richard Quinn of knocking off Demna Gvasalia, a designer whom Diet Prada had gone to bat for before, when in fact, Quinn had been experimenting with the aesthetic in question for years. Still, Liu and Schuyler doubled down on their post. Not having to answer to anybody might have its perks, but it also means there aren't any editors standing in the way of dubious allegations being made.

"From what I can see, people don't really care about what Diet Prada calls out anymore," the employee added. "I used to follow them, but not anymore and I don't think I'm the only one." Well, it's important to note that the account now has over 1.6 million followers, and it can't be denied that Diet Prada has been an agent of change — embodied in no better way than the fact that Gucci and Dapper Dan have become official partners in recent years.

As far as whether or not the likes of Diet Prada or other independent watchdogs have actually affected how retailers and consumers buy, the employee doesn't really think so. "It's rare and consumers are still going to buy something that might be copied or inspired by another designer. What happened with Dolce & Gabbana was different, because there's a pattern of repeated racist behavior."

But, while the impact on the commercial side of things may be limited, it feels like emergence of these mercenary watchdogs has made individuals and institutions alike more comfortable with call-outs. We see publications like this one and CNBC digging into The RealReal's authentication practices, and individuals calling out tokenism that's designed to sidestep criticism. When Kerby Jean-Raymond went off on Business of Fashion, it resonated — and rightfully so — because that type of discussion and discourse — about ethics, rather than just aesthetics — is now familiar. Would his comments have received the same attention in mid-aughts, or would a designer have felt comfortable making them? It's impossible to say.

"These subjects were covered before, but it was always from a controversial perspective, especially in the mainstream media," says Tanasescu. "Now we see a different perspective, with a clear message calling for systemic change towards cultural, racial and social inequality."

So where is this all going? Diet Prada's aforementioned polarization is a cautionary tale of sorts for other watchdogs seeking to bring about change. "When callout culture transitions to cancel culture, that's when it becomes dangerous," says Gerrie, the Ph.D. candidate, "I think a nuanced and open conversation needs to be had in these situations."

Take Give Credit, for example; rather than just call out to cancel, Tanasescu has embraced what can be seen as the second wave of call-out culture. The goal is to raise awareness, create dialogue and allow others to benefit from what the individuals doing the calling out are benefitting from: inclusion within the fashion industry after years of being excluded.

"The phenomenon has instigated a really positive awareness of cultural appropriation, bigotry, and racism in the industry, which comes in the form of aggressions both macro and micro," says Gerrie.

While it's hard to say definitively that every instance of a fashion company being called out — of which there have been so many over the past year — is rooted in altruism or had an ultimately positive outcome, it can't be denied that they've at least made people — consumers, brands, designers and critics a like — think just a little bit more. 

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